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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2 thoughts on “TEN THINGS I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT GENERAL SYNOD

  1. Graeme Buttery

    As an old Synod hand, can I thank you for a very positive piece? Sometimes, what Synod is trying to gets hidden by certsin issues, church politics and even indifference in parishes. Thank you again for putting a different perspective.

    Graeme Buttery Durham

  2. Roger Lazenby

    Graeme Buttery refers, inter alia, to indifference in parishes. The vast majority of ordinary members of a congregation let alone PCC members, do not comprehend how the bureaucracy of the Church of England works; the complexity of Synod is confirmed by Charlotte Gale’s ‘review’. Given those circumstances then a general ‘indifference’ is hardly surprising. Personally I find following the activities of General Synod, usually through the reports in the Church Times, interesting, occasionally amusing and frequently frustrating. Having said that we can find out significantly more about what happens at General Synod than about what takes place at either Diocesan or Deanery Synod!

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