It’s always a big event: a full Minster, stunning music, both Archbishops in full rig… Yes, it’s the York Synod Sunday morning. For members whose normal Sunday routine is in an ‘ordinary’ or small congregation, the effect can be overwhelming.
This year, more than usual, perhaps, we left behind the tensions and factions of debates.
For the Officers of the Synod, we have to dress up in our Convocation robes, and be processed in and out. In the sanctuary, we even get seats of honour. It doesn’t feel quite Biblical, but it’s fun.
Trans people: a welcome, or a liturgy? Or both?
Blackburn Diocese had sent up a motion about our Welcome and affirmation for Trans People in the Church of England. Introducing the motion Chris Newlands from Blackburn made the point that we are at risk of talking about people, not hearing from them. The diocese’s paper (read it here) explained how it was that the concern first arose there, and Chris told us the stories of some individuals who have changed their gender identity.
This is not a subject that many members are at ease talking about. There was an informative background paper from the Secretary-General – read it here. Chris gave a confident account of how gender dysphoria has affected real people (anonymised); and how in some churches, they have been rejected. But if dysphoria is a real condition – and it is becoming increasingly recognised – then churches have got to move beyond their ignorance and prejudice. Where is the respect? He reminded us that there is trans hate crime in our communities; suicide is a real factor among trans people, especially the young.
He reminded the Synod that whatever decision we made, it would be heard by members of the trans community. Rejection would cause damage to individuals. He wanted the Church to set its face against rejection. More, to authorise some liturgy to mark the moment when an individual does take a new name as someone of a new gender
I report this in some detail as it is a subject that many of tend to shy away from. As one GP pointed out, these are some of the most vulnerable people in society. Yet if we proclaim people find their true identity in Christ, then the Church needs to offer a welcome that allows trans people to encounter, not only him, but a range of people who will greet and stand alongside them.
- On the liturgical aspect, Sonya Doragh from Liverpool pointed out that existing texts (with some amendment), will serve for this purpose: a thanksgiving is about marking a moment in someone’s life. So she opposed the motion – and got some warm applause
- Dr Nick Land had an amendment which softened the practical outcomes of the debate, acknowledged the differences of view about dysphoria, but concentrated on the issues of welcome and care. He wanted the theology to be sorted out before liturgies were produced. Strong applause.
- Bishop Richard Frith (Hereford) is vice-chair of the Liturgical Commission: he backed Sonya Doragh’s line while (confusingly)welcoming the motion as one that gave us the chance to air the issues.
- There were powerful stories about people who had transitioned and who were part of church life: ‘success’ stories where someone was welcomed, supported and prayed with; and ‘disaster’ stories where people have walked away or been pushed out.
The debate was interesting because as well as the stories (always powerful) we actually had some theology and biblical interpretation:
- a look at Genesis from a gender theology point of view
- an academic review about dysphoria.
Synod does not do enough of that, and it’s perhaps a nod to the opacity of the subject (to many people) that we delved seriously into theology, philosophy and medical practice. You might want to look at the debate on YouTube.
There were two key issues that came out:
- Do we need additional liturgies in order to affirm and welcome trans people? That’s a technical question, to which the answer is probably ‘no’?
- Regardless of the detail within the text, will passing (or rejecting) the motion be taken by the trans community as a signal that they are welcome (or unwelcome)?
The Land amendment came to a vote by houses. It was rejected by all three with fairly substantial majorities, indicating that people preferred the main motion that gave a stronger emphasis on (1). So we were back to the original Blackburn motion, which speaker after speaker said was ‘symbolic’ – and pointed out that it only asked the House of Bishops to ‘consider’ new liturgies. So it was passed, and this is what the media are picking up.
The BBC report is here, and the Grauniad report is here. Interesting that although they mention the pastoral side, they both focus on the liturgical aspect… Overall I was left with the impression that most of us want to offer respect and a welcome to trans people, though some were evidently not enthusiastic. Hmm…
Who chooses Bishops?
The operation of the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) is seen as a mystery by many. The myth of secret groups choosing names persists, though it is not hard to find out who is on the CNC for any episcopal appointment, nor when the CNC meets. (You can start your search here on the CNC page) The days of people smuggling themselves into Lambeth Palace for a day of consultation are long gone.
A review group is in place, and they presented a snapshot of their work so far. Professor Oliver O’Donovan’s presentation started with a clear explanation of what the ‘central’ members do. This matters, because 6 new ones are to be elected very shortly, and the 6 central members provide continuity through the five year term of the Commission. (There are 14 members – 6 from the diocese under consideration, 6 ‘central’ members and the two Archbishops. The two key words were discernment and representative.
On discernment, he stressed it is about working out who will be the right Bishop of X for the future. If the Spirit is guiding and calling for someone to be made a Bishop who is not already a Bishop, CNC people members must be ready to be surprised! It is a different task to any other that Synod members might be asked to do. It needs patience, willingness not to have the answer before you start, to be good at cooperating, and know who you are. They have to understand the candidates, and the rest of the panel. They have to be able to help the diocesan members (who will in variably be doing it for the first time) along.
On representative, another member of the group, Professor Morwenna Ludlow, explained that the CNC has to represent the church as a whole. Members thus need to be able to bring a wide range of experiences with them and to engage with people coming from other parts of the church. Synod’s groupings (i.e. EGGS, the Catholic group, etc) mean that people coming from one grouping bring presuppositions with them. CNC members therefore need to be able to build out from their own perspective, and be open to the Spirit in doing so. In voting for someone, they are not there to represent one group, but the whole church. The Group had been told that this was not happening in some cases: members’ own ‘group’ perspectives were overruling the ‘represent the whole church’ concept. Trust has become strained at times.
There is no way of ensuring all interest groups are represented on one CNC. Members must be able to work well together, with the Archbishops and the candidates, so there is truly shared discernment. Members must be trusted by the rest of the CNC and by the candidates.
The Questions on this were interesting, in that the review team were trying hard not to give away too much about their recommendations, as their work is not yet done. But with nominations for the 6 new central members closing on Monday this week, clearly there were key messages to get across for aspiring candidates and voters.
- they are going to say something about the actual interview process (but they would not say what)
- they were not going to comment on the recent difficult Sheffield and Oxford appointment processes
- they were sympathetic to a potential candidate’s complaint that you cannot ‘sell’ yourself in the mere 100 words allowed on a nomination form, but it is a Synod responsibility, not theirs.
(Declaration of interest: I am intending to stand for this election. My informed sources indicate a large number of other people are also standing. It’ll be a key election)
Who’s looking after your Vicar?
The House of Clergy brought a report about clergy well-being. Simon Butler, introducing it, spoke about the complexity of clergy roles, and the ‘intricate web’ of pressures and challenges they have to deal with while bring in role. What do we need to do in order that our clergy are happy and fulfilled, rather than stressed and in danger of breakdown? The whole church has a duty of care. He wanted particularly to hear from lay members – and from Bishops: who is looking out for them?
The plan is to look towards a ‘covenant for the clergy’, in the way we nowadays have an Armed Forces Covenant. The debate brought out a lot of discussion about ‘best practice’, counselling, and stress in multi-parish benefices. Most speakers were clergy. The Bishop of Chelmsford, in the guise of exploring how busy a Bishop’s life is, gave an entertaining version of the talk he gives in schools about his cross, crosier and mitre. His point was that the Bishop is vicar to the vicars.
- Where it got real was when the Revd Zoe Heming (Lichfield) talked about her own research with clergy who have become disabled. They have to agree that ‘I cannot do it all’ – and in a good case, their parishioners and colleagues jump in to take up the slack.
- She was immediately followed by Archbishop Justin, who spoke about the loneliness and relentlessness of much parish ministry. Regarding Bishops stresses, he said that Bishops’ offices are often under-resourced (I could write a book about that). He also indicated, from painful experience, that the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) processes often damage people more than the original problem that led to a CDM.
- Elizabeth Paver, House of Laity vice-chair, made a powerful speech gently chiding clergy for not taking their days off and holidays – and parish lay leadership for not pushing them to do so
The Report was accepted with some interest and enthusiasm. There’ll be more work done, and more people consulted, and it will return, with perhaps an Act of Synod as the final outcome. (An Act is an agreed policy of the Church that does not require legislation.)
I must confess to skipping the last business of the day – a Private Members Motion about the effect of schools admissions policies on families living in ‘tied houses’. Tiffer Robinson, the proposer, had clergy families mostly in view, but the problem applies to other households who have to move into a ‘company house’ – such as military families. They can’t get school places sorted till they are established; and they can’t choose where to live.
There was, I gather, some opposition to this. People were uncomfortable at the idea that clergy families should ‘jump the queue’ to a school. But chums more diligent than I report that the motion was passed after some wrangling.
A Business Committee fringe meeting drew about 30 people as keen as me to review the many changes that have been made saw we work towards ‘new ways of being Synod’. There has been huge progress in the three years since the Committee set its sights on change. The biggest one, though, is the reduction of sessions by 50% this July and the abolition of food at fringe meetings.
There were some criticisms acknowledged of problems with food queues and the timing of sessions. We agreed that the proposed Code of Conduct for Synod was heading the right way, but required some tweaks, and there was general concern that some members were going beyond the bounds of good behaviour in their social media comments. Look at #synod and search diligently and you may see what I mean.
Late night bar fellowship followed. There was plenty of reviewing the whole weekend, and some looking at the ecclesio-politics of how the evangelical grouping’s impact seems muted, or even fractured. But that’s a long-term thing, and not fit for what passes as daily reportage.
* Respect, Aretha Franklin, 1967. Her powerful version of Otis Redding’s song. Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me… A soul classic from Atlantic Records.