The defeat for Justin Welby in the General Synod is a very personal one. An Archbishop, who puts leadership at the heart of his ministry, faced an apparently stunning rejection of his personal appeal to the Synod for it to support the report he had led through over two years of discussions and report writing. The defeat is serious and dents his authority – the more so because it was an unnecessary and avoidable defeat. Like David Cameron and the EU Referendum, Justin Welby was determined to gamble on one vote on one issue. Unlike David Cameron the Archbishop will not resign, and nor should he, but he will now have to take responsibility for sorting out a viable way forward. One thing is certain: the Archbishop’s defeat marks a historic turning point in the future of the Church of England and inevitably of the Anglican Communion.
The Synod had begun badly for the Archbishop. Through a small but sloppy error of drafting in his opening speech, he gave the impression that he was equating Brexiteers with Fascists. He wasn’t, of course, but the opening had been made. He then took to twitter in a sub-Trumpian manner to refute the suggestion. Over the course of the following few days the Synod debated clergy attire, various condemnations of Donald Trump, and a call for the government to impose greater controls on gambling. But the real “treat of the week” as far as the media was concerned – it being a slow news week because Parliament was on recess – was the widely anticipated bust-up on gay marriage. Either way the vote would deliver a good headline. The General Synod duly delivered.
The twice-yearly General Synod of the Church of England is a cumbersome and bureaucratic performance. Justin Welby’s heart surely must sink at the prospect of having to try and steer this group through its deliberations. Its meetings should be reduced by a minimum to once a year. It rejected the Bishop’s report by much less than the media coverage would have you believe. Of the three groups that voted on whether to “take note” of the report, the Bishops and the Laity both voted in favour. while the Clergy voted against by only seven votes. This was no wholesale rejection of the Archbishop or of the Bishop’s report, but as they say in politics “one is enough”. For the Archbishop seven is a deal-killer.
The question is, perhaps, less complicated than it might appear and essentially one of practicality. Does the Church of England stay aligned with the majority of the Christian Church, including the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, in its understanding of marriage? Or does it say that through a new and special understanding of marriage the Church of England has a fresh insight to share? This may well be informed by the Church of England’s unique role in the life of the English state and nation.
Justin Welby has put leadership and growth at the heart of his ministry as Archbishop. Time will tell whether these themes are wise let alone effective priorities. Witness and service might be better themes for an Archbishop. Nevertheless leadership is now what is required. He demonstrated capacity for leadership on the subject of women Bishops. He now has to do the same on the future of the Church of England’s understanding and practice of marriage. It’s going to be difficult for him, and he will need all of our prayers, because which ever way he goes he will hurt and offend someone, but he’s going to have to pick a side and go for it.