General Synod (February 2022)

I’m afraid that these reflections aren’t quite as hot off the press as they were in November, which is probably a result of two things. First, life here in the Benefice has been incredibly busy and I returned from London needing to get my head down ahead of Sunday and second, I was far too tired to type on the way home (or indeed at the end of each day – I don’t know how our former Bath & Wells Synod blogger Stephen Lynas used to manage it).

In respect of the first point, Synod – perhaps bizarrely – felt like an oasis of calm (albeit one which involved ferocious concentration). As someone who barely steps foot outside of the parish for the majority of her time, the chance to meet people from the wider church and to think on a bigger perspective than where the parish share is coming from (although to be fair that’s a reasonably big thought for quite a lot of the time) were both -selfishly, I realise – very welcome.

If you’re expecting a line-by-line analysis of debates and speakers à la the Church Times, reading on you may be disappointed (although I’ve tried to add a few links this time). What I hope to do is give you a flavour of proceedings and the arguments – especially for those not steeped in Synod. It’s the view from ‘the cheap seats’ (more of that later) of an ordinary clergy person. If, however, as I go on in my time at Synod, I begin to forget what looking in from the outside is like, feel entitled to take me to one side (virtually or in person) and chastise me.

Tuesday, 8th February

Trains let me down (again) and I found myself (again) travelling up to London from Taunton, carrying somewhat less luggage than before – although, I note somewhat ruefully, still with a disproportionately large suitcase. Arriving at Church House felt pleasantly less discombobulating than in November. For a start, I actually knew which building I was aiming at, and it was good knowing some faces, if not always names (never my strongest point anyway – an unfortunate failing for a Vicar I appreciate). Fortunately by the end of the week, ‘Hello Worcester,’ had acquired a name rather than just a diocese.

Proceedings in the Chamber (lots more masks btw) got under way with ‘Revival of the Standing Orders made under Section 1 of the General Synod (Remote Meetings) (Temporary Standing Orders) Measure 2020’. Cutting a long story (title) short, we debated allowing (like in most other sectors of life at the moment) hybrid meetings to take place. We were urged to remember those not only whose attendance is currently made difficult by Covid but also those previously excluded groups whose participation has been made more possible by online platforms.

Not surprisingly the vote was carried. Full marks to everyone at Church House who seemed, with very little notice, to have got the system working incredibly effectively (particular Zoom highlights were a neon purple Zoom background and one point where the speaker’s device appeared to do a somersault of excitement at the end of her speech). New Prolocutors of both provinces of clergy and the House of Laity were introduced and welcomed, and then the Archbishop of Canterbury gave his Presidential Address (and yes, I am having to check where I need to put capital letters as I type!).

Archbishop Justin spoke about a loss of confidence in our communal life, how we’ve ‘lost the muscle memory of how to be together’ and, after describing the fallacy of ‘individualism and autonomy’, he encouraged us to be ‘a kind and forgiving church’. (Yes please!) Throughout the week, as I observed the Archbishop, I reflected on how much of an individual’s real character is muted when you only read about or watch them on a screen – my experience up till now of the ++ABC (Archbishop of Canterbury). I remain undecided about the C of E’s direction of travel, but I confess that I am warming to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s wit (he’s exceptionally good at ‘off the cuff’) and beginning to see a person beyond the title.

The Business Report reflected a lot on ‘Questions’ (Synod’s version of Question Time) and the feedback many members had given after a rather rancorous introduction for us newbies last time round. I think it fair to say we were gently ‘encouraged’ to ‘be our better selves’ this time. Dates for the meetings 2024-2026 semi-fixed (or at least their ‘envelopes’), we moved on to weightier matters – an introduction to the Archbishops’ Racial Justice Commission and its Chair, Lord Paul Boateng.

Lord Boateng gave a moving speech that managed to navigate the personal (‘Most of my life I’ve been running from Jesus Christ, but now, at my stage of life, I’ve stopped running.’) as well as the deeply, painfully, challenging (‘Racism is a wound in the Body of Christ.’ ‘The diversity of Parliament is better than in the C of E.’), finally ending with a note of hope (‘There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole’). Synod rose to give him a standing ovation. Of course, stirring words and vision are one thing, but as Lord Boateng pointed out the C of E needs now to make all the fine ideals of ‘From Lament to Action’ the lived reality of UKME people who worship in our churches, whether they’re in London – or (my current home) South Somerset.

The Archbishop of York had the unenviable task of responding and introducing the Racial Justice Report, asking us, ‘What does it mean to be a redeemed humanity?’. Speaking afterwards Sonia Barron reminded us that the church should be ‘a place of sanctuary’ and +Philip North that we need to ‘keep the vision big’. All of this made for uncomfortable listening for a white person, living and ministering in a predominantly white part of the country. I sometimes let myself off the hook because I grew up in Hounslow, West London – diverse even in the 1970s – but the truth is that all of us tend to ignore the things that don’t affect us right now – until they do. And the reality is that – though my parish may be homogenous in terms of colour – there are all kinds of other areas of difference where we can and should learn to become people who welcome rather than fear (or even tolerate) any kind of difference.

After a challenging afternoon, Questions passed by uneventfully, positively amicably. Signs that even the Church of England can be taught? Maybe there’s hope after all. Eucharist and dinner with ACiS (Affirming Catholics in Synod) followed for me and then a cab across the river (my good intentions to walk crumbled) to my bed for the next two nights.

Wednesday, 9th February

I did, however, manage the walk in the following morning. As a country mouse (and feeling my age I realise) I found myself surprised at how many people now use ear-buds, and the uncanny feeling that at some moment, like a scene from a 70’s sci-fi movie, everyone would start walking in the same direction with eyes vacant… The Synod’s day began with us celebrating the Eucharist together. The ++ABY preached on Mark 7.14-23. I aspire one day to preach so well with such apparent ease. ‘We want to be understood, not forgiven,’ was the line that has remained in my memory, although obviously the line that Archbishop Stephen had been delighted to be able to use was, ‘Come back sin, all is forgiven!’

Appropriately we then moved on to look at safeguarding and the work of the National Safeguarding Team. Following on from the previous day’s reflection on institutional racism, there was more to challenge us here, particularly from Maggie Atkinson, Chair of the Independent Safeguarding Board.
The afternoon began (we were running late) with a debate on The Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2022.

If at this point you suddenly feel the need to walk away and do something else, you’d be wrong. It was fascinating. I have to declare an interest in that one of my churches is currently struggling (if you’re an energy expert please feel free to email me) to find a green solution to replacing its aging gas boiler. These changes to the faculty system will make it deliberately more complex (‘More complex?’ I hear you cry) to replace a boiler like-for-like. Of course debates on racial justice and safeguarding are paramount but put a bunch of church-types in a room together and invite them to talk about heating… The problem is that with a net-carbon target of 2030 – which is fast approaching – churches have got to do something to achieve this and the biggest shift they can make is to move away from using carbon sources for heating.

But churches also tend to be listed (solar panels – you’re having a laugh!) and surrounded by graves making solutions that require digging tricky to say the least. ‘Save the Parish’ had a go at an amendment here, which was the closest vote of the week. As Fr Marcus Walker (the ‘face’ of StP) put it ‘to remove the stick’ from the legislation. It failed by three votes.

As a new member of Synod, I caught a glimpse in the votes this week of the way in which the voting system itself can be used to facilitate the outcome you are hoping for (or indeed to hamper someone else’s plans). On several occasions votes which might have been done by a show of hands were counted electronically – the way you vote being recorded certainly sharpens your concentration – and on other occasions votes were counted by House (Bishops, Clergy, Laity).

As we know from past votes on women in the episcopacy a vote done by houses has to pass in each house. And to permit this (and sometimes the continuation of a debate) 25 people have to raise their hands or stand. But you also have to pick your moment and not call for one of these actions after a vote has been called. Yes, sometimes it does feel very arcane, and that everyone else understands the rules except you. By the end of the three days, I understood things a little better.

Durham Diocesan Synod then brought a motion about Human Trafficking which tied in with a debate in the House of Lords on the Nationality and Borders Bill – some of the Lords Spiritual were due to be having a late night arguing the case for those who have been confirmed as victims of modern slavery to be granted temporary leave to remain. Synod supported the slightly amended text unanimously.

Clergy remuneration next. Apparently two-thirds of clergy are okay financially. Although the reverse statistic that a third are either struggling or just getting by ought to give some cause for concern. As someone who has stopped even trying to count the numbers of hours I work, benefits like a good pension aren’t of course to be sniffed at, but my hourly rate (if you want to play that game) feels a bit less generous and trying a heat a large house with limited means (tellingly my sons bought me a poncho for Christmas) is a challenge.

Finally, deep breath, ‘God’s People Set Free’ report. We were deep in the land of church speak here – ‘resourcing and releasing’ ‘empowering missionary shaped-disciples’. It’s all good stuff but some plain speak would be helpful. The debate ended with an impassioned plea from a lay person for the laity not merely to be viewed as ‘rota fodder’, especially at a time when it seems likely that the numbers of stipendiary clergy may be declining.

For our closing act of worship (and yes, it’s disappointing how many people leave the chamber at this point) I asked if I might sit with my Bishop. There’s a convention in Synod that the bishops sit in the front two rows. As I moved from my usual spot to the front, I was aware of how very exposed and lonely it feels sitting there. Even the glare of the lights seemed stronger. The sense of analogy wasn’t lost on me.

And finally tea at Lambeth Palace (the dioceses are being invited alphabetically – tonight it was the turn of the B’s and C’s). I have a mild horror of standing-up fork-buffets after an incident many years ago now with a chicken bone and an MP… Fortunately, I managed not to repeat that particular faux pas, although asking the ++ABC’s wife which diocese she was from wasn’t my finest moment. We ended with compline in the chapel and the, erm, interesting ceiling by Leonard Rosoman. The chapel was also the warmest church I have ever been in. There is an irony that the Assembly Hall at Church House is also superheated (any other menopausal women out there?) – especially when we’d been debating reducing carbon footprint.

Thursday, 10th February

Having missed one group work session on Wednesday, there was no such luck for us today, exploring the ‘Difference course’ (or ‘differ-ence’ course as the logo put it – is it wrong that I wondered how much time and money was spent choosing the logo?) and the ‘Pastoral Principles course’. Now trying to do group work in a room filled with 300 people is mildly challenging to say the least. I found myself chafing gently at the full-on presenting style – until we had to confront the way in which all of us are guilty of building walls to keep ‘others’ out, and the way in which we can – should – see ‘the other’ not as an enemy but as a fellow child of God.

The Report by the Governance Review Group doesn’t sound like something to provoke fierce debate but it did. Three amendments were scrutinised by Synod – two of which lost and one of which (that changed the verb ‘welcome’ to ‘thank’) was passed. As the debates were going on it was hard to know who to trust. As clergy we do, after all, have a strong sense of obedience to our bishop but equally I found the idea of ‘sifting behaviours’ troubling. In the end, the votes and arguments are, as much as anything, about objections being heard and about giving those framing the legislation something to think about as the process goes on.

Two appointments followed, and then another Diocesan Synod Motion (this time from Lichfield) about the persecuted church which called on us not to limit our understanding of who our neighbour is. It’s a fraught issue because (I learned) rushing to help would simply exacerbate the situation for our brothers and sisters suffering from persecution (caused by the deep distrust of the West). The +Chelmsford spoke movingly of the lessons the persecuted church could teach us about faithfulness and standing firm, despite being small in number. I was reminded of this again in today’s reading from the book of Jeremiah,

7 Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8 They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.

Again the motion passed unanimously.

Finally we came to probably the most challenging vote of the week, which the +Chester (standing in for +Worcester) introduced GS2253. Synod was being asked to ‘take note’ of this report which proposes changes to the membership of the Crown Nominations Commission for the See of Canterbury. In other words who will get to vote for our next ++ABC (as well as the next +Dover – who is, in essence, Canterbury’s Diocesan Bishop in all but name). The report proposes, for the membership of the CNC for Canterbury an increase from 1 to 3 in the representation of the wider Anglican Communion on this body.

This was one of these votes where you were left trying to work out which good was best: the good that says, as the +Burnley did, ‘that ‘you can’t clap Lord Boateng and then vote this down’ or the unspoken concern that the wider Anglican Communion might have very different views to parts of the Church of England on, for example, a woman Archbishop or blessing same-sex relationships. The report was ‘taken note of’ (largely I think having been reminded from the platform that if it wasn’t then it couldn’t have been brought back to Synod for the next five years). Hopefully those on the platform heard the disquiet and uncertainty ahead of a more substantive vote in July.

Finally the day ended with ‘farewells, which was a game of two halves. First, a muted farewell to the (former) +Winchester -Tim Dakin – after a difficult couple of years in the diocese and then a standing ovation for +Liverpool – Paul Bayes. Paul Bayes has over the last few years increasingly spoken out for justice (especially for the LGBT+ community in relation to same-sex marriage in the C of E). You can read his last (wonderful) sermon as Bishop of Liverpool here. Totally unexpectedly I found myself in tears, inwardly promising myself to be bolder in standing up for what I believe. Earlier in the day we’d been reminded of this quote from Hillel,

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?

Quite so.

I caught the tube back to Paddington (with Worcester as it so happens) and chatted on the phone to my eldest son as, in the darkness, the train ate up the miles back to Somerset. It had, overall, been a good time at Synod. I feel less of a stranger to it all, but I’m still left with questions and challenges before York in July.

As Robert Frost’s poem says,

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Till the next time.