The Church of England General Synod is not immune from the general trend towards digital campaigning and voluble protest. This week’s meeting has some pretty hot topics to cover. There are people who are cross about Bishop George Bell. There are people who are annoyed about transgender liturgy (or lack of it). And there are genteel differences of opinion about other matters. So I expect we’ll have floods of e-comment – and some (peaceful) demonstrations outside Church House – when we meet from Thursday to Saturday.
Saturday! I hear you say in disbelief. Yes, Saturday. Although July meetings are weekend events in York, the winter sessions in London since time immemorial (i.e. 1970) have been midweek affairs.
Until now. In a further move to reform and renew Synod – oh, sorry, I meant renew and reform, didn’t I – instead of meeting from Tuesday till Friday, we are gathering on Thursday this week, and staying on till 4.00 p.m. on Saturday. That’s the plan, anyway. And in that time we’ll have some fairly tense debates on safeguarding (Bishops Ball and Bell will figure, of whom more below). Not to mention an uncomfortable look at our potential for closer links with Methodism, some thinking about how Bishops are (s)elected, and more. Now read on…
For many years people have complained that meeting midweek makes it very hard for lay people to get to Synod.
- If you have a job, you have to take holiday time to be there (unless you have a very holy and supportive employer). And that means Synod is overfull of retired laypeople – they can easily manage their diaries to fit in three or four days in London. Drilling deeper, it means that working laypeople simply don’t stand for election to Synod. So, as an experiment, the Business Committee have arranged these sessions to include a full day on Saturday.
- On the other hand… Clergy (who apparently find no difficulty in popping off to London from their parishes midweek) will find that their usual Saturday (family time, weddings, sermon and worship preparation) has disappeared. Those who have to travel long distances will not be on top form to roll up and take the 8.00 this Sunday. So, if your parish priest is a General Synod member, do be kind to her or him on Sunday…
All credit to the organisers: this has got to be worth a shot. But I do wonder if existing Synod laypeople (even the predominantly retired types) may end up resenting the loss of their usual Saturday routines – shopping, grandchildren’s sport, watching the footy, etc.
The acid test will be: how many people drift off home early, and how many stay on for Saturday afternoon’s debate, which is a very significant one on valuing people with Down’s Syndrome. (More below.)
Safeguarding – Ball and Bell
I suspect the headline-grabber of this Synod will be safeguarding. It’s scheduled for Saturday morning, but will undoubtedly pop up in Questions on Thursday afternoon. So we’ll have the whole of Friday for chatter, gossip, conspiracy theories and position-taking by some members.
We have been provided with two hefty and disturbing reports on former Bishops:
- one long dead but whose reputation is in the balance (George Bell of Chichester)
- the other released from prison last year after conviction for sex offences over a number of years (Peter Ball of Gloucester and Lewes).
Neither is the subject of a formal debate, but both will come up, I have no doubt.
The way the Church handled an allegation about Bishop George Bell has been the subject of an independent enquiry by the eminent lawyer Lord Carlile. It was published just before Christmas. It is long and detailed – it runs to 75 pages – and comes with a bunch of Annexes looking at some specific matters. You can read it all here.
Bell, who died in 1958, has been something close to an Anglican saint for his robust ecumenism and independently-minded ministry during the Second World War. (His hymn Christ is the King! O friends rejoice is a favourite of many, me included.)
There has been vigorous campaigning in Bell’s defence by many people inside and outside Synod. They have friends in the Press, and the profile of the case has been further raised by an announcement this week that further allegations about Bishop Bell are being assessed. One Private Members’ Motion about Bell has been withdrawn because of the latest developments – see the Telegraph’s report here.
Campaigners will doubtless have planted some Questions, and will have more when the Safeguarding presentation happens on Saturday. The Church Times described the whole mess as ‘an unwinnable wrangle over an unprovable case’. I just hope that those who wish to shout about Bell take the trouble to read the Report before they open their mouths.
UPDATE The Church Times has an interview with Archbishop Justin on their website now (Tuesday) in which he explains his position. Read it here. This will calm some people, and add fuel to the fire for others…
Safeguarding – Ball and IICSA
It’s unfortunate that Bishop Bell was Bishop of Chichester, because that diocese features large in another independent report that we’ve been given. This one is about how the Church of England handled the case of Bishop Peter Ball, who was Bishop of Lewes (in Chichester diocese) before becoming Bishop of Gloucester. He resigned from Gloucester on accepting a police caution in 1996, but Dame Moira Gibb’s report (read it here) describes a catalogue of failings and poor judgements in various parts of the Church which left victims and survivors of abuse without any recourse over many decades. Her report is difficult reading, and is called An Abuse of Faith, which says it all.
In the background to the Bell and Ball issues is IICSA – the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. The Church of England and Church in Wales will be put under the IICSA spotlight later this year, but a preliminary hearing last week revealed the huge scope of their work. IICSA’s focus is on diocese of Chichester, but that is a lens through which to view the wider Anglican church.
IICSA is heavyweight stuff. To give an idea, their preliminary hearing last week revealed:
- there are, as evidence, 28,677 documents amounting to 206,863 pages – with more to come. One barrister explained this documentation is providing “road maps through the avalanche site of disclosure”
- it is full of lawyers: there are 7 QCs representing some of the key participants; others have solicitors
- there will be a three-week hearing on Chichester/Anglican church in March, and a further week on the implications of the Bishop Peter Ball case in July
- interim reports will be issued on both
- further hearings on the Anglican Church in 2019 will focus on victims, survivors, and reparations.
In other words, IICSA will be crawling all over the Church, and the diocese of Chichester in particular for the foreseeable future. You can read the transcript of the IICSA preliminary hearing (pdf download) from their website.
First this week’s Synod, and then IICSA: it’s going to be a torrid time for the Lead Bishop on Safeguarding, Bishop Peter Hancock of Bath and Wells (disclaimer: he was my boss till I retired just before Christmas), and the National Safeguarding Team.
How should Bishops be chosen?
The vehicle for discerning who might be the next diocesan Bishop of any particular See (as we love to call them) is a wonderfully Anglican body called the Crown Nominations Commission (usually just called the CNC). Recent long delays in appointing a Bishop of Oxford, and the decision of Bishop Philip North to stand down from becoming Bishop of Sheffield have brought the CNC’s way of working into sharp focus, so on Thursday afternoon we are to have a presentation about a theological review of the CNC’s work.
- The group preparing the report was chaired by Professor Oliver O’Donovan: we had a snapshot of their work in July (read my report here – scroll down), but now we have a proper document, called Discerning in Obedience.
- After questions with the group, we’ll be invited to ‘take note’ of it – hopefully we won’t have a take note disaster debate like we did last February on another matter).
My own thought is that, for a theological review, it does have an awful lot of practical recommendations. But you can decide – read it here.
Wonderfully, we are not having an evening session on Thursday, because the Bishops have what is coyly called in the Report on the Agenda “another, externally arranged, engagement”. I can (not exclusively) reveal that this is the Lord Mayor of London’s Archbishops and Bishops Dinner at the Mansion House. It always happens in Synod week, and it used to be the case that most Bishops went, but enough stayed behind to enable Synod to carry on into the early evening. But this year they must have a three-line whip (or else they’ve seen the menu and they like it) because we are shutting down with prayers at 5.30 instead of 7.00.
World church, simplification – and food
Friday morning will see an address from a church leader from elsewhere in the Anglican Communion. Unusually, there will be six guests from around the Anglican world with us, and the address will be the prelude to a debate about Companion Links. These are the partnerships that pretty well every diocese has with other world Anglicans – Bath & Wells, for example, is linked to the dioceses of Zambia and celebrates 40 years of the link this year. Though people often think of these links as ‘us’ sending stuff to ‘them’, the partnership has been fruitful in both directions.
- The basis for debate will be a research-based report on how Companion Links work (or in some cases, don’t work well).
- There will also be a push to prepare for hosting guests from the worldwide Communion before and during the 2020 Lambeth Conference.
Against the controversialism and mini-schisms around GAFCON and sexuality, this could be a positive reminder that what unites us is more significant than what people choose to divide us. We’ll see. The report is here.
Friday is a bit of a mixed bag, and continues with:
- a diocesan motion from Eds & Ips on Food Wastage. There are two interesting papers here (the diocese’s paper) and here (the Secretary’s background document). Hard to see anyone voting in favour of food wastage – motherhood and (especially) apple pie come to mind.
after lunch, Archbishop Justin will give a Presidential Address. These are always pretty substantial reflections, sometimes biblical, sometimes about world or national issues. It will be interesting to see if he pre-empts some of the safeguarding arguments by setting out his position.
- then follows a mass of legislative business. Regulars here will know that we are working through a ‘simplification’ process to try to ease the burdens of regulation on parishes. Naturally, simplification means complication – in terms of re-writing Canon Law and other rules and regs. So we’ll whizz round ecumenical rules, and what are delightfully called ‘miscellaneous provisions’. Do try and stay awake.
Inch by inch towards the Methodists
There’ll be more tension towards the end of Friday, when we look at our relationships with the Methodist Connexion and the potential for moving towards unity.
This has been around for all my 45 years observation of the C of E. Old hands will remember the unlikely combination of Colin Buchanan and Jim Packer (from the evangelical end), and Bishop Graham Leonard and Eric Mascall (from the Catholic end) writing Growing into Union in 1971. This was an attempt to explain why, for them, the then-current proposals for unity with the Methodists would not do. (There are still copies around on the internet (try here, for £3.28, or get a succinct review by the late Cyril Bowles for free!)
I drag up these historical references, because I fear that we will be hearing much the same arguments again. Despite the 2003 Anglican-Methodist Covenant, and huge progress in local working together in may places, the underlying theological issue about how Methodism can take episcopacy into its system remains.
We’ll have an address from an invited leading Methodist speaker, and then debate Mission and Ministry in Covenant – read it here. And though your heart says ‘let’s get on with it’, your head takes a different line, and that’s where the debate will get interesting: ecumenical politeness vying with theological rigour. If you want shorthand accounts of the two opposing views, try the Church Times pieces by Bishop Steven Croft (for) and Andrew Davison (against). And there’s an eirenical blog post approach from the redoubtable ‘education priest’ Fr Richard Peers here
What will we do on Saturday?
As outlined above, with Bell and Ball in the air, it’ll be interesting (to say the least) on the safeguarding front. But there is other stuff to keep us busy during our first-ever Saturday in London:
- A discussion about Religious Communities will bring to the fore both the traditional ‘monks and nuns’ Orders, as well as the various new expressions of religious life such as Lee Abbey (founded after World War II) or the Community of St Anselm (founded by Archbishop Justin). Because such communities hardly existed in the early days of the Church of England (i.e. post Henry VIII and the Prayer Book), they have little formal governance or recognition in the wider Church. So we’re being asked to set up a new Canon to give them a proper framework.
A presentation on Digital Evangelism will highlight the amazing developments in digital communication that the Church of England is pursuing. If you haven’t seen the C of E website lately – take a look. Or if you want people to find your church and know what it’s about, get into this and play around with your postcode.
- The weekend Synod will end at 4.00 on Saturday after what promises to be a moving debate on Valuing people with Down’s Syndrome. The report (read it here) is well worth looking at, and has already attracted some Press interest because of the references to NIPT. (And if you don’t know what that it – read the report!)
Real Synod nerds will have noticed that the Business Committee have gently tweaked what we used to call the Report on the Agenda this time. It’s now called Guide to the February 2018 Group of Sessions (read it here). This user-friendliness is compounded inside, where the ‘Shape of the Agenda’ is set out under four helpful headings: Standing Items, Legislative Items, Church in the world and Ordering the Life of the Church. It’s a small touch, but anything that de-mystifies the works of Synod is to be welcomed.
- In the same spirit of openness and making Synod accessible, I will, as ever, attempt a daily commentary here, and flag it up @bathwellschap on Twitter
- There will be a live video stream so, with an agenda in hand, you can watch (or just listen to) the bits you’re interested in. The Synod office will advertise the location of the videostream – keep an eye on @synod on Twitter for details.
- For just dipping in, follow @synod (official stuff) and/or @GenSyn (highly unofficial and more interesting..?), or just #synod on Twitter
All the Synod documents are available here (you can download the lot, or just the ones you’re interested in). And if you’re in London, you can come and sit in the gallery and watch the fun! Even on a Saturday, if you’re not at work…
PS: Cathedrals and change
A document that is not up for debate, is the preliminary report on how Cathedral governance works (or possibly, sometimes, does not work…). It has some pretty hefty recommendations for change, and if you don’t think that ‘change’ and ‘cathedral’ belong in the same sentence, you probably ought to read it – and take part in the consultation exercise, which is web-based.
The report is here.
* Stay was the Hollies first top ten hit in early 1964, though it’s a 50s doo-wop song. It’s all about the guy trying to persuade his girlfriend not to go home just yet with the deeply philosophical line “Well your mama don’t mind, bop-bop-shu-waddah-waddah”‘ If you’ve never heard of it, there’s an energetic live version from a BBC radio show here. It’s been covered by plenty of people, including Jackson Browne. A version appears in the film Dirty Dancing.