Saturday, 23 February 2019

‘In Company’ – A Few Remarkable Days at Synod

As General Synod’s February 2019 sessions draw to a close, I’d like to offer a few reflections on my latest experience of the Church of England’s legislative and governing body. Rather than offer a frame-by-frame analysis, I should like to offer something a little more personal. This personal approach runs the risk of being by turns self-indulgent and self-pitying or self-aggrandizing. In order to process my experience of Synod, I’ll just have to take those risks. I hope that what I have to say doesn’t, at times, read as either passive-aggressive or graceless. I beg your forgiveness if elements of it read that way.

I want to start in a curious place. I want to place my experience of Synod in the context of something non-Synodical: my visit, on Friday night, to watch Stephen Sondheim’s Company with my younger brother and his wife. I found it an almost overwhelming experience. The new production has switched the gender of the central character, Bobbie, and this revised and updated version of Sondheim’s exploration of the nature of relationships, marriage, singleness, loneliness and friendship feels simultaneously classic and modern. I wept and laughed and came away more alert to what it means to live in ‘a city of strangers’.

I suspect part of the reason I was so deeply affected by the production was tiredness – Synod is tiring and demanding. However, I was also profoundly affected by the way Company exposes the power of solidarity, friendship and gift in contexts where we can feel alone, a little isolated and a little bewildered.

This Synod has – from my point of view – felt energised and, often, energising. I had the great privilege to speak in one of the Evangelism debates and I was thrilled by the tone of openness. I’m excited about faith communities embodying good news and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. If, during legislative business, there were moments when I felt a little tetchy at what I felt were over-pernickity obsessions with detail, I understood the reasons why people get carried away on those details. My main disappointment concerned the fall of  the motion to remove secret ballots in CNC episcopal ballots.

However, there was another dimension of my experience of Synod that – on reflection – I’ve felt a little heavily in my bones. Forgive me for commenting on it, for I’ve no desire to be mean or silence anyone. That dimension concerns the extraordinary number of questions regarding the House of Bishops’ Transgender Guidance. 

I trust you understand why I’ve sought to keep my counsel, as best I can, on the various responses to the Guidance. It also struck me as crucial that I – as the first out trans person on Synod – stay silent during the supplemental Questions. I decided, however, I needed to be in the Chamber and witness the Questions session.

I’m not going to lie. Some of the questions were difficult to hear. Some of them led me to want – despite the fact that Synod doesn’t work like this – to shout out, ‘Objection!’ I wanted to correct false information and challenge some of the language questioners used. 

It was not my job to respond to the supplementary Questions. It was the Bishops’ job and I thought they did a fine job. In many respects, the whole thing was a damp squib. The Bishops played a dead bat in an impressive way.

That doesn’t remove the cost I felt in my body. Hearing the supplementary questions was often challenging. I got very close to tears at one point, but – thankfully – didn’t cry. I don’t think my tears would have helped. They might even have been read as politics (‘Oh, look, the trans woman is weeping …’) Still, to hear the Supplemental Questions was often quite bruising. It is – I discovered – a curious thing to be in a minority of one.

Still, I’m glad I was there for the Questions. I’m glad because, by being present in a silent way, I ensured that, for the first time, those who – consciously or unconsciously – represent trans people as problems or delusional could not do so without at least one trans person witnessing this. People like me are part of the Body of Christ, are part of Synod and the Church, and we are ordinary members of those bodies. We are here and we are not going away, even in the midst of the cost.

Which brings me back to Company. It’s a musical about commitment and, as Bobbie sings in the final song ‘Being Alive’, we do that in risk and in community. She asks for someone to mark her with grace. I certainly felt marked with grace during Synod, both during Questions and elsewhere. God was moving. I cannot tell you how profoundly I felt the warmth and generosity of so many in the Chamber on Wednesday evening. That witness was quiet, alert and generous, as so much witness often is. It helped me to feel alive and be alive during the Synod.

I was glad not only to be in the Chamber then, but throughout the week as the Synod sought to be outward-looking and engaged with the Nation. We may disagree on how we do that, and so often we do that clumsily, but we are at least willing to try. 

Thank you, colleagues – even those I disagree profoundly with – for ‘company’ and the willingness to wrestle and work together on the grand things and the small. I hope we are prepared to take the risk of being converted towards each other. I also ask that those who who read this blog and are praying types, pray for all on Synod. Keep me in your prayers as I sit in the gift of being an elected member of Synod, but also negotiate the aloneness and loneliness that can come through being in a minority. Pray especially for those of us who are out LGBTI+ Synod reps (and those who cannot yet be so), that we are a generous, kind and a transforming presence.