Well, this was certainly a groundbreaking General Synod meeting. We had hi-intensity nose-blowing, a barking dog, de-muting instructions and all the other perquisites of a Zoom gathering. Around 400 members joined in: we saw one zooming (sorry!) along in his car watching on his phone. Fortunately, he wasn’t driving. People were dealing with toddlers, sitting in their gardens, or carefully placing themselves in front of bookshelves that graduated from ‘impressively organised’ to ‘delightfully chaotic’.
A normal York Synod is usually a fairly dress-down occasion, but this was very relaxed. Mind you, with people usually showing only head and shoulders pictures, we were at least spared otherwise respected episcopal figures sporting ill-chosen shorts, socks and sandals…
They say the medium is the message: if Zoom is the medium, what is the Synod message? There are Big Questions – did it work? Is this a model for money-saving Synods in future? – which I’ll return to at the end. And I was very moved – my heart was strangely warmed – to see the faces of so many dear friends, all at once.
You can watch the whole six hours here, if you wish. But, in the true spirit of bathwellschap‘s amateur pseudo-journalism…
What actually happened?
As I reported in yesterday’s post (read it here) our inability to meet in person meant a virtual Synod. Five days residential business at York was condensed into six hours in our kitchens and studies; law-making and debate were reduced to presentations and updates. But we still had Questions…
Proceedings were chaired from a white-painted room in Church House, which resembled a prison visiting room or the inside of a commercial freezer. Business Committee Chair Sue Booys was first up. Her technology had failed, so she spoke from a hastily-arranged space in her Oxfordshire Rectory, (UPDATE: I am told she was actually on a boat…) reminding us that these were ‘informal’ gathering of members, rather than a formal session. As such, we would not be passing Measures or having definitive votes.
She then explained that – as I reported yesterday – Synod has taken out ‘insurance’ against the planned November sessions in London having to be cancelled if COVID-19 restrictions are still in place. The problem is that there is business that cannot be done virtually – such as next year’s budget.
So the cunning plan is to have a one-day mini-Synod on Thursday 24 September, whose sole purpose will be to pass a Measure that permits formal decision-making to be done virtually.
You may recall Parliament did something similar at the beginning of lockdown. As one Synod wag put it: We’re going to have a physical meeting in September to agree that we can have a virtual meeting in November.
But you will have twigged that a physical meeting in September will have to be socially-distanced – a nightmare with over 400 people entitled to be present. So there will be a weeding-out process to arrange things such that only about one-fifth of us will actually turn up. That, they reckon, is manageable in Church House. Channelling a hundred removal firms and white-van businesses, Sue said the one-day Synod will be small enough to meet safely; large enough to be quorate.
How each diocese agrees who will go to London and who will stay home is a mystery, yet to be revealed. One suspects the Synod nerds will be keen-ish to travel, others may not. And we have to remember that Synod members may not be immune from the need to self-isolate. We’ll see who gets the short straw.
An Archiepiscopal bromance
You may not have noticed that we have a new Archbishop of York! Stephen Cottrell, formerly Bishop of Chelmsford took up his new responsibilities last week, just in time for this Synod. (Here I need to make an embarrassed apology. In my preview post, I foolishly assumed that the Presidential Address would come from the Archbishop of Canterbury. I should have known better: as this was (notionally) a York synod, the Presidential address would be from the Archbishop of York.)
And what a belter it was! Stephen Cottrell set out his stall with his characteristic clarity and warm enthusiam. What’s more, he modelled a new way of working: he shared his address with Archbishop Justin and three other people. It was all pre-recorded, so it was seamless. You can watch the whole package here or read the text here: it is well worth it. In summary, he:
- noted the ‘stripped-back’ nature of ordinary life and church life under lockdown. He said this has been both painful and illuminating – we’ve had an opportunity to learn about ourselves.
- spoke about his role chairing the ‘Vision and Strategy’ group that has got lots of people worried, stressing that the Future Search consultation he is now doing will be listening to those ‘whose voices are not usually heard’ (he self-described as white, over 60…)
- included observations on video from three of those involved: Bishop Emma Ineson, Ben Doolan and the Revd Sharon Prentis and said the report (next year) will include ‘things we should stop doing’.
- reminded us that COVID hat not been the great leveller many had hoped: instead it is hitting the poor, vulnerable and lonely the worst.
All that was great stuff. He is a great speaker.
But then came an extraordinary moment: he handed over to his felllow-Archbishop, Justin of Canterbury. They talked about all the things they share and their hopes for a new level of joint working between the two archbishops (despite tributes to John Sentamu, some obervers saw this as a muted critique of Canterbury/York relationships when Sentamu was in post…)
So, we now have Justin and Stephen – a new archiepiscopal bromance. Archbishop Cottrell concluded by warning the C of E against tribalism and division over secondary matters. With Living in Love and Faith just over the November horizon, I wonder what he could have meant… (I’ve written about how this rumbles around in Anglican evangelicals on Synod here.)
Question Time over Zoom turned out to be a rather bumpy ride. Partly because of the inevitable pauses while members were unmuted to ask their follow-up supplementary, but also because there were some pretty brutal exchanges on safeguarding and our response to the COVID-19 lockdown.
On safeguarding, the new lead Bishop, Jonathan Gibbs of Huddersfield, did a sterling job while under the lash of some fairly angry and persistent questioners. In February he had set a new tone for our safeguarding, talking about redress, focussing on survivors, and much more. (Read my summary here). On Zoom now, he had to handle some very detailed queries about how national Core Groups work, vexatious complaints and so on.
- Cleverly, when asked how much compensation for redress might be available, he quoted the finance chair, Canon John Spence, as saying “whatever it takes“. It’s always wise for someone who doesn’t hold the purse-strings to remind the people who do of what they have said in public…
- he acknowledged the painfully slow (and therefore wrong) process of handling some complaints
- he appealed to Synod to support him in breaking the log-jam of “it can’t be done“
I was interested to hear there is a review of how Core Groups should operate. (They are set up when a safeguarding incident arises.) Though he stressed that Church safeguarding Core Groups are not the same as those that operate in statutory services, there was widespread dissatisfaction about their personnel, Communications involvement, and other aspects. Having had to chair some of them (in my former role as Bishops’ Chaplain) in the very early days of the system, I can see they need much better operating procedures.
Then we got to questions about COVID-19…
More accurately, we got to an inquisition about the process by which it was decided in March that churches must close, to the extent that priests should not go in even to say their daily prayers for the parish and the world. The 30-odd questions on this were to be answered by the Archbishop of Canterbury as Chair of the House of Bishops.
It all got pretty ugly, especially as some of the original questions – and the live supplementaries – were a tad repetitive, harking back to the missives issued by diocesan Bishops on 24 and 27 of March (when lockdown was beginning) and a letter from the Prolocutors (clergy chairs) on 31 March. If you want to get the flavour, see questions 38-67 in the booklet here.
For example, Q64 about the arcane matter of celebrating Communion services in Bishop’s houses, was clearly an attack on Archbishop Justin for his ‘Communion from the kitchen’ which got a lot of publicity at the beginning of lockdown.
Frankly, I’m unwilling to give more air-time to the detail. It seems to me that the time is long gone to be worrying about decisions made at speed in a time of great confusion. Archbishop Justin was fairly graceful in the face of this serial attack on his part in it all, but he was clearly frustrated that he had to keep repeating himself. It’s a mercy that this part of question time had to be divided into two by lunch and other business, otherwise he might have not been as graceful as he was…
- For the record, though, he did say that in the light of the knowledge available at the time, he would not have done anything different, but the decision-making process would be reviewed when things have calmed down on the COVID front
- in any future emergency, he would involve the whole House of Bishops in decisions of this kind.
- The rather tense and ugly mood was changed when Wyn Beynon from Worcester managed to chip in with a supplementary thanking the Bishops for leadership and supporting clergy. Little yellow Zoom hand-claps appeared from all over the place from members. Archbishop Justin was visibly relieved, and made the point that our response to COVID needs not to be ‘all about us’ – it’s about people who are suffering.
- Another raft of grumpy questions were aimed at Bishops who had gone to social media to comment on the Dominic Cummings episode.
A presentation and questions about COVID were introduced by the Bishop of London, who chairs the ‘Recovery Group’. This was a much healthier conversation, with input from the church’s lead medical adviser and others. There are two really useful papers covering the territory: a general review here, and a later update here. If you want to know ‘what has the Church been doing?‘, read them.
Bishop Sarah drew on her experience as Chief Nursing Officer, to remind us that we should not just be thinking about how to handle COVID-19, but how we would deal with any crisis. Her scriptural image was Christ at the Sea of Galilee – she concluded by suggesting we should focus on him, not on the storm itself.
The questions after the presentation were lively, but a tad more genteel than what we saw elsewhere. They covered:
- progress on research into the risks of singing in church. Much is being done, but (to use an inappropriate metaphor) we were told ‘don’t hold your breath‘ for a positive outcome that would allow choirs, congregations and church bands to get back into action.
- funding shortfalls at cathedrals are being eased by grants and loans form the Church Commissioners, enabling heritage craftworkers (such as stonemasons) to be kept in post, as well as lay clerks.
- concern for Bishops and archdeacons – are they getting support in this time of overload and pressure?
- a call for funding for rural and poorly-resourced churches to acquire IT equipment to support online church (which it is generally assumed will still be a thing as part of the ‘new normal’
So, is Zoom the answer..?
That was more or less it. It was very unfortunate that the Bible study, planned for the end of the day, couldn’t happen – Zoom’s Breakout Room facility broke down. That was a shame, as our Synod Chaplain gave a lively introduction, citing (and singing) Radio 4’s One song to the tune of another to everyone’s delight. It would also have been the only opportunity in the day for members to actually talk to each other.
More seriously, can we save tens of thousands of pounds by doing this as a routine, rather than being forced into it by a deadly virus?
At the micro level, it kind of worked. We got through a load of Questions. But…
- the process was very clunky, and you have to admire the calmness with which Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark, sat in the hot seat while questioners had to be found, un-muted (and occasionally, disciplined)
- we really missed the spontaneity of Questions. Nearly all the supplementaries had been pre-arranged (to assist the tech team and Chair). There were very few jokes and lighter moments. Those of us who try to respond to the moment, rather than grind our axe, could not easily join in.
- bizarrely, Zoom did allow the rest of us to see the list of those who had requested to speak. Which meant you could tell when the Chair was avoiding ‘the usual suspects’.
- you could argue that the Presidential Address (with four others joining in was actually better on video than it would be in the flesh.
- the COVID-19 presentation session was perhaps the best thing, because questions to the panel were the most unscripted and genuinely unpredictable part of the day.
- worship was very basic – it had to be all words – and I have found that worshipping with others at Synod is an extremely significant part of the whole thing. You do feel a right Charlie saying the responses or the Lord’s Prayer to yourself.
Spectators, not participants…
But at the macro level, Zoom Synod is a poor substitute for the real thing. This will disappoint any reader who thinks digital is the future, but the fact is that face-to-face is the way to really engage with people.
Synod is about debate, about encountering others views, and about changing your mind. None of those things happen well on a screen in your kitchen.
We were spectators, not participants.. And what we had was what botanists would call an etiolated Synod – pale and drawn out owing to a lack of light, having lost substance and vigour.
In saying that, I don’t criticise the organisers or the backroom team. It was a huge achievement, and they pulled it off. Congratulations are due.
Andrew Nunn has written a characteristically succinct and thoughtful summary of the day on his blog – read it here.
Even if September’s one day fixture succeeds in legitimising passing Measures virtually, a virtual November Synod will be a huge loss. But if I am among those who draw the short straw in September, I’ll report on how it goes.
* Oh Zoom, you chased the day away: Mellow love song by the delightfully named Fat Larry’s Band (1982). Flopped in its native USA, got to No 2 in the UK. If you missed it, you missed something, so have a listen here via a rather unconvincing official video.