TEN THINGS I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT GENERAL SYNOD

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Charlotte at Synod speaking2

It’s been 20 months since I was elected onto General Synod at a by-election. Since then I have attended six sessions of Synod, two in York and four in London. It’s been one heck of a learning curve. Here are ten things I have discovered so far…

General Synod is…

1) HARD. I got elected onto Synod just 10 days before my first meeting in York. I was contacted by Church House in London who assured me that all the papers I’d need were being sent to me by courier forthwith. Excellent, I thought, popping a couple of hours preparation time in my diary. Ha ha ha! How little I knew. When the courier arrived, he bought two large envelopes crammed full of papers, over two inches deep. Not so much a couple of hours reading as a couple of days. For someone who finds paperwork a challenge, this was going to be really hard.

2) COMPLICATED. And it’s not just hard, but also really complicated. I’m not sure I really understood half of what I read for that first Synod meeting. I’m a bit more clued up now, but there are still moments when I am completely befuddled by the plethora of amendments, points of order and draft amending canons. At the November Synod meeting last year, we debated a motion brought by a member to change canon law regarding when you do and don’t have to robe at services. We voted in favour of the motion. A couple of weeks later a friend sent me a message asking what the new rules now said. Oh no no no… we are nowhere near new rules. All we had voted for in essence was the idea of changing the canon. It will now go to a committee to come up with some possible new wording and then come back to Synod two or three times more for debate and revision before we get anywhere close to new rules. Understanding quite where we are in that lengthy process has been one of the things I’ve found most tricky, having joined half way through the five year life of a Synod.

3) PUBLIC. Be warned! You never know who’s watching… General Synod is not a private meeting. Even at less ‘glamourous’ debates, there are always church press photographers lurking in the gallery, and the debates about women bishops attracted worldwide media attention. I came home from my first Synod meeting to find my photo in prominent position in the Church of England’s ‘In Review’ magazine. After my second Synod my photo was in the Guardian. Ok, so the photo was really of the Chair of the Business Committee, but I was sat next to her. At this February’s Synod, I risked making a joke at the beginning of a contribution to the baptism liturgy debate. I was rewarded with a mention on page 2 of the Daily Telegraph and my photo in the Church Times with the embarrassing caption, ‘Fast and Loose’ the Rev Charlotte Gale. So closing your eyes for five minutes in a long post lunch debate, or having a quick game of Candy Crush Saga on your IPad is always to be avoided, unless you want the world to see!

4) TIRING. The days at Synod are long, really long. On the middle day of a London Synod you start with Communion at 9.15 am (if you’re helping out with the service in any way, that means being at Church House by 8.30 am). The morning session runs until 1 pm with no breaks. You can nip out for coffee at any time you like, but I’m always worried I might miss something important. Lunch is an hour and a half, but most people attend fringe meetings (that way you get a free lunch) so it means more sitting and more listening. After lunch it’s back in the Assembly Hall for another four and a half hours (again with no breaks) until finishing with Evening Prayer at 7 pm. At the last Synod I then attended a reception to celebrate the completion of the Pilgrim Course before finally heading out of Church House at about eight o’clock. By the time I’d travelled back to the hotel and eaten it was nearly ten. At York, you have a supper break but then the evening session runs until 10 pm. and then there’s the bar of course… But it’s not really the length of the days I find tiring, it’s how hard I have to concentrate to keep track of what is happening, and the sheer sameness of it all. Listening and concentrating for hours on end is quite a challenge for someone as chatty as me…

5) INTERACTIVE. …which is why I love that I can communicate with the outside world. When I was elected onto General Synod, I rewarded myself with the purchase of an IPad. It’s been invaluable, mostly as it means I don’t have to lug enormous piles of paper around, but also because I can keep people up to date with what’s going on, as it’s going on. I’ve had some great conversations with people via Twitter and Facebook – as a debate is happening. Before getting voted onto General Synod I knew almost nothing about it. One of my campaign promises was to make sure that people were better informed about what Synod was up to. This blog is the main way I do that, but I’m also more than happy to interact with people during Synod itself. If you’re following the live stream (you can watch Synod happening live on the Church of England website) feel free to send me a message, ask any questions you have, or share your thoughts. I may not have all the answers but I’d love to hear from you.

6) BORING. But let’s be honest, even with the distractions of social media, Synod debates can sometimes be really boring. And those are the moments when you have to really work hard to resist playing a quick computer game or two…

7) EXCITING. The boring bits of Synod are hugely outweighed by the exciting bits. For someone who thrives on new adventures, new people and new information, Synod is an absolute blast. But more than that, it’s really exciting to know that I am making a difference. I get to vote on issues that affect me, my friends, my fellow clergy, my congregation. Sometimes that feels like a huge responsibility, especially when I am uncertain which way to vote, and I still get butterflies in my stomach when they ask us to get out the electronic voting machines, knowing that whatever I decide will be public knowledge. At my first Synod meeting there was a debate about proposed new faculty rules (doesn’t sound exciting I know, but bear with me). Someone had proposed an amendment to clarify a bit of language. I was convinced. I didn’t understand what the original phrase meant, but I did understand the new suggestion. For some reason (under some standing order I don’t really understand) for this proposal to be debated, forty people needed to stand up. The Chamber was not very full so this was quite a tall order. But I stood up. And then, bit by bit, so did 39 other people. And so we debated the proposal, and voted in favour of it. In a very small way, I had helped to make the faculty process just that little bit clearer.  Now isn’t that exciting!

8) EDUCATIONAL. It’s also very educational. Prorogation and promulgation. These are words I have learned since being on General Synod. And a lot more besides. I was somewhat embarrassed to discover during a debate on simplifying the rules governing PCCs that I wasn’t aware that the rules they planned to axe even existed. Every paper, every speech, every conversation – it all teaches me something.

9) SCARY. While it’s true that most of my time at Synod is spent sitting, listening and voting, the point comes when you really feel you need to say something, and that is really scary. The prospect of standing up and trying to be eloquent, profound and witty in front of bishops, archbishops and 400 of your peers (as well as the press, visitors and however many people are watching the live video stream at home) is frankly terrifying. And it gets worse. Because the first time you speak is your maiden speech and lots of people choose to make a big deal of it. Making a maiden speech in a big debate that lots of people want to take part in is a sure fire way to get called to speak. I am so impressed when people do that, but I’m just not that brave. I decided to make my maiden speech in as low key and unassuming a way as possible. And so I opted for a debate on the proposed level of funeral fees for 2015, in a half empty chamber as most people had nipped out for a cup of coffee. Almost no one had anything to say in the debate so I was confident that if I stood up I’d get called. I didn’t think I’d have had the courage to stand up twice. My heart was beating so hard I could barely breathe when I stood up, but when the Chair called ‘the woman in green dress’ there was no going back. I managed to make a not very interesting speech, which attracted barely a smattering of polite applause, but I didn’t care. I had done it, and next time would hopefully be a bit easier.

10) A HUGE PRIVILEGE. Above all else, I have discovered that I really love being on General Synod. It’s amazing to be there and it’s a real honour to try my best to represent my diocese. Reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, chatting to all sorts of extraordinary and interesting people, getting to regularly hear the wisdom and humour of the Archbishop of Canterbury, deciding how to vote on things that might really make a difference to the future of our church, and just occasionally being part of making history – it is hard, complicated, public, tiring, interactive, boring, exciting, educational and scary. But most of all, it is a huge privilege.

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General Synod Report – Looking Towards Renewal and Reform

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Tuesday 10th – Thursday 12th February 2015

I’m safely home from what was billed as a ‘short’ General Synod meeting, running from Tuesday to Thursday. It didn’t feel short as there was a huge amount packed onto the agenda. My first challenge was even getting there as my usual train route was blocked by the landslide at Harbury Tunnel. Having travelled ‘by another route’ I arrived in good time, keen and ready to get started. As we gathered in the main assembly hall I glanced up to the viewing gallery and who should be sat there but the Right Reverend Libby Lane, the Church of England’s first woman bishop. I was surprised at how moved I was to see her, and it was wonderful for the Synod to be able to welcome the living, breathing outcome of all the debates and wrangling of the last ten years.

The Synod agenda this time was a bit different to usual. The first and last sessions were the usual mix of things from the sublime (debating mission and growth in rural ministry) to the ridiculous (reviewing the many many standing orders of the Synod), but the whole of the middle part of the agenda was given over to discussion and debate of a number of key reports that the Church of England has recently produced.

Six Reports!

These reports have been written as a way of kick starting ‘a programme for reform and renewal’ in the Church of England, in part prompted by the findings of last year’s report ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’ http://www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/UserFiles/File/Reports/FromAnecdoteToEvidence1.0.pdf which revealed the continued decline in membership of the Church of England, and attempted to identify some of the reasons for this. There were six reports, which I have tried to summarise in a line or so, but if you want to have a read for yourself, they can all be found on the Church of England website in the General Synod pages. https://www.churchofengland.org/about-us/structure/general-synod/agendas-and-papers/february-2015-group-of-sessions.aspx

Developing Discipleship . Written by the Bishop of Sheffield, this report asks what we are doing to ensure lifelong discipleship of church members. It concludes with a suggested ‘Ten Marks of a Diocese Committed to Developing Disciples’.

Resourcing the Future of the Church of England. Written by a Task Group of the General Synod, this report proposes a radical change to the way that money from the Church Commissioners (see below for more on them) is distributed to the dioceses. The aim is to better help dioceses fulfil their strategies for growth, but with a strong bias towards the poor.

Resourcing Ministry in the Church of England. Also written by a Task Group of the General Synod, this report mainly looks at how we identify, select and train clergy – and how we pay for it. It identifies a looming crisis in clergy numbers and suggests ways to increase both the number and diversity of new priests, while not forgetting the vital importance of lay ministry.

Simplification. Over complicated rules and regulations in the Church of England are seen as one of the biggest obstacles to mission and growth, and so the Simplification Task Group of the General Synod has come up with a series of proposals that would make life easier, especially in the area of pastoral reorganisation.

Discerning and Nurturing Senior Leaders. Written by Lord Green on behalf of the House of Bishops, this report suggests a comprehensive programme for identifying potential senior church leaders and making sure they receive appropriate leadership training. It also proposes a training programme for our current Bishops.

Intergenerational equity. This report was written by the Church Commissioners and is maybe the most important of all, as it suggests a way of paying for the proposals in the other reports. The Church Commissioners look after a large sum of money, the income from which they use to pay clergy pensions (for clergy service up until 1997, after which the responsibility moved to the dioceses), bishops and some support of cathedrals, as well as providing additional support to dioceses, especially those in need. In the early 1990s, the Church Commissioners got themselves into a terrible mess and lost huge amounts of money. Over-enthusiastic property dealings seemed to be the main culprit, as well as spending capital assets and not just the income received on it. Since then they been a model of caution and good management, and the finances are very well in order. But the church (as ‘Anecdote to Evidence’ reveals) is not. And so this report suggests an injection of cash to fund the proposals outlined in the other reports, even though that would be dipping into capital assets. The feeling is that there is no point having all this money, is there is no longer any church to pay for.

So how did we engage with these reports? Well on Wednesday morning we began by splitting into small groups. Having got quite lost in the labyrinthine corridors of Church House I finally found my group, which had just ten people, many fewer than some others, causing us to wonder if we were the troublemakers group. But our group did include the Bishops of Durham and Bristol, so maybe not! Our task was to discuss ‘Developing Discipleship’. We talked about what has helped us on our own journey of faith, and what we thought was good and not so good about discipleship in the Church of England. As a group we seemed to agree that the churches are pretty good at the ‘doing’ stuff right now (just look at the growth of Foodbanks, Messy Church and the like) but not quite so good on the ‘being’ stuff of prayer, reflection and engaging with scripture.

After a break for a well-earned cup of coffee we moved into much bigger groups (just four of them) to discuss one of the other reports. I had opted for the group thinking about ‘Resourcing Ministerial Education’, though slightly regretted this choice when I realised that the group discussing ‘Simplification’ were meeting in Lambeth Palace as I’ve never been there. There were really too many of us in our group for it to be a discussion, instead people took turns to stand and make comments or ask questions, and after every three of four contributions, the panel who had written the report gave a response.

After lunch we were all back together in the main chamber to formally debate some of the reports. I say some, because the report on ‘Discerning and Nurturing Senior Leaders’ (aka the Green Report) was not being debated. This report has met with quite a lot of opposition (concerns that it draws too much on secular management models) and there was considerable grumpiness and grumbling in Synod about the fact that we weren’t debating it. The reason (as far as I could make out) is that the House of Bishops wrote it and they hadn’t asked for it to be on the main agenda. This didn’t go down well, and very quickly someone had put together a Private Members Motion asking for it to be on the agenda at the July Synod. They were gathering signatures a pace so I wait with interest to see what happens next.

We began the formal debates with the Discipleship Report that we had all been discussing in our small groups, and voted in favour of commending the ‘Ten Marks of a Diocese Committed to Developing Disciples’.

Next up were two reports together. This proved tricky as the Synod seemed generally happy with the proposals in one of the reports (Resourcing the Future) but distinctly unhappy with the proposals in the other (Resourcing Ministerial Education). The main concern seemed to be that the proposed changes in the way we pay for clergy to be trained would lead to all sorts of unintended consequences, and may end up reducing the quality of that training. Lots of amendments had been tabled and things got quite chaotic for a while, but in the end, we voted in favour of the motions, on the proviso that no final decisions would be made without further scrutiny by General Synod.

After that very complicated debate we then moved on to debating the Simplification Task Group report which turned out to be very straightforward and we voted comprehensively in favour of their recommendations.

The final debate of the day concerned intergenerational equity and was brought to us by the church commissioners. They made it clear that they didn’t have to ask our permission for their proposals but didn’t want to start spending the church’s money without clear and unequivocal support from the General Synod. This they received and after a short service of Evening Worship, at 7. 15 pm we wrapped up for the day.

And in other news…

As well as discussing the report, there were a number of other important debates at the Synod.
Naming of Dioceses – We rejected a proposal to allow dioceses to change their names. The new Diocese of Leeds (also known as the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales) wanted to be allowed to formally change its name, so it would reflect the area it covered, rather than being the same as the city where the Bishop is based. After much debate and argument over the last three sessions of Synod, we finally voted against it.
Funerals for those who have taken their own life – Although clergy have long been permitted to take funerals of those who have taken their own life and bury them in churchyards, Canon Law still technically proscribes against it, and you cannot use the prayer book service. We movingly debated a motion to get rid of this archaic bit of law and comprehensively voted in favour of the change.
Ongoing legislation – New safeguarding regulations and new baptism texts were both brought back to Synod for the latest round of revisions to be debated. Both should be finalised in July this year.
Mission and Growth in Rural Parishes – There was a long debate about a recent report on rural ministry, with many stories of both the challenges and the great rewards that rural ministry can bring.

But certainly the most powerful and moving part of this meeting was right at the beginning, when we welcomed the Archbishop of the Chaldean Diocese of Erbil in Iraq. He received a long standing ovation (it seemed that that was all we had to offer) after speaking movingly of the terrible plight of Christians in Iraq. He told us that over 125,000 Christians have been forced to flee their homes, and that Christianity is ‘facing extinction as culture and religion in Mesopotamia’. He urged us to ‘pray every day for our community’. As we continue to work and pray for the mission and growth of the Church of England, we remember also to pray for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, whose very survival is in question.