Fireworks and faith at general synod

Church of England General Synod Image copyright Getty Images

The Archbishop of Canterbury was certainly the highlight of the opening day at general synod.

Less an address, more a sermon, he appealed to Christians to turn away from self-indulgence and toward self-sacrifice in order to contribute positively at a time of uncertainty and fear… a climate that he said had been brought about by populist movements across Europe and the election of Donald Trump.

"It is a moment of challenge, but challenge that as a nation can be overcome with the right practices, values, culture and spirit," explained the archbishop. "Which is where we come in. Let's not be too self-important. I don't mean we, the Church of England, are the answer.

"But we can be part of the answer, we have a voice and a contribution and a capacity and a reach and above all a Lord who is faithful when we fail and faithful when we flourish."

But while these comments were made in the context of post-Brexit uncertainty, it was obvious to everyone gathered in the assembly hall of Church House in Westminster that the archbishop was also thinking of Wednesday, when synod will debate the bishops' report on same-sex marriage.

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Media captionThe Archbishop of Canterbury addresses general synod

GS2055, as it is known, was published last month and provoked an immediate outcry. Members of the LGBTI community expressed anger that, after engaging in three years of so-called "shared conversations", the bishops decided not to recommend any change to church practice. Marriage in church would remain the lifelong union of a man and a woman; there would be no facility to bless same-sex marriages.

Wednesday has therefore become the focal point for both traditionalists and those who want the church to mirror a change in the law of the land, which has allowed same-sex marriage since March 2014.

As members arrive on Wednesday morning, they'll be greeted by a vigil organised by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and Changing Attitude with the support of the Peter Tatchell Foundation and Out and Proud African LGBTI.

Mr Tatchell, anticipating the protest, said: "The bishops' report defends heterosexual superiority and opposes same-sex blessings and marriages. The church blesses dogs and cats but it refuses to bless loving, committed same-sex couples. It treats LGBTI clergy and laity as second class, both within the church and the wider society."

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Image caption The bishops' report says marriage in church will remain the lifelong union of a man and a woman

The debate inside, which begins at 17:30 GMT and is scheduled to last for 90 minutes, will be no less accusatory. It is likely to expose the fractures and fissures that exist within the heart of Christian unity.

Evangelical christians, like Ed Shaw, a member of synod and a trustee of Living Out, a charity that exists to support same-sex-attracted Christians who have chosen to remain celibate, are relieved that the bishops have upheld what they say is the biblical position on marriage.

"I think the Church of England has carefully listened," he said. "I think the Church has also come to the settled view of what Christians have always believed down the centuries and what most Christians believe around the world."

For the moment, this remains the official position of the Church of England.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury drew his opening address to a close, he did make one explicit reference to same-sex marriage. He described "the painful discussions" that will take place on Wednesday. That phrase may yet prove to be the understatement of the year.