We weren’t locked in, but 22 of us looked slightly lost in the imposing Guard Room at Lambeth Palace this morning. The need to find space for break-out groups meant many of us had to make a morning trek to the forbidden lands ‘South of the River’ (i.e. to Lambeth rather than Westminster). It was the start of a morning with no debates and no Standing Orders!
Despite the over-large group size, an excellent chair (the Bishop of Knaresborough) engaged us all first in reflection on the Bible, and only then looking at the Discipleship Task Group’s ideas. (It was never made clear, but I assume the group operated under the Chatham House Rule, so I’m not going to give much away – you’ll have to be satisfied with the photo.) However, we:
- liked the first 2/3 of the Report, [GS1977]
- felt the last bit (including the strange recommendation that we spend 5 years putting together a new Church of England Catechism) was not very good.
- felt that discipleship training /nurture groups did not happen enough in parishes (just look at the dearth of confirmation candidates…)
- were uncomfortable about ‘disciple’ being used in the public sphere – it’s not a user-friendly word to fringers and outsiders.
As the meerkats say – simples!
We took coffee in the State Drawing Room, and then I went into a so-called ACT group (Accountability, Consultation, Transparency) on Simplification. Here about a hundred of us gathered to consider in an informal way the proposals set out in GS1980. Three other groups elsewhere looked at the other Reports.
We can all think of ways we would like to simplify church life, but the Bishop of Willesden, who chaired the task group, explained just how complicated it can be.
- You have to check whether the matter is governed by Measure (effectively, the law of the land), Canon (the Church’s own rules and regs), or maybe a Code of Practice (that cannot be ignored, but might be changed…)
- Specific ideas (e.g. abolishing banns and only offering church weddings after a civil ceremony) may look attractive to some, but would require changes in the law as well as pastoral practice. Nothing is simple.
- Stephen Slack, the legal adviser, surprised us by pointing out that much Church legislation predates the 1920s and thus comes under Acts of Parliament, rather than Measures.
The Simplification Task Group’s idea is to arrange things so that many alterations can be done by Order, without going to Parliament or having to endure complex Synodical procedures every time. That would free things up so that (for example) dealing with ‘too many church buildings’ problems might be simplified by enabling ‘Festival Churches’ that would only be used on big occasions each year – but without prescribing to dioceses exactly how it should work. Bishop Pete set out three kinds of things that need changing:
- complex Measures that are too rigid
- things that are out of date or phrased in anachronistic ways
- things that are putting unreasonable loads on parishes, Bishops and diocesan officers. Some of these could be a relatively quick fix, such as the inability to establish short-term clergy posts under the Common Tenure legislation.
Despite being an urban Bishop par excellence, the Bishop of Willesden stated several times that the simplification group needs to listen to rural dioceses. They have the most pressing problems on church buildings, finding churchwardens, and pastoral reorganisation. Some ‘rural’ issues, such as having to deal with glebe in a bureaucratic way, are nuanced. Simplification (for example, not consulting the incumbent of a parish that formerly had its own glebe) would undoubtedly upset some people – but he said we have to make a judgement call as to whether that is sufficient to stop us changing.
There is much more in the Simplification agenda, but we had not enough time. That raised the concern that in a short debate in the afternoon, we might fail to explore much of it – such as the controversial option of changing the compensation for loss of office procedures.
Did the groups work?
The ACT group concept did bring out all sorts of issues and dealt with them in a way that avoided lots of scattergun speeches in the formal debate. Tweets indicated there was some dissatisfaction in the group dealing with the Green report and allied topics. However, in Simplification we had a panel of 8 experts, who mostly listened, and occasionally clarified.
The House of Clergy Standing Committee is always a good Synod sounding board. When we met over lunch there were considerable reservations about the process for these reports. The general view was that the poor process meant that we won’t properly consider the content. Even if technically some of the decisions are not Synod’s (resting with the Archbishops or the Church Commissioners), the implications for the future of the Church are such that people feel Synod needs to be properly consulted, rather than expected to rush it all through. There was muttering about trying to get debates held over until July…
- The advantage of the ACT process is that people can listen, probe and learn without the constraints of procedure.
- The disadvantage is that you only get to hear about a quarter of the whole package – at the ACT group you were in
- The result is we had attenuated debate and (some would say) less than full scrutiny of some very significant proposals. Calling the groups ‘ACT’ groups felt like a brave attempt to brand them as something new and significant, and that smelled of the management-speak everyone is so annoyed about.
But after lunch, no more cosy chatty group work. It was ‘make up your mind’ time.
Support the poor: resource the training.
These two subjects got conflated into one debate in the afternoon. Not helpful. When it came to handling the very controversial ministerial education materials (handled by the Bishop of Sheffield) , several amendments were brought in attempts to slow things down to allow better consultation with the current training colleges and courses. There is a fear that more residential course closures are round the corner (my own alma mater St John’s Nottingham is to cease residential training). Some people think that the increase in ordinand numbers and the stress on local funding and part-time training will lower the quality of clergy, too.
But those proposals were tied in with some heavyweight financial stuff about redirecting the national church’s support to poorer dioceses. This material was handled by John Spence, who has become the Archbishops’ Council’s ‘go-to’ person for presenting tricky stuff. He may be being over-used. Anyway the amendments looked like this:
- Fr Thomas Seville wanted serious research and then amendment of the plans. He withdrew his amendment, but was very dissatisfied with the way the agenda had been handled.
- Canon Jane Charman wanted speedy consultation with the training providers and then a return to Synod in July. That was deemed impractical on timing grounds
- Sam Margrave wanted further assessment and then further consideration of the financial aspects There was sympathy for his desire to do better for the poorer dioceses and communities
- Christopher Hobbs wanted another Synodical bite at the cherry for more detailed scrutiny before implementation. The Bishop of Sheffield indicated that might happen in 2016
In the event, the Bishop and John Spence undertook to bring the work back before implementation. After some fun with points of order, and increasing tension (and heat), the motion was passed. But I sensed some disgruntlement around the floor.
(Keep it simple, stupid). Having been to this morning’s ACT group (see above), the Simplification debate seemed less exciting to me than to those who were at other ACT groups. One or two members chose to make again the speech they made at the morning ACT group, (which rather defeated the object of the exercise). Others raised particular objections (such as the proposed new severance packages for clergy who might be removed from office under certain circumstances, and were told that they could debate the detail when specific proposals come forward. Generally, there was wide acceptance, so it goes on for more detailed work and will return – probably several times as the various strands get unravelled.
Andreas Whittam Smith gave an excellent analysis of the issues around the proposals to free up some large amounts of Church Commissioners funding to meet the present crisis (several people agree we have one, and need to do something about it now). So by the end of the day, all the Task Group reports had been accepted, though not without some degree of climb-downs and commitments to bring details back to Synod in the most controversial areas. Disclaimer: this does not apply to the Green report, which was not debated and not accepted because it was never brought to Synod anyway.
It’s not often easy, it’s not often kind *
Today was like no other London Synod day that I can recall in my 9 years on Synod.
- Extended discussion group time, partly biblical on discipleship, partly agenda-related on the Task Groups
- High-speed processing of controversial reform packages affecting significant areas of church life
- General acknowledgement that the Church of England faces a crisis
- Less-than-general acknowledgment that the Task Group reports, pre-baked by selected groups, are the right answers
But we are set on the ‘reform and renewal’ path. The Archbishops’ Council and the Business Committee will have to make up their minds now about how to process the next stages of this complex programme. Hopefully they will bear in mind the lost goodwill caused by poor process, and July will be a happier time than this has been.
We had a demo tonight. People protesting about fossil fuels got into the gallery and unwrapped a huge banner, singing Amazing Grace just as Synod was getting ready for evening worship.
As I left the Dean’s Yard entrance, the Abbey’s security people had closed the iron gates that lead onto the street and the protestors were camping out with candle lights in jam jars.
* Did you ever have to make up your mind? The Lovin’ Spoonful, 1965