Well, this is a first. General Synod has been in existence for 50 years: I’ve been on board for 16 or so – and the bathwellschap blog has been running for 8.
But never before have we failed to meet in person.
Normally, this preview piece is written at home, among a pile of papers, or (trade secret) on the train to York. But now, thanks to COVID-19, we cannot meet in person. So, instead of a five-day residential meeting among the 1960s buildings and the Canada Geese of the University of York, a very attentuated and informal Synod is to happen over just six hours on Saturday (11 July). And yes, you guessed, it’s a Zoom meeting! All we get are faces.
Formally, it’s not a General Synod meeting. There’ll be no binding votes, no anguished/tedious (delete as appropriate…) debates. No fringe meetings. No late-night bar fellowship. No liturgical grandeur in York Minster. Instead, all 450-odd of us will sit at home, staring into a screen. Many members will be nervous about trying to meet this way, and on such a scale.
Keep Calm and Carry On
I’ve been lucky: we had 115 of us at a virtual Bath and Wells Diocesan Synod ‘gathering’ on Wednesday night. Thanks to valiant work by one or two diocesan staff members, it went really well. Even when we lost the House of Laity Chair at a critical moment (rural broadband in Somerset is, er, challenging at times), a handy Archdeacon was bounced in to stand in for her, and we carried on.
For Saturday, we’ve been issued with some strict instructions on how to behave, and how it will be managed. You can read them here. For what it’s worth, my experience at the Bath & Wells virtual Synod was that the little blue hand (‘I would like to speak’) and the green and red voting buttons (‘agree/disagree’) worked well enough, though we did miss the cut-and-thrust of debate: it was all a bit of a stately gavotte, enriched by calls of ‘You’re muted’ every now and then.
It will be a challenge. Even at the simplest entry level, we’ve all got to rename ourselves on-screen according to the set pattern – the rulebook says “Synod Number space House space Name (e.g. 001 B Justin Welby)” – so Chairs and admin can speedily validate us and call us to speak. That’ll be fun. I don’t recommend doing it on your phone.
So what will our six hours be spent on? We begin and end with worship, and there’s a Presidential Address from Archbishop Justin. Amongst other things, I dare say he will talk about global aspects of the current situation (including the further postponement of the Lambeth Conference to 2022), and the eventual release of Living in Love and Faith materials, now scheduled for November.
Give me three good reasons…
There are some time-critical things that Synod normally does in July, such as the Archbishops Council Budget.
That can’t happen at an informal meeting, so there is a cunning plan to deal with it in the autumn (see later in this blog).
Three reasons for meeting virtually have been set out by the Business Committee:
- to hear how the national Church has been responding to the crisis,
- to exchange views
- to ask questions.
So, the business, such as it is, looks very thin compared to the mass of papers, motions and amendments we love so much.
1. Coping with COVID
On response to the crisis, there are two interesting documents to feed a presentation followed by questions.
It’s a sign of how fast-moving things are that the first was produced in June, over the signature of the Bishop of London, Sarah Mulally, who is chairing the national ‘Recovery’ group.
It’s worth a good look (GS Misc 1249: read it here) as it gives a snapshot of the estraordinary range of work that has been done nationally – under the most difficult working conditions – by the good old C of E.
- Like the emergency services, the National Church Institutions have set up Gold, Silver and Bronze structures to handle the flood of issues. Reading between the lines, the Bronze people have really had to struggle with government on all the ‘difficult’ issues that have been stressing parish clergy, such as closing churches, re-opening churches, marriages, funerals, etc People who grumble that the Church has disappeared during lockdown need to read this stuff.
- the House of Bishops has been having to have weekly virtual meetiongs to respond to events and swiftly changing Governmental advice/guidance/law. Paragraph 14 recognises the ‘pain and distress for many in our Church communities’. That will not be enough to defuse the anger that has emerged during lockdown, as Questions (see below) will reveal…
- As if we did not have enough capital ‘R’ letters with ‘Renewal and Reform’, Bishops Sarah’s ‘Recovery’ group is dealing with how we get out of lockdown.
- It’s not all ‘Church’ stuff: there’s a heartening section looking at the long-term damage to weaker parts of society, including economic justice in the future, ethnic minorities, care homes, social cohesion – and the climate crisis.
There’s then a second document, undated and unsigned, GS Misc 1251 (not on the web at the time of writing), which appears to be written specifically for this July Synod. UPDATE: GS Misc 1251 is now on the web: read it here. It gives a good, rounded survey of the history of COVID-19 (medical, transmission history, etc) before looking at some of the looming crises that the lockdown has disguised – missed cancer diagnoses/treatments, domestic violence incidence, and more.
2. Exchange of views
The ‘exchange of views’ is an admirable aspiration, but will be difficult in a virtual meeting. One of the joys of a normal York Synod is that you can chat to anyone, from Archbishop to ordinary lay or clerical member over a cuppa, walking to your far-distant bedroom, or late at night in the bar.
So on Saturday, conversations of that kind will have to happen in other ways (Twitter being the favourite, as Zoom Chat is being restricted to those managing the day).
3. Now that’s a good question…
Which leaves us with Questions. Always, like the curate’s egg, good in parts. 131 questions have been tabled, as opposed to 111 in our last ‘normal’ July. (That may just indicate that too many Synod members have had too much time on their hands...) As usual, the Questions and the formal Answers are published and available (read them here). The fun always begins with the supplementary questions, and, again, the Zoom format means we’ll lose some of the spontaneity and wit we usually get.
The media, searching for a story, have spotted predictions that COVID means packed churches for Christmas services may be looking unlikely. But there are deeper concerns. As ever, safeguarding questions are prominent (15 of them), and the new Lead Bishop for Safeguarding (Jonathan Gibbs of Huddersfield) will have to be on his toes. They cover everything from some LGBTI matters to the ongoing Martyn Percy/Christ Church Oxford shambles and the conduct of national Core Groups.
But the top Question topic, unsurprisingly, is COVID-19, with 30 questions. That’s almostt a quarter of the whole lot. Many of them bring out the confusion and anger (felt by some) about church closures. Many of the questions go back to decisions made in a hurry in March, pressing for answers on legal, theological and pastoral grounds. I fear there will be some heat (modulated by the stateliness of Zoom) and not much light… We’ll have an hour in the morning, and another hour after lunch.
In other news…
There is a curious paper called ‘The Emerging Church of England’. (GS Misc 1250: read it here). It’s not up for discussion on Saturday. I call it ‘curious’ because the untrained reader might think it is about ‘cell church’, ‘pioneer ministry’, ‘forest church’ and suchlike. In fact it’s a report on what the dear old C of E needs to be like in the future, and what changes need to be made at national level to enable ministry and mission in a changed world. It’s well worth a look As the paper puts it:
You have to remember this work was started before anyone had heard of coronavirus. The people doing this must be running to keep up. There are some frightening-sounding workgroups in existence: ‘Strategy’, ‘Governance’. ‘Recovery’, and even ‘Solvency and Liquidity’. It is here you will find the work to be done under Stephen Cottrell, the new Archbishop of York, which has upset some of the papers, such as the Times report: Church of England weighs up cull of Bishops
But as every parish, deanery and diocese is now aware, the ‘new normal’ will not be like to old one. So this is timely, even if overtaken by events, and in need of constant updating.
Where’s the money going?
Budgetting has suddenly become difficult. Normally we approve next years’ budget at this meeting, but as we are informal, we can’t do that. Which is probably a good thing, as the normally ebullient Canon John Spence makes plain in his Financial Update (GS 2173: read it here), the budget needs to be rewritten in the light of COVID. He talks about an ‘original‘ budget for next year, and the need to revise it in the light of COVID
The paper reveals that:
- diocesan income (very largely from Parish Share (i.e. yours and my contributions at parish churches) dropped in April and May, but not by so much as many of us feared. (11% and 8.6% compared to 2019.) Still, that is some £6,000,000.
- The Church Commissioners and Archbishops’ Council have provided ‘liquidity support’ to dioceses and cathedrals. It amounts to some £75 million, targetted at ensuring clergy stipends can be paid, and grants due to poorer dioceses are being paid over earlier than planned.
His call to reality reads strangely against the upbeat presentation of the Archbihops Council Annual Report. If you wonder what the C of E’s central bodies actually do, then you should take a look. Read it here.
And excuse me if I now go off on a diversionary paragraph about some snappy procedural stuff now. Skip the next bit (i.e. the stuff in blue) if you’re not interested in legal minutae!
The cunning plan: how to decide if you can’t meet and vote
Synod should have been dissolved after this meeting, and fresh elections should have happened this autumn. But that can’t happen becasue of lockdown. So swift footwork by the right people earlier this year got an amendment written into the government’s Coronavirus legislation to extend our existence and postpone elections for a whole year. (One of the ramifications of being an established church is that Parliament still has some role to play…) So, conveniently there is a November meeting at which the 2020 budget could be put through.
But what happens if COVID restrictions on big meetings are still in existence? No November Synod! So another cunning plan is in place. We have been sent a note (not available on the website) setting out a scheme to hold a one-day special Synod in London in September, under social distancing rules, with only 20% of members attending. It will (just) be quorate, and it can put in place a Measure to allow a virtual November Synod, if necessary, to pass legislation and budgets, even if meeting virtually.
I’m grateful to my fellow-clerical member, Caroline Ralph for spotting this- and for noting that we will have to agree among ourselves who will be the lucky 20% (that would make one of our clerics and one of our lay reps) to go to London for this anomalous mini-Synod.)
The muted Synod?
It’s going to be a strange day on Saturday. Six hours staring at a screen in my kitchen (less 45 minutes for lunch and a couple of ‘reflective pauses’) is going to be a lot more intense than even one whole day in person in York. I will miss my friends. We will all miss the togetherness of worship, debate and mealtimes.
On the other hand, there will be:
- information (about our response to COVID)
- inspiration (Archbishop Justin’s address – no pressure there, then)
- accountability (Questions).
And full credit to the Church House staff, who have put the whole thing together while all miles apart working from home. For the most part, the paperwork is as professional as if they had all been able to meet and review things in the flesh, rather than in the Spirit (as St Paul might not have put it).So do say a prayer for the front-facing Zoomers – the Chairs and the speakers; and for the backroom people too, as they keep Zoom going for 450-odd people.
- you should be able to follow a live-stream here
- the official Twitter feed is @synod. Unoffical tweets may be prolific and a lot more fun than the official record. Try #synod or @GenSyn
- the papers are (nearly) all on the C of E website here
- you can download the Synod App for Android or Apple devices. It does much the same thing as the website, but in a phone-sized package.
- Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark has a preview post here.
- I will endeavour to make some sense of it all over the weekend. You can get an email advising you the update by clicking the ‘Follow’ button at the bottom of the right-hand column on this page, and I’ll advertise the new post on twitter @bathwellschap
- Thinking Anglicans will have commment – find it here
* I’ve just seen a face: Classic early Beatles number, featured on the 1965 Help! album. Allegedly, their first all-acoustic recording. If you’ve never heard it, you’ve missed something – here it is on YouTube