Here’s my diary of the last four days at General Synod. The opinions expressed are all my own…
Monday 13th February 2017
An early start at Synod – at least for the clergy. We had our own special meeting (a convocation of the House of Clergy) prior to the laity and Bishops joining us for the start of Synod proper.
We were discussing clergy wellbeing, and maybe unsurprisingly, it was very well attended. There’s an idea afoot to come up with some kind of clergy wellbeing covenant to ensure that we Revs don’t all burn out, break down or leave ministry altogether. Actually, it’s better than that. It aspires to ensure that clergy are supported and equipped and able to flourish in ministry. No one was averse to the idea, and after a good number of clergy spoke offering support, comments and extra ideas for the project, the motion to send it to the full Synod was passed unanimously. (NB The House of Clergy Chairs from each Diocese – of which I am Coventry’s – will be looking at this at their conference in June, so if you have any thoughts, do let me know).
Just time for a quick coffee and a comfort break, before the start of this lengthy group of sessions. The afternoon was marred by uncharacteristic technical troubles and the opening worship didn’t appear on the flashy new screen in the main chamber until the very last prayer. However, we did an impressive job of singing “All my hope on God is founded” even though barely anyone had a copy of the words. I relied quite heavily on the chap next to me who impressively knew every line of every verse.
The first debate of each group of sessions is always on the shape and content of the agenda. It’s always lively as people comment on what they think should have been added, left off, given more time, given less time etc, but it’s usually in pretty good spirits. Not so today. The run up to this Synod has been dominated by discussions about the House of Bishop’s report on ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships, following the Shared Conversations’, a report that almost no one seems happy with. The agenda prescribed two hours of group work prior to a 75 minutes debate on the report. The hurt, anger and frustration that this report has caused was immediately apparent. Speaker after speaker argued that the group work should be scrapped and time given for a much longer debate. One speaker helpfully articulated my view, which is bemusement that the Bishops have rushed to produce a report, seemingly without running it past anyone, and essentially drawn a line in the sand, when we all thought we were just starting a conversation. But more on that later.
The debate on the agenda is what is called a ‘Take Note’ debate. There is a debate, at the end of which there is usually an almost token show of hands to indicate that we’ve taken note. In my years on Synod, I can’t remember anyone not taking note in a take note debate. Not so today. A significant number of people voted against the motion to take note. Is this a pre-cursor of what is to come?
I was feeling quite in need of a cup of tea by this point, but stayed put because up next was the Bishop of Coventry. He was proposing a motion relating to the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, affirming the convergence of views between different denominations regarding the doctrine of Justification by Faith and encouraging further understanding and reconciliation. It was an interesting and positive debate, though the troubles with the PA meant I was often struggling to hear properly. There was some much needed light relief when the Bishop of Manchester who was chairing, joked that Luther had nailed his thesis to the church door, because the sound system was playing up. There was further laughter when one speaker produced a visual aid – a Playmobil model of Martin Luther. The motion was clearly passed.
No chance for a cup of tea now though, as up next was the Presidential Address from the Archbishop of Canterbury, usually a highlight of Synod. This was no exception as he spoke powerfully of how the Church of England needed to take hold of the opportunity to shape the future of our country in these uncertain times. He concluded with reference to the tapestry in Coventry Cathedral, a particularly special moment for us Coventry folks. He drew attention to the person at the centre of the tapestry, who stands naked and vulnerable, yet safe and secure as they look out on the world from between the feet of the risen Christ.
Next up was Questions, but by now it was nearly 5.30 pm, and nursing a heavy cold, I was really beginning to flag. I decided to call it a day and head for my hotel to rest up ready for tomorrow – and have that cup of tea!
Tuesday 14th February 2017
Woke up and wished myself a happy Valentine’s day then treated myself to a bit of a lie-in. A very long day ahead and I was still feeling pretty ropey. I made it to Church House for the start of business, though I did sadly miss the Communion Service. Most of the morning was taken up with a debate on a Private Members Motion proposing that we ‘replace ecclesiastical preliminaries to marriage with universal civil preliminaries’. In other words, we get rid of the banns of marriage and all the legal checking that goes with it, and hand it all over to the civil registrars. We can then just focus on the pastoral and missional aspects of wedding ministry. I am hugely in favour of this. As a Vicar and Area Dean I know how stressful and time consuming all the legal requirements around weddings can be, and would love to be rid of it.
The Synod seemed split down the middle and there were heartfelt speeches on both sides. However, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with speakers urging us to vote against this change because reading banns of marriage provide such a good missional opportunity. Surely we can do better than that! Lose the legal complexities but invite couples to come and hear prayers said for them. Trust that our love, our interest and our welcome will bring couples in, rather than relying on an archaic and cumbersome legal necessity to get people through the door. You won’t all agree with me, and nor did most of the Synod members. The motion was narrowly lost and so we’re stuck with the system we’ve got.
The whole of the rest of today’s agenda was taken up with ‘legislative business’, my least favourite aspect of Synod, and we ploughed through seemingly endless revisions to numerous bits of legislation. I’m immensely grateful to the ‘detail people’ who really understand what’s going on and have checked that every last comma is in the right place. Mostly today we moved a whole load of things from one stage of the long legislative process to the next. We covered a vast range of topics including safeguarding, the retirement age of clergy, simplification of rules regarding worship and pastoral reorganisation, and who should be on the clergy pensions board. It was a VERY long afternoon.
A real treat of an evening lay ahead though. I left Church House at 7.15 pm to discover that outside it was clear and pleasantly cool, and walked the half mile or so, across the river, to Lambeth Palace, my first ever visit. Synod members from a number of the Dioceses had been invited by the Archbishop to a reception. On entering the palace, we walked down a long corridor where countless former Archbishops peered down at us from their somewhat imposing portraits. Then into a large, light and very grand hall where a hot buffet was served and wine and conversation flowed.
Later on (encouraged by Yvonne Warren, a fellow Coventry rep) I did a bit of exploring. We found our way to the main chapel, and then headed downwards, away from the chatter above, to the hushed environs of the ancient crypt chapel, with its beautiful vaulted ceiling. We paused a moment, simply to breathe in the atmosphere and to add our own prayers to the unimaginable number that must have been offered in this place for the health and wellbeing of the Church of England. On the eve of what is surely to be a difficult day in Synod, it felt important. As we headed back up the stairs, people were gathering in the main chapel for compline. A perfect end to a long day.
Wednesday 15th February 2017
We began the day by creating a new Suffragen See for the Diocese of Leicester. Soon there will be a Bishop of Loughborough. It will be added to a list of Suffagens first put together in 1534!
Next, a quick approval of an appointment to the Archbishop’s Council and then on to the main business of the morning, a motion brought by the Diocese of London concerning the reduction of the maximum stake at Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. These machines can be found in most betting shops and you can currently bet up to £100 every couple of minutes. This is massively more than other similar machines, which have a maximum stake of £2 each time. After hearing some heartrending stories of gambling addicts, and some terrifying statistics about how these machines are disproportionately placed to target the most vulnerable in our society, we voted unanimously in favour of the motion which calls on the Government to reduce the maximum stake from £100 to £2. It was a lovely moment of unity on a day when we were all slightly anxious about the divisions which might later emerge.
There was still a bit of time before the next fixed item on the agenda, so we returned to the ‘legislative business’ we’d been working through yesterday. Some of you will be delighted to know, I’m sure, that we are now one step closer to not having to wear robes for every service.
We were then treated to a rare break – a whole eight minutes to get and drink a coffee, eat a biscuit and nip to the loo. Normally, sessions plough on relentlessly with only a break for lunch. If you need a break, you just have to decide what to miss.
At 11.30 am, we re-gathered in the debating chamber for an introduction from the Bishop of Norwich to the House of Bishops report on ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships following the Shared Conversations’. As I’ve already mentioned, the report has caused considerable upset, with many in the LGBT community feeling that it has failed to recognise anything that they said, at considerable personal cost, in the Shared Conversations. The Bishop gave a bit of a history lesson, then explained what we would be doing in the afternoon. We then broke for an early lunch, as the agenda had been adjusted to allow for the longer debate that people were calling for.
After lunch, we split into groups of about ten, though many people, especially (but not exclusively) those from the LGBT community decided to boycott the group work and instead gathered together for prayer, where they were joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who I understand listened carefully to their concerns. Each group was chaired by a Bishop and we were all given the opportunity to share candidly what we thought of their report. We also spent time looking at a number of case studies. Then a break, and then into the chamber for a ‘Take Note’ debate on the report.
I was personally really anxious about what might happen. I still shudder as I remember the dreadful tone of the debate which resulted in the failure to pass the first motion to allow Women Bishops. General Synod has worked so hard since then to make sure that we are better at talking and listening to one another; that was the point of the Shared Conversations. Hopefully, we could do better this time, despite the seemingly irreconcilable difference of opinions. We did. From the outset it was a debate of grace and dignity, with moving and sometimes deeply personal speeches from a vast range of viewpoints. With one exception, no one sought to judge the other, but rather to try and explain their own position. However, it also became clear that many people simply couldn’t vote to take note of the Bishops’ report, rather preferring to vote against it, so the Bishops would have to go and try again.
After much thought and prayer, I decided to not take note. I am not someone given to going against one Bishop, let alone a whole House of them, so this was not done lightly, but I could not in all conscience vote to take note of a report that albeit unintentionally, has caused so much distress.
I felt that the report failed to recognise the breadth of theological opinion within the Church of England which clearly emerged from the Shared Conversations. It should have properly acknowledged that breadth of opinion, even if the recommended way forward was unchanged. To fail to do so, felt like those who had a difference of opinion were simply being ignored. Furthermore, Synod members invested considerable time and emotional energy into the Shared Conversations. Many of us attended two lots of conversations (through the Diocese and at the July Synod) and I had thought (maybe naively) that now we had carefully listened to one another, we could then as a Synod think together about the way forward. Instead, the Bishops took the responsibility on themselves to decide on a way ahead, and rather than even offering this as a suggestion for discussion and debate, the report contains a very definite set of proposals with a clear line in the sand about our theological position. The Shared Conversations seemed to have no bearing on what they had written.
There is a joke about a person who asks for directions and is told, ‘well I wouldn’t start from here’. Various Bishops referred to the report as a road map, not the destination. Acknowledging the concerns that had been raised, they were trying to get us to see it as a starting point, from which we would move onward to our final destination. ‘It’s not the finished article’, we were told. The trouble is that whatever the destination may be, this is not where I want to start from. Frustrating as it may be to send the Bishops away to try again, I would rather that we begin this journey, which we all know will be a very difficult journey, from a place where at least we are broadly content at the outset. Starting with blistered feet and rocks in our rucksacks is not the answer. If there is one thing we have learned from the Women Bishops debates, surely it’s that sometimes it’s better to start again.
I know that not all of you will agree with me, but I hope you respect and understand why I decided to not take note.
At the end of the debate, it was requested that a vote be taken by houses. This means that there has to be a simple majority in each of the three houses – laity, clergy and bishops – for the motion to pass. The House of Bishops voted in favour. It would have been unanimous, but one Bishop (I’ll spare his blushes here) accidentally pressed the wrong button and voted to not take note, which was simply a mistake. In the House of Laity, 106 voted in favour and 83 against. But in the House of Clergy, 93 voted in favour, and 100 against, so the motion to take note did not pass. The House of Bishops will have to think again. There was respectful silence at the end of the debate, followed by a thunderous round of applause for the Chair, who did an excellent job.
After all that, I for one, was glad to get out into the air, and head back to the quiet of my hotel room.
Thursday 16th February 2017
The end is nigh! There’s even a possibility that we might get to go home early…
The main item on this morning’s agenda was a debate on a report called ‘Setting God’s People Free’. It’s an inspiring read about empowering the laity to confidently live out their Christian life in all spheres of their lives, not just in church. Unfortunately, the debate was not quite as inspiring as the document. I suspect everyone was just a bit tired. A lot of people wanted to speak – lay, clergy and bishops – and eventually there was an impassioned plea from the vice chair of the House of Clergy to hear more lay voices. After that, the clergy and bishops mostly stayed sat down, allowing the laity to be called to speak. One exception was the Archbishop of York, who livened things up, saying that if Yorkshire people talked as much about Jesus as they did about the weather, then surely Yorkshire would be converted. I suspect that’s true of all of England! The motion to welcome the report and to start work on implementing its recommendations was carried without opposition.
It was only 12.15 pm, and as we had managed to get through the huge list of legislative business, we were now onto contingency business. Gavin Oldham was delighted that his Private Members Motion was to get a hearing. He wants to see the Church of England centralising more of its administration, saving money, reducing duplication of effort and freeing dioceses and parishes to get on with mission and ministry. With some caveats, we passed the motion – just before 1 pm. That meant that instead of finishing at 5 pm, we were prorogued a whole 4 hours early. An unexpected but welcome result at the end of a long and challenging group of sessions.
The members quickly scattered, but we’ll be back in York in July, hopefully in glorious sunshine!