Glastonbury it ain’t. But there’s always a certain degree of relaxed behaviour and dress at the July meeting of the General Synod in York.
We meet at 2.00 on Friday and run through until Tuesday lunchtime. But despite the comedy value (and the horror) of bishops in shorts and leading laypeople in Hawaiian shirts, this coming weekend will not be all smiles and Kylie. On certain fronts, it’ll be a bit more Stormzy. When it comes to safeguarding, human sexuality and ecumenism, there are certainly some troubled waters to come…
There’s an app for that!
When I tell people I am shortly off to General Synod, I’m often asked “What’s coming up this time?” It’s a hard question to answer, because (as you will see from this preview post) the agenda is very varied. There’s rarely one ‘headline’ item.
But it’s now easier than ever for anyone to see what Synod is up to. We’ve gone terribly transparent. In addition to a live video stream, twitter updates, and all that, General Synod is now available on an app that means anyone (not just Synod members) can see:
- the agenda and timetable
- the detailed documents and papers for each item.
So the General Synod App is a free way to keep abreast of the whole Synod, or just check up details on a particular item you may want to know about. It’s great for the timetable, etc, though you probably need a tablet to make reading the actual papers easy. I recommend it highly as a backup (but not a substitute...) for blogs like this.
It’s available via Google Play or the Apple App Store. It’s a Really Good Thing, though it only works on Apple and Android devices, not your home PC… Find out more and download it from here
Friday: the warm-up
The initial sessions on Friday afternoon always have a pre-match feel to them. We switch from looking outwards (with addresses from guests) to navel-gazing ( with a debate on the Agenda and Questions.
Our visiting speakers will be
- the Evangelical Lutheran Bishop of Ribe in Denmark (will he reflect on B****t?)
- the Worldwide President of the Mothers’ Union, Sheran Harper. Mrs Harper is from Guyana, and is the first holder of her office not to come from the British Isles.
The inward-looking stuff starts with the Debate on the Agenda – formally the Report by the Business Committee (GS2130 – read it here. Or you could just tap on it on your newly-downloaded General Synod App…). This is an opportunity for the Business Committee, via their Chair, Canon Sue Booys, to explain why they have shaped the agenda in the way they have, and for members to ask questions about it. What’s more usual is that people pop up to to complain that a particular topic has been left out.
This debate can be rather irritating, as people grind their personal axes, but equally it can help members to get a better understanding of why things have been set up the way they have.
There’s some formal business to be done too – ‘signing off’ a new Canon; final drafting of another one, before an initial short debate about reforming the way Diocesan Boards of Education are set up. This is a real specialist subject for some people, especially if they are involved in church schools or Multi-Academy Trusts. It’s certainly not my specialist subject, so I merely refer you to the paper explaining it all (GS2131 – read it here or look at it on the App)
Sexuality: our Brexit?
Long-stay readers of this blog will know that the Synod in recent years has adopted the pattern of not having formal set-piece debates (let alone legislation) on human sexuality, same-sex relationships, and related topics. This, despite the pleas by some members that we ‘get on with it‘. In that respect, human sexuality is the Church’s very own Brexit kerfuddle.
Instead of debates, then, we have been having ‘offline’ discussions, workshops and seminars. It’s an approach that helped no end when we were in the mire over women and the episcopate: whether it works for this remains to be seen.
Anyway, on Saturday we’ll go offline for a series of workshops and seminars about ‘Living in Love and Faith‘ and the Pastoral Advisory Group’s work – two elements in the current background work being done on human sexuality issues. So on Friday we’ll have the programme for these events set out for us. There are three seminars and a Bible Study, as well as a ‘pastoral principles’ conversation, and we members can perm any three from five events.
The paper GS Misc 1217 explaining the five events is here (yes, you know, or on the App…) We’ll have a presentation to explain what’s planned, followed by questions from the floor. Expect some prickly questioning.
It’ll be interesting on Saturday to see the turnout at these events. It’s really easy to hide and not go to them – everyone will just think you are at a different event to them. And the temptations to stay away are manifold:
- Sri Lanka v India and Australia v New Zealand in the Cricket World Cup
- Womens’ Football World Cup playoffs, in which the Lionesses are playing
Diversionary thought: We tend to talk about ‘actors’ nowadays, not ‘actresses’. And we certainly don’t talk about ‘priestesses’. So why are they the ‘Lionesses’? Just wondering.
Sadly, there will also be some Synod members who do not engage with these discussions because they already know what they think and what the right answers are…
But back to Friday…
Questions comes at the end of all the above business. They last an hour or more: always lively, sometimes probing, occasionally very flat. The Questions are now published so you can download them here (and make up your own preferred answer if you wish…) There’ll be some grumbles that the deadline for submitting your Question was a week earlier this year, so that many of the Synod papers were not available to members before they had to get their Questions in. There’s a reason for that: we are at the mercy of IICSA’s timetable.
IICSA, you will recall, is the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. They have an area of inquiry into ‘the Anglican Church’ (i.e. the C of E and the Church in Wales), which has been looking at case studies including the diocese of Chichester and Bishop Peter Ball (who died just two weeks ago).
By an unfortunate clash of dates, IICSA’s final two weeks of hearings into Anglican matters is happening either side of Synod’s York weekend. This has two undesirable consequences for Synod.
- the Safeguarding and Legal staff teams will have been very hard-pressed preparing for IICSA, with little space for prepping up answers to Synod questions at the same time.
- Peter Hancock, the lead Bishop on Safeguarding, (disclaimer: he is Bishop of Bath and Wells and my former boss) has to be in London at the hearings from Monday to Friday of both weeks. severely limiting his ability to be in York.
The Business Committee therefore decided to
- bring the Questions deadline forward by a week to at least try to deal with (1)
- to chop Questions into two sessions to deal with (2).
So Friday’s Questions will be all subjects except safeguarding, and on Sunday there will be a separate Safeguarding Questions session. Bishop Hancock will be able to escape from London to be in York for the weekend, so safeguarding questions (always very sharp, always very tense) will be taken on Sunday afternoon. If you’ve downloaded them, you’ll see there are 19 of them, covering a lot of ground.
Safeguarding and Synod
I understand that there were early conversations with IICSA to try and avoid the clash, but it was not possible. But the way things have worked out means there’ll be even more focus on safeguarding failures (and safeguarding reforms) than would otherwise be the case:
- IICSA will generate a lot of media coverage, and their forensic questioning of witnesses all through this week will highlight cases and systems in a way that will put a lot of pressure on Synod’s discussions.
- For example, the Bishop of Buckingham gave evidence on Tuesday, attacking the way the Church handles safeguarding at present, and criticising the Bishops’ roles in Clergy Discipline Measure cases. The Church Times account of his evidence is here.
- There’s also been that fairly explosive letter from the senior clergy of the Blackburn diocese, letting rip at the way things have been dealt with. Read it here.
- IICSA issue nightly transcripts of all their hearings – find them here. So anyone who wants to will know exactly what’s been said in London this week.
- If there have been revelations at IICSA – such as Wednesday’s evidence from the Bishop of Chester, people at Synod will want to refer to them – though what the platform party can say about them is not clear to me.
- Victims and survivors will be looking at the Sunday session for answers, which, in the timescale available, is likely to prove frustrating for them.
The paper preparing us for the safeguarding presentation (GS2134 – read it here) is interesting, but by its very nature (it’s billed as a ‘Progress Report’ on the work on the National Safeguarding Steering Group’) it can’t get into detail or personal stories. However, it talks about work going on in these areas:
- Support and care for victims and survivors
- Clergy selection, suitability and discipline
- A range of ‘governance’ issues, including oversight and enforcement. Enforcement – that’s a very non-Church of England word. Or it has been, till now.
- strengthening the national team, as well as increasing independence in major investigations, such as one into the late Bishop Whitsey of Chester.
There’s a lot of work going on in the background to follow this through – and unusually, it is being discussed in a more open way than hitherto.
For example, the Independent Chair of the National Safeguarding Panel, Meg Munn, (a former MP) has blogged in some detail about conversations on the need for further reform of the Clergy Discipline Measure – read her here. Open sharing of ideas is probably a Very Good Thing.
A fellow-Synod member, Martin Sewell, has written a challenging piece on the Archbishop Cranmer blog, in the light of IICSA’s previous attention to Peter Ball’s crimes about recent revelations in the Evangelical end of Anglicanism – read it here.
All this, together with the recent death of Bishop Peter Ball means it will be a sober session, with angst, anguish and anger. You’ve got to feel sorry for Bishop Hancock and the national safeguarding team cramming an intense Synod session in between two intense weeks in London.
Saturday: youth violence and clergy wellbeing
These two topics are not immediately related!
The ‘Responding to Serious Youth Violence (SYV)’ debate (read the informative paper GS2132 is here) will without doubt bring forth some very difficult stories, and has already attracted much media coverage around the (rather simplified) image of churches opening their doors to young people involved in gang culture, knife crime, etc.
If you actually read the paper, you will see that under the subtitle No Easy Answer, it points the finger of blame for SYV at the massive rise in school exclusions and the significant losses of youth services as the problem that sensational and speculative headline coverage misses or ignores.
To quote the paper (para 8):
“The root causes of SYV are complex, however this ‘speculation’ has helped to create a stereotype of a young person vulnerable to, or involved in, SYV. Actually SYV is
• Not simply an urban issue
• Not simply ‘black on black crime’
• Not simply reserved to young people involved in gang activity
• Young women can be both victims and perpetrators of SYV”
The Revd Canon Dr Rosemarie Mallett, a South London priest who has been much-interviewed about this topic will introduce the debate. Despite the whole ‘countylines’ drug problems affecting everywhere now, those of us from ‘comfortable’ shire county backgrounds will learn a lot in this debate.
When it comes to Clergy Wellbeing, Synod will hear a presentation from the working group that has brought forward the concept of a covenant for clergy wellbeing, in response to various indicators of clergy stress and breakdown that are apparent to many of us. The supporting paper (GS2133 – read it here or on the App) is the end product of work done with clergy, laity, mental health and other specialists, with the co-operation of the highly regarded Society of Martha and Mary’s Sheldon Community in Devon. Sheldon offer specialist resources for people in ministry – you can read about their work here.
A cleverly-crafted motion calls for a programme to ensure implementation, rather than a simple expression of support for ‘motherhood and apple-pie’ statements.
It will be hard for anyone to speak against better support for clergy under pressure – but there may be some lay comment with the ecclesiastical equivalent of “what about the workers” – i.e. let us not forget the pressure on so many volunteer church officers and workers.
Methodism: can we bridge that gap?
Sunday afternoon will also bring a fascinating discussion about our relationships with the Methodist Church. I am not old enough to remember the 1946 clarion call from Archbishop Fisher to the Free Churches to ‘take episcopacy into their system’, but I dimly recall the failure of the 1960/70s Anglican-Methodist Unity scheme between the two churches. Now there is a new attempt to bridge the gap.
The bridge is what is called ‘recognition of ministries’, and its two pillars are episcopacy (i.e. bishops) and presidency at Communion. The two reports (Mission and Ministry in Covenant GS2135) and a Faith and Order Commission Note GS 2086) spell out how such a bridge might be built. Phrases like ‘Receptive Ecumenism‘ and ‘ecclesial repentance‘ litter the document, but the meat of debate will be around specifics.
To be blunt, for some Anglicans the question will be: do existing Methodist ministers need to be (re-)ordained? Or can we have some ‘bearable anomalies’ – undoubtedly to be characterised by someone in a debate as ‘fudge’ – which will let us move forward on the unity path.
- for some, despite an ongoing Covenant with Methodism, the whole thing is as ill-fated as previous plans, because it requires all this carefully nuanced recognition of non-episcopally ordained people as ministers and presidents at Communion.
- By another calendrical coincidence, the Methodist Conference has been meeting this week in Birmingham, and one of their hot topics is moving towards permitting same-sex marriages in Methodist churches. You can be pretty sure speakers in our debate will reference that – some commending Methodism, others bewailing the move.
- There’s a helpful article from my friends at the Church Times giving a Methodist perspective on all this. Read it here.
Quite apart from the controversial stuff, there’s a very practical section in paper GS2135 that anyone with Methodist counterparts on their patch ought to read.
Any other business..?
On the theory that even hardened readers of this blog cannot bear too much
reality preview, I will skip over Monday and Tuesday’s business: you will have to wait until it happens. Except to say that:
- anyone with an interest in reforming Cathedrals will want to be tuned in on Monday morning when the latest proposals are up for debate. GS2136x covers the ground, along with (for a revealing look at current Cathedral thinking) GSMisc1223.
- Also on Monday: the finances of the Archbishops Council and Church Commissioners are ever-closer drawn together in the pursuit of mission. I am tempted to say ‘loadsamoney‘ is being proffered to support all the shiny new curates and pioneer/fresh expressions that are being developed across the dioceses.
- On Tuesday morning we’ll return to Setting God’s People Free and ministry to the frail elderly and dementia sufferers.
Finally, one little piece of fun for anyone in a diocese reading this. As part of the opening up of Synod, we now publish lists of those who have spoken, and how many times they have spoken. (Find the lists in GSMisc1218 here.) So, for the February 2019 London sessions they are colour-coded from Red (speak most) to Grey (spoke once). To declare an interest: I am Blue this time (spoke twice).
This will enable you to play a new form of Synod Bingo: check out who the most loquacious people are, and who from your own diocese speaks this time, and shout ‘House!’ if you get a full set.
Seriously, the lists are interesting, as are breakdowns of what sort of people spoke most. And with Synod elections just over a year away, you can see whether your representation is effective in debate. (Note, though: many members speak little, but contribute greatly in other ways.)
To follow Synod from 2.30 on Friday:
- There are, as always, plenty of links to relevant materials on theever-helpful Thinking Anglicans website: see their early preview here
- The live video stream will appear here
- Twitter has a number of running
I’ll post a summary of Friday overnight, ready for your inbox on Saturday. If you’re forgetful, just click on the ‘Follow’ button to the right of this page, and you’ll get an automatic reminder.
* A bridge over troubled water. Simon and Garfunkel (well, mostly Garfunkel) 1970, from the classic album of the same name.