‘Sorry’ seems to be the hardest word *

Although I wasn’t at the Synod service in York Minster this morning (I was somewhere else), there was some disruption as the main procession went in. A man refused to move when asked, and was wrestled to the ground!

On a quiet Synod Sunday, that might have been the main event. But in fact the day was overshadowed by an extremely sober and draining debate about safeguarding issues. With the Archbishop’s enquiry into failings in the Chichester diocese as the background, we might have anticipated an afternoon with plenty of self-examination and few of those lighter moments that can enliven Synod proceedings. We’d been led to expect further apologies to victims of abuse, and  plenty of procedural details about reforming safeguarding practices throughout the Church.

Stories from the real world

What we got was an electric shock as Paul Butler, Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, before his introductory speech, read out a statement from the Stop Church Child Abuse Group, an association of victims. It was blunt and powerful, accusing the Church of failing to listen until it had to, of declining to work with victims, as well as serially covering up abuse and protecting abusers. Bravo to Bishop Paul for reading it out verbatim, rather than referring to it in passing. And bravo to the group of about a dozen victims, who came to York and sat through the debate in the public gallery.

There were then some very powerful and moving speeches about the realities of abuse in the Church and its effects:

  • First-and second-hand accounts of people whose lives have been turned upside-down by what church leaders (usually, but not always clergy) have done to them.
  • Occasionally we were brought up short by statements made – for example that in the diocese of Lichfield, clergy are not regularly trained in safeguarding (in many dioceses, including mine, it’s compulsory every three years).
  • Grumbles about shambolic Government changes to the criminal records checks regime, and the effect they are having on parish and diocesan safeguarding systems.

I was successful in getting an amendment to the main motion through, extending its focus to parishes and asking for better communication of any changes that are coming our way. (There’s some new safe recruitment guidance that, in my view, needs attention…)

There’s a good basic report here and a fuller one here. Overall, the sheer impact of the stories told was huge. No-one bothered about Andy Murray at Wimbledon, or wandered off down the long byways of their own opinions. There were plain apologies from the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, from senior figures in Chichester, and from the Archbishop of Canterbury. And we all went off to supper pretty sober. Some trained safeguarders and counsellors were available for those for whom the debate brought up problems in their own lives, and I gather from informed sources that they were well-used afterwards.

Saying ‘sorry’ is pretty difficult. Accepting the apology is not easy either. But we made progress today on both fronts.


A debate on welfare cuts in the evening session showed the Church of England it its most rooted. Real life stories of unemployment, the effect of the bedroom tax, growth in food banks, problems for people with disabilities on benefits… Some people think the church is other-worldly, out of touch, and concerned only with its own issues. Tonight proved them wrong. We are one of the few bodies with a presence on every street, an agent in every community – and a care for all on our doorsteps.

Meanwhile, in the background, nothing formal about women bishops. That comes tomorrow morning. But people who know about these things suggest that the impact of Saturday’s facilitated discussions will need to be reflected in a ‘new way of being Synod’ debate – one that encourages people to respond to what they have heard, rather than just read the speech they wrote on the train on the way to York. Yes, we’ve all done it, but…

Informally, I understand that the House of Bishops met at lunchtime to look at how they will handle tomorrow’s debate, with some input from David Porter. That suggests they might try to move beyond the standard structured debate and encourage a bit of movement and listening.

I was a bit despondent when I heard on the grapevine that WATCH were being (to my mind) inflexible: minded to stick out for Option 1 with no tweaks allowed. But there was a lot of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ going on in the bar late at night, with possible procedures and ways of getting beyond tomorrow’s vote being tested out on the various ‘factions’. Nobody wants to endure a Groundhog Day rerun of November. But can Synod, and its key players, think sufficiently differently and generously to engage in a debate that permits a Steering Committee and Revision Committee operation to get going? And to return in November with something that we can be confident will command the support of a wider range of people?

If you think of Options 1 to 4 (explained here) as a kind of Richter Scale, we’re looking for a consensus to settle somewhere around the range of 1.5 to 2.2. Remember, we’ve accepted that there will be women Bishops. We’re just working out how to make it happen. Say a prayer for us tomorrow, and perhaps especially for the Chair of the debate – a lot hangs on his shoulders.

* Sorry seems to  be the hardest word Elton John, 1976

This entry was posted in 2013: July - York, General Synod and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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