The press and public were kept away from General Synod today, for the first time in my memory. It was all because we were meeting in facilitated discussion groups, trying to get to grips with finding a way to proceed on women bishops – but not being tied up in synodical procedures. There was a general feeling that November’s ‘Train Crash’ debate had been largely sterile, with little listening, and few minds open to being changed by debate.
So, David Porter, Coventry Cathedral’s Canon for Reconciliation at St Michael’s’ House, enrolled by Archbishop Justin, was given six synodical hours to do what he would have preferred to do over three days: get us to talk honestly, to listen carefully, and to react to one another’s views in the ‘safe space’ of a small-ish group (mine had 18 members), led by an experienced professional facilitator.
As I posted yesterday, this was done under the St Michael’s House protocol – no attribution, no reporting, listening, acknowledging, and separating the person from the argument. So I’m sticking with that in this attenuated reflection. However, there is an entertaining report in the Telegraph: I can’t say if it is accurate or not.
No names, no packdrill
My group included two fairly prominent Synodical opponents of the November legislation: one Forward in Faith layman, and one conservative evangelical laywoman. There were others whose positions I did not know, but I imagine one or two of them had voted against in November. We were well facilitated so no-one was silenced, one or two of us were gently told to wait while others spoke, and we worked out way through a series of small group exercises about our feelings after November, and our senses about Options 1-4, as laid out in the paper for Monday’s debate.
So far, so touchy-feely. But in fact, it was – to my mind – a very worthwhile exercise. Before my very eyes I saw people who would not normally discuss their own views and feelings open up to one another. There was a significant conversation (listened to in silence by the rest of the group) between a male and a female priest in which he was able to ask questions, and she felt able to express her sense of pain and frustration – in a much more wholesome atmosphere than we are used to.
Drama out of a crisis
It was unbelievably hot in our little meeting room. So heading for the plenary session in the main hall after tea was a welcome change. As was what happened next – a professional theatre company giving us a playlet about the progress of the Women Bishop’s Bill. It had an unhappy ending. But then they did it again, but this time we (all 400 of us) could freeze the action, and one of us could take over one of the roles and try to change the direction of the thing. After much laughter, some poignant exchanges, and several runs through, David Porter re-appeared and gave us the gist of the 24 groups’ deliberations. A lot to think about – about how we do business, about what people really feel about Options 1-4, and about the way we treat each other.
Two lessons emerged later tonight. First, we are heading for another train crash unless we can find a way to replicate the quality of exchanges that the groups allowed. That means the Business Committee and House of Bishops need to think hard over Sunday about how the debate can be structured in a more creative way, so there is real argument, real listening and an outcome that means more than ‘we won, you lost’. Standard Synod debates, where various options are examined and defeated or accepted in a very orderly fashion, will not meet the mood now. We need to hear propositions examined in a thread of debate – with ad lib speeches in reaction to what’s just been said, rather than prepared set-pieces from the usual suspects.
Second, late-night conversations in the bar with informed sources indicate to me that the various groupings will need help if we are to make progress. I am reminded of what Gerry Adams is reputed to have said to the British government as the Northern Ireland peace process got under way: “The battle is over.We need your help to make the peace”. Sorting this out will never happen on the floor of Synod unless there are authoritative conversations off-piste with Reform, Forward in Faith, WATCH and others in which they declare what they will settle for. It might be somewhere around Option 1.5, or Option 2 and a bit. But they will have to work it out, get their troops on side, and then the rest of us might be able to get something through.
The mood has changed. We now need people to climb down a bit. Maybe David Porter (or some similar process) has got to continue on a parallel track, so that when the time comes, Synod can discuss something that is essentially achievable because people have already signed up to it.
It’s a big ask. But it’s a big prize.
Meanwhile, in other news…
- I’ve put in an amendment to the main motion on safeguarding for tomorrow afternoon. I’ve tried to persuade the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, Paul Butler, that it is a friendly amendment: I want to stress the need for safeguarding initiatives to be clearly applied at parish level, not just in diocesan procedures. We’ll see.
- There’s a bit of ‘tapping up’ going on in attempts to find good candidates for the crucial Chair of the Business Committee post. The current holder has been appointed Bishop of Blackburn: whoever follows him will need to be alert to Synod’s wishes, able to withstand pressure from Bishops or Church House to over-influence the agenda – and resilient enough to cope with all the moans that come their way.
- People have been very good about not tweeting details of their discussion groups. I did try a spoof tweet myself: not sure anyone got the joke.