The General Synod can make laws. Not many people know that. It’s a power given to the Church of England as the Established Church 99 years ago in the Enabling Act. So every now and then we examine or sign off new Measures. Don’t worry, we can’t make laws about parking or taxes or very much – except things affecting church life. And this Monday we did a lot of it in the afternoon. As the next line of the song goes: ‘and the law won’. It was a long session that wore most of us down.
Head Office is here to help…
But we began with annual meeting type stuff. First a well-meaning but slightly anodyne presentation from two lay members of the Archbishops Council. It rather had the flavour of a report from Head Office telling the troops everything is going well at the centre, but it was illustrated by some very good videos, including the heart-rending car wash one about exploited slave workers. Have a look here to see the vocations video and here for the modern slavery in car washes video – highly recommended.
There was a grumble that the videos had no subtitles,, making it very hard for the Deaf Anglicans Together members. It’s a sign of how nimble Church House Comma has got that within 30 minutes, a tweet told us they had put subtitled versions of the videos up online, with apologies.
Then the rumbustious John Spence, Chair of the Archbishops Council Finance Committee came on to present the budget.
…but we have to get the money right
His brief was to present the Archbishops Council budget – i.e. the plans and costs for central church resources. After some jokes – as usual – came the bad news: parish finances are under pressure in a way that has not been seen recently: the stats on planned giving and parish reserves are not looking good. In the middle of our structures stand the dioceses, from whom he reported nervousness about finance and confidence. But then he launched into a quickie list of good news stories – ordinands numbers, take-up of the church website and lots more. We are not seeing the harvest yet, but we are investing for a good future, was his approach. “I am brimming with confidence!” he said.
The proportion of money coming from the dioceses will reduce from 93% to 76% next year – thanks to cooperation and support from partners such as the Commissioners, the EIG and the Corporation of Church House. (The latter are giving £2m to the Council in this budget.) He is looking for a financial strategy that will give an equitable solution to the Council’s concerns: there will need to be prioritisation at the centre: they will be looking out for opportunities and needs. More ordinands mean increased support required. Safeguarding needs more resource. The detailed budget is no secret: anyone can read it here.
John Spence can be funny, and he can be combative. He channelled the spirit of Bishop John Curry in a barnstorming summing-up.
He then put himself on the line by saying “If you want a Chair who balances the books while the C of E goes down the plughole, I’m not that man” (That at least is the gist of what he said, as Beyond the Fringe’s classic sermon would say – I don’t have an accurate quote).
He sat down to thunderous applause.
In discussion people said
- Is it right to take money from the Church House Corporation while they host a major arms fair? John Spence noted they are an independent charity, and it was a British Army event: we should support them. But he also noted the Council are tenants: the Corporation are our landlords.
- Planned giving is falling partly because millennial generation don’t work that way: we need to address giving amongst younger people. A genuine millennial, Annika Mathews pointed out that church and job mobility is important for them: we need to go to direct debits and touch card machines. An older person said they also have student debt and unattainable mortgages to worry about.
- New financial arrangements for theological training are giving huge problems for colleges and courses, especially for candidates over 40.
Needless to say, the budget was approved. There has to be a series of quick-fire votes on the various elements, so for five minutes it looked a bit like Ceausescu’s Politburo, with massed shows of hands in favour of what the Leadership were proposing.
Law-makers and law-breakers
The legislative business followed – a long gruelling session with detailed amendments when dedicated ‘backbench’ members tried to improve or change the proposals before us. The range of subject areas was huge.
We signed off new ecumenical relationship arrangements, and some very detailed changes to the law about funeral provision, Church Commissioners’ powers to support the wider church, and more. It’s not called the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure for nothing.
It got really exciting after that when we moved on to two draft Measures about church property and pensions for clergy. The general plan is draw together (‘consolidate’) a patchwork of legislation which has accumulated over many years. Should you be so moved, a glance at GS2083A will give you the idea. If you are really keen, the pages on pages of details of textual amendments can be seen via this webpage (scroll down) , but I’m not going to encourage you…) A couple of examples of the detailed nature of this stuff:
- the Property measure allows church lawyers to work as ordinary ones do – exchanging documents electronically. (It is only a rumour that current rules permit nothing but vellum and parchment.)
- Someone has discovered a lacuna in current pensions law that means it is not strictly legal to pay retiring clergy their lump sums should they take early retirement. So that has to be fixed.
So the Measures sort these things out. It’s a tidying up exercise. Paradoxically, such complications are all about our simplification agenda.
Vote, vote, vote…
The Church Representation Rules (CRC) are the Bible for people who are involved in, er, Church Representation: that is, PCCs, Synods, and all that. They set out who is eligible for a post, how they should be elected, and for how long, and so on. They have been completely revised to take account of the possibility of electronic voting (e.g. for Diocesan Synod) and make all sorts of detailed alterations to procedures. Wherever possible, they have simplified procedures and devolved things down where that can be done.
This is deeply tedious to many, but absolute manna to some. Not because they are sad nerdy types, but because they care about how our church is, under God, governed. Most church members won’t ever need to read them (you can see the draft being discussed here), but the CRC are the safety nets that stop the church being ruled by power-hungry churchwardens, inefficient clergy or dozy PCC secretaries. There are rules, which are there for everyone’s good. One good new aspect was that there will be a set of model rules for a PCC to use, which may help prevent some of the haphazard PCC management that still happens in some places, in an era when they are increasingly subject to Charity Commission oversight.
We did a lot of voting. The football-loving Bishop of Willesden, Pete Broadbent, was an early speaker. As the man who led the simplification work at its early stages, he wanted us to sing “Simplifications coming home!“. His speech was to warn us to avoid nit-picking, unlike the last time the CRC were revised, when there were detailed discussions that took for ever and pulled the original plan apart. So he wanted people to avoid insisting on specific changes that would suit their own context, in order to keep some universality across the whole church, but with room for flexibility.
There was some tangential discussion about the allegedly nefarious acts of the diocese of London in the case of the PCC of St Mary le Strand in London (the new rules would stop that ever happening again), and then we got into some (very) detailed amendments – nearly all of which failed.
Some further first proposals for tidying up or improving aspects of church life followed that, and it was with a sigh of relief that we got back to normal with a proper debate about the NHS.
We love and care for the NHS
It was one of those Synod debates when we had a number of real experts in the Chamber, including, of course, Bishop Sarah Mulally, once Chief Nursing Officer for the NHS. At one level there were no surprises:
- we all love the NHS, but it is a political football
- expectations have risen, at an even greater rate than medical advances
- the age profile means social care must be sorted out
- funding is insufficient for current needs
- NHS staff are often stressed and feeling unwell, with unrealistic expectations put on them
- there was a really brilliant speech by open of the Church of England Youth Council reps about the moral basis for what the NHS does.
Bishop Sarah took the discussion to deeper level, talking about the NHS as an inspiring act of empathy, a huge contributor to the common good, and a place where the vulnerable are cared for. Other speakers reminded us we are all NHS users, and spoke of their own special knowledge of hospital staffing, working as a physio or surgeon, and so on.
The paperwork for this debate, brought by the Bishop of Carlisle after a motion from his diocese is here. He is the lead bishop on health issues, and speaks in the Lords for the Church on them. The Carlisle motion’s approach was based on last year’s House of Lords Select Committee report with the emphasis was on the long-term sustainability and related social care matters, rather than any short term issues or ethical areas. By the wonders of the Internet, read the Lords report here. Central Church House staff had also prepared a background note.
The debate ended with a slight damp squib feeling because the day’s timetable had rather got messed up by the very long legislation debates. We also had a surprise visitor after lunch, the Archbishop of South East Asia, the Most Revd Moon Hing. So we had to drop two items (an evangelisation discussion and the Church Commissioners report). They may re-appear in the morning) and the NHS debate was squashed into 50 minutes instead of the more normal 90 minutes one might expect. That meant we did not get to hear from people with experiences of the service, or explore in depth any views about how it can be sustained, long-term.
The long-running law debates mean something had to give, and it was a planned debate on a report from the Evangelism Task Group. Late-night bar conversations indicated some frustration amongst those who feel that Synod should put its energy into evangelism at a time when church attendance is falling. But there was resigned acceptance from those actually involved in the work. The debate will happen in when we meet again in February. In the meantime, you can read their report here.
The last night of a York Synod is a time for reviewing, planning, holy gossip and farewells. In an ad hoc group in the Vanbrugh bar, consisting of two old hands, one Bishop, two journalists and a Church House staffer, we did all those things. We decided that Synod is much less ‘tribal’ than in the dark days of the women Bishops votes; that legislation was a pain, but necessary; and discussed the problem of clergy career progression (or lack of it).
That’s what’s good about General Synod. We finish tomorrow lunchtime with the Church Commissioners report, dealing with the Cathedrals reforms, and some farewells. Trains permitting, I’ll report by the end of the day.
If you want a different take on Synod, try Synod new member Rachel Mann’s first impressions here. And talking of Synods, our Bath & Wells Diocesan Synod summer meeting on Wednesday night has been rescheduled to start and finish earlier… I wonder why.
* I fought the law, and the law won a 1966 hit for the Bobby Fuller Four. Written in 1958 by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets! I’ve still got my 45 rpm vinyl single. (Younger readers may know it was also done by the Clash in 1979…)