For various reasons, I’ve been going through some of the papers I kept from my stint on General Synod; eight complicated years which included the Higton debate, the AIDS debate, and the various stages of the legislation to permit women deacons and women priests. This afternoon I’ve been reliving the November 1987 ‘Higton debate’ through the reports and press cuttings from that period.
For those young enough to have been spared prior knowledge of any of this, Tony Higton’s original motion aimed to ‘reaffirm the biblical standard’ of sexual intercourse (whatever was meant by that) taking place only between a married couple of one woman and one man. It identified ‘fornication, adultery and homosexual acts’ as ‘sinful in all circumstances’ and called for Christian leaders to be ‘exemplary in all spheres of morality’. What Synod eventually passed was what was considered a less severe motion, formed largely as the result of passing an amendment from the then Bishop of Chester, Michael Baughen:
‘This Synod affirms that the biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity in personal relationships is a response to, and expression of, God’s love for each one of us, and in particular affirms:
(1) that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship,
(2) that fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal, and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion,
(3) that homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion,
(4) that all Christians are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, including sexual morality, and that holiness of life is particularly required of Christian leaders.’
Mr Higton’s opening speech in the debate made it clear that the behaviour of leaders was the key one for him; the current situation is that there is still a different standard, as gay clergy are not supposed to ‘practise’ their sexuality, which also of course affects the life of a lay person who is married to a gay priest. Back in 1987, of course, the priesthood was entirely male, but the debate’s focus on gay men also reflects a more general omission of women’s experience; as Clare Sealy – then South-East Regional Organiser of the Student Christian Movement – wrote in Speaking Love’s Name, the Jubilee Group’s document published in 1988, ‘The confusion of the generative with the erotic is a mistake made because male sexuality was taken as paradigmatic. It is tempting to ponder what sort of sexual ethics we would have now if female sexuality had been taken as archetypal. After all, if the sole function of the clitoris is to give pleasure, what sort of telos does that imply for sexual behaviour?’
Nearly thirty years on, Speaking Love’s Name makes very interesting reading, and not least because it contains an Introduction by Rowan Williams written before he became a bishop (he was consecrated Bishop of Monmouth in 1992). In 2011, the excellent website Thinking Anglicans reminded readers of the existence of the book, and of Dr Williams’ comments, although the link given there to the full Introduction now seems to have died. Dr Williams commented on the Higton debate that:
While well-meaning ‘liberals’, equally afraid of the harshness of the original motion (about which the less said the better) and of getting involved in a genuinely theological debate on sexuality, joined hands with some of the most disturbing elements in the contemporary Church of England, those who are determined to make it an ideologically monolithic body, to produce a vote which has, in practice, delivered much of what the original motion aimed at. This shabby compromise has been held up by bishops as representing the ‘mind’ of the Church, and accorded something like legislative force.
Yes. I was there, as a well-meaning liberal (although I’m not sure I would have called myself that), and I voted for the motion as amended, for fear of finding something worse. I’m sorry.
In Speaking Love’s Name, someone else who was there – Martin Peirce – went through his impressions of the Higton debate, from the point of view of another ordinary member of General Synod. Some of what he wrote rang bells for me: some didn’t. Into the second of these categories came this description of the first amendment to be moved, submitted by Revd Terry Louden. Here’s what Mr Peirce says about it:
It removed all the words of Mr Higton’s motion after This synod, and added … reaffirms the biblical teaching that lifelong virginity is the ideal sexual ethic for Christians, and endorses the opinions of Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian and Jerome, that, for Christians, an orderly sex life is inferior to no sex life at all.
I once co-supervised a PhD on gender in the early church, so I do know something about the Church Fathers; but at the time of the Higton debate I hadn’t read any of this material, so maybe it all went over my head. Mr Peirce continues:
Mr Louden spoke with dead pan face, and it was not easy to guess his real purpose. That was the fun of it. He left many of us with a powerful reminder that the Christian Church has a long history of getting into a muddle about sex, and that we would be wise never to pronounce with too great confidence about the detail of the practices which God has or has not laid down for our good. Mr Louden kept us guessing throughout, and in the end asked leave to withdraw his amendment.
Mr Peirce ends his analysis of the debate with what feels very much like a challenge to us now, and seems to prefigure the Shared Conversations process. He writes:
Sexuality, of course, is just one field where committed conversation between Christians who disagree is rarely attempted. It is easier to talk with our friends. There was in this debate a painful failure of nerve. We must find other days, informally among our neighbours as well as in synods, to be bolder disciples.
Amen to that.