Writing up the last day of Synod is always a bit difficult, largely because of the rush to get home. That’s especially true this week, with Paddington trains to the West severely restricted because of flooding at Maidenhead. Fortunately Waterloo is not afflicted the same way. Sympathy and prayers for those caught up in weather trouble on the East and West Coast main lines.
But there’s little time for reflection. And, inevitably, there is still plenty of fallout from Monday’s Question Time to handle in the tearoom and by email with colleagues. But to prove I am not totally obsessed with Women Bishops and Bishop’s houses, here goes…
It’s been a pretty busy day.
Free of the overarching worries about women and the episcopate, people were slightly more relaxed, and we covered lots of odds and ends. Archbishop Justin gave a very straight-from-the-shoulder Presidential Address, talking about the church’s need to put into practice the idea of loving the person you disagree with. This was an echo of our near-agreement on a women bishop’s process, but also a warning, I felt, about how we conduct ourselves in the Church as we get to grips with the issues raised in the Pilling Report on human sexuality (see below). It was commendably brief and to the point, and worth a read.
Straight after that was a debate on changes we intend to make to church law and discipline practices over safeguarding. This is an area I have to deal with in my work, so I had read the paperwork and knew I had some points of detail to highlight. The need for change was made clear to everyone last year by a report the Archbishop made into failings in the Chichester diocese. It makes sobering reading. I got a three-minute speech in, so felt content. Archbishop Justin made a moving intervention, pointing out there were some victims of abuse listening to us up in the public gallery, and that the Church does not start from a good place in these matters.
Escape Committee time
After that, dear reader, I bunked off for an hour! A quick trip to Chinatown for some Golden Curry sauce tablets (much loved in the Lynas household) from the New Loon Moon supermarket, and then over to Waterloo to get my brother’s birthday present. (If you’re reading this, Peter, you may guess… But you’ll have to wait!)
Back at Church House it was time for a lunch meeting of the House of Clergy Standing Committee. About 20 of us are elected to look at ‘clergy stuff’ which doesn’t need to trouble Synod. We saw progress on offering a legal insurance policy to clergy, and on CECA (the Church of England Clergy Advocates) a stand-alone clergy professional association under the umbrella of Unite. We also looked for the umpteenth time at a revision of the Church’s Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy, which should now see the light of day at the July Synod.
Why do we debate these things?
The main event of the early afternoon was a Private Member’s Motion about the Guide Association’s decision to change the Promise made by new Brownies, Guides and Rangers. No, I am not making this up – see the papers here (scroll down to the one you want). In my view, Synod does itself no favours by passing motions complaining about actions taken by other bodies, even when (as was stressed in speeches) they are felt to be part of the diminution of Christianity in England. We can’t tell them how to govern themselves.
And there’s a process issue here. The motion was originally proposed last year, when the change was a hot topic in the news. But here we are in Synod, months later. It has already been put into place by Girlguiding. So what is the point of General Synod pontificating about it now? They aren’t going to change their minds. Anyway, we had lots of cosy stories about people’s experiences of Guiding and Scouting, and a revised motion was passed, in friendlier terms than the original.
It can have no effect on anyone. It gave some people a chance to let of steam but was a waste of Synod time. Just saying.
Scribbling in vain
I sat up in the gallery composing a speech for the following item – another Private Member’s Motion about the illegality of clergy not robing properly to lead worship. Believe it or not, that is quite a hot topic, especially in those places where parishes are running services designed to appeal to non-regular worshippers. As part of my job is to advise Bishops (and vicars) on how to handle such things, I wrote a speech supporting a change in the law, with appropriate safeguards to keep everyone more or less on board with it.
But all in vain. We ran out of time (because of some procedural wrangling over the Girlguiding motion). So the matter is adjourned till July in York.
The Pilling Report
And lastly, before we all went home, Sir Joseph Pilling and the Bishop of Sheffield talked about the Pilling Report – an attempt to get the Church to deal with the vast changes in the law and in public attitudes towards homosexual people. It is a minefield, with many in the Church not being bothered about it, and feeling we must engage with a fast-changing society in which same-sex marriage is about to become law; and others looking at what they see as Biblical and historic Christian attitudes to sexual orientation and practice and wanting clear statements against any changes or developments in church pastoral practice.
I’d been at a fringe meeting about this the day before, where I learned a lot about gay people’s silence in the Church. Behind our present way of doing things there is a culture of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ about gay clergy. In man y places, even if they are active in parish life, there is virtual silence from people of homosexual orientation (laypeople as well as clergy) in the life of the church. Questions were taken, and we heard some brave statements by some clergy who felt they could now be public about themselves in a way that had been impossible up till now. They got some affirming applause – but I saw some very obviously non-applauding people too.
The Pilling plan is for a two-year programme of active listening and facilitated conversations right across the church. I don’t think it will be that simple, but the Bishops meet tomorrow (Thursday) to hammer out a way forward. Check the C of E website for an update on this.
Keep taking the tablets…
My second turn at assisting with worship meant I was slightly nervous. I have just joined the Synod tablet-using brigade. No, not an iPad (they are so last year) but a Microsoft Surface2, which has the advantage of a proper keyboard and MS Office programs. (So much easier to relate to work stuff without being caught up in Apple-mania.)
Like many others, then, I downloaded all by Synod papers onto the tablet. Unlike them I also brought the paper copies ‘just in case’. Today was the first real test. I had prepared the prayers I was to lead on the tablet, and decided to use it to read from, rather than print them out. This is a bigger deal that it sounds, because you are up on the podium in full gaze of everyone. (And, as it turned out, right next to Archbishop Justin, so aware of his every move, and hoping that stifled cough was not a snort of disapproval at my prayers…)
My other act of bravery was to imitate Fr David Houlding who led prayers on Monday, and very confidently lead us all in a simple chant as a response. So that meant solo singing, and hoping everyone would pick it up. In the end, the tablet was fine (nice big print, touch the page to move it on, better than my habitual 14pt type for public prayers and preaching). And the chant (Lord, draw near, draw near, draw near, and stay) was taken up very well. A lovely mood.
When my colleague leading the service decided to chop the hymn back in order not to exceed our allotted 15 minutes I was taken back to my BBC radio-producer days. We had been heavily leaned on by the chaplain and a very senior Synod figure that we must on no account go over time. We got away with it – probably because the chant ‘worked’ (whatever that means in a worship context). People were engaged. We prayed for flood victims and rescuers, for issues around the business of the day, for people in all situations of distress (including the landslide victims in Burundi), and for ourselves and our nearest and dearest.
And so that was the February General Synod, A change of mood and some real progress on the King’s Great Matter; some nuts and bolts stuff; a very high profile for the Bath and Wells issue over their new Bishop’s house – and some hints of difficult stuff to come in the future.
We’re back in York in July.
* I say a little prayer – Aretha Franklin, 1968. Sublime! (Dionne Warwick did it in 1967)