General Synod Report – Time for a Change

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Last week (8-10 February 2018), I was at General Synod. It was all a bit different to what we are used to at our annual February gathering in Church House London. It seemed like a very short meeting (more on that later). it seemed a very long time since we last met, and the final day was on a Saturday.

Change seemed to be at the heart of all the presentations and debates. That may always be the case, but it seemed more so to me this time. The challenge of climate change, the need for a change of culture in the way we approach safeguarding, changes to the way we choose Bishops, dress for services and work with the Methodists. Even the days we were meeting on had changed.

Synod has a problem with its age profile, especially among the laity. It tends to be retired people who stand for election, as they have the time to give to it. Understandably, taking as much as a week of annual leave over the course of a year in order to attend Synod is not wildly appealing to many working aged lay people. So we’re trying out what it feels like to meet on a Saturday, to slightly reduce that burden, and hopefully encourage some younger people to stand for Synod. There was impressively little moaning from the clergy about the change (or if there was, I missed it) and most of us managed to stay the course, until the four o’clock conclusion on Saturday.

Not enough time…

Synod always begins with a debate about what’s on the agenda, and there was some unhappiness about how little time we seem to spend together these days. Just two and a half days this time, which is not unprecedented for a February group of sessions, except that we hadn’t already met in November. We only meet in November when it’s really needed, but in the five years I’ve been on Synod, this was the first time we hadn’t met. It seemed an eternity since we met in York last July, and now it seemed we barely had time to get settled, before we were off again. Everything felt very rushed, and a couple of the main items had almost no time for actual debate, by the time we’d ploughed our way through the inevitable plethora of amendments. Synod brings together people from every part of the Church of England – geographically, culturally and theologically. Having time to really listen to one another, to engage with different viewpoints, and to properly debate those differences seems key to its success. Otherwise we simply show up with our preconceived ideas, argue accordingly and go home none the wiser.

What sort of Bishops?

Next up was a somewhat dull presentation about the work of the Crown Nominations Committee (CNC), followed by an equally dull Q&A session. The CNC are the people who choose our Bishops, and one of the things they are grappling with is a need to improve diversity. Looking around the Synod chamber, it was clear they had a point. The Bishops are almost entirely white middle aged and middle class men, now added to by a few mostly white middle aged and middle class women. I was also struck by the point that we have ended up with a method of selecting Bishops which assumes that the people approached really want to be Bishops, and are prepared to sell themselves accordingly? A few more candidates who have no burning desire to be Bishops, but have to be actively persuaded to do it anyway, might not be a bad thing.

We finished early on the Thursday, as the Bishops were all off to a shindig at the Mansion House in the City of London that evening. We were then back at Church House bright and early on Friday morning, especially the Coventry crew, as we were on chalice duty at the service of Holy Communion. We got to sit on the stage at the front of the chamber, where the Chair, the Archbishops, the lawyers and the people proposing a debate sit during the sessions. I’d never been up there before so it was interesting to see things from a different point of view.

Companion Links in the Anglican Communion

First up on Friday was an incredibly inspiring presentation from three Bishops from different parts of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Archbishop Thabo from South Africa joked about the drought currently gripping Capetown (it was pouring with rain in London), and how nice it was to have a shower every day. We all laughed, but knew that he was making a serious point. Climate change is not only real, but life changing for many of our brothers and sisters across the Communion. This point was picked up by Archbishop Winston from Polynesia, who is literally seeing parts of his Archdiocese swallowed up by the rising ocean. He urged us to stay faithful to the mission of fighting climate change. Bishop Humphrey, from Peshawar, reminded us of the terrible persecution that Christians in Pakistan face. He spoke with immense grace and dignity, and urged us to do all that we can to ensure that the church in Pakistan, small as it is, remains, giving hope to Christians and Muslims alike. It would be a tragedy if the Christians were driven out, as they largely have been in Iraq and Syria. After a long standing ovation for these three courageous and inspirational Bishops, we moved on to a debate about Companion Links in our churches and dioceses, reasserting their importance even, and maybe especially, when there are things we don’t agree on.

Food Wastage in the UK

Next up was a debate about the shocking level of food wastage in the UK, especially in a context where poverty and reliance on food banks is ever increasing. I think that what shocked many of us was that the vast majority of food waste (71% of it) comes not from farms, supermarkets or restaurants, but from our homes. I don’t know how the figure was calculated, but apparently the average British home throws out over half of the food and drink it buys. If this figure is even close to being true, it is horrifying. In the end there was very little debate, as most of the available time was taken up working our way through several amendments to the proposal, most of which were inevitably rejected. It does seem that proposing an amendment is a clever way to ensure that someone gets to make their point, even though it can destroy the flow and content of the debate. I guess I was feeling particularly frustrated this time, as I had hoped to speak in this debate. In case you are remotely interested, what I planned to say is at the end of this report.

Legislation, robes and suicide

The first part of Friday afternoon was taken up with legislative business, which is at the heart of what Synod does, but is slow going and tricky to understand, usually resulting in a somewhat empty Chamber and a very busy coffee room. We are slowing plodding our way through various changes to simplify the rules of the church, as well as other changes to Canon Law. Most notable this Synod were two pieces of business that finally reached their conclusion.  Firstly, those leading services no longer have to robe, as long as they have the consent of the PCC. In addition, ministers no longer have to wear robes to lead occasional offices, if the family involved agree. Secondly, an archaic and long ignored rule regarding the funerals of those who have taken their own lives was amended, giving them the same rights and dignity as anyone else. I must confess that after staying to hear these changes promulged (my favourite Synod word – meaning to put a law or decree into effect by official proclamation) I may also have joined the throng in the coffee room for a while…

Moving closer to the Methodists

The Bishop of Coventry introduced the final debate of the day, a proposal considering how we might move on from the Anglican-Methodist Covenant towards some formal recognition of each other’s ministries. This is part of a long journey and the proposals laid out in the report we were debating (Mission and Ministry in Covenant) would require the Methodists to move a lot further than the Anglicans. While there was uncertainty in some quarters about the direction being taken, most people appreciated the serious commitment and sacrifice that the Methodist church seem willing to make to make this happen, and wholeheartedly supported the motion to continue working on proposals.

Safeguarding

Safeguarding is always now a key component of the Synod agenda, and will rightly continue to be so for the foreseeable future as the Church of England strives to get its house in order. Many of us arrived at Church House at nine o’clock on Saturday morning to stand and pray with victims and survivors of abuse in the Church of England who had gathered in peaceful protest at the awful and inadequate way so many of them had and still are being treated. Every member of Synod was given a copy of a booklet We asked for Bread but you gave us Stones which outlines victims’ experiences when they told the church that they had been abused. It is sobering reading.

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There was no formal debate on the issues, but the chamber was strangely quiet as we listened to an update from the National Safeguarding Team about national developments and preparations for the Independent Inquiry into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. The message was clear. Changing the rules is not enough. We have to change our culture. Safeguarding cannot be tagged on as an extra to our ministry. It should be core to our being. Protecting the vulnerable is at the heart of the gospel so safeguarding should be our first priority, not our last.

Valuing People with Down’s Syndrome

The final debate of Synod, on the Saturday afternoon, was about valuing people with Down’s Syndrome. It was wonderful to see and hear a full chamber, beautifully articulating the gospel truth that all people are equally loved and valued by God. It was a very good way to finish our business together, and we voted unanimously in favour of the motion with no abstentions.

Want to know more?

If you would like to read more detailed reports on what happened at Synod, but in a witty and easy to read format, then I recommend that you visit the blog of my friend BathWellsChap, aka the Revd Prebendary Stephen Lynas. He writes brilliant daily reports on the proceedings, which I often refer to when I’ve lost track of quite what is happening.

I also have an apology. Some of you may have noticed that I didn’t produce a report after the July 2017 group of Synods. We moved house the day I got back from York and I never quite got around to it. If you want to know what happened, then Stephen can fill you in.

We return to York in July and I will make sure I do better this year.

 

Appendix

This is what I would have said in the Food Wastage debate, if I had been called to speak.

Thank you for this paper about food wastage. It has really challenged me to think about my own use and misuse of the food I buy. I have two thoughts that I would like to offer to this debate.

Many years ago, in my life before ordination, I worked in waste management, part of a small team of people working with Local Authorities and Waste Management Companies, helping them to set up centralised composting sites. I was a composting consultant. Initially, we were just trying to stop garden waste going to landfill, but as momentum increased and technologies such as anaerobic digestion became more widely available, in time we saw some councils starting to collect all compostable waste, including food waste. This is now common practice in many places. The face of waste management in the UK has been completely transformed over the last 25 years. I was horrified then, at the last General Election, when the issue of general waste collection was raised, with a number of prominent politicians calling for a return to week collection of non-recyclable waste.

HDRA Composting Consultants, c 1995

None of us is perfect, which of us hasn’t on occasion found a mouldy bag of onions lurking in the depths of the fridge? We may not ever be able to completely eliminate food waste, but we could eliminate it ending up in landfill sites and the resulting damage to the environment. We should be encouraging our councils to stick with the collection and composting of all biodegradable waste, or urging them to introduce it where such provision is not available.

My second thought is that food waste is in part a symptom of our over busy lives. At our communion this morning, we were reminded of the importance of the Sabbath – for the land and the people. In my household, I know that food gets thrown away when we don’t have the time, or are too tired to prepare it, and resort to easier options or takeout. This debate gives us yet another reasons to look at our churches and the pressure placed on laity and clergy alike to be ‘doing’ evermore, at the expense of time spent ‘being’. Being with friends and family, sharing hospitality and taking time to truly appreciate the food that God has blessed us with.

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A Day Out at Lambeth Palace

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On Monday morning, as Coventry Cathedral made preparations for their very special guests from Kensington Palace, I was headed south on a train to London to Lambeth Palace.

For those who don’t know me, my name is Rev Charlotte Gale and I am currently the Chair of the House of Clergy in Coventry Diocese. This is an elected post, though as no one else stood, I didn’t need to do a lot of campaigning. On the face of it, the role is a lot about chairing meetings – Diocesan Synod, Bishops Council and the Business Committee – in conjunction with the Bishop and my lay counterpart.

I am also a pioneer minister in the diocese, at St Clare’s at the Cathedral, in the heart of Coventry. I can be found most days at St Clare’s, in what used to be the cathedral gift shop between the old and new cathedrals. We run a shop as part of our outreach as well as to generate income. We have a huge range of second hand theology books, resources for ministry and church supplies. You are welcome to pop in to browse, or to chat. There is always a pot of coffee on.

Popping in to see me helps me fulfil the other less defined aspect of being the Chair of the House of Clergy. As the ‘elected’ representative of the clergy in Coventry Diocese, I try to make sure I speak up wherever and whenever I can on issues that are concerning the clergy. I always try and offer the ‘ordinary clergy’ perspective on things (not that any of our clergy are anything less that extraordinary!).

I discovered after taking on the role that there is a National Network of Clergy Chairs, and a couple of times a year we get together to hear about what is going on in the national church and in our varied dioceses. This is why I was heading to London on Monday, instead of being at the Cathedral with the cheering crowds. The Clergy Chairs had a special treat. We had been invited to Lambeth Palace for our meeting.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

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It was bitingly cold in London but the sun was shining, and the Palace as we arrived was bathed in golden light. After coffee and a chance to catch up with one another, the first speaker of the day was the Archbishop of Canterbury. He spoke with humour and real candour about issues affecting the Anglican Communion and the Church of England. He shared with us about the recent meeting of the Primates where thirty three Archbishops met to grapple with difficult issues such human trafficking and climate change, as well as talking about evangelism, witness and outreach. He reminded us that the average Anglican is a thirty year old sub-Saharan woman living on less than $4 a day with a 50% chance of living in a place of conflict.

Closer to home, the Archbishop shared how challenging and difficult the work of safeguarding is. The church is continuing to work to make sure that our new structures are the best they can possibly be, as well as facing the consequences of past failures with humility and repentance.

He also touched on clergy wellbeing, acknowledging that parish ministry was one of the hardest jobs he’s done, in part because of the isolation and lack of colleagues. He assured us that tries to keep to all the same disciplines as any other clergy person in the Church of England, including MDR.

The floor was then open to questions, the last of which asked him what message he wanted us to take back to our dioceses. His reply concerned clergy wellbeing, urging us to ensure that all clergy have real accountability, support, and a Spiritual Director, so they are growing in their relationship with Christ.

Holy Communion and Lunch

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We next headed down the stairs into the Crypt chapel of the Palace to share in communion with the Palace staff and members of the community of St Anselm, a new monastic order based at Lambeth. It was such a privilege to be in that ancient place, praying where so many have prayed for hundreds of years.

Lunch followed, and there was an opportunity to have a little snoop around. The walls of every corridor are lined with portraits of former Archbishops. The extraordinary number of them pays testament to the longevity of the Church of England. I was pleased to finally track down Cranmer, in a back corridor behind our meeting room.

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William Nye

Our second speaker was William Nye, who is the Secretary-General of the Archbishops’ Council and Secretary General of the General Synod. He shared how he felt that 2017 had been a year of real encouragement for the Church of England, with many good news stories coming out of the Renewal and Reform programme.

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For example, three years ago the Church of England decided to aspire to increase the number of vocations to ordained ministry by 50%. He was happy to report that there was a 14% year on year increase in 2017, with 544 ordinands starting training. There are also hopeful signs of this growth being sustained.

He talked about the change in funding from the central church, Resourcing the Future, sharing stories of some of the projects being funded by the new Strategic Development Funding, including our own Acceler8 and Serving Christ projects. At General Synod in February I hope to attend a seminar about SDF projects, so will have more information for you then.

He was also asked the question about what message he’d like us to take away. His answer was simple ‘Missional Ambition’. He then posed a couple of questions. Are we being ambitious enough in our mission? What would the church in your diocese be like if your diocesan strategy was successful?

Liz Graveling

After a quick break for a cup of tea, our final speaker of the day was Liz Gravely, a researcher at Church House, who came to talk to us about the ‘Living Ministry’ project that she heads up. Its a ten year research project mapping the wellbeing of Church of England Clergy and Ordinands. It’s in its early stages, but if you want to know more you can read the Project Summary and first report.

Homeward Bound

We then headed back to the four corners of the Church of England to the varied parishes and ministries in which we serve. Many of us will be back in London in just a few weeks time for General Synod, and we will all gather together again for a residential at Launde Abbey in late May. This is when we get to really share with one another what is happening in each diocese, and what are the ‘live’ issues. If you are a member of the House of Clergy in Coventry Diocese and there is something you think we should be talking about at a National Level, or if there is something you would like me to raise on your behalf in Coventry Diocese, then please do pop in for a chat and a coffee. It would be lovely to see you.

General Synod Report – Are you Taking Note?

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Here’s my diary of the last four days at General Synod. The opinions expressed are all my own…

Monday 13th February 2017

An early start at Synod – at least for the clergy. We had our own special meeting (a convocation of the House of Clergy) prior to the laity and Bishops joining us for the start of Synod proper.

We were discussing clergy wellbeing, and maybe unsurprisingly, it was very well attended. There’s an idea afoot to come up with some kind of clergy wellbeing covenant to ensure that we Revs don’t all burn out, break down or leave ministry altogether. Actually, it’s better than that. It aspires to ensure that clergy are supported and equipped and able to flourish in ministry. No one was averse to the idea, and after a good number of clergy spoke offering support, comments and extra ideas for the project, the motion to send it to the full Synod was passed unanimously. (NB The House of Clergy Chairs from each Diocese – of which I am Coventry’s – will be looking at this at their conference in June, so if you have any thoughts, do let me know).

Just time for a quick coffee and a comfort break, before the start of this lengthy group of sessions. The afternoon was marred by uncharacteristic technical troubles and the opening worship didn’t appear on the flashy new screen in the main chamber until the very last prayer. However, we did an impressive job of singing “All my hope on God is founded” even though barely anyone had a copy of the words. I relied quite heavily on the chap next to me who impressively knew every line of every verse.

The first debate of each group of sessions is always on the shape and content of the agenda. It’s always lively as people comment on what they think should have been added, left off, given more time, given less time etc, but it’s usually in pretty good spirits. Not so today. The run up to this Synod has been dominated by discussions about the House of Bishop’s report on ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships, following the Shared Conversations’, a report that almost no one seems happy with. The agenda prescribed two hours of group work prior to a 75 minutes debate on the report. The hurt, anger and frustration that this report has caused was immediately apparent. Speaker after speaker argued that the group work should be scrapped and time given for a much longer debate.  One speaker helpfully articulated my view, which is bemusement that the Bishops have rushed to produce a report, seemingly without running it past anyone, and essentially drawn a line in the sand, when we all thought we were just starting a conversation. But more on that later.

The debate on the agenda is what is called a ‘Take Note’ debate. There is a debate, at the end of which there is usually an almost token show of hands to indicate that we’ve taken note. In my years on Synod, I can’t remember anyone not taking note in a take note debate. Not so today. A significant number of people voted against the motion to take note. Is this a pre-cursor of what is to come?

I was feeling quite in need of a cup of tea by this point, but stayed put because up next was the Bishop of Coventry. He was proposing a motion relating to the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, affirming the convergence of views between different denominations regarding the doctrine of Justification by Faith and encouraging further understanding and reconciliation. It was an interesting and positive debate, though the troubles with the PA meant I was often struggling to hear properly. There was some much needed light relief when the Bishop of Manchester who was chairing, joked that Luther had nailed his thesis to the church door, because the sound system was playing up. There was further laughter when one speaker produced a visual aid – a Playmobil model of Martin Luther. The motion was clearly passed.

No chance for a cup of tea now though, as up next was the Presidential Address from the Archbishop of Canterbury, usually a highlight of Synod. This was no exception as he spoke powerfully of how the Church of England needed to take hold of the opportunity to shape the future of our country in these uncertain times. He concluded with reference to the tapestry in Coventry Cathedral, a particularly special moment for us Coventry folks. He drew attention to the person at the centre of the tapestry, who stands naked and vulnerable, yet safe and secure as they look out on the world from between the feet of the risen Christ.

Next up was Questions, but by now it was nearly 5.30 pm, and nursing a heavy cold, I was really beginning to flag. I decided to call it a day and head for my hotel to rest up ready for tomorrow – and have that cup of tea!

Tuesday 14th February 2017

Woke up and wished myself a happy Valentine’s day then treated myself to a bit of a lie-in. A very long day ahead and I was still feeling pretty ropey. I made it to Church House for the start of business, though I did sadly miss the Communion Service. Most of the morning was taken up with a debate on a Private Members Motion proposing that we ‘replace ecclesiastical preliminaries to marriage with universal civil preliminaries’. In other words, we get rid of the banns of marriage and all the legal checking that goes with it, and hand it all over to the civil registrars. We can then just focus on the pastoral and missional aspects of wedding ministry. I am hugely in favour of this. As a Vicar and Area Dean I know how stressful and time consuming all the legal requirements around weddings can be, and would love to be rid of it.

The Synod seemed split down the middle and there were heartfelt speeches on both sides. However, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with speakers urging us to vote against this change because reading banns of marriage provide such a good missional opportunity. Surely we can do better than that! Lose the legal complexities but invite couples to come and hear prayers said for them. Trust that our love, our interest and our welcome will bring couples in, rather than relying on an archaic and cumbersome legal necessity to get people through the door. You won’t all agree with me, and nor did most of the Synod members. The motion was narrowly lost and so we’re stuck with the system we’ve got.

The whole of the rest of today’s agenda was taken up with ‘legislative business’, my least favourite aspect of Synod, and we ploughed through seemingly endless revisions to numerous bits of legislation. I’m immensely grateful to the ‘detail people’ who really understand what’s going on and have checked that every last comma is in the right place. Mostly today we moved a whole load of things from one stage of the long legislative process to the next. We covered a vast range of topics including safeguarding, the retirement age of clergy, simplification of rules regarding worship and pastoral reorganisation, and who should be on the clergy pensions board. It was a VERY long afternoon.

A real treat of an evening lay ahead though. I left Church House at 7.15 pm to discover that outside it was clear and pleasantly cool, and walked the half mile or so, across the river, to Lambeth Palace, my first ever visit. Synod members from a number of the Dioceses had been invited by the Archbishop to a reception. On entering the palace, we walked down a long corridor where countless former Archbishops peered down at us from their somewhat imposing portraits. Then into a large, light and very grand hall where a hot buffet was served and wine and conversation flowed.

Later on (encouraged by Yvonne Warren, a fellow Coventry rep) I did a bit of exploring. We found our way to the main chapel, and then headed downwards, away from the chatter above, to the hushed environs of the ancient crypt chapel, with its beautiful vaulted ceiling. We paused a moment, simply to breathe in the atmosphere and to add our own prayers to the unimaginable number that must have been offered in this place for the health and wellbeing of the Church of England. On the eve of what is surely to be a difficult day in Synod, it felt important. As we headed back up the stairs, people were gathering in the main chapel for compline. A perfect end to a long day.

Wednesday 15th February 2017

We began the day by creating a new Suffragen See for the Diocese of Leicester. Soon there will be a Bishop of Loughborough. It will be added to a list of Suffagens first put together in 1534!

Next, a quick approval of an appointment to the Archbishop’s Council and then on to the main business of the morning, a motion brought by the Diocese of London concerning the reduction of the maximum stake at Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. These machines can be found in most betting shops and you can currently bet up to £100 every couple of minutes. This is massively more than other similar machines, which have a maximum stake of £2 each time. After hearing some heartrending stories of gambling addicts, and some terrifying statistics about how these machines are disproportionately placed to target the most vulnerable in our society, we voted unanimously in favour of the motion which calls on the Government to reduce the maximum stake from £100 to £2. It was a lovely moment of unity on a day when we were all slightly anxious about the divisions which might later emerge.

There was still a bit of time before the next fixed item on the agenda, so we returned to the ‘legislative business’ we’d been working through yesterday. Some of you will be delighted to know, I’m sure, that we are now one step closer to not having to wear robes for every service.

We were then treated to a rare break – a whole eight minutes to get and drink a coffee, eat a biscuit and nip to the loo. Normally, sessions plough on relentlessly with only a break for lunch. If you need a break, you just have to decide what to miss.

At 11.30 am, we re-gathered in the debating chamber for an introduction from the Bishop of Norwich to the House of Bishops report on ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships following the Shared Conversations’. As I’ve already mentioned, the report has caused considerable upset, with many in the LGBT community feeling that it has failed to recognise anything that they said, at considerable personal cost, in the Shared Conversations. The Bishop gave a bit of a history lesson, then explained what we would be doing in the afternoon. We then broke for an early lunch, as the agenda had been adjusted to allow for the longer debate that people were calling for.

After lunch, we split into groups of about ten, though many people, especially (but not exclusively) those from the LGBT community decided to boycott the group work and instead gathered together for prayer, where they were joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who I understand listened carefully to their concerns. Each group was chaired by a Bishop and we were all given the opportunity to share candidly what we thought of their report. We also spent time looking at a number of case studies. Then a break, and then into the chamber for a ‘Take Note’ debate on the report.

I was personally really anxious about what might happen. I still shudder as I remember the dreadful tone of the debate which resulted in the failure to pass the first motion to allow Women Bishops. General Synod has worked so hard since then to make sure that we are better at talking and listening to one another; that was the point of the Shared Conversations. Hopefully, we could do better this time, despite the seemingly irreconcilable difference of opinions. We did. From the outset it was a debate of grace and dignity, with moving and sometimes deeply personal speeches from a vast range of viewpoints. With one exception, no one sought to judge the other, but rather to try and explain their own position. However, it also became clear that many people simply couldn’t vote to take note of the Bishops’ report, rather preferring to vote against it, so the Bishops would have to go and try again.

After much thought and prayer, I decided to not take note. I am not someone given to going against one Bishop, let alone a whole House of them, so this was not done lightly, but I could not in all conscience vote to take note of a report that albeit unintentionally, has caused so much distress.

I felt that the report failed to recognise the breadth of theological opinion within the Church of England which clearly emerged from the Shared Conversations. It should have properly acknowledged that breadth of opinion, even if the recommended way forward was unchanged. To fail to do so, felt like those who had a difference of opinion were simply being ignored.  Furthermore, Synod members invested considerable time and emotional energy into the Shared Conversations. Many of us attended two lots of conversations (through the Diocese and at the July Synod) and I had thought (maybe naively) that now we had carefully listened to one another, we could then as a Synod think together about the way forward. Instead, the Bishops took the responsibility on themselves to decide on a way ahead, and rather than even offering this as a suggestion for discussion and debate, the report contains a very definite set of proposals with a clear line in the sand about our theological position. The Shared Conversations seemed to have no bearing on what they had written.

There is a joke about a person who asks for directions and is told, ‘well I wouldn’t start from here’. Various Bishops referred to the report as a road map, not the destination. Acknowledging the concerns that had been raised, they were trying to get us to see it as a starting point, from which we would move onward to our final destination. ‘It’s not the finished article’, we were told. The trouble is that whatever the destination may be, this is not where I want to start from. Frustrating as it may be to send the Bishops away to try again, I would rather that we begin this journey, which we all know will be a very difficult journey, from a place where at least we are broadly content at the outset. Starting with blistered feet and rocks in our rucksacks is not the answer. If there is one thing we have learned from the Women Bishops debates, surely it’s that sometimes it’s better to start again.

I know that not all of you will agree with me, but I hope you respect and understand why I decided to not take note.

At the end of the debate, it was requested that a vote be taken by houses. This means that there has to be a simple majority in each of the three houses – laity, clergy and bishops – for the motion to pass. The House of Bishops voted in favour. It would have been unanimous, but one Bishop (I’ll spare his blushes here) accidentally pressed the wrong button and voted to not take note, which was simply a mistake. In the House of Laity, 106 voted in favour and 83 against. But in the House of Clergy, 93 voted in favour, and 100 against, so the motion to take note did not pass. The House of Bishops will have to think again. There was respectful silence at the end of the debate, followed by a thunderous round of applause for the Chair, who did an excellent job.

After all that, I for one, was glad to get out into the air, and head back to the quiet of my hotel room.

Thursday 16th February 2017

The end is nigh! There’s even a possibility that we might get to go home early…

The main item on this morning’s agenda was a debate on a report called ‘Setting God’s People Free’. It’s an inspiring read about empowering the laity to confidently live out their Christian life in all spheres of their lives, not just in church. Unfortunately, the debate was not quite as inspiring as the document. I suspect everyone was just a bit tired. A lot of people wanted to speak – lay, clergy and bishops – and eventually there was an impassioned plea from the vice chair of the House of Clergy to hear more lay voices. After that, the clergy and bishops mostly stayed sat down, allowing the laity to be called to speak. One exception was the Archbishop of York, who livened things up, saying that if Yorkshire people talked as much about Jesus as they did about the weather, then surely Yorkshire would be converted. I suspect that’s true of all of England! The motion to welcome the report and to start work on implementing its recommendations was carried without opposition.

It was only 12.15 pm, and as we had managed to get through the huge list of legislative business, we were now onto contingency business. Gavin Oldham was delighted that his Private Members Motion was to get a hearing. He wants to see the Church of England centralising more of its administration, saving money, reducing duplication of effort and freeing dioceses and parishes to get on with mission and ministry. With some caveats, we passed the motion – just before 1 pm. That meant that instead of finishing at 5 pm, we were prorogued a whole 4 hours early. An unexpected but welcome result at the end of a long and challenging group of sessions.

The members quickly scattered, but we’ll be back in York in July, hopefully in glorious sunshine!

GENERAL SYNOD REPORT – Only Comfy Shoes!

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comfy shoes

Friday 8 – Sunday 10 July 2016

I’m not sure quite what I’ve done to upset the General Synod organising team, but with every passing year in York, I am billeted ever further from the Central Hall, where all the action takes place. This year my accommodation was in the dreaded Alcuin College on the very outskirts of the University campus. I decided to only pack comfy shoes.

As it turned out, the walking back and forth wasn’t too bad (even with the many many steps). You can often find yourself chatting to another traveller, who you wouldn’t otherwise have talked to, and I’m sure the exercise goes some way towards combatting the excess of calories consumed with having three cooked meals a day.

General Synod this time was very much a game of two halves. From Friday afternoon until Sunday lunchtime it was business as usual, but after lunch on Sunday it was very different as we went into the ‘Shared Conversations’.

The agenda for Friday and Saturday was pretty much ‘all change!’ from the outset, so a lot of the time no one was quite sure what was coming next which certainly kept us all on our toes. The reason was the addition of an emergency debate at the very beginning of the synod to discuss the aftermath of the EU referendum result. It was kicked off by the Archbishop of Canterbury who urged us not to accept fear as a decisive force in where we go from here. He also called for a renewed vision to tackle inequality in our own society whilst continuing to remember and support the poorest people in our world.

The debate that followed was probably the best that I have ever heard in my time on General Synod, with particularly powerful contributions from the Bishop in Europe and an ordinary Vicar in Hull. People spoke who had voted both for and against Brexit, but together we agreed:

‘That this Synod, recognising the result of the recent referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, welcome the Archbishops’ call for all to unite in the common task of building a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world, and encourage all members of the Church of England to play their part actively in partnership with everyone in Civil Society in pursuit of this task.’

I had a very hairy moment at the end of the debate when we discovered that the electronic voting machines weren’t working. In the old days at Synod, when a vote was taken and they wanted an accurate count of numbers, tellers would go and stand on the doors and count people through. They still have a list of tellers in case of emergency, and I am one of these. The Bishop of Coventry e-mailed me a few months back asking if I would be the Coventry Diocese teller and assuming I’d never be needed I said yes (also, it’s quite tricky saying no to the Bishop without a very good reason…). Suddenly then, I thought I would have to go and start counting. I rustled around in my bag and found the comprehensive and complicated list of instructions I’d been sent, which I’d had the foresight to print off and bring with me. As I was desperately trying to read through them and work out what I had to do, the Chair of the debate asked if we would be happy to vote with a simple show of hands. We were. What a relief!

tellers

Saturday was a very full and busy day with a lot of business to get through. Much of it was moving various bits of legislation forward to the next stage, but the longest debate of the day was probably the one about clergy vestments. It’s been proposed that the canons of the Church of England are amended so that clergy are no longer required to wear robes when taking services. It’s a topic that always results in heated debate and a fair bit of humour as well. This time, much of the debate centred around what is ‘seemly’ dress. The proposed amendment to the canon would require clergy to dress in a seemly way and no one is quite sure what that is. The Daily Mail had published an article in the preceding week which seemed to have very little to do with what we were actually discussing, but which suggested that ‘mankinis’ were not seemly dress (this seemed to me no more than an excuse for it to publish the picture of Sacha Baron Cohen wearing his mankini alongside several scantily dressed women).  One speaker admitted that she had never seen anyone in a mankini, and then got a huge laugh by suggesting it might be quite exciting if she did.  In the end we sent the legislation on to the next stage, though I suspect that when we next see it, the idea of seemly dress may have been dropped.

The other debate of note on the Saturday was about the senior leaders training programme that the Church of England is running, and which has been the subject of considerable controversy. The programme is made up of three strands. The first two strands – training for Cathedrals Deans (a mini MBA) to help them with the significant business and finance skills required, and general leadership training for existing Bishops – have broadly been well received. However, the third strand is much more contentious.

Prior to this new programme, the Church of England had a ‘preferment list’. The names of clergy who were considered to have senior leadership potential were put on the list by their Bishops. It was pretty secretive and had something of the old boy network about it, so I am very pleased that it has gone. However, I am personally less than delighted with what they’ve replaced it with. There is now a ‘learning community’ for those considered to have senior leadership potential, making sure that they are trained and ready for when the time comes for them to step up into the role of Bishop, Archdeacon etc.  Nothing wrong with that; the problem is how you get into the learning community, which still relies on a nomination from your Bishop.  Unconscious bias must surely be a problem here. Several clergy from black and ethnic minority groups and with disabilities spoke powerfully of the lack of representation from these groups, but I think it goes further than this. We all tend to assume that the people who would do our job well are people who are a bit like us. My concern is that Bishops will subconsciously choose people with similar skills and backgrounds to themselves to be part of the community, and miss the people who are a bit different, or who they don’t necessarily get along with very well.  An open and transparent, but nonetheless rigorous, application process (instead of nominations) could easily resolve this problem.

My other concern is with the very limited number of places available. If you are not one of the very few who make it in, does this mean that you will never be in senior leadership? And conversely, does it guarantee that those who make it will get promoted, even if it turns out that this isn’t what they are called to? Moreover, the very stringent selection process means that many people have not been accepted into the learning community. Is that the end for them, or will they get a second chance? Its early days, and many of these points were raised in the debate so I hope it will be improved. I didn’t get the opportunity to speak, but plan to write to the Bishop overseeing the work, to raise my concerns.

Saturday evening ended in the usual way at York with a debate on the Archbishop’s Council Budget for 2017, followed by a stampede to the exhibition hall for the Open Synod Annual Quiz. Despite being on a team with the Chair of the Business Committee and the pro-Prolocutor (who rejoices in probably the silliest title at Synod), we only managed to finish mid-table. It was an enjoyable end to a long day though. Much wine was drunk and a lot of money was raised to help Syrian refugees.

On Sunday morning, the whole Synod heads to church, most going to York Minster, where the Archbishop of York was preaching, and Archbishop of Canterbury was presiding. I must confess that this year I didn’t go. A very good friend of mine, who lives in York, had had a baby on the previous Thursday and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go and meet her. I was back in time for a very nice roast lunch though, and then into the final Shared Conversations, but more on that in a separate report…

GENERAL SYNOD REPORT -Benefits, Blood & Renewal

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Synod badge

Apologies to those of you who have been eagerly awaiting my report from last week’s Synod! The early Easter and a need to avoid Ash Wednesday meant that the February sessions took place during half term for many of us. I did get the sense that there were a few folks missing, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to rush off for a few days’ break at the end of a short group of sessions.

Much of the Synod agenda was inward looking, with lots of updates on Renewal and Reform (note the name change – it used to be Reform and Renewal…). More on that later, but for me, the highlights were two debates that were determinedly outward looking, and managed to give us something to actually go and do in response – a bit of a novel  experience following a General Synod debate.

BENEFITS SANCTIONS

The first of those was a debate on the impact of sanctions on benefits claimants.  The debate had been brought by the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales. Like many of us, community workers in the diocese and in the food banks in particular had noticed that many people coming to them in desperate need of help were there because of benefits sanctions. Their benefits had been withdrawn for a period when they had failed to turn up for an appointment at the job centre, or committed some other misdemeanour.

No one was arguing that there shouldn’t be some conditionality attached to benefits (to receive job seekers allowance, you should seeking a job) but as the debate went on, we heard more and more stories of how the complete lack of flexibility and discretion in the current system has led to terrible injustices.  We heard of one man who missed an appointment as he had taken his sick child to A&E and left a message on the job centre answer-phone. No one listened to the message and he was sanctioned. A man in a wheelchair couldn’t get on the bus because the lift was broken. He caught the next bus, so was late, and was sanctioned.  Another person was late because they were attending a job interview and was sanctioned.

The debate was asking the Church of England’s Public Affairs council to evaluate the impact of sanctioning on benefits claimants and also called on the Government to implement some of the recommendations in a recent report ‘Feeding Britain’ produced by the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK.

There is significant evidence that this is a real problem, causing real hardship, even destitution, and it could have been a deeply depressing debate but for two things. Firstly, the real passion with which people spoke on the subject; it was humbling to hear so many stories of churches working determinedly and sacrificially to help those in need. Secondly, a speech by Sir Tony Baldry, who until last year was an MP and the Second Church Estates Commissioner.  He gave us something to do.

He encouraged every deanery to send a delegation to meet with their MP in their constituency office, taking stories from their own experience, and asking them to do something about unfair benefits sanctions.  

He thought we would be warmly welcomed and at the very least, it would trigger a letter from the MP to the Secretary of State. If enough letters from enough MPs arrived it could make a real difference. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all start discussing this at our Chapters and our Deanery Synods and decide who we will send to talk to our MP.

FLESH AND BLOOD

The second highlight was a debate that nearly didn’t make it onto the agenda, as it was contingency business. But a gap of about 45 minutes appeared at the end of Tuesday afternoon, leaving just long enough to squeeze in a debate on blood and organ donation. The motion was very straightforward

That this Synod call on all Church of England parishes to encourage their members to consider, as part of their Christian giving; (a) becoming blood donors; and (b) registering as organ donors and making their wishes known to their families.

We heard moving stories of people whose lives had been saved because of the generosity of others in giving blood and organs. The paper that accompanied the debate (https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2442625/gs_2022a_-_blood_and_organ_donation.pdf) would make an excellent basis for a parish magazine article. I have already visited www.organdonation.nhs.uk and registered as an organ donor (it took about 30 seconds) and will be encouraging others to do the same. Once things have calmed down a bit after Easter I will go and see if I can give blood, something I last did in 1996.

RENEWAL AND REFORM

As I mentioned earlier, much of the rest of the debate was about the Renewal and Reform programme that the Church of England is undertaking.  If anyone was in any doubt of the need for change we were reminded of some key statistics, such as the fact that 18 people in every 1000 currently regularly attend a Church of England church, but at the current rate of decline, in 30 years’ time that figure will have dropped to under 10 people per 1000.

The whole of Tuesday morning was spent thinking about evangelism, and pondering on why most of us in the Church of England are so bad at it!  We shared our own stories of coming to faith in small groups and it quickly became clear that the vast majority of people came to faith as children or teenagers. A sobering thought when we look at the numbers of children in many of our churches. We then came together to hear a presentation from the Archbishop’s Evangelism Task Group which is starting to think about how we might do better.

Other strands of Renewal and Reform include Simplification, Resourcing Ministerial Education and Resourcing the Future. There were debates on each of these and a certain amount of grumbling. One of the Simplification proposals debated included plans to make it easier to move clergy when parishes are being reorganised, which was not universally popular, but passed nonetheless.

There was also quite a lot of anxiety about plans to radically change the way in which we fund the training of ordinands, with a fear that the new proposals will mean an end of residential training.

The Resourcing the Future debate was much less contentious with most people happy to see a change in the way in which money from the Church Commissioners is distributed to dioceses with an emphasis on mission and poorer areas.  If you want to know more about the whole Renewal and Reform programme, then visit https://www.churchofengland.org/renewal-reform.aspx for all the latest information.

OTHER NEWS

In other news there was a very heated debate about our relationship with the Church of Scotland. We were debating whether to enter into a new, closer relationship with that Church, but the way it has been handled has apparently caused considerable upset to the Scottish Episcopal Church, which is the Anglican Church in Scotland.  We voted in favour of the new agreement, but it wasn’t the resounding ‘yes’ that it might have been, with nearly 100 people choosing to abstain or vote against the proposal.

We also talked about parochial fees with a proposal to increase the statutory fees for weddings and funerals so that they clearly included the costs of heating and vergers (currently considered ‘optional’ extras) but this was quickly thrown out by the Synod who are very reluctant to do anything that might make people think twice about having a church wedding or funeral.

We finished promptly at 5 pm on Wednesday and won’t meet again now until July in York, when the whole Synod will be participating in ‘Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality’, taking up two days of the agenda. I think there is some apprehension about what that will be like  but the lovely York University campus, the general atmosphere of camaraderie and the long summer evenings in the bar will provide more than adequate compensation I’m sure…

General Synod Report – I saw the Queen!

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Cov crew

Back to Synod, and its all change as the newly elected body comes together for the first time. I actually felt like something of an old timer with my huge experience of the last two years. Here’s what we got up to.

Monday 23 November 2015

On Monday we had an induction day, mostly for new members, but lots of returners joined in too, partly for the company, partly to try and get a grip on things we don’t really understand, and partly for a free lunch. The morning was a bit dry with a lesson on the history of Synod, but things perked up after lunch with a mock debate on ‘Whether coffee is preferable to tea first thing in the morning’ (clearly it is not) and fun playing with the new electronic voting machines.  We finished at an immensely civilised 4.30 pm, leaving time for a free evening in London.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Tuesday was somewhat less relaxed and a lot longer. The day began with a service of Holy Communion in Westminster Abbey for all the Synod members, invited guests, and also attended by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. The Queen has attended the opening of every General Synod since its creation in 1970 and the service in the Abbey is apparently one of the few times she receives Communion in public.

Dehydration was the order of the day as we had been given firm instructions to be robed and ready and in the Abbey well over an hour before the service began and there wouldn’t be a toilet break until the conclusion of the inauguration which followed on from the service. We all got togged up in Church House where it was much like a fancy dress party with a wonderful array of robes on display. As a simple parish priest, my relatively straightforward black and white outfit looked quite sombre compared to some of the doctors, canons and bishops in their bright reds and other colours.

Charlotte and Ruth at Synod

There was a very jovial mood as we waited for the best part of an hour in the cloisters. Each of the diocesan groups was taking photos to post on Twitter and Facebook, and there was a lot of laughter.  We were eventually lined up to process into the Abbey, each diocesan group led in by its Bishop. Once seated there was another longish wait until the magnificent buglers proclaimed that the Queen had arrived and the service began. We were sat behind the Queen (quite a long way behind!) but I could just about see her hat.

The atmosphere was wonderful, the singing glorious, the sermon profound and the distribution of communion slightly chaotic, so all in all a really great service. At the end we had been instructed to get to the Assembly Chamber at Church House as quickly as possible so we didn’t keep the Queen waiting. No stops for the toilet allowed. I took this instruction seriously so was one of the first in, meaning I got a great seat very near to the central dais where the Queen would be sitting.

Once we were all in, the Archbishops, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh joined us for the inauguration. We were treated to excellent speeches from both Archbishops and the Queen, and gave her a stupendous round of applause. It was a huge privilege to be there and a memory I will treasure.

We were allowed a longish lunch break, before Synod started proper. As usual we had a presidential address from the Archbishop of Canterbury and a Report from the Business Committee. The bulk of the afternoon was then given over to an update on the Reform and Renewal Programme. If you want to know more about what it’s all about, there’s an overview on my earlier blog entry ‘Looking towards Renewal and Reform’. There is also a very good film you can watch, just follow this link: https://www.churchofengland.org/reform-renewal.aspx.

Wednesday 25th November

Wednesday felt like a more normal day at Synod. We began with worship, and then heard a moving presentation from the Archbishop of York and his wife Margaret about their recent visit to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, where they saw for themselves the very real effects of climate change and rising sea levels. The presentation concluded with a beautiful and profound film ‘A Pacific Prayer for the Moana (Ocean)’, giving thanks for the ocean and all that it provides, even as it threatens to overwhelm them. You can watch it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yC3Q6o9vS3M.

The big debate of the morning was about the Migrant Crisis. We voted overwhelmingly in favour of the motion which in summary urges parishes and dioceses to work closely with local authorities to support refugees; welcomes the aid provided by the Government but calls for significantly more than 20,000 Syrian refugees to be allowed to settle here; calls on the Government to work with international partners to help establish safe and legal routes for vulnerable refugees to places of safety, including this country; and for the Government to take a ‘fair and proportionate’ share of refugees now within the European Union, particularly those with family already legally resident in the UK. Opening the debate, the Bishop of Durham listed some of the vast numbers of displaced people and refugees in the world commenting that:

“The numbers are approximate. But God knows exactly how many there are. God knows every one of them by name; each one made in God’s image and someone for whom Christ died.”

The final item of the morning was a presentation about some recent research into ‘The Public Perceptions of Jesus’, which despite some negative press reports, contains some very interesting and encouraging statistics. Some of the headlines numbers are:

  • 43% of the population believe Jesus rose from the dead
  • 40% of the population don’t know Jesus was a real historical figure
  • 67% of the population know a practising Christian
  • 66% of practising Christians have talked about Jesus to a non-Christian in the past month

To find out more, read the full results here: https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2392609/talking-jesus_booklet.pdf

After a well-earned lunch, the Chamber filled up again for the final debate of this group of sessions on a Report of the Church Building Review Group. The report makes a number of recommendations about how our church buildings can be best managed and used. In the debate we heard a number of stories about imaginative uses of church buildings. My favourite was of a large Victorian church in Penzance with a small and ageing congregation. They decided to install a soft play area in the back of the church, and during the week, the building is now alive with the sound of children laughing. Mums often pause to pray or light a candle and the number of christening enquiries has shot up.

Much of the focus of the debate was on the rural church and how to manage so many historic and listed buildings. It seemed fitting then that the final speaker reminded us not to see the rural church as a problem, but rural ministry as an exciting mission field.

Final farewells before the Archbishop prorogued us. A really exhilarating three days and I’m already looking forward to returning in February.

HERE WE GO AGAIN!

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Agendapic

Firstly, a HUGE thank you to everyone who voted me back on to General Synod. It’s a great privilege to be there and a responsibility that I don’t take lightly. I’ll do my very best to keep you informed of what goes on.

Several of you have said to me that it would be helpful to know what is going to happen at Synod in advance of a group of sessions, so this is my first attempt at a ‘pre-Synod blog’. Let me know what you think.

We kick off on MONDAY 23 November with an induction day. As a returning member, I don’t strictly have to go, but having spent two years struggling to grasp quite what was happening a lot of the time, I am looking forward to finally having some explanation of how it all works.

TUESDAY MORNING is the inauguration of the Synod, and this is where it gets really exciting as I will hopefully get to see the Queen. I have seen her once before, at the distribution of the Maundy money at Winchester Cathedral when I was about seven, but I don’t really remember it. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh attend a service of Holy Communion in Westminster Abbey for all General Synod members and guests, and I’ve been told that five years ago the dioceses were seated alphabetically so the Coventry cohort were very near the front. I’m really hoping that they don’t decide that it’s fair to turn it round this time.  After that the Synod members all troop into Church House where the Queen officially opens the new Synod. We have to wear ‘convocation robes’, an exciting combination of cassock, scarf, hood, preaching bands and academic robe. I’m just glad it’s November.

Business starts on TUESDAY AFTERNOON, and you can watch the proceedings live at the Church of England website. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s presidential address is always a highlight, and that will be at about 3 pm. The main item of business is a presentation on the Reform and Renewal programme, which I would guess would be at some time after 4 pm.

WEDNESDAY MORNING includes a presentation about Global Warming from the Archbishop of York (around 10 am) followed by a debate about the Migrant Crisis, which I think will be very powerful . The morning concludes with a presentation of the results of some very interesting research about Public Perceptions of Jesus (about noon).

The group of sessions finishes on WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON with a no doubt riveting report from the Church Buildings Review Group. I must confess that I haven’t yet read the 66 page report, but I have the weekend…

Prorogation is at about 4.30 pm and then we all head home until we return in February. Do keep in touch. I will be tweeting during the sessions. You can follow me at @RevCGale.