Monday 17 November 2014
Within minutes of the start of this week’s meeting of the General Synod, someone on twitter had asked the question ‘How many times do you think we’ll hear the word historic?’ I quickly lost count. Strangely though, for a Synod meeting with not just one, but two historic moments, the mood was pretty downbeat. It was a short meeting – just a day and a half – with a lot packed in, much of it not very riveting.
Things didn’t start well. There was a long and nit-picking debate just on the content of the agenda, and complaints about the cost of synod and whether we needed to meet as often as we do. The last few years have been extraordinary. Usually, the General Synod meets just twice a year, in February and July, with the November meeting an added extra when absolutely necessary. This is the fourth consecutive year there has been a November meeting, and some it seems, are getting a bit weary of it, and concerned that working age laity are put off standing for Synod because of the time commitment required.
We finally got through that, and moved on to the item that everyone had been waiting for, “The promulgation and execution of Amending Canon no.33”. Having made its way through the House of Commons and the House of Lords and been approved by the Queen (Royal Seal of assent shown), this was the very final step in the process to allow women to be Bishops. The Amended Canon was read out, and then we had to vote to enact it by a simple show of hands. We clearly did so. The whole process took less than two minutes, I would think, and with barely a pause for breath and a prayer we moved onto the next item on the agenda.
That next item was for me, as it so often seems to be, the highlight of the Synod – the Presidential Address from the Archbishop of Canterbury. He spoke engagingly of his continued travels around the many provinces of the Anglican Communion. During the last eighteen months he has visited thirty-six other Primates of the Communion. That’s a total of 14 trips lasting 96 days including more than eleven days sitting in aeroplanes. He reflected that whilst some provinces were immensely wealthy, most were very poor. He also observed that the Anglican Communion is hugely diverse, immensely active, but also divided. We are flourishing, divided and persecuted. For Archbishop Justin the way ahead is one of prayer and obedience and a determination to work closely with the people we disagree with. Only then will we win the prize of the power of Christ to break down barriers, bringing hope to a broken world.
The rest of the morning was taken up by less than exciting legislative items that have been slowly plodding their way through Synod for longer than I have been a member. Among these items were the latest drafts of revised legislation regarding faculties, church property and clergy stipend funds. There appeared to be more people in the coffee lounge than in the chamber.
Things perked up a bit late in the afternoon, when we moved on to the latest draft of ‘The Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy’. This comprehensive document is structured around the promises that clergy make at their ordination, and is well worth a read. We paused for worship at just before six, before concluding the day with questions, a session which seemed to lack the buzz and humour it sometimes has. Maybe we were all just tired after a long day.
Tuesday 18 November 2014
Day two began with a stunning service of Holy Communion, with moving prayers and music focussing our thoughts on the plight of the persecuted church. This was clearly in preparation for the main item of business that morning, a panel debate about the violence against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. This was the second of the Synod’s historic moments, as the panel (chaired by the Bishop of Coventry) included Shaykh Fuad Nahdi, the first Muslim ever to address the Synod. He began his address with the acclamation that “there is no God but God and Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed are his messengers”. He then went on to speak movingly of the dreadful state of life in much of the Middle East right now. He was gentle and humorous and you could sense the chamber hanging on his every word. He spoke of how most of the Muslim community in this country are paralysed by what is happening in the Middle East. “Every Muslim I know” he said, “has condemned what is going on, but the people who are condemned don’t listen to the condemnation”.
After lunch we had two major debates; the first on a report from the Council for Christian Unity about the Anglican-Methodist Covenant, and the second on the Spare Room Subsidy. I say debates, but there wasn’t a great deal of debate in either but more a series of speeches broadly in agreement with one another. Everyone seemed very enthusiastic about the latest attempt to get things moving with the Anglican-Methodist Covenant, which has made little progress since its inception over ten years ago. In the Spare Room Subsidy debate, we heard many stories of how people’s lives had been made a misery by the ‘bedroom tax’ as it is more commonly known. There was a clear will to see something done about it.
We finished at five o’clock, and scuttled off into the darkness, returning to all four corners of England, as well as a few heading further afield, to the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the Diocese in Europe. It wasn’t the most exciting Synod, but maybe that doesn’t matter, as what will be remembered in the end, is that it was historic.