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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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!

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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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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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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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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.

GENERAL SYNOD REPORT – So long, farewell, at least until November.

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So that’s it then. The end of a quinquennium (not a word you get to use very often!). This five year General Synod has come to end and I have hugely enjoyed my two year stint. Having more or less got the hang of how it all works, I really hope that I am elected back on for the next five years.

Our final group of sessions was in York, which I always enjoy. Most people stay on the University campus, which is beautiful, and there’s a great feeling of camaraderie. They work you hard though. We started this time after lunch on the Friday with convocations, where members from the two provinces of Canterbury and York meet separately. Convocations have been around for 700 years, and my understanding is that they were the usual way that things got done before the General Synod came about, but are rarely used now. This was the first time I have made it to a Convocation of Canterbury. There was just one item on the agenda, so the meeting was short – but not lacking in importance. We gave final approval to the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy.  I suggest that all clergy give it a read – it’s actually very good stuff.

A quick break to unload the car and trek up the hill to my room (I’d have packed less stuff if I’d realised that I would be housed quite a lot further from the central campus and the car parks than I was in previous years) then full Synod kicked off at 3 pm. I’m still excited when I see a women bishop, so you can imagine my enthusiasm to hear from our ecumenical visitor, a woman Archbishop, from the Church of Sweden.  There was a definite ‘the end is nigh’ feel to the proceedings as from then until Sunday night we ploughed our way through lots of legislation, trying to get things finished before the Synod was dissolved. I won’t bore you with quite what we did when, but these are the things you really need to know about…

Baptism Texts – for five years, General Synod has been working on producing some new texts for the baptism service, and we have finally approved them. They are less wordy than the current texts and in more accessible language. You can stick with the old ones if you like; there are concerns from some that the new provision is ‘baptism-lite’.  But if like me, you have been eagerly awaiting something better since the day the Common Worship Initiation Rites were published, you can legally start using the new texts from 1st September this year. Good to know that I will no longer need to play fast and loose with canon law.

Children Administering Communion – from October this year, children who receive communion but are not yet confirmed will be able to administer the bread and wine at communion. Authorisation of all those who administer communion may also be devolved by the Bishop to Archdeacons, Area Deans or Incumbents.

Faculty Procedures – we had a fun time (yes really!) on Saturday morning approving the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015. These new rules should make life hugely easier for Churchwardens, Archdeacons and DACs. After a good humoured debate which included the memorable line ‘Blocked gutters, bats and the Victorian Society – three of the main impediments to church mission and growth’ we approved the new rules which are now wending their way to parliament for their approval.

Safeguarding – the Church of England safeguarding legislation has undergone a massive overhaul in response to the shocking stories of abuse in the church that continue to emerge. The new legislation is designed to make sure we do the best we possibly can to guard against future harm to anyone in our churches. The new Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline Measure was carried unanimously – not something that happens very often at Synod. The new rules are now in place and for a good summary of what that means I suggest you have a look at the Church of England press release which can be found at https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2015/07/synod-gives-final-approval-for-safeguarding-legislation.aspx.

We also had several interesting debates and presentations. Notable among these I thought were:

A debate on the nature of senior leadership in the Church of England, which concluded with a commitment to next year review the so called ‘Green Report’, published last year, but not debated at Synod, which sets out a programme for the selection and training of Bishops, Deans, Archdeacons and the like.

A presentation from the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns, flagging up just how few senior leaders there are in the church from minority ethnic backgrounds, and thinking about what we can do about it.

And as if all that wasn’t enough we also discussed new Standing Orders for the General Synod, A report from the World Council of Churches, The Church Commissioners and Archbishops Council’s Annual Reports, The Nature and Structure of the Church of England, the 2016 budget and Development of Teaching and Educational Leadership Partnerships. It wasn’t all work and no play though, as on Saturday night we all packed into the bar for the end of Synod Revue, which among other highlights included a retelling of Cinderella with the Archbishop of York as Prince Charming.

Monday was a bit different. The whole day was given over to discussing our response as a church to climate change. We began in groups of about twenty people, looking at the bible and thinking about Christian attitudes to the environment, past and present. Mid-morning we came together for the first of two major debates. The first motion we debated looked towards the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. It called for all the governments represented at that summit to commit to a low carbon future, as well as encouraging the Church of England to get its own house in order.  An excellent debate included a number of challenges to us as individuals. I spent the second half of the debate deleting old General Synod papers from ‘cloud storage’ having been reminded of how much energy is required for me to store documents that way. We approved the motion then went for a well-earned lunch.

In the afternoon we debated a motion on Climate Change and Investment Policy. On Friday we had already heard from the Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) about changes they have made to their investments with the environment in mind. There has been a £12 million disinvestment from companies focused on the extraction of oil sands and thermal tar, and active engagement with other fossil fuel companies. The Monday debate built on this, proposing that the EIAG continue to actively engage with all companies where the Church has investments, to encourage them towards ‘greener’ practices. Where companies refuse to listen, the Church will disinvest. We heard a number of stories of how this process of engagement has already made a real difference some companies’ operations. Like the earlier motion, this one was comprehensively passed.

So the end was in sight, but not before a number of farewells. About 100 people have said they won’t be standing again, so whatever the election results, it will be a very different Synod come November. It certainly felt like the end of an era, as we have completed the work on women bishops and now turn instead to the very tricky questions surrounding issues of human sexuality. We finished with a service of Holy Communion, which was very special, before we dispersed – heading off to all four corners of the Church of England (and the Diocese of Europe!) to continue with our ‘normal’ lives and ministry.

If you want to know more about what happened this time, I recommend the reports from my fellow Synod blogger, the very excellent and witty Rev Stephen Lynas, from Bath and Wells Diocese. You can find him at www.bathwellschap.wordpress.com. Meanwhile, if you want more reports from me and you’re a clergy person in Coventry Diocese, PLEASE vote me back onto Synod this autumn.

Vote Charlotte

SILENCE ISN’T GOLDEN

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Last week I spent three days at the Church of England’s ‘Shared Conversations on Sexuality, Scripture and Mission’ (see my previous blog entry for more info). It was the regional conversation for the West Midlands so fifty or so delegates (lay and ordained) from Birmingham, Coventry, Hereford, Lichfield and Worcester dioceses gathered to talk and to listen together. Here are my reflections.

I arrived with some trepidation at Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire (which is fabulous by the way) for the ‘Shared Conversations’. I’d already tried suggesting to my fellow traveller that we could just go to the seaside for three days, but we decided we might get into trouble… Near the main entrance of the Hall there was a plaque on a tree with a Martin Luther King quote: Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. I think that much of my anxiety has been rooted in a sense that talking about these issues might not be a great idea. It seems to me that the church has muddled along ok for years whilst mostly not talking about this stuff, and I was (am) concerned that we are opening a huge can of worms, which we won’t be able to close again. But over the three days of talking and listening to a wonderfully diverse range of people I have to acknowledge that this is not an issue we can stay silent about. For some it is an issue of identity, discrimination and justice. For others it is an issue of biblical authority. For many, these are not abstract discussions, but deeply personal reflections about their very lives. For all, it is profoundly important, as how we approach these issues says something about who we are as Christians and as a church.

As we began, the Coventry delegates mostly stuck close to one another. But after sharing our expectations and an ice-breaker about the importance of good communication, we were pushed out of our comfort zones and told to mix up. With every session we were grouped differently, giving us the opportunity to hear as many different voices as possible, but always accompanied by a skilled facilitator. My first moment of feeling really uncomfortable came early on. Groups had been dispatched to break-out rooms to consider approaches to scripture. We had been told very clearly that the idea of the talks was not to have a debate, and not to expect that anyone should change their mind on the issues. Rather, it was about really hearing and understanding different viewpoints. But in that session, I suddenly felt vulnerable, even attacked. It felt as though my viewpoint wasn’t considered valid by some, and they were trying to change my mind. I inevitably began to defend my position and tensions began to rise until the facilitator stepped in.

Reflecting afterwards on what had happened, I realised how much I wanted to change the minds of those I disagreed with. Really listening to people you disagree with, really hearing and understanding – without judgment or defence of your own position – is incredibly hard.

The most profound moment for me came right at the heart of the three days, and that was the sharing of personal stories. I found myself sat under a shady tree in dappled June sunlight with two men I had literally just met, being asked to share my personal journey of understanding around issues of human sexuality. I cannot and would not share the content of the conversation (we were rightly required to assent to strict protocols about confidentiality) but can say that our shared faith may well have been the only thing we had in common. I cannot begin to imagine any other circumstance in which the three of us might even meet, let alone bare our souls to one another – which is what we did. I was immensely moved by the level of honesty and vulnerability in the sharing. I was personally sad that there was little time to process how we were feeling about making ourselves so exposed, before we returned to the bigger group and I sensed my fellow storytellers closing the shutters on their personal lives. However, I cannot and will not forget their stories and they will make a difference to how I approach these issues.

On day three we began to look ahead and the mood became quite sombre as we tried to envisage possible futures for the Church of England. Sadly the word schism seemed to feature writ large. There was then a session entitled ‘How to disagree well…’  I’m sorry to say that I’m not sure we made much progress on how we might do that, and my fear is that some people have come away even more entrenched in their viewpoint than they were at the outset.

On a positive note, the timetable was spacious, with plenty of time for reflection, eating and drinking. Even though the mood in the sessions could be downbeat, there were also many stories of encouragement and deeper understanding. At mealtimes and in the bar, there was constant chatter and laughter, with people of opposing views happily eating and drinking with one another.

Looking at the whole three days, if there’s one thing I would have changed, I’d have liked us to have spent more time talking about how we feel, rather than just what we think. It was this approach, it seemed to me, that made a real difference in the discussions about women bishops, radically changing the tone of the debate.

Summing up, it seems impossible to imagine a way forward that all can agree on. Firstly then, it seems to me that we have to decide if we want to try and find a road we can travel together, even while holding deeply held, but very different understandings of scripture and mission. Secondly, we have to remember that we do not approach this issue from an equal footing. When we talk about ‘issues’ of sexuality, it can be all too easy to forget that we are talking about real people, leading real lives, which will be really impacted by any decisions made. Even choosing to take part in these conversations has been risky, even costly for some. And thirdly, and of course most importantly, we should remember that what we have in common is far greater than that which threatens to divide us. We all belong to Jesus Christ, there is no condemnation for those in him, and nothing can separate us from his love. My hope and prayer is that we can find a way to keep loving each other, as well as loving Christ.

We concluded our time together by sharing communion. For me, it was a powerful reminder that together we share the broken body of Christ, a symbol of our own fragility and brokenness, but also of the hope and healing and new life we can find through the immense love and grace of God.