Every day, it’s getting closer *

Synod surrounds itself with worship. Nowadays, it is not all straight from the book. Words and music appear on the big screens.

  • This morning (Tuesday) we had a fairly straightforward Communion service in the main hall.
  • Tonight we finished with a small worship group from Holy Trinity Brompton and some robust modern songs.

That, and the continuing praying presence provided by the young members of the Community of St Anselm, for me, keep us on track, especially when Big Stuff is in the offing, and getting closer. Tomorrow’s a big day.

whittam-smithToday, we kicked off the morning’s business with a ‘goodbye’ to Sir Andreas Whittam Smith, whose tenure as First Church Estates Commissioner, it is generally agreed, has been very successful. Archbishop Sentamu took us on a brief tour of Andreas’ life, from a child of the vicarage to the soaring heights of founding editor of the Independent, chief Film Censor for the UK – and top man at the Commissioners.

I’ve not always appreciated his dry and somewhat disengaged manner at Synod, but there is no doubt that in his time the Commissioners, financially, have got onto a more than even keel, and gone into new areas of innovative funding for the Church. There was heartfelt applause, enough to embarrass the man.

Banns: to ban or not to ban?

Then came the Stephen Trott Private Members motion on marriage preliminaries. We were treated to a well-informed early speech explaining how banns were introduced in the 13th century, when everyone knew everyone in their village. It was the Hardwicke Act of 1753 that imposed compulsory registration of marriages: what was simple then is now complicated, as the state has laid increasing responsibility on officiating clergy over checking people’s eligibility to marry. We now have to live with the restrictions that imposes.

For my money (this is the cry of a disappointed man), Synod missed the point. We heard several heartwarming stories of couples shyly venturing into church, and slightly fewer sad stories of panicking couples and clergy scrabbling to get the paperwork in order against the clock. There were anecdotes galore, and we learned that the ‘Occasional Offices’ (weddings, funerals and baptisms) are now renamed as ‘Life Event Ministries’ by some.

Speaker after speaker focussed on the supposed abolition of banns under the proposed procedures, which rather missed the point. Stephen Trott stated very clearly that banns could continue. So while there were some thoughtful speeches noting the current practical issues with banns; and the plain discrimination involved in having to deal differently with non UK citizens, most members didn’t ‘get it’.

An amendment from Neil Patterson from Hereford (which I characterised as a halfway house and spoke against) failed by just 2 votes. Despite a barnstorming g speech from Tiffer Robinson, a St Eds and Ips priest, who declared he would be glad to see the back of banns, and listed real life problems that had occurred during his time in ministry, the motion failed in all three houses.

I found this a frustrating debate. Member after member stood to tell tales of the pastoral and missional value of the reading of banns (which everyone agrees with). Few were willing to engage with the bigger problem of other marriage preliminaries and the risks of getting it wrong.


The tea-room can provide a welcome escape from the more tedious legislative debates…

Under the surface were the lurking references to tomorrow’s sexuality discussions. The context of what was said was often ‘traditional’ marriage, but some of the fears expressed about the Trott proposals were stated in a way that might apply to same-sex marriage in church one day. Separating the State and Church roles might open the way eventually for same-sex church weddings: celebrated by some, horrifying others.

Anyway, for two days running, Harriet Sherwood gets the bathwellschap prize for decent reporting of a Synod debate: read her report here.

Legislation, legislation, legislation

The rest of the day was taken up with a huge wodge of legislation. Some was initial consideration, where people can air their views but the real work will be done next in specialist committees. Other items were more final, when today’s proceedings were the last stage in changing the Regulations, Measure or Canon

The first item after lunch was introduced as a bit of a revolution that, as part of R’n’R, would streamline ecclesiastical law-making. The idea is that in suitable matters (and not everything), proposals for changes in church regulations could be dealt with in one single Synod session rather than the present cumbersome method (aping Parliament) by which legislation has to come back to Synod three times. Despite a couple of slightly grumpy speeches, the new set-up was welcomed, and was described by one as being a ‘conversion experience.’ Not often ecclesiastical law does that…

church-rep-rules-bookHaving been out to the Church House Bookshop to buy a shiny copy of the new edition of the Church Representation Rules (CRR) 2017 – published last autumn, I then sat through a debate about completely revision of the CRR!

The changes are part of the Simplification work, trying to help parishes work without too much paperwork and arcane procedures. So, for example,

  • it’ll be easier for multi-parish benefices to have a joint PCC and put individual PCCs into abeyance, if they so wish.
  • The outdated rules on some aspects of ecumenical relationships at local level will be updated to reflect the current realities
  • New curates need not be ordained to a ‘title’ parish, but to (for example) pioneer posts
  • Deans and Archdeacons need not have been in orders for six years before appointment. This repeals a mediaeval restriction, and is not there to allow for inexperienced 30-year olds to take up high office, but simply to put Deans and Archdeacons on parity with Bishops

The new CRR will be written in plain English, with short sentences and a logical layout. But this was an initial debate, so my shiny new copy of the 2017 CRR will probably last a year or two…

How old is your vicar?

A later debate was on plans to make it easier for some clergy to remain in post after reaching the compulsory retirement age of 70. Normal employment law does not apply to clergy, as they are ‘office-holders’. There are currently ways in which a Bishop can enable a priest to remain in post for a year or two after 70, but the proposed amendment to terms of service would make this easier. There was some discomfort about perfectly capable and competent priests being thrown out of office under the present rules. As ever, going slightly against the grain, I made a fairly impromptu speech reminding Synod that some clergy are ill-prepared for retirement, and cannot envisage a life outside ministry – any new regulations can’t easily cover those personal and psychological aspects.

There was clearly some discomfort amongst the clergy over this proposal, and some pleading from the laity to allow more clergy to carry on working – they sounded slightly worried that parishes might collapse, without noting the effects going on for ages might have on the clergy family. We were told that the numbers are very small, and the regulations were passed overwhelmingly.

Assessing risk

Safeguarding reared its uncomfortable head during this lengthy legislative session. Not because of recent media coverage and court cases but as an outcome of a Visitation in 2012 of the diocese of Chichester after some safeguarding incidents there. At the moment, a Bishop has no power to compel someone who has been the subject of a safeguarding incident. So one key recommendation was that the church needed legislation that could, where necessary, require a priest or deacon to go through a professional risk assessment.

So the Bishop of Bath and Wells (disclaimer – my boss) set out why Canon C.30 needs revision to put that into practice. He was proposing a new set of Regulations. (To make sense of this, you might need to read the Regulations and also the explanatory note.)

There are rules about what kind of professional person must do the assessment, and a priest who declines to take part will be liable to proceedings under the heading of ‘conduct unbecoming’. There are all kinds of, er, safeguards to ensure confidentiality, proper reporting, and timely process and challenges to the outcome. However, speakers pointed up what they see as practical challenges:

  • The Bishop might devise terms of reference that are biased
  • If a priest ‘denies everything’, how can the assessor proceed without making some findings of fact?
  • What professional skills will assessors have? In Court proceedings, they can be very variable.
  • Does the church have the specialist skills within the culture to do this well?

There was a call to delay approval until July when more detail was available, which was defeated.

To end the day, we returned to one of my old chestnuts, clergy vesture: what robes should a vicar wear to conduct worship? Bath and Wells’ James Dudley-Smith spoke entertainingly of the various churches in Yeovil (where he is Rural Dean): some would find it very difficult to use robes regularly. Some would find it equally difficult not to use them. But the new Canon gives flexibility. We never got to the end of that debate before close-down time, so it will be picked up tomorrow, hopefully.

Wednesday gets closer…


There won’t be this many empty seats…

We expect a difficult day tomorrow, with planned demonstrations and leafletting. The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) and Changing Attitude England have amalgamated into a coalition under the title One Body One Faith. Under the banner A time to build they set out an alternative manifesto for the House of Bishops, suggesting a different way forward than that offered under GS2055.

  • Amongst the journalism about this today, there was this very level-headed piece by the BBC’s Martin Bashir – well worth a read.
  • My impression is that the ‘boycott’ group has shrunk a little. People vented much anger on Monday, and the Archbishop’s Presidential Address helped a lot. And inevitably, people have been chatting over coffee and in quiet corners: listening, talking, persuading and praying together.
  • That is not to say it won’t be difficult tomorrow, and that there won’t be public expressions of anger and frustration and misunderstandings. But it won’t be quite as bad as we feared, even though a solution is not in sight.
  • I gather there were some behind the scenes discussions today about the troubling discussion groups. The outcome was Sue Booys, the Chair of the Business Committee telling us that it had been agreed to change the timetable. We’ll have an early lunch, earlier group work time, and thus a longer ‘take note’ debate starting at 4.45 p.m. Synod-watchers and campaigners, look for the live feed here.

And finally…


Late night fish and chips with the Bishop of Willesden and Simon Butler…

One of the best things about Synod is the informal stuff. The Conversations at York in July helped forge some unlikely alliances, and many long-stay patients like me have got good friends we try to socialise with after hours when we can. Tonight I was able to eat and drink in some pretty thoughtful company.


We don’t all agree, by any means, but we understand each other better. And the speeches tomorrow will be all the better for it. It’s what we used to call ‘good disagreement’.


..Sue Booys, Hannah Cleugh and Miranda Threlfall-Holmes




* Everyday, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, 1957. Two minutes of simple pop.

This entry was posted in 2017: February - London, General Synod and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Every day, it’s getting closer *

  1. Freda Davis says:

    Thankyou Stephen, I appreciate your straightforward and candid summary.

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