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.

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