Today we did a ‘first’: the General Synod clergy held our own Zoom meeting, without the benefit of Bishops or lay representatives. Given that the Convocations – of which, technically, the clergy are the Lower House – go back at least to the 13th century, doing it from the comfort of our own homes today (Wednesday 2 September 2020) was a bit of a landmark…
Instead of us all leaving home and trooping off to London, Church House came to my house. The main reason for doing it was to anticipate the extraordinary one-day physical meeting of the General Synod which is happening on 24 September in London. But for most of the 116 who took part, probably the most engaging part of the gathering was the reflections on how clergy have coped/survived/grown/struggled during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Of course, Zoom meetings have their plus moments. Seeing old friends, turning your attention to national matters, finding out what’s going on elsewhere, and so on are all useful. Then there is the classic Zoom diversion of other people’s backdrops.
- One priest sat in front of a domestic and pious scene – the ironing board and a Virgin and Child statue
- Others had bookshelves, ranging from the obsessively tidy to the obsessively chaotic
- One or two ventured into Zoom backdrops – I was delighted to recognise a view of the North Devon coast as seen from the Lee Abbey estate
Programming the Measure
Regular bathwellschap readers will be aware of the upcoming special one-day General Synod meeting on 24 September. You can read about the reasons for the one-day meeting here.
To allow a full Synod to be held electronically in November, if necessary (and as lock lockdowns continue, no-one seems to think we can gather all of us in London for three or four days this side of Christmas…), we have to have to pass a Measure. There are three stages of doing this, and so normally, getting a Measure through is spread over a number of sessions, allowing for debate, revisions, and so on. But we don’t have time, so it’s going to be attempted in one day.
This is mission-critical for various reasons. We spent some time looking how the one-day event can be prepared for. There is a very careful plan to ensure there can be proper debate, and amendments without each of the three stages of debate being wrecked by late amendments, lawyerly arguments and even the lack of enough people to vote.
Louise Wills, deputy Legal Adviser took us through what is happening to ensure we can do all three stages of a Measure in one day. The washing-machine metaphor that follows is my invention, not hers…
- First of all, there is a pre-wash programme: this is already in place. People have been invited to read the draft of the Measure and send in any informal comments. These will be considered by the Steering Committee next week, enabling them to take a view on whether the draft needs changes.
- Then a rinse programme: the redoubtable Geoffrey Tattershall, QC, Chair of the Steering Committee, will run a Zoom Q&A session for any Synod member, at lunchtime on 14 September,
- After that, the Measure will go through the proper full wash on the 24th. Hopefully, there’ll be no last-minute changes or challenges, and so it can be done and dusted, socially-distanced, inside the day.
- However, the planners have allowed one last final spin, if needed: though they hope to get it though by 4.30, they want us to be prepared to stay on till 7.00, should another slab of time be required.
We’re on reduced numbers, to allow for social distancing at Church House – one clergy rep per diocese. (I’ll be representing Bath & Wells on behalf of the other three members.) For members who won’t be there, and for the rest of the world, there will be the usual YouTube live relay on 24th.
Clergy and COVID
But before that, we began with a short series of personal reflections on the impact of COVID-19.
- There were nods of recognition as Stewart Fyfe from North Cumberland spoke of the benefits and disbenefits of YouTube worship. He called it ‘a great leveller’, as regular and infrequent churchgoers all mixed together, and said going into ‘technochurch’ had brought out gifts in people that might otherwise have stayed hidden. On the downside, the tone of House of Bishops instructions and guidance was irksome, and negotiating the practicalities of Holy Communion was difficult.
- Archdeacon Nikki Groake, from Worcester diocese, drew on her experiences as a runner to describe the ‘marathon’ nature of the last six months, moving through short-term crises which brought out our worst selves and our best selves. She called for some sympathy for the Bishops, themselves at the mercy of Government guidance which was often badly-timed – those new rules and regulations that too often were released late on a Friday night. And she ruefully described the perils of being an Archdeacon, being expected to mediate between the parishes and the bigger picture of national policies.
- From a parish base in the Lichfield diocese, Fr Damian Feeney – who had himself been ill with COVID – talked about the need to develop a theology of uncertainty, and the culture of frustration at ‘unhelpful errors’ in church guidance, which felt at times as if the Bishops were pouring paraffin on the fires.
- Sarah Schofield, a Higher Education chaplain in Wolverhampton, said she had been grieving for skills she knew she had, which were not needed or called on as the situation developed. She then described the disproportionate way in which the minority ethnic communy members of her college and their families had been affected: many cases of severe illness; many deaths. She pointed out that many of us (remembering how white and middle-class the C of E so often is) were missing the realiity of the pandemic, because we had not been as close to the suffering in these communities as she had. The impact of the closure of mosques was even greater on Islamic communities than the closing of churches on Christians.It was a quietly passionate account that made a big impact.
- From Exeter Cathedral, Cate Edmonds described the shift required to move from an organisation that was very music- and buildings-centred to a different kind of ministry: the impact of furloughing nearly all the staff, and the significant hit on income.
And then we went into breakout groups!
Breakout groups can be horrible. The technology failed when the July Zoom Synod happened, but they went very well today. In my own group of five (two parish clergy, two archdeacons, and me) we quickly moved from the classic COVID ‘whinge-fest’ to think more deeply.
- One thoughtful line was that parish clergy have had to become managers – managing processes and their own institution, and so can’t lift their eyes above the horizon to see the wider context. Effectively, they have been reduced to being a chaplain to their congregation.
- The Archdeacons described the constant flow of questions from parishes which they were expected to have an answer to: people are anxious, afraid of getting things wrong, and the Archdeacon is their first port of call.
- More nodding heads were evident when we turned to think about the impact of isolation on children, and about the well-being of clergy having to work through new ways of doing things under pressure and with little support.
- Wisely, we avoided the usual ‘death by reporting back’. The House of Clergy Standing Committee will see summaries of the group conversations, with a view to seeing what needs to be brought to the attention of the wider church.
Than, another first! We took a poll of those present to ask whether further House of Clergy meetings (outside the normal Synod sessions) would be useful. The viote was in favour, though it was pointed out several times that Zoom meetings may be fine for conversation and consultation, but not for legislation. But the principle of occasional clergy-only meetings to chew over items of particular relevance to clergy, and to cut down on some unecessary speechifying in full Synod, seemed agreed.
Lastly, we had a briefing on Legislative Reform!
No, do stay awake… This is the child of the ‘Simplification’ work that has been done in recent years, trying to minimise unecessary admin and bureacreacy for parishes and dioceses. The Canterbury Prolocutor, Simon Butler, is chairing a Committee seeking things that can be done without the hassle of going through full synodical legislative processes. But there will be things that require new Measures, such as
- improving clergy Terms of Service
- dealing with the incapabilities of the capability regime.
- some things are also governed by the Church of England’s Canon Law – which is perceived in many places as being too set in a past era. (The last time the Canons were revised, it took most of the 1950s to do it, so don’t hold your breath.)
We were asked for observations. They varied from ‘if clergy are to be held to account, then so should lay church officers’ to concerns about the need ‘to put the brakes on those wanting to charge ahead with radical change’. And, being the C of E, various vested interests want to be present and consulted (which might just slow things down, of course.)
The Zoom wave…
So, a ground-breaking event ended with the obligatory ‘Zoom wave’ after 2½ hours. (We did get a comfort break…)
At a time when many clergy are feeling weary after 6 months of having to do everything differently, it was encouraging to share that sense of dis-ease, and to focus on wider concerns for a while. The tech aspect worked perfactly, hats off to the Church House staff, and our two Chairs, Smon Butler and Chris Newlands, all working from home.
It was a worthwhile experiment. Whether it is possible (or advisable) to have more such meetings is another thing.
- For example, how could we take formal votes? Yes, I know, revise our Standing Orders, just as the wider Synod plans to do.
- What about public access? It has to be said that journalists do not normally queue up to attend House of Clergy meetings, but in principle….
- On the other hand, there are huge challenges as we go through COVID – diocesan budgets, how to pay the clergy, what happens if major re-structuring is required…
In my view, a forum where clergy reps (sorry, ‘Proctors in Convocation’) can come to a common mind (or, alternatively, discover where the disagreements are before coming to the floor of Synod) can only be a Good Thing.
There’s a less dispassionate view of today from Coventry’s Charlotte Gale here. I’ll be back for the one-day match on 24 September.
* Bring it on home to me: Classic 60’s soul from Sam Cooke (1963), probably better-known in the UK from the Animals cover version (1965). There’s a bizarre video set on an American beach with a bunch of surfers here: Tyneside lads meet Baywatch.