People with an attitude for ecclesiastical argument wrote today off as motherhood and apple pie. It’s been a green day. An earth day. A day about investing to make money and change the world. There were three big motions:
- about using church investments to get action on transition to a low-carbon economy
- about the Church’s own environmental activities
- about nuclear weapons
The reality is that Synod is passionate about all three: and they are things that affect the Church’s role in the world. So it was a day about mission as social justice and community action: about what we mean when we talk about protecting God’s creation.
Greenwash? Or pushing for change?
There are those who criticise all this as ‘greenwash’. But we have heard first hand at previous Synods about variations in weather in many places, and rising sea levels in the Pacific Islands, and we (nearly) all accept that climate change is real. So this was a speciality debate about what we can do – beyond recycling glass bottles and turning off the heating. Large industries rely on fossil fuels and want to grow. So, getting into the boardroom is what this was about.
To make any sense of the debate about climate change and investment, you needed to have all the acronyms to hand. This was a debate about whether the NIBS should, using the TPI, backed up by the influence of the EIAG, could do more to influence big companies who are not doing enough about ‘climate change’.
- The NIBS are the Church’s National Investing Bodies: the Church Commissioners, the Pensions Board, and the Church of England Funds. Between them they are a very powerful force in the investment world.
- TPI is the Transition Pathway Initiative, an initiative that the NIBS and others have developed to track companies performance into the moves they make (if any) towards transition to a low carbon economy. The Church is a leading player in TPI coalition, which as a group has £7bn to invest.
- EIAG is the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group, which for years has been steering the NIBS towards ethical investing goals.
I’ll spare you any more acronyms. You can find the NIBS approach set out in GS 2093 – read it here). But the battle today was about whether the NIBS should continue their activities at the current rate, bringing companies son track by the threat of disinvestment and by continuing discussion with them; or whether a ‘final whistle’ target should be set so that if companies had not toed the line by a certain date (2020 was mentioned).
Oxford take on the big guns
For the NIBS, all the big guns were brought out – the dry assessments of the Chair of the Pensions Board were balanced with the fiery rhetoric of Loretta Minghella, formerly of Christian Aid, now the First Church Estates Commissioner. In a presentation, they produced statistics and quotes and stories to back their view that gradual disinvestment and continual engagement are the way.
But for the ‘get on with it’ brigade, the Bishop of Oxford made a passionate speech reminding us that the world, despite the Paris Agreement, is going in the wrong direction. Net zero emissions are not in sight. We have to put pressure on now and show companies they are in the last chance saloon.
So it was the big beasts of the C of E versus the diocese of Oxford. The two sides were very polite to each other, recognising their good motives. But it was a fight about whether the church’s influence should be used to gradually get results with big fossil fuel companies, or whether we should tell companies we are in the last chance saloon and they will lose out money if they do not make changes quickly.
For the gradualists, a six-point motion set out the plan. Their supporting paper can be read here.
For those on the ‘hurry-up’ side, an amendment from Oxford set time limits, and changed ‘start to divest’ to divest by 2020. Christian Aid, Tear Fund and others support the Oxford line, which you can see spelt out in their paper – read it here. Former Archbishop Rowan Williams weighed in over the weekend saying this is the moral approach. You may have noticed the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Stock Exchange the other day, speaking about these things. A further amendment from long-standing campaigner on this subject, Giles Goddard, looked at 2023 as a target date.
So it was a classic Synod set-piece debate about something that affects us all. For the NIBS, the Bishop of Manchester, David Walker. For the 2020 group, the Bishop of Oxford, Stephen Croft.
- Predictably, in a way the debate went around the old conundrum: is it better to influence the powers that be from inside the tent, or by walking away and shaking the dust from our feet?
- A sub-argument was that only 3 years ago the Synod went into TPI, and it would be wrong to renege on that commitment now.
- In the end, the Oxford amendment was heavily defeated, but the 2023 amendment was accepted and the motion passed by 347 votes to 4.
After that, things got a little complex…
I was not in the Chamber for the next debate, but a long and thoughtful motion from the London diocese about getting the Church, nationally and locally, to be more aware of its environmental footprint, ran into trouble. They brought forward proposals that would involve ensuring the Shrinking the Footprint programme was followed through everywhere. The details are in their paper here and the background paper here.
So they wanted a toolkit available to help all church properties calculate their CO2 emissions so they could then monitor a reduction of 42% by 2020. There was some resistance in debate from parish officers – another job to do, however worthy and important. What’s more, the motion required the Archbishops Council to “assess and furnish” the resources necessary to make it happen.
Someone at Church House smelled a blank chequebook there, so proposed an amendment simply assessing likely costs, and then coming back for permission to raise/use the money when amounts were known.
It all got a bit procedural. Despite an amendment to soften the work required, the redoubtable John Spence, Chair of Finance at the Archbishops Council wanted only to be committed to look at costs. So eventually the matter was adjourned until the February sessions in London, which gives the Council time to get out the back of the envelope and come up with some costs. However, as one or two wise hands spotted, since no motion was passed, formally, they have no mandate to even do that!
Ban the bomb…
So Synod moved on unexpectedly quickly to the next business, the ethics of nuclear weapons debate. The background to this is well explained in the paper here. Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, is a barnstorming speaker, and he was backed up by some very powerful speeches, both for retention of the nuclear deterrent, and for its abolition. A Services chaplain spoke of the men and women maintaining the deterrent.
But this motion too went all procedural with an attempt to derail it by moving to next business. This would mean the motion lapses and cannot be brought back in the life of the Synod – i.e. until 2020. But that procedural motion failed, so debate continued.
After some passionate and well-informed speeches, the motion was passed, doubtless to the chagrin of more conservative media outlets….
What are Cathedrals for?
There are lots of reservations about the Cathedrals report (read it here – it’s long…) that is coming up on Tuesday morning. It was written at speed, and plenty of those involved (residentiary canons, for example) were unhappy about that. The report makes some strong and clear recommendations about reforming the governance of Cathedrals, inserting lay non-executives into Chapter, for example.
A fringe meeting tonight explored some of the issues. Deans from Southwark (Andrew Nunn), St Paul’s (David Ison and Sheffield (Peter Bradley) spoke about their particular situations, and Eve Poole, the Third Church Estates Commissioner set out how the Cathedrals Support Group at the Commissioners intend to operate as the new legislation is prepared and put through. One of the chief concerns is what is happening to residentiary canons: they are still very upset, despite modifications to the report since its first draft. There was also nervousness: everyone is very keyed up to ensure the cathedrals communities point of view gets across – but what about other interested parties, like the dioceses?
I won’t spoil the debate by spilling the beans on what was said in detail – they’ll want to make their own points in the debate. But in vague terms:
- there is a plan for a number of workstreams to ensure nothing is forgotten – starting with theology and governance
- A degree of independence from the Bishop means freedom to do risky things, which needs to be maintained
- Endowments vary dramatically across the 42 cathedrals: all funding is complex
- religion is getting more prominent in public life – witness requests to cathedrals to host local NHS70 services.
- Cathedrals engage a broad public with a clear message: they create an atmosphere which helps parishes to flourish elsewhere. Communities are realising they need a place of faith.
Cathedral people are clearly quite worried about what may happen to change them. I think they are working hard behind the scenes to get a consensual approach from the various interested parties. A fierce debate and voting on the floor of Synod about the report would be very risky.
All dressed up…
A York Synod Sunday morning begins with attendance (optional) at York Minster’s Sung Eucharist. This is the Church of England in full fig: superb choir, breathtaking architecture, well-thought out liturgy. Getting into the Minster we walked through some cheerful protestors (about the closure of a Minster-related school).
For me, it’s a dressing up day – as a (minor and insignificant) Officer of the Synod – a Canterbury pro-Prolocutor, since you ask – I join the procession dressed in ‘Convocation Robes’ – an academic gown over my grey cassock. I take some family pride with me, as the gown is the one my father wore when he graduated with a B.Sc from Leeds University in 1938. The yellow cross on my scarf is that of Wells Cathedral, dedicated to St Andrew.
As a Yorkshire-born man, my father would have loved to see it in use, 80 years later, in York Minster.
Looking back to yesterday, the immediate heat seems to have gone from the safeguarding area.
- The official Synod press release about yesterday takes the line that we are going in the direction that IICSA has suggested.
- The Telegraph’s Olivia Rudgard (read her here) draws on a quote about ‘hostility and anger’ taken from Simon Butler’s speech,
- the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood is more interested in what happens next, with a line about the ombudsman concept (read it here).
There were some victims and survivors outside the Minster as we came and went, and they were engaging with some of us – and we with them – rather than protesting about us. That may be a straw in the wind. I do not mean that individuals’ safeguarding problems have gone away, more that the confrontational nature of exchanges in recent years has had the sting taken out, and quieter, appropriate progress may be possible for individuals and for the church as a whole.
Yesterday’s round-up has attracted some critical below-the-line comment grumbling that I did not say anything about the Bishop Bell issue. I try hard to only report and comment on things I know about or have special interest in. The point of bathwellschap is to explore and explain Synod for those who aren’t there but might be interested. I don’t do campaigning here.
People sometimes ask me why I enjoy Synod. I admit it is a minority sport. But apart from participating in church governance, one of the reasons is the extraordinary breadth of knowledge and shared faith that I find here. Tonight, for example, I spent a couple of hours in the Vanbrugh bar with a group including several Business Committee members, two Bishops, a liturgy expert and a parish priest.
The liturgist gave us a hilarious blow-by-blow account of the Synodical and backroom shenanigans that went on in the late 90s as Common Worship Communion prayers were drafted, redrafted and voted on. I now know where that eerie phrase about the silent music of your praise comes from, and how the responsive Prayer H came into being, despite opposition. The names of Stancliffe, Harries and the late Michael Perham came into it. There’s enough there to write a book.
On top of that, we discussed the prospects for the Cathedrals Report, England v Croatia, reviewed the guitar/keyboard/violin Evening Worship of tonight, and sank a few good Yorkshire beers. So, for me, Synod can be a combination of retreat, ministerial development, and seeing old friends. It is a huge privilege to share time and fellowship with these people.
Don’t miss tomorrow’s exciting episode…
* There’ll be no-one to save, with the world in a grave. A line from gravel-voiced Barry Maguire’s Eve of Destruction, one of a wave of nuclear apocalypse songs in the mid-60s. Written by P.F.Sloan. There’s a Ph.D. thesis there, which would include such gems as What have they done to the rain? (smooth harmonies and guitars from the Searchers) and Dylan’s acerbic Masters of War. The 70’s moved on to more environmental versions of the same theme, with Woodstock and Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell), and Whose Garden Was This? (Tom Paxton).