The first day of this Synod has been described as ‘tetchy’, ‘prickly’ and ‘febrile’. Underlying the routine business that always begins the meeting there was a current of tense, personal, and fierce differences about sexuality matters. It was there from the beginning of the meeting.
Proxy debates, proxy wars
The greeting of ecumenical guests is usually polite but restrained. However, when Archbishop Sentamu first mentioned Bishop John Armes, Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC), there was instant and warm applause, even before Sentamu had given the customary biography of the guest.
The reason for this is not hard to discern: 15 members of Synod had declared that they were ‘searching their consciences’ about whether they could even attend Synod, in view of the invitation to him. Their unparalleled distaste for greeting an Anglican leader from within the UK is due to the SEC’s recent decision to make it possible for SEC churches to celebrate same-sex marriages. That decision brought forth the instant consecration of a ‘missionary Bishop’ for Europe (The Rt Revd Andy Lines) by conservative Anglicans in the US.
So this was an audible demonstration by those who object to the boycott and the irregular consecration. I had not got my (mythical) Synod clapometer out of it’s box, but if I had, it would have registered that there are a lot of people who feel that way. (There might be a subsidiary reason for such an enthusiastic welcome: only a year ago, we struggled with a perceived insult to the SEC by an ecumenical move to work closer with the established Church of Scotland (which is, of course Presbyterian, not episcopal). So some may have been clapping out of a differently tender conscience).
Disagreement, good and bad
Yesterday I described the ‘cultural changes’ being brought in (read that post here). Opening the debate on the agenda the Business Committee Chair, Sue Booys, explained the thinking – shorter sessions and more time together out of the chamber may be a good thing. She dropped some very loud hints about broader changes in the way Synod works, taking the line that Synod is a huge investment of resources and members’ time. How can it be better used? So some navel-gazing is in order, and we were invited to a fringe meeting to help the Business Committee get it right. UPDATE:Room PT/005 on Sunday night at 8.30 is the place to be.
There is a draft (voluntary) code of conduct for members which is up for discussion (GS Misc 1162 read it here). In the debate, Jayne Ozanne spoke about the insults and painful comments she had received – particularly in social media – and proposed that members should be made to sign up to the Code. The febrile nature of this weekend was immediately apparent when Andrea Williams tried to raise a point of order relating to what Jayne Ozanne had said and was more or less howled down. Another speaker who grumbled about Bishop Armes’ presence then suggested that Bishop Lines should have been a guest instead: she was heard with some low growls of discontent – and some very enthusiastic clapping by a small number.
But two speakers gently ticked us off for not listening and told us to respond in a Christian manner, and as Sue Booys summed up – this is about what ‘good disagreement is about’.
The national church?
The Archbishops had inserted a debate on the state of the nation into the agenda. It was built round a long motion (read it here) which seemed to me to cover too many bases for its own good. Others clearly thought so too, as it attracted 5 amendments, each trying to make it more pointed/topical/specific policy-oriented.
It began with Archbishop Sentamu’s wide-ranging speech, covering elections, Brexit, the financial crisis – and tax. We were asked to raise our hands if we were willing, personally, to devote more of our own income to education, social care and health. Pretty well everyone did. He ended by appealing for a “new, values-based politics” built around the common good.
He was immediately followed by Caroline Spelman MP, the shiny new First Church Estates Commissioner, who speaks for the Church in Parliament. She pretty smartly indicated that anything that the Press might interpret as being ‘Church bashes Government’ would not be not a Good Thing. When you read this, you’ll have access to Fleet Street’s finest, so we’ll see. The BBC midnight news certainly ran an item about Archbishop Sentamu criticising government activity, and the idea that we need to pay more tax.
Synod heavyweights then moved in. Canterbury Prolocutor Simon Butler moved a procedural attempt to kill off the motion, on the grounds that it was a vote for motherhood and apple pie. The Bishop of Willesden headed that off, saying that politics is in a bad state, and though the motion does not say everything, it is a contribution to the much-needed national debate.
After all that, the various amendments were taken.
- One attempted to insert a reference to STV elections (hear hear!) and lowering the voting age to 16. It was rejected as being too specific.
- Others wanted to support a second referendum on Scottish independence, to reinforce traditional values on family life, and to add in a very specific reference to commending the gospel.
So the ‘Still small voice of calm’ debate ground on, with the amendments all failing. The effect of all that time-wasting was we didn’t get the quality speeches we might have had on the main text. That’s democracy for you.
Over supper, it was suggested to me that the whole debate had been badly put together, Whenever people ask for more topical debates, the Business Committee response has been that without proper papers and preparation, such debates could be very poor and might show Synod in a bad light. Well, loth as I am to criticise our Archbishops, that seems to be exactly the case with this debate. No preliminary papers; a motion that was amended once between being first presented and printed, and then with an extra amendment put in on the day by Archbishop Sentamu. It was a worthy aim, but it was poorly planned, and time was hijacked by the various amendments from the floor – all of which fell.
Questions, questions, questions…
At Question time two big themes emerged.
- One was safeguarding, and (I declare an interest) my boss, the Bishop of Bath & Wells had to handle those. He got off to a good start, with a round of applause when a questioner complimented him on taking on ‘the toughest gig in the Church of England’. He opportunistically used questions about safeguarding developments to wave new and forthcoming publications before Synod, and had to deal with some tough questions about recent and current independent reports into safeguarding lapses.
- The other theme was a resumption of the proxy wars on sexuality. Questioners wanted the answering Bishop to express support for their view on Conversion Therapy (and there are two clear schools of thought, as we will see tomorrow). The Bishop of Willesden carefully expressed support for people undergoing gender re-assignment or unwanted same-sex attraction – without being trapped into supporting one particular view by the questioners.
An evening fringe meeting reinforced my view that tomorrow (Saturday) we are going to be subjected to some very technical discussions about gender re-orientation therapy. Do we support the 2015 or 2017 version of Royal College of Psychiatrists Memorandum of Understanding? There’ll be much quoting of specialist medics – but is Synod competent to assess all this?
On this first day of the new-look York Synod, it was hard to assess whether the cunning plan to get us to spend more time talking to each other is working. The dining hall was heaving – much fuller than usual – at suppertime. And the fringe meeting I went to was also much fuller than usual. And the dear old Vanbrugh bar filled up earlier than usual – but noticeably emptied out earlier than usual, too, as people headed for an early night.
Saturday will see us
- examining the Bishops’ presentation on the proposed ‘Teaching Document’ on sexuality issues. Liberals fear it doesn’t go far enough; conservatives fear it will be too liberal. See what you think here.
- Looking at a whole bunch of legislation (Synod nerds specialist subject)
- Reflecting on our work with people in a multi-faith environment (good report, read it here)
- Considering how the national church can help local churches with evangelism in many ways
After all that, at the end of the day, we look at the Ozanne ‘Conversion Therapy’ motion and the various amendments that come with it. That will be tense. It was certainly the subject of much speculation and discussion in the bar…
* Something in the air, Thunderclap Newman. A 1969 one-hit wonder that somehow caught the mood of change after all that flower-power and psychedelic stuff. Lovely dramatic beginning, great bass line. On YouTube if you’ve lost your copy.