The Can(n)on’s thunder can’t prevail *

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The big deal today was Cathedrals: but before that we had to get ready to leave. The last morning of a York Synod is always slightly odd (it only lasts till lunchtime). Some people have already gone home, and there is the whole business of packing your bags up and hauling them to a storage space so the University can get into the rooms to service them. Get up, shower, hurry to Communion, a hurried breakfast and a high-speed clamber back up the hill to Alcuin College (the Siberia of the campus) to clean teeth, pack bag, get back to the store-room with it – and then to Central Hall. And all by 9.00.  I managed it by about 9.03, so worship had already started.

The Commissioners are exciting!

The late night bar grumbling about the Evangelism report being missed  out owing to yesterday’s over-runs was not manifested in spurious points of order. There was some Twittering about it, and a couple of people made clever interventions in the opening business. But we then experienced something new – an exciting report from the Church Commissioners!


New face: Loretta Minghella joined the Commissioners from Christian Aid

Loretta Minghella has now been in charge for 8 months, succeeding Sir Andreas Whittam-Smith. ‘Andreas’, as he was universally known was wise, cautious in discussion, and lugubrious when presenting a report, whether the Commissioners’ finances were up or down. He rarely strayed into the realms of theology. Loretta Minghella was rather different. Lively, passionate, sympathetic to mission…

She said she found an in-tray full of funding requests in her first week. But the Commissioners have to be careful about distribution of money – actuaries keep them on the straight and narrow. Among her remarks:

  • she recalled that in the 50s and 60s the Commissioners over-stretched themselves. However, over 10, 20 and 30 years, their investments have out-performed their benchmarks. But she
  • she returned to the impact of the ethical investment work they do in conjunction with others. “We are changing the way business does business.”
  • although last year they did not hit their ‘inflation plus 5%’ target, they are putting money in to the Archbishops Council’s strategic funding for dioceses a form of co-operation between the national bodies that has not always been the case.
  • she spoke warmly of the work of the other two leading Commissioners – Dame Caroline Spelman MP (who speaks for them in Parliament and has to take a huge range of questions about the Church in the House) and Eve Poole, the Second Estates Commissioner, who (amongst other things) will be leading on the Cathedrals reforms (see later in this post).

So she was really addressing the Commissioners’ role beyond just being investors to being supporters and enthusiasts for building the Kingdom. The Commissioners are not always greatly loved, even when they are respected for their financial performance. There’s been a tradition in Synod of taking a swipe at them at Questions or when they make a report. (I’ve done a bit of that in the past…) But they are now loved for their leading in the TPI and ethical investment work (see report on Sunday’s debates here)

This was a breath of fresh air.  And, note, all three of the Estates Commissioners are now women.

Clergy pensions sneak in…

Afterwards there was a formal motion to extend the appointment of the Chair of the Pensions Board, Dr Jonathan Spencer. Such motions usually pass without note, but Jonathan Alderton-Ford, an old Synod hand, took the opportunity to remind the Board – and Synod – of the issue raised in the House of Clergy meeting on Saturday night: the deleterious effect on clergy pensions of the decision to go into SERPS just before the Government abolished SERPS.

The effect has been to cut clergy pensions from 2/3 of the national stipend to ½. In other words, retired clergy in receipt of a pension earned from that point are worse off. (I declare an interest as a recipient of a clergy pension.) This one won’t go away if the House of Clergy’s request for a review of clergy remuneration (see the end of Saturday’s report) goes ahead. It was raised again during the Cathedrals debate that followed what is the justification for paying residentiary canons more than incumbents?

Which brings us to Cathedrals…


The Rt Revd Vivienne Faul (pic: York diocese)

Viv Faull, the new Bishop of Bristol, introduced the presentation and debate. She reminded us that she had worked in three different cathedrals over the years, and was Dean of one (York) when appointed vice-Chair of the working group. She cleverly reminded us that when the last raft of Cathedral reforms were put through, the Grand Deans of Grand Old Cathedrals were unhappy to be relegated to having the same status as the Provosts of the jumped-up ‘new’ cathedrals. But they put up with it.

She went on to give a Cook’s Tour of the things being done and said about Cathedrals at the moment:

  • there are plenty of people who love cathedrals and work for them, despite knowing their frailties and failings.
  • the current report (GS2101A -read it here) is the result of a big consultative process. (Some would dispute that, in view of the time frame; and we were told that the Bishop of Stepney, Chair of the review group had apologised to residentiary canons for lack of consultation.)
  • many of the non-legislative recommendations are already being put in place by cathedrals in a collaborative way
  • Eve Poole at the Commissioners has pulled together the work in an energetic way (see here and scroll down for more or this)
  • there is conflict between those who think cathedrals are too far from their Bishop and diocese and those who think they must maintain a healthy independence for the Bishop and the diocese.
  • relationship breakdowns and confused accountability have been part of the story of recent years.
  • special care will need to be taken with the smaller, less well-resourced and parish church cathedrals
  • to resolve the tensions in the ‘Dean and Chapter’ structure, the Report has altered the accountabilities and introduced a vice-Chair. Strategy and executive management are separated out. No one Canon will be able to frustrate the corporate decision-making.
  • cathedrals and Bishops need to work closer together for the benefit of mission and to ensure no gaps in areas like safeguarding

Her serious parting shot was to say that the way the 1990s Howe report was handled is instructive. (It was hacked about by Synod, so was not implemented as drafted.) So that explains why the current group did not want any cherry-picking of their recommendations. If Howe had been adopted in its original form, this report might not have been needed. So she hoped this Synod would not do the same thing again.

Her closing lighter remark was about the proposal to have Cathedrals regulated by the Charity Commission. Sounds a simple idea. But it may be interesting: when other ancient foundations (Oxbridge colleges) had to sign up, they found their foundation documents were in Latin!

Heavyweights come in

The Bishop of Worcester followed on. For him, this is about finishing the unfinished work in the Howe report and its patchy implementation.  He defended the proposals that were causing trouble.

  • extending Chapters is an evolutionary idea, not a revolution – it just extends the first steps into lay involvement that Howe introduced.
  • the Vice-Chair idea has been greeted with suspicion. But this is not to introduce a Bishop’s spy: the V-C carries the same trustee responsibilities and accountabilities as the rest of Chapter, and will be a ‘critical friend’ for the Dean and Chapter.

So far, so official. But the heavyweight floor speakers came next: David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s, Eve Poole, Second Church Estates Commissioner, and Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark

David Ison was very kind about the report at first, with 5 points to register:

  1. Greater accountability is welcomed: and he cheekily asked if parish clergy and Bishops would accept similar accountability? In some places where there is a vice-Dean, a vice Chair might conflict with the vice Dean. So they want further consideration of the lay vice-Chair idea – it’s not the right accountability
  2. We welcome stronger accountability, but we notice nobody wants to actually do it: the  Church Commissioners do not see it as their role, and the Charity Commission may not either.
  3. There must be flexibility in implanting the report: the 42 cathedrals are very different in size, resourcing, buildings issues and so on.
  4. Specifically, he believed the implementation by the central group must have representation from Deans: to consult and work together needs more time.
  5. The report states the praying heart of a cathedral is also its governance heart. That must be maintained.

Eve Poole, Third Church Estates Commissioner is the focus for greater activity in ensuring implementation. She has set up workstreams within the Commissioners, but with representation for all the bodies with an interest in cathedrals – clergy, fabric, finance, residentiary canons, and so on. She will ensure all cathedrals and the central group walk in step.

Nervousness about the speed of work meant that everyone gave a sympathetic hearing an amendment moving the date for the first draft new Measure from next February’s Synod to July. That will give Eve Poole’s group more time to consult and plan well.


Mediaeval: this stonework in Wells probably represents cleric and others from the past

But Andrew Nunn used the amendment to spell out the annoyance that was felt across many Cathedrals at the original time-scale and lack of consultations, particularly with and about residentiary canons He quoted Archbishop Justin’s mantra that ‘Cathedrals are safe places to do risky things in Christ’s service’. And he saw the insertion of a vice Chair as restricting that freedom. So he would vote for the motion ‘with reluctance’.

With the big guns out of the way, a general debate ensued. We heard:

  • the power of prayer is the beating heart of the Cathedral.
  • in some overseas places the lay vice-chair is a benefit that works.
  • there is deep suspicion of the vice-chair as ‘the Bishop’s nark’
  • communicating all this must be done very carefully – remembering the Daily Mail’s ludicrous report about selling off cathedrals. If you’re in need of a good laugh, read it here.
  • bishop’s oversight is to be welcomed: it is preferable to no contact between cathedral and Bishop.
  • the contrasts between different Cathedrals must be taken into account in the final Measure – Pete Wilcox, former Dean of big-city Liverpool and a canon at small-city Lichfield cited them as examples
  • the need for stronger financial management must be built into governance
  • cathedrals are places where the gospel can be ‘overheard’ by all who visit or attend events

Barchester Towers totters?


Cathedrals are great survivors: Wells’ scissor arches date from 1338-48

As I see it, the things that the ‘cathedral community’ are cross about are largely about management and governance, as well as about the process so far.

But they do not amount to the end of Cathedral civilisation as we know it. Three points emerged for me:

  1. a running concern of Deans and Chapter members is the insertion of a vice-Chair who will take the Chapter chair in the absence of the Dean. Despite Viv Faull’s clear statement that a vice-Dean must act as any trustee should – in the Cathedral’s interest, not the Bishop’s, they clearly have not ‘got’ this
  2. the timescale for getting a Measure off the ground is worrying some. Cathedrals do tend to move at a glacial pace, of course. Did you ever see a verger running? Eve Poole has clearly got an energetic set-up ready in the Cathedrals Support Group at the Commissioners, and it appears on paper to be well-resourced. But everyone in the Cathedral world is busy, and chasing off to London for meetings at short notice is not easy. December, for example, is a non-time to get anything done except the essentials. So delaying presenting a draft Measure until July will create space for better consultation and better drafting. It settled some beating hearts – the people who were worried that we were in too much of a hurry.
  3. Shades of Barchester do hang around the proposed tightening up around residentiary canons. In some cases true collegiality is hard to find, with some independent spirits doing their own thing and not the corporate thing. There were grumbles from the floor that the £2,000 uplift on stipend they get is unjustifiable. But making them more accountable and collegiate is clearly not liked by some.

Homeward thoughts

Now the July sessions are over, apart from the business transacted – and I’ve written more than enough about that – there are or two reflections to offer:

Sophis CEYC

CEYC group at York Minster (pic: Sophie)

The young members from the Church of England Youth Council (CEYC) have been more prominent than I remember them being for some years. If you don’t know what CEYC is, look here. There have been some very good speeches from their reps, and they have engaged with us oldies more than used to be the case. And there’s Sophie’s blog, too.

In debates, we have a sprinkling of fairly new Chairs, but all the Chairs seem to have upped the quotient of maiden speeches. This prevents ‘the usual suspects’ (I am potentially one of those in certain matters) hogging the floor, and it widens the range of voices and experiences we hear. That’s good.

Saul Bellow Chapel

The Chapel has not has Vera Lynn before…

I spoke on Friday’s debate on the agenda about the importance of the early Communion service each day. (That brought about the delightful and bizarre Vera Lynn moment on Saturday morning…)

In the event, the service at 07.00 attracted between 30 and 40 people each day (as far as I could count).

But I met several people who had breakfast meetings and suchlike who still could not fit in prayer, breakfast and whatever their meeting was and be ready to go in the Hall at 09.00.

And that’s not the only timings issue. I think the Business Committee need to look carefully again at this.

  • Taking food away from fringe meetings has two bonuses: it saves money, and it helps people to meet and chat over food. The Synod Alpha effect, if you like.
  • On the other hand… It means the pressure on dining halls is increased. Vanbrugh was certainly too crowded to be pleasant at times – just too many people crammed in, and the queues made eating less pleasant all round. Not everyone had time to sit in the bar and sip a gin while waiting for the queues to diminish. What actually happened was that people with an evening fringe meeting were skipping evening prayers to get into eat in order to be somewhere else at 8.00. If you stayed to pray, you could not do it, so you got to your meeting late. And friends, the story is true. I know. I was that soldier. +

I don’t know what the solution is (or I would suggest it), but it is just a bit too cramped.

My late-night chats with the journalists and old Synod hands (no names, no packdrill. I must protect my sources…) revealed a very interesting observation from the hacks. They think that compared to five or six years ago, there is very little tribalism in Synod now. And I think they are right. You would see blocks of traditional Catholics sitting together, eating together, drinking together. Equally, protagonists for women in ministry would often keep together, as would the evangelicals. That doesn’t happen now.

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People sit more randomly, they chat over meals with whoever happens to be at their table, and the whole atmosphere is more collegial. The Shared Conversations and this weekend’s seminars have doubtless helped with that. That bodes well for the difficult times ahead.

Other blogs are available…

As ever, I am surprised at the take-up to this blog, originally started in July 2012 to help interested people keep up with the progress in the women bishops debates. Now it simply gives a daily update when Synod is in session. People have been kind enough to say they like the detail I give (not that I give a lot now) and the ‘light touch’. The Law and Religion blog even went so far as to describe it as “essential reading for anyone seeking an unbiased analysis of events at General Synod”. (Gosh. Do they mean me?)

WordPress gives me stats of who’s visiting the blog (not personal data, obv.) As of Tuesday afternoon (when I wrote this on the train home), bathwellschap has clocked up 1067 visitors over the weekend of this Synod, with 1925 page views. Readers (or at least, skimmers) are from the UK for the most part (just over 1,000 visitors), but the country roll includes Argentine, Nigeria, the Philippines and Japan.

  • I put considerable time and effort into providing links to the key documents or other sources when I have finished drafting each day’s post. That’s what keeps me up late at night.
  • My thinking was to help people get behind the initial coverage and see stuff for themselves – to improve their understanding and interest. But if nobody wants the links, I can save myself a lot of time and get a lot more sleep if I don’t bother.
  • So it’s been gratifying this time around to see a slightly higher take-up of the links. And don’t ever be cautious about clicking on a link. Use them or lose them.

But I am not the only person doing this. So you might want to look up some other Synod bloggers. It’s not a competition: the whole point is to communicate Synod to those outside who want to know what goes on (I hope this blog will encourage more people to stand in elections in 2020, for a start). And, let us be honest, it’s a way of self-affirmation and saying ‘I am here!’ to the wider world.

  • Sophie Ann Florence from the Church of England Youth Council gives a newcomers’ impressions of joining in as a member of the CEYC delegation.
  • Andrew Williams, a lay member from Coventry does a daily report – which is a lot easier to read than this one…
  • Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark and a much-admired Chair of many debates does a daily Synod blog too– it’s more ruminative and reflective than bathwellschap and ends with a prayer each day. Good stuff.
  • Rachel Mann is a new clergy rep from Manchester and she’s blogged about her first Synod. She’s craftily included the text of her maiden speech and explained how it feels to be called to speak without much warning.
  • Charlotte Gale, a Coventry clergy rep normally blogs her Synod report once she gets home
  • The other place to go for info and comment about General Synod is Thinking Anglicans. They link to official documents, etc. – and have a lively below-the-line conversation about current matters. And they link to bathwellschap, which is largely why I get such a good readership, though Twitter does well. (You can get an automatic notification of a new bathwellschap post by clicking the ‘follow’ button in the right-hand column near the top of this post.)

And finally…

Lastly, as I was writing this I was accosted by William Nye, the Secretary General, and we had a quick chat about my current hobby-horse – the centenary of the 1919 Enabling Act. (See Friday’s report – scroll down to ‘A moment of fame’.) This was the law that gave the Church at national level the freedom to make laws, subject only to some riders (such as the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament in certain areas). At local level, it revived lay participation by inventing PCCs and (I think) the House of Laity in the Church Assembly, the precursor to General Synod. We’ll see what can happen, though time is now too short for the proper book I had hoped for.

Bathwellschap will be back for the February General Synod, and I may follow up my posts about IICSA by posting something about the hearings into Peter Ball that happen at the end of this month, though it won’t be done on the day.

As the man used to say on the wireless (or nearly so) – If you have been, thanks for reading.


* The cannon’s thunder can’t prevail. OK, so I cheated on the spelling! But I couldn’t resist. It’s from You will be my ain true love, as sung by Sting and Alison Krauss in the 2003 film Cold Mountain

+ “And friends, the story is true…” If that phrase seems familiar… it’s the spoken pay-off to Wink Martindale’s version of Deck of Cards, the sentimental song about the soldier who justified his pack of cards by explaining how each aspect represents some element of the Christian story. “And when I see the four aces, I am reminded of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John..” etc. etc

Image | This entry was posted in 2018: July - York, General Synod and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Can(n)on’s thunder can’t prevail *

  1. guywilkinson says:

    Thank you very much for your posting which I find really helpful to keep up to speed with Synod as a retired clergy. I have been in many dioceses over the past 30 years and have been surprised at the almost complete absence of contact by Synod representatives with their constituents either before or after Synod.
    I was also interested in and thankful for your comment that this Synod seemed less tribal than previous ones

    Best wishes

    Canon Guy Wilkinson
    21A The Close
    Salisbury SP12EB

  2. Pingback: General Synod – Tuesday – Thinking Anglicans

  3. Roger Antell says:

    ‘Did you ever see a verger running?’
    Yes, in St David’s Cathedral. I do understand you are talking CofE.

  4. Maureen Allchin (ex GeS says:

    Thanks for all your hard work in producing your blog. I have enjoyed and appreciated it.

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