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 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.
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.
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.
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.