Apologies to those of you who have been eagerly awaiting my report from last week’s Synod! The early Easter and a need to avoid Ash Wednesday meant that the February sessions took place during half term for many of us. I did get the sense that there were a few folks missing, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to rush off for a few days’ break at the end of a short group of sessions.
Much of the Synod agenda was inward looking, with lots of updates on Renewal and Reform (note the name change – it used to be Reform and Renewal…). More on that later, but for me, the highlights were two debates that were determinedly outward looking, and managed to give us something to actually go and do in response – a bit of a novel experience following a General Synod debate.
The first of those was a debate on the impact of sanctions on benefits claimants. The debate had been brought by the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales. Like many of us, community workers in the diocese and in the food banks in particular had noticed that many people coming to them in desperate need of help were there because of benefits sanctions. Their benefits had been withdrawn for a period when they had failed to turn up for an appointment at the job centre, or committed some other misdemeanour.
No one was arguing that there shouldn’t be some conditionality attached to benefits (to receive job seekers allowance, you should seeking a job) but as the debate went on, we heard more and more stories of how the complete lack of flexibility and discretion in the current system has led to terrible injustices. We heard of one man who missed an appointment as he had taken his sick child to A&E and left a message on the job centre answer-phone. No one listened to the message and he was sanctioned. A man in a wheelchair couldn’t get on the bus because the lift was broken. He caught the next bus, so was late, and was sanctioned. Another person was late because they were attending a job interview and was sanctioned.
The debate was asking the Church of England’s Public Affairs council to evaluate the impact of sanctioning on benefits claimants and also called on the Government to implement some of the recommendations in a recent report ‘Feeding Britain’ produced by the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK.
There is significant evidence that this is a real problem, causing real hardship, even destitution, and it could have been a deeply depressing debate but for two things. Firstly, the real passion with which people spoke on the subject; it was humbling to hear so many stories of churches working determinedly and sacrificially to help those in need. Secondly, a speech by Sir Tony Baldry, who until last year was an MP and the Second Church Estates Commissioner. He gave us something to do.
He encouraged every deanery to send a delegation to meet with their MP in their constituency office, taking stories from their own experience, and asking them to do something about unfair benefits sanctions.
He thought we would be warmly welcomed and at the very least, it would trigger a letter from the MP to the Secretary of State. If enough letters from enough MPs arrived it could make a real difference. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all start discussing this at our Chapters and our Deanery Synods and decide who we will send to talk to our MP.
FLESH AND BLOOD
The second highlight was a debate that nearly didn’t make it onto the agenda, as it was contingency business. But a gap of about 45 minutes appeared at the end of Tuesday afternoon, leaving just long enough to squeeze in a debate on blood and organ donation. The motion was very straightforward
‘That this Synod call on all Church of England parishes to encourage their members to consider, as part of their Christian giving; (a) becoming blood donors; and (b) registering as organ donors and making their wishes known to their families.’
We heard moving stories of people whose lives had been saved because of the generosity of others in giving blood and organs. The paper that accompanied the debate (https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2442625/gs_2022a_-_blood_and_organ_donation.pdf) would make an excellent basis for a parish magazine article. I have already visited www.organdonation.nhs.uk and registered as an organ donor (it took about 30 seconds) and will be encouraging others to do the same. Once things have calmed down a bit after Easter I will go and see if I can give blood, something I last did in 1996.
RENEWAL AND REFORM
As I mentioned earlier, much of the rest of the debate was about the Renewal and Reform programme that the Church of England is undertaking. If anyone was in any doubt of the need for change we were reminded of some key statistics, such as the fact that 18 people in every 1000 currently regularly attend a Church of England church, but at the current rate of decline, in 30 years’ time that figure will have dropped to under 10 people per 1000.
The whole of Tuesday morning was spent thinking about evangelism, and pondering on why most of us in the Church of England are so bad at it! We shared our own stories of coming to faith in small groups and it quickly became clear that the vast majority of people came to faith as children or teenagers. A sobering thought when we look at the numbers of children in many of our churches. We then came together to hear a presentation from the Archbishop’s Evangelism Task Group which is starting to think about how we might do better.
Other strands of Renewal and Reform include Simplification, Resourcing Ministerial Education and Resourcing the Future. There were debates on each of these and a certain amount of grumbling. One of the Simplification proposals debated included plans to make it easier to move clergy when parishes are being reorganised, which was not universally popular, but passed nonetheless.
There was also quite a lot of anxiety about plans to radically change the way in which we fund the training of ordinands, with a fear that the new proposals will mean an end of residential training.
The Resourcing the Future debate was much less contentious with most people happy to see a change in the way in which money from the Church Commissioners is distributed to dioceses with an emphasis on mission and poorer areas. If you want to know more about the whole Renewal and Reform programme, then visit https://www.churchofengland.org/renewal-reform.aspx for all the latest information.
In other news there was a very heated debate about our relationship with the Church of Scotland. We were debating whether to enter into a new, closer relationship with that Church, but the way it has been handled has apparently caused considerable upset to the Scottish Episcopal Church, which is the Anglican Church in Scotland. We voted in favour of the new agreement, but it wasn’t the resounding ‘yes’ that it might have been, with nearly 100 people choosing to abstain or vote against the proposal.
We also talked about parochial fees with a proposal to increase the statutory fees for weddings and funerals so that they clearly included the costs of heating and vergers (currently considered ‘optional’ extras) but this was quickly thrown out by the Synod who are very reluctant to do anything that might make people think twice about having a church wedding or funeral.
We finished promptly at 5 pm on Wednesday and won’t meet again now until July in York, when the whole Synod will be participating in ‘Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality’, taking up two days of the agenda. I think there is some apprehension about what that will be like but the lovely York University campus, the general atmosphere of camaraderie and the long summer evenings in the bar will provide more than adequate compensation I’m sure…