General Synod Report – Making History in York

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Wow! What a weekend. I’ve just returned from General Synod and am still a bit overwhelmed by all that happened there. We made a bit of history, as we passed a Measure allowing women to be consecrated as Bishops in the Church of England. Normally, my Synod reports are chronological, but this time I want to focus on that history making moment, and then fill you in on some of the other work we did – which was a lot in a very busy weekend.

Women Bishops…

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The atmosphere at Synod was tense and almost subdued as we got started on Friday afternoon. We had two and a half days to wait until the Women Bishops debate and a lot of other business to get through, so I think we were all trying not to think too much about it. We did have a bit of a forerunner to the main debate on Friday afternoon, when we had the report back from the diocesan synods who had all been debating and voting on the new Measure. All 41 dioceses in the Church of England voted in favour of the proposed legislation with an average ‘yes’ rate of over 90%. (cf. the failed measure of 2012 was rejected by 2 dioceses and had an average ‘yes’ rate of 75%). In the debate that followed many speakers urged those who opposed Women Bishops to take heed of the will of the majority and record an abstention in the final vote on Monday, rather than voting against. ‘An abstention is not a wasted vote’ became a bit of a watchword for the day.

We then had to wait until mid-morning on Monday until we finally got to vote on the Measure that would allow women to be Bishops. But we couldn’t vote until we had debated it one last time, and so nearly 500 of us packed into a hot lecture theatre, buzzing with anticipation.

At the outset 85 people indicated that they wanted to speak. I wasn’t sure quite what all these people planned to say that hadn’t already been said over the last months and years, but the Archbishop of York, who was chairing the debate made it very clear that if someone had already made the point you planned to make, then you shouldn’t also speak. Repetition would not be tolerated! In most debates at Synod, when it feels that there has been a good range of views expressed, someone can call for a motion to close the debate and if the majority agrees we move on to the vote. Not so in this debate. We couldn’t vote until everyone who wanted to had spoken (thankfully not all 85 of them in the end). You indicate that you wish to speak by standing up at the end of each speaker, so it really was waiting until the last man (or woman!) standing. We embarked at 11.15 am, and for two hours were treated to a really extraordinary debate with some stunning and moving contributions. The whole tone and feel was markedly different from the debate of November 2012. There was a real sense of the grace of God at work. Most notable were the speeches from those who had voted against the 2012 legislation but planned to vote in favour of this new legislation. For one speaker in particular, this was at considerable personal cost, and we were all deeply moved by his commitment to the unity of the church, whilst clearly wrestling hard with his own conscience on the matter.

We broke at just after 1 pm for a well-earned lunch, but were back in at 2.30 pm. After lunch, it seemed that the tone wasn’t quite as positive as in the morning. The heat and full stomachs seemed to have made people a bit grumpier. It was also clear that the people continuing to stand up were predominantly those not in favour of the new Measure so it got a bit down beat. It picked up after a while though, and eventually we made it to the final two speakers, the Archbishop of Canterbury followed by Canon John Spence, who is on the Archbishops Council. His inspirational, barnstorming speech received a standing ovation – which gave us all the chance to stretch our legs!

So at 4.30 pm on 14th July 2014, we voted. A two thirds majority was needed in all three houses (Bishops, Clergy and Laity) for the Measure to pass. Silence as we waited for the Archbishop of York to read out the numbers… then a bit more silence as we frantically started doing the maths in our heads… but the result was clear. The Measure had comprehensively passed in all three houses. There was no time for celebrations straightaway though, as there was other business to be done. We had to vote on three other bits of related legislation including a draft petition for Her Majesty’s Royal Assent and Licence. We were finally finished at ten to five and we left the chamber with the Archbishop leading us in singing ‘We are Marching in the Light of God’. Outside there were huge numbers of press and TV cameras waiting for us. Everyone from the BBC to Al Jazeera was there. A group of women from WATCH (Women and the Church) were also there, handing out pink champagne. It was a fantastic atmosphere and an immense privilege to be part of. The celebrations continued through the rest of the afternoon and evening, and I must confess to feeling a little bit fragile on Tuesday morning… but it was well worth it!

…and the rest

But what else did we get up to at Synod this time? A lot! It was a really packed agenda, so I just want to pick out a few highlights.

Firstly, to robe or not to robe. At present in the Church of England, canon law says that it is mandatory for clergy to robe at Holy Communion at Occasional Offices, and that they should normally robe for Morning and Evening prayer. So on Friday evening we had a debate on a private members motion, asking whether this canon should be amended to make it optional, allowing for flexibility within new ways of doing church (café church, messy church etc.), and also to regularise those places who have long since stopped robing as a matter of course.

It was a really excellent debate. It in no way deteriorated into a debate about whether robes were or weren’t a good thing. Rather, it was a really thoughtful, outward looking debate, just wanting to give clergy some flexibility, allowing for appropriate dress in particular contexts.

We voted clearly in favour of the motion, and so the business committee will now set up a committee to draft some legislation to amend the current canons. So no change quite yet, but I think it’s definitely on its way.

Secondly, baptism liturgy. The one part of the Common Worship services that has received a lot of criticism is the baptism service, which many people (me included!) feel is too wordy and difficult to understand. And so some additional texts for baptism have been drafted, which parishes across the country have been trying out. We had the opportunity to discuss these proposed new texts, which have received quite a lot of press coverage, with the Church of England being accused of getting rid of the devil. Most people speaking were really positive about what the new texts were trying to achieve, but had various concerns and questions about the detail. At the end of the debate we voted in favour of sending the texts back to the committee for further revision. I’m not sure how long it will be before they are finalised and approved for use. A while yet I fear…

On the Friday afternoon, we discussed safeguarding. The General Synod has been working on new safeguarding rules for the Church of England for over a year, following the devastating report about child abuse in Chichester Diocese which revealed huge weaknesses in the current rules. The debate was on the latest draft of the new legislation, which will change the canons of the Church of England. One of the most significant changes will be that no priest without a Bishop’s License or Permission to Officiate (PTO) will be allowed to robe at or take part in any church service. Another change will be that any person included in a barred list (within the meaning of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006) or convicted of an offence mentioned in Schedule 1 to the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 will not be allowed to be a Churchwarden or serve on a PCC or DCC. The Synod voted overwhelmingly in favour of this latest draft of the new Measure.

On Friday evening, we had questions, which is a good way to assess the mood of General Synod and get a sense of the live issues around. Any Synod member can submit a question, to be answered by the relevant bigwig. Which questions make it to the front of the queue varies from Synod to Synod on a rolling programme, but this time it was questions to the House of Bishops up first, which meant that we were treated to a series of Bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, popping up to the platform to answer questions on everything from theological support for the House of Bishops to the impact of the Scottish Referendum. A lot of the questions were concerning issues of human sexuality and same sex marriage. There was a much needed moment of humour when someone asked whether Elton John should be invited to advise the House of Bishops (given his recently reported comments on Jesus’ view of equal marriage and his criticism of the current church position). This resulted in a brief flurry of Elton John songs ‘bingo’ with speakers managing to shoehorn ‘Candle in the Wind’, Rocket Man’ and ‘I’m Still Standing’ into their comments.

And finally, at the previous meeting of General Synod, back in February, we started a debate on proposals to simplify some of the rules governing PCCs. The debate proved to be far from simple, and so many amendments were put forward that the whole thing got very complicated and we ran out of time to finish the discussions. The debate was resumed as the final item on the agenda for this meeting of Synod (other than the usual farewells etc.). The mood on the matter was no more positive than in February and much to my disappointment (I’m all for simplification) the Synod failed to adopt the resolution. So the PCC rules stay just as they are!

In addition to all that we also discussed or heard presentations on (in no particular order) ‘The Common Good’, celebrations for the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the 2015 Archbishops Council budget, The Armed Forces Community Covenants, the rental scheme for retired clergy, The Audit Committee’s annual report, Church Pensions, Clergy Representation Rules, Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Appointments to Archbishops Council, as well as all going to York Minster for the service on Sunday morning. So all in all, a very busy but productive five days.

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