Usually, arriving in London for the first day of Synod is a cheery experience. This Monday, it wasn’t. The mood is febrile, and people were very tense.
For starters, I arrived late – I’d been to a funeral at home in Somerset. So I missed the House of Clergy discussion on Clergy well-being, the opening worship, and the all-important debate on the agenda. Thanks to South West Trains on-board wifi, I’d followed what was going on on Twitter. @synod and @GenSyn are really useful that way.
Nervous and tense…
But when I turned up at Church House I found nervous and tense people. There was talk of trying to re-jig the agenda because people were so unhappy about Wednesday’s planned discussions on GS2055 – the House of Bishops Report on human sexuality issues. (New readers go to yesterday’s post (here) to get a briefing.)
I gather that the opening worship had been difficult: sound system not working, and the projection screens hadn’t got the words of prayers or hymns. (Nice to know it’s not only in ordinary parish churches that the technology fails at times.) More seriously, the Debate on the Agenda – usually a time to complain about things not being up for discussion – got quite heavy. I heard that there was anguished comment about the group work planned for Wednesday (see yesterday). Some feel that after York’s facilitated conversations last July (see here) we aren’t ready or willing to do something that was less well-done. As well as well-rehearsed accusation that the Bishops have got it wrong.
By the time I was actually sitting down, we were on to the Reformation. A simple debate, and we decided the Reformation was a Good Thing, though there was an attempt to strengthen the main motion by specific reference to justification by faith. It was rather good to hear Philip Plyming, a leading evangelical, waxing lyrical about Pope Francis.
Straight from the shoulder…
Next came Archbishop Justin’s Presidential Address. Although he usually likes to throw in some one-liners and ad libs, this was a straight-from-the-shoulder address about the state we’re in ‘at such a time as this’. Nominally, it was about the condition of the country (and, indeed, the world). But it was a cleverly multi-layered script that was as much about Synod’s nervousness and polarisation as it was about post-referendum Britain and post-Trump USA
- Now if you look at the Guardian, you might be deceived by the tendentious headline Archbishop of Canterbury suggests Brexit ‘in fascist tradition’. Well, not quite: he did refer to Brexit, Trump. Wilders, and le Pen and talk about nationalists and populists. He did use the word ‘fascist’ in the same paragraph, without actually calling any of them fascists. It’s a bit of a stretch by a sub-editor, though Harriet Sherwood’s article is a fair report.
- He built his address around the three temptations of Christ, applying them to the world as well as to the Church of England – hence the subtext of our own pre-occupation with the sexuality issue.
- But the subtext got some clear mentions, particularly when he referenced Jayne Ozanne and Simon Butler, two leading lights in the ‘inclusivist’ membership, in order to support and affirm them.
- He was listened to in stunned silence. And his subtle parallelism meant that when he spoke about engaging in world affairs, he was alluding to the way he wants to see the Church getting engaged with its own ‘political’ issues : listening, talking, getting involved in discussion and voting – not shouting or disengaging.
It was a mild reproof to those who are campaigning to boycott the group work. Probably, rather than me summarising, you need to read it yourself, and thanks to the miracles of modern communications, you can do so here.
How will Wednesday go?
Wednesday draws ever-closer. I suspect that some of those who have taken a stand on not going to groups or voting against taking note of GS2055 may not take such a hard line after the Archbishop’s address and the inevitable conversations that go on in the tea room and at fringe meetings. But we may see some procedural fun.
There are two ‘following motions’ that can be debated if we do ‘take note’. One sets a deadline of July 2018 for the Bishops to bring a set of actual proposals on same-sex reationships; the other wants them to take a more explicitly conservative line. You can see the exact texts of them here.
If we don’t ‘take note’, they won’t get debated, but there are doubtless ‘cunning plans’ afoot to try and get round this. There’s also the possibility of someone proposing ‘next business’ or adjourning the debate. Synod nerds will have their Standing Orders to hand.
The last thing of the day was Questions. Normally there’s plenty of light-hearted banter amid the calling to account of Bishops, Committees and bureaucrats. But today was tense and tortured. The Bishops of Norwich and Willesden fielded a load of GS2055 questions as a double act. Both are very good at this, and can produce some very witty replies. But no-one was in the mood for that today, so they battled on in an edgy atmosphere. A good 40 minutes was spent on questions to the House of Bishops about GS2055 or disguised questions about it to other bodies such as Ministry Division.
Once we got off that to more routine Questions, the atmosphere lightened.
- Our own Archdeacon Andy Piggott tried to get the Church Commissioners to offer loan funding to dioceses who, as vocations increase in answer to prayer, will need to buy more houses for new ministers to live in. He got a dusty answer from Sir Andreas Whittam-Smith.
- The Pension Board decision to close down the nursing and dementia unit at the Manormead retirement home attracted three sharp questions: but only one supplementary, which did at least extract a commitment that there is no plan to close down and sell off the whole site. (This might come as a relief to those of us nearing retirement age…)
- I got in a cheeky question about the forthcoming anniversary in 2019 of the Church of England (Enabling Powers) Act. Yes, I know, official “Synod nerd” status awaits me.
For the first time ever, we got through all the Questions (73 of them), and there was a round of cheerful (and relieved) applause for the Chair, Archdeacon Pete Spiers. If you want to know what Questions are all about (and see the Answers, or at least the scripted ones, look here)
After that, closing worship brought us all together in a thoughtful mood. And the technology worked just fine.
Should you be minded to join us in spirit (or in prayer, for that matter) there’s a live stream here. And you can listen to audio of today’s proceedings here. You might enjoy Archbishop Justin’s Address, certainly.
- Won’t you listen to what the man said? Paul McCartney and Wings, 1975. Yes, I know it’s a bit naff, but it fits.