A Fistful of Aces

WHEN THE MEMBERS of General Synod gather together in York in July, they will face a marathon agenda. At the Synod’s residential sessions on the University of York campus, sittings go on until 10 o’clock at night – but even so, the Business sub-committee still finds itself trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot (that is 1.136 litres into a 568 ml container for the Europhiles).

By that time, the drought and the winter will be no more than memories. There will have been a General Election, midsummer day will have passed, one more orthodox bishop will have been consecrated in the Church of England, GCSE exams will be over, and we will be looking forward to our summer holidays. But things are not always what they seem.

For instance, who will be the next Conservative Prime Minister after John Major? When I asked one left-wing cleric that question he said it was hard to tell. “After all,” he said, “he probably hasn’t been born yet.” But come the summer we may have an answer – and it might be Tony Blair.

Synod will have on its agenda a private member’s motion from David Gerrard, the Archdeacon of Wandsworth in the Diocese of Southwark. Unsurprisingly it is about issues in human sexuality, clearly matters of great concern in Southwark – and also apparently among a quarter of the members of the Synod who have signed up for this motion to be debated.

Taken at face value, the motion doesn’t seem to say very much at all. It appears unassertive, bland and inconsequential.

Its first part invites the Synod to commend for discussion in dioceses the House of Bishops’ report “Issues in Human Sexuality” and acknowledge it is not the last word on the subject.

The second part invites Synod, in particular to urge Deanery Synods, clergy chapters and congregations to find time for prayerful study and reflection on the issues addressed by the report.

So what is Larry Layman from Barchester diocese to make of that? Commending a report from the House of Bishops for discussion in dioceses does seem rather unexceptional, even if the report was published over five years ago. And has there ever been a report from the House of Bishops which was the last word on anything? The second part of the motion is virtually a direct quote from the Archbishop of Canterbury, writing in the preface to the Report, and so it would seem churlish to take exception to it.

Larry and his fellow Synod members may well wonder why this innocuous motion should be taking up Synod time when we could be debating Margaret Brown’s motion on Decency in the Media or Stephen Trott’s motion on Section 67 of the Pastoral Measure 1983.

Well, things are not always what they seem. If the motion on human sexuality really is as inconsequential as it appears, I wonder why David Gerrard wants to have the debate? “Issues in Human Sexuality” has had its critics, but it is in fact a remarkably conservative document. Of its 48 pages, 14 are taken up with an in-depth analysis of the relevant scriptural material. It comes to the uncompromising conclusion in para 2.29 that “sexual activity of any kind outside marriage (is) seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable.”

In a final chapter dealing with the homosexually oriented in the life and fellowship of the church, the Bishops pronounce in para 5.17 that, “We have, therefore, to say that in our considered judgement the clergy cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships.”

Now when you say that such and such is not the last word on the subject, you are actually asking for the debate to be reopened. You are asking for all the beans to be thrown up in the air, presumably in the hope that when they have all been gathered up, we will come to a conclusion which is different from the one we came to last time. Otherwise there is little point in embarking on the whole exercise. Thus David Gerrard’s motion is revealed for the Trojan Horse that it is. It is in fact nothing less than a full frontal assault on the House of Bishops’ statement.

Synod has in fact already debated this issue – in 1987 – when it came to a resounding consensus, by 403 votes to 8. It affirmed that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship (and) that homosexual genital acts … fall short of this ideal and are … to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion.

So, how should Larry Layman vote? If he votes for the motion, his vote could be seen as an attempt to set aside the 1987 Synod motion, to diminish the standing of “Issues in Human Sexuality”, and a desire for something more permissive to be substituted.

If he votes against the motion, his vote could be portrayed as a rejection of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s very proper call for prayerful study and reflection, which no doubt the Archbishop assumed would lead to an orthodox conclusion, but which Mr. Gerrard hopes might lead to a more liberal one.

I seem to recall a situation something like this in Catch 22. David Gerrard has dealt himself a hand with three aces. Who will be brave enough to play the ace of trumps and move next business?

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.

Youth A Part – in schools

The statistics are disturbing. More than 93% of 14-21 year olds have no contact with any of the mainstream churches on a normal Sunday. Total Sunday attendance at Anglican Churches in this age range has dropped by over 34% since 1987.

We all bemoan the fact that there are so few young people in church these days, but can anything be done about the situation? The recent Church of England report Youth a Part was discussed at General Synod last July and is well worth reading. It gives many ideas for reaching young people and involving them in the life of the church. But as the report recognises only a very few are touched by the Gospel, despite our efforts. What are we to do about the crowds of young people “out there”? How are we to reach them with God’s love? What would Jesus do?

Certainly Jesus did not sit in the synagogue for an hour each Sabbath and wait for the crowds to come in to hear him speak. He went out to meet people – to their homes, to their work places and along the seashore. He was aware of an individual’s needs and started from where they were. He spoke to them in ways they would readily understand and used examples from their everyday experiences. So how can we reach out to young people today?

We need to ask ourselves, “Where are today’s young people to be found?” One answer must surely be in schools and colleges. But, is there a vision for Christian work in these places? Where is the prayer burden for this type of work? Do we support Christian teachers and school workers? How much of the Church’s resources and finances are involved in this area? Anyway is it possible for Christians to make an impact in schools these days?

My answer to the last question is an emphatic YES, and I speak from my own experience and that of our local sixth form college in Exeter. Much work can be done in schools, especially in extra-curricular activities

In my first week of teaching Geography in a multi-cultural Birmingham comprehensive of nearly 2000 pupils, I found myself saying, “Lord don’t let me leave this school until this place rings with your praises.” Nearly five years later the Head gave out a notice at Assembly that there was no longer to be any singing of religious songs between lessons!

It started when I regularly met for prayer each lunchtime with a 15 year old Christian girl in my form. After some while we felt it right to start a Christian Union; I announced it in Assembly and waited. The small group who came to that first meeting probably did so to get out of the cold during the lunch hour. They had virtually no knowledge of Christian things, but also no preconceived ideas. Their lack of embarrassment and openness was refreshing.

We sought to reach these teenagers in ways they could understand, using their type of music and relating to their life-style. Undoubtedly the personal interaction and availability to talk to the children about their problems was an important factor. So many youngsters have none they can talk to, who will listen and take them seriously. The fields are white and ready for harvest, but the labourers are few … and overworked.

Very quickly the group grew and I needed help. Fortunately a handful of students from a nearby Bible College were willing to come and assist, and sometimes I invited an outside speaker. On one occasion the main school hall was packed with over 1400 pupils, the rest had to be turned away because there was no more room! Things began to snowball, dozens of pupils became Christians. We had to hold meetings four lunch hours a week, about 100 coming each day, in order to accommodate everyone. We had small pastoral groups and some after school Bible studies. Sadly, we had to become a “church” in school, because the local churches were unwilling to cope with the young people and were unwilling to relate to them.

Obviously it did not all run smoothly and there were many spiritual battles, many problems and failures. But God is very gracious and can overrule human frailties. It was both awe-inspiring and humbling to discover that a retired teacher, had prayed every day for seven years for revival to come to our school. Surely that is the secret of “success”.

Some may say, “Well that was over ten years ago and times have changed. Individualism and materialism have hardened young people against Christianity. Times have certainly changed, but my present work among young people makes me believe that they are exceedingly open to, and hungry for, genuine spiritual realities in a way that was not obvious even five years ago. I sincerely believe that now is our moment of opportunity, and we cannot afford to lose time. If the Church does not provide young people with spiritual truth, then they will turn to other more sinister powers for answers.

Recently, I was in touch with the Director of Initiative in Christian Education (ICE) who is also organiser of the Christian Union at Exeter College. I was thrilled to hear that the CU in this sixth form college of about 2000 pupils is experiencing development and growth similar to that which occurred in Birmingham. This last autumn, they held a residential camp with over 200 students. During term time there is a coffee lounge where students can come and chat and talk and pray with workers about their problems and doubts. On Wednesdays there is a worship meeting encompassing all types and styles of music and worship. On Thursdays there is the main open meeting of the week, and on Fridays they break into small groups for Bible Study. Early Friday morning is a prayer meeting. They have run an Alpha course and had a regular attendance of 400 at a lecture series dealing with various topical issues from a Christian point of view. Much of the leadership is provided by the students themselves who are trained on site. Teams of students have gone out from the college to take missions in other places, even to Africa. This rapidly growing Christian Union is very much alive and thriving. It is encouraging that in this area there are churches, of all denominations, in which the students feel at home and are welcomed.

I asked the organiser to what he attributed the success of the operation and he responded, “All I can say is that God is very gracious and it is really a result of people praying.” – almost the exact phrases I use when I am asked the same question! So let us not despair of the younger generation – let us pray fervently, let us go to where they are, and spend our energies and resources reaching them for the Kingdom of God. It can be done!!

Sheila Fletcher is a member of General Synod, the Family Life and Marriage Education (FLAME) Adviser for Exeter Diocese, and a Reader. She has 16 years of experience as a Church Youth Leader.