We moved today from the decorative constitutional stuff to the hard politics. From our delightful and decorative relationship with the monarchy to the much more difficult area of negotiations with the State over things that matter.
This curious relationship between Church and State came into hard focus in the morning debate on the migrant crisis.
- Bishop Paul Butler’s main motion was carefully nuanced and spoke of government action in supportive and encouraging tones.
- The first speaker called was Caroline Spelman, the Conservative MP who is Second Church Estates Commissioner. She speaks for (and answers questions about) the Church Commissioners in the House of Commons. While she defended Government actions, she also carefully mentioned the famous letter from the Bishops that was reportedly ignored by the government earlier this autumn. A delicate political balancing act on her part… but she was well received.
- The Archbishop of Canterbury pointed out that any desire to establish safe havens and safe routes (called for in the motion) would involve military action. We may need to confront the forces that are driving people from their homes.
- Andrew Nunn, the Dean of Southwark, put in a very clever amendment: to remove the main text’s “welcome” for Government actions and replace it with a much more neutral “acknowledge”. His view was that Synod is not popular when it tells the government what to do. But we have a responsibility to ‘speak the truth to power’. It’s not an easy balance. But his amendment was lost.
- The later church buildings debate also touched on another negotiation prospect: how might government be persuaded to give more support to the Church’s huge responsibilities for looking after so many listed heritage buildings?
The Church and politics don’t mix. Really?
From those examples, we can see that the Church of England is engaging with the State on:
- Refugee and migrant policy
- The Establishment links that put the C of E into Parliament’s procedures, with all the opportunities and restrictions they bring.
- Military policy
- Foreign affairs
- Tax issues
The complexities of all this were touched on when the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a farewell tribute to the outgoing Secretary General at Church House, William Fittall, who is retiring after 13 years in post. Archbishop Justin indicated that in William, the Church had someone who could tread the tricky path between Church House and Whitehall with aplomb – and run rings round top civil servants while doing so.
Anyone who is new to Synod this week will realise now, if they did not realise before, that the Church of England is inextricably linked to the organs of state – both ceremonial and political. I was reminded of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s oft-quoted line that anyone who says the Bible and Politics don’t mix has clearly not read their Bible…
We have our own politics, too – today was the last day for putting in nominations for various posts. I have decided to stand for election as Prolocutor (Chair of the House of Clergy) for the Province of Canterbury, so I needed to get my proposer and seconder lined up and get my 100-word biog handed in. (It gets sent out with the voting papers so electors have some idea of who the candidates are.) I understand five of us are standing, so we will have a proper election, with choices to be made.
The York Province is also electing its Prolocutor, but (the North being a far country to us soft Southerners) your correspondent has no definite information about candidates for that post.
Prolocutors (those who speak on behalf of…) chair any separate meetings of the Lower House of their Convocation (i.e. the House of Clergy); they sit on the platform during General Synod sessions and have speaking rights in debates; they are also members of the Legislative Committee and the Archbishops’ Council and can be called on to undertake other tasks for the national Church. It’s a pretty demanding role, so you might like to spare a prayer for all the candidates, and for the clergy who will vote. It’s a Single Transferable Vote election, voting closes in mid-December and the count is immediately before Christmas.
A building for mission?
Back in Synod, the other outward-looking debate (we also debated the fees payable to church lawyers) was about church buildings. As any rural priest or church person knows, these can be a blessing and a curse, and the Bishop of Worcester’s report is the first attempt for many years to look for ways of dealing with the opportunities and problems they present. If this is a subject that you are interested in, you would enjoy the report, which is well-research, and both theological and practical. (You can read it here)
It was a well-informed debate, with many stories of good practice, brave experiments and ongoing heartache from speakers from urban and rural settings. I got a speech in in which I teased the Bishop for the vast catalogue of theologians, writers and poets in what a critic had described as the ‘waffle’ of the theological section (section 2, if you’re looking at the report). I cheekily compared it to the catalogue of heroes listed in Hebrews 11 (look it up!) but said I thought it was high-quality waffle. The concept that church buildings should express our love for God and our love for our neighbour seems to me a touchstone for many of our under-visioned rural gems.
Look who’s talking…
The chairs of debates did a consistently good job in all three main events today to call new members for maiden speeches. Speaking at Synod Can be a pretty tense experience, and the excellent Synod Survival Guide gives useful tips (including ‘don’t feel you have to stand to speak too early in the life of a Synod – give yourself time to get the feel of it’). The maiden speeches we heard were generally good and to the point: some had great stories and the odd joke. So it bodes well for the next five years.
Writing a speech in advance is essential for most members. But even with the words in front of you, you then have to be able to lift them off the page (or more likely nowadays, the smartphone or tablet) to get people’s attention.
- You can forget to give your name and number.A serious crime, for which you willbe punished by people saying (loudly) “NAME!!
- If you haven’t got a script, you can lose your thread or fail to finish a crucial sentence
- And you are always conscious of the ticking clock up on the platform that will put on the yellow light (1 minute left!) or the red one (Stop! Now!) which may lead you to gabble inaudibly as you try to cram in your last point.
I’ve now been on Synod for ten years, but I can still feel my heart beating faster as I try to get called or stand waiting at the microphone.
This morning a did a literal back-of-the-envelope speech on the migrant issue. I suddenly realised that I had experience from 43 years ago, when I volunteered to help in a resettlement camp for Ugandan Asians, evacuated from Uganda by the UK government when President Idi Amin expelled them in 1972. My point was that in those days we were welcoming, whereas today the narrative in the Press and government is most unwelcoming. So I mentioned three lessons the experience had taught me
- to enjoy Asian food
- to appreciate the dignity and courage of the refugees
- to notice their gratitude and commitment to work hard to build a life here
I expressed the hope that the Church, both nationally and in the parishes, would try to convey a positive narrative, rather than one of fear and hate. On the latter point, the Bishop of Durham said that flyers had gone up in his own home area at Bishop Auckland saying “Refugees not welcome here”. ‘Nuff said.
That’s all, folks!
Anyway, it’s all over now till February. By then we will have election results, new officers in place, and lots more work to do on RnR (see previous posts), as well as anticipating the Shared Conversations at York in July.
Do join the bathwellschap blog again then (you can sign up to be emailed news of new posts on the right).
Or pick up my odd mutterings on Twitter @bathwellschap
* Negotiations and love songs are often mistaken for one and the same – a line (and album title) from Paul Simon’s Train in the distance originally on the 1976 Hearts and Bones album.