General Synod in London is usually quite a hugger-mugger affair. Seats are close together, you have to squeeze past people to find one. On the other hand, you can whisper to your neighbour, ask them to explain what’s happening, or be the giver/receiver of Maltesers down the row of chairs.
Are you sitting comfortably..?
Not so for the unique, restricted-attendance, one-day COVID Synod on Thursday (24 September). The hall was set out with socially-distanced chairs: instead of sitting wherever you wish, you had an allocated chair, 2 metres from the next one. You couldn’t choose where to sit, or who to be next to.
You couldn’t be close to anyone. I was allocated my seat (J12), and told which door to enter and leave by. Sanitising kit was everywhere, and a one-way system put in place around what is always a complex building to navigate.
All this because our planned November meeting, with 500 or so of us, simply won’t be able to happen under COVID rules. We need to arrange for it to be done virtually. Yes, Zoom looms… But because we are a church that has procedures laid down by law (the Canons and Measures), we need to rewrite our Standing Orders to allow that to happen. I’ve explained this more fully in my report on the July informal Synod (done on Zoom, but without any legal standing).
The Bromance is back…
The ‘archiepiscopal bromance’ I described in my July report continues. Already this week they have put out a Bromance Brothers ‘letter to Bishops’, widely circulated round all dioceses. It’s worth a read – find it here. So the Synod Presidential address – only put on the agenda at a couple of days’ notice – was again a shared one.
The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, was up first, with a powerful statement, repeating the phrase “I hate this coronavirus….” many times, listing many of the difficulties people are facing. He has a powerful turn of phrase, lamenting the ‘happy familiarities’ of regular church worship that have been disrupted, but recognising that we have learned to love our neighbours in better ways.
Cottrell is a great orator. Having forcefully repeated the “I hate…” phrase a dozen times at the beginning, he then repeated a series of “I am thankful…” before he drew to a close with a few “I am sorry…” issues, expressing regrets for things that have not been done well.
He’s very good. Nobody goes to sleep when he’s on. You can read the text here, or for the full effect, click on the video above.
There was a bit of a kerfuffle when a staff member intervened to sanitise the desk before the Archbishop of Canterbury followed on.
But Justin dissolved any embarrassment with a gag about it being ‘a tradition of the church since the 12th century’ that after York has spoken, the lectern has to be cleaned before Canterbury can speak.
Justin Welby can be a compelling speaker, but he avoids the rhetorical flourishes that Stephen Cottrell uses. He, too, reviewed the bad and the good of the last six months’ experiences of churches and the wider community.
He warned of the immense dangers of poverty, mass unemployment and division that are currently hanging over us all. In a memorable phrase, he talked about the ‘corporate PTSD’ we are experiencing. But he also offered reassurance, from the scriptures and from the real experiences of people.
There’s a summary of the two speeches here After them, we moved to the business of the day – one single item, to be prepared, cooked and eaten inside the day.
Explainer (new readers better not skip this bit)…
Normally, a synodical Measure (which has the force of the law of the land) goes through three stages, spread over several sets of Synod meetings.
- First consideration sets out the basic idea, and a Revision Committee gets to work in the light of comments and submissions
- Second consideration takes the revised version, and allows not just an exchange of views, but proposals for amendment, improvement or even major changes.
- Any necessary changes are worked on before Final Approval happens
This long process allows Synod to develop legislation in the light of debate, and it builds in the checks and balances that wise governance requires. However, the rules assume that we are all meeting in the same place – all 500 of us. Clearly, that can’t happen under COVID rules. And we’re in a hurry: we need a legal way for Synod to meet in November and pass business ‘virtually’ – in 8 weeks time. And the recipe for all this fast-food? A set of Temporary Standing Orders.
From washing machines to yoghurt
In a previous post, I likened what’s happening to the cycles available on a washing machine – pre-wash, full wash, rinse and spin, etc. But it’s time to change the metaphor: forget washing machines, think yoghurt!
The snappily-titled GS2176 Draft General Synod (Remote Meetings) (Temporary Standing Orders) Measure is the basic yoghurt recipe. I’ll henceforth refer to it as DGS(RM)(TSO) – much simpler! (Should you be sufficiently keen, you can read it here, and the explanatory note GS2176X (much more coherent to most of us) is here.)
There were around half a dozen amendments trying to define what kind of yoghurt we wanted. They were well-intentioned attempts to set the boundaries. Actually, it’s not really setting up “full-fat” electronic Synods – there are certain areas known as Article 7 (doctrine and liturgy) Article 8 (sacraments and ecumenical arrangements) business, which were excluded from DGS(RM)(TSO). Under the proosed Measure they would have to wait until we can meet again in person. We had a bit of a debate about that – see below.
Because we have to get this three-stage process done in a day, we needed to avoid any delays through complex amendments or barrack-room lawyerly speechifying. So those in charge of piloting the Measure have looked for consensus. We’ve already had a pre-meetings of each House and an informal Q&A session on Zoom, which have already led to improvements suggested by Synod members.
So, First Consideration…
Here we may only speak about the general principles of a proposed Measure, and unusually, our efficient and urbane Chair, Andrew Nunn didn’t have to pull anyone up for grandstanding.
- Dr Jamie Harrison, Vice Chair of the House of Laity, and a practicing GP, spoke of the need to take COVID seriously: like flu, we will have it around for as very long time, and we will have to learn with it.
- Peter Bruinvels (Guildford), a former MP, spoke about the difficulties of doing Synod on Zoom once this Measure is passed. There are questions about the security of the voting system. How can the Chair call speakers when he can only see 25 people at a time on his or her Zoom Screen? (There will be another 400 or more he or she can’t see at one time). He therefore suggested we should allow for a ‘blended’ mixed economy, like Parliament, working with both the virtual and the physical presence of members.
- Peter Adams (St Albans) thought that future online meetings may encourage us to be a more flexible and nimbler Synod, leading to a fitter, nimbler Church.
- Alison Coulter (Winchester) encouraged us to take this new way of working on board: Synod is called to provide governance and leadership for the church; but she wanted a harder look at how Zoom Synod would work – the July informal session we had was only a beginning.
But First Consideration was passed nem con and we took a 15 minute break before going onto to Second Consideration.
Several speakers pointed out the advantages of online meetings: access for those with disabilities or illness, and a wider audience for Synod’s work.
However, the other side of that coin is that a lack of face-to-face contact is a real loss: a ‘virtual tea-room’ in the virtual synod might be a Good Thing.
Full-fat, low-fat – or no-fat?
Normally, this revision stage is done in a special committee, who bring their report to full Synod after a gap of several months. But to save time, and allow full participation, we were taking the revision stage in full Synod. (The last time it was done was when we eventually got the contentious Women Bishops legislation through – the famous ‘I agree with Pete’ Synod in 2013. My report on that is here. UPDATE David Lamming kindly reminds me that we actually last did it as recently as February this year! It was the Channel Islands Measure, which I really should have recalled, being a member of the Guernsey Fan Club.)
The risk of doing it this way is that any member can stand and speak and propose further amendments, and so on, and either wreck the Measure or, in the present case, delay it fatally. However, it was pretty clear that everyone wanted to give DGS(RM)(TSO) a fair wind, and so we took the new Measure, stage by stage.
- Paul Benfield (Blackburn) proposed a series of small amendments which restricted the power being given to the Officers of the Synod (the so-called ‘Group of Six’) to make more temporary Standing Orders. His point being that such a serious power, if and when required, ought to be made only by the full Synod. Geoffrey Tattersall, on behalf of the Steering Committee, accepted his amendments, though it was argued that the Measure’s text did make it unnecessary.
- Philip French’s amendment was concerned about having a “low-fat” virtual Synod. He reckoned that the future progress of COVID was unpredictable: circumstances might arise when we do need to get some Article 7 business done before COVID is contained. So he wanted Article 7 included (but was not worried about Article 8).
- This brought out a lively debate. Some wanted to allow us to deal with Article 7 matters, on the basis that, thanks to COVID, things are moving fast, and by next Easter, we might need to change the ‘rules’ on “the services and ceremonies of the Church of England or the administration of Sacraments and rites thereof”, as the Standing Orders define Article 7 business. Others felt that we are not sufficiently Zoom-ready to undertake difficult and sensitive debates of this nature.
- On a show of hands, the French amendment was defeated.
- Next up, was indefatigable Synod process expert Clive Scowen (London). Going in the opposite direction to Philip French, he believed that meeting electronically is a ‘necessary evil’, and on the basis of the ‘unsatisfactory’ July informal Synod, rather than full-fat or low-fat, he wanted electronic synods that were “no-fat” – only able to debate matters that had been defined as ‘urgent’. He didn’t want to prevent electronic meetings, just restrict them to what really must be dealt with – budgets, response to safeguarding, and such-like. Everything could wait until we can meet safely again. And the decision about what is ‘urgent’ should not be made by the Business Committee, but by the ‘Group of Six’ – the elected Chairs of the Clergy and Laity, and the two Archbishops.
- Clive is thorough and persuasive, but his amendment was resisted by the platform party as being inflexible and relying too much on the hope that meetings in person might be possibly by July 2021. When it came to the vote, only a very few hands were raised in favour, so it was lost.
- Some other technical amendments were also rejected.
So the four clauses of this Measure were successfully passed, slightly tweaked. By now it was ten past one, and people were getting ready for a break and some lunch. However, Fr Thomas Seville (Religious Communities) had a new clause to propose: he wanted us to think about what ‘temporary’ means in the context of this ‘Temporary Measure’. He was looking for a decision about a ‘sunset clause’ – not on the new standing orders, but on the Measure itself.
Having an end date (30 November 2021) looks reasonable, but Geoffrey Tattersall resisted the suggestion, partly because a new Measure (which would require Parliamentary approval) might fall by the wayside through no fault of the Synod. On the face of it, the ‘Temporary Standing Orders’ could remain in force for ever – a very odd legal precedent. But the extra clause was defeated.
Downhill all the way…
Even for a Synod enthusiast (I decline to accept the title of ‘Synod nerd’), the morning was a long haul. But before lunch, Revision was finished! And while the Steering Committee checked the final draft over and made any necessary textual changes over their sandwiches, the rest of us had 1¾ hours off. Wanting to get out of the sanitised and muted atmosphere, I took a walk to the excellent Church House Bookshop and a sandwich in Victoria Park, overlooking the Thames. Others stayed on-site.
After lunch, then, we were left only with the Final Approval of the Measure, as tweaked. The ever-polite Geoffrey Tattersall reported in his usual dispassionate matter on the changes.
At this point, I was tempted to start a book on what time we would finish. We had been asked to be ready to remain until 7.00 – just in case some last-minute complexities emerged and people had comments to make. Fortunately, like Adlestrop, ‘nobody came, and nobody went’.
So within ten minutes of the afternoon session starting up, we were ready to vote on the final text of the Measure.
There were a number of winding-down speeches, some just being grateful we have got it done, others picking up the theme that Synod’s future must be different to the past. As we have had to learn to work electronically, so must our parishes.
- Mark Lucas (Peterborough) reminded us of the security risks and behavioural dangers of the online world; and the failure of online forums to communicate body language, changes of tone, and so on.
- Simon Fisher (Liverpool) rightly commended the pre-meeting work that has gone on, enabling efficient despatch of today’s business, but also enabling better understanding, consensus-building and avoiding argument and rancour.
- Alison Booker (Leicester) movingly spoke of the difficulty many members have in standing up and speaking in front of a full house: today had been easier, but future Synods need to be aware of ways to help people contribute.
Technically that it not quite the end of the story: a Synod Measure has to go to Parliament’s Ecclesiastical Committee for what (traditionally) is a rubber stamp. The last two times that Parliament messed with our Measures were not particularly happy occasions:
- Most recently, about 25 years ago, they didn’t like the Churchwardens Measure, because it introduced a new power to sack a churchwarden. Synod had to re-work the legislation and come back later. We can’t afford for that to happen this time.
- More famously, in the 1920s heyday of Anglo-Catholicism, Parliament rejected the proposed revision of the Book of Common Prayer, leading to a bit of a crisis and the publication of that liturgical dead-end, the 1928 Prayer Book ‘as proposed’. But I am showing my prejudices.
So, we didn’t get close to each other. At several points we were painfully aware of the majority of members who were not able to be there at all. It was, from a business point of view, well-organised and efficient. But it was all rather soul-less: not being able to chat to each other, making do with waves and grimaces from under our masks. To strain the metaphor even further, it was gruel, not yoghurt.
We’ll see how the November Zoom sessions go, with real discussions and decisions to be made.
Chatting with two old Synod friends after lunch, we realised that this was probably our last-ever London Synod. The chances of the February 2021 sessions happening in person, in London, are remote and we’re likely to be standing down when the delayed elections happen this time next year).
So it’s farewell to the huge Assembly Hall, the noisy tea-room and the kindly, helpful, Church House team. I was grateful to be called to speak to express thanks to the Corporation of Church House staff who make that side of Synod happen.
And that’s it till Monday 23 November!
- You can see the whole day’s proceedings on YouTube here.
- Andrew Nunn’s report contains a much more succinct summary than mine, and reflects on some underlying concerns – read it here.
- And my good friend Charlotte Gale’s personal tale of an unusual Synod day is here. (Once again, she’s beaten me to publication!)
- UPDATE Andrew Lightbown’s reflections are here
* (They long to be) Close to you: haunting Burt Bacharach/Hal David song, made legendary by the super-smooth Carpenters brother-and-sister duo in 1970