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!
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…