I only had a picture of you *

It’s been a curious progression for General Synod this year. From the warm, social and occasionally argumentative gathering in London to the more sterile world of faces on Zoom.

  • In February, we met normally, just as COVID was coming into public consciousness.
  • By July we had to scrap our residential meeting in York and just have an informal gathering on Zoom (read my report here).
  • Then in September, the behind-the-scenes team organised a thinned-out, COVID-compliant meeting in the flesh. It had one purpose,  – to pass a Measure legitimising virtual Synods. My report on that is here.
September: the last ‘real’ Synod in London
Virtual: Zoom logo

So there has certainly never been a General Synod like the one happening this week. From Monday to Wednesday (23-25 November) we’re Zoom-meeting – all 467 of us. We now have Temporary Standing Orders (TSO’s) that enable us to do the necessary business that will keep the Church of England on track in significant ways. I’m not saying the TSO’s are complicated, but this excerpt gives a flavour:

This preview post covers the gist of what’s ahead as we all sit in our kitchens, conservatories, studies and spare rooms to pray, take counsel, discuss and vote on some important matters that simply cannot wait for COVID to pass.

The Business Committee’s report sets out how this will work, explaining the TSO’s, and reminding us of the four sorts of business that are Synod’s bread and butter. They are:

  • Standing items, including Presidential Addresses
  • Legislation – new Canons, Measures, and suchlike
  • Ordering the life of the Church – including the central church budget
  • The Church and the world – there’ll be a COVID debate this time.

In the unlikely event you are fascinated by the backroom cogs and wheels of Synod, you can read the Report here, and have the TSO’s explained here.

Living in Love and Faith – and living with COVID…

Once again, we’ll have a joint Presidential Address form the two archbishops, Justin and Stephen. The archiepiscopal bromance looks like a permanent fixture. And this time, spread out across England as we are, we’ll be able to respond in breakout rooms and with questions. As they are very likely to talk about the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) resources that are now in the public domain, it will be quite interesting…

Heavy reading: Living in Love and Faith

Talking of LLF, if you were thinking of settling down for a quiet hour or two to read through the book, forget it! It has 468 pages, and weighs 847 grams (or 1lb 14oz in old money).

It is a serious piece of work about “Christian teaching and learning about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage”. And there are other non-book resources to go with it – films, podcasts and an online library. Find out more here.

Straight after the two Presidents, we consider how the C of E has been responding to COVID. There will be some good news stories here, but there’ll also be an undercurrent of complaint about church closures during lockdown, about not being allowed to sing when we are in church, and so on. Some might say that the emphasis on highlighting the inequalities thrown up by the pandemic, and its disproportionate effect on deprived communities are more important than ‘in-church’ concerns.

Interestingly, the motion we’ll discuss covers all that, but also has a very direct appeal over church closures. We’ll be asked to “call upon Her Majesty’s Government immediately to review the decision to curtail public worship during lockdown.” The paper about COVID has some interesting stuff: read it here.

COVID: effects on church and society

Questions will finish Monday off – and despite screen breaks built into the timetable, might finish off many members too, as we keep at it till 7.00 p.m. The Questions are available to read here: you’ll notice there are a lot of them, and they’re very varied this time, but with some pressure on issues about LLF, safeguarding and COVID-related matters

Tuesday will be a long day…

In the morning session, we start with Archbishop Stephen Cottrell lifting the lid on his work about the church of the future, under the title Vision and Strategy. There’s a short paper (read it here), which contains a natty diagram showing the process that’s been followed.

Flowing: chart seeking to explain how ‘Vision and Strategy’ is going

While we have all been isolated by the pandemic, there’s clearly been a lot of work and consultation going on, but I suspect members of Synod will feel they are playing catch-up as the presentation goes on.

A ‘screen break’ follows – I hope someone has warned the National Grid to be ready for a mass switch-on of kettles – before we look at finishing off the reform of Cathedral governance. This is the final stage of preparing a Measure that changes the way Cathedrals are run, in terms of their charitable status, lay involvement in Chapters, and much else. I don’t recommend the papers, unless you are personally engaged with a Cathedral – if that’s the case, go here.

Normally, in London, a long lunch-break is filled with fringe meeting opportunities, odd committee meetings – and getting lunch, of course. It’s a very sociable time. That won’t happen this week, though, as people turn away from their screens and concentrate on fixing a sandwich, walking the dog, catching up on emails (no, don’t do that!) or attending to domestic matters.

But at 2.30 we start again…

The afternoon is planned for four hours, with just one screen break. In that time we have to agree the Archbishops Council budget (without this, most central church functions would have to do a New York and shut down). There is £50 million in the budget, and £17m of it is for a matter close to many hearts – training people for ministry. John Spence will doubtless give one of his bravura performances to explain it all, but many will be listening to hear what effect COVID has had on church income, and what needs doing next year to cope.

Independent: IICSA’s inquiry is driving changes

After the break, we move to another heavy subject: the C of E’s safeguarding has been heavily criticised by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), and we’ll take a first look at our proposed responses. At this stage, there is just a new Measure to enforce obedience to safeguarding regulations and codes of practice, but on Wednesday we’ll take a wider look.

The text of the motion is worth flagging up here: ‘That this Synod fully accept the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’s Final Investigation Report into the Anglican Church, sincerely apologise to victims and survivors for the harm done by the church and endorse and commit itself to urgently implementing the six recommendations as set out on pages 4 – 6 of GS 2184’.

Lunch will be a little late on Wednesday

We’re being kept hard at it  until 2.00! Safeguarding, in more detail, starts this last day. The paper GS2184 on this is well worth a read, going into some detail about redress to victims and survivors, and specific response to the six IICSA recommendations mentioned in the motion’s text. Read it here.

After the obligatory ‘screen break’, we do some more work on how Diocesan Boards of Education (DBE’s) are structured. Given the turmoil and changes in education in the last few years – especially the introduction of academies into the landscape, which has had a profound effect on Church of England primary schools, some changes are needed. So this will be the final drafting of a new DBE Measure.

Then more safeguarding-related changes. On of the issues that kept cropping up in various reports into clergy abuse was that there is no central register listing people who are licensed or authorised to minister in Church of England settings: each of the 44 dioceses has hitherto kept its own records, and in some cases, kept them very badly. So there will be a compulsory National Clergy Register, and we’ll be looking at how that is to operate. It’s complicated beyond belief, as a glance at the relevant paper will show – read it here.

The timetable then gives us a mere 30 minutes for a lunchbreak, before allowing one last hour for any ‘deemed business’ that needs to be debated before we all go home at 3.30 p.m.  Oh, we’ll be at home already! But you know what I mean…

Will Zoom make a difference?

Regular readers of bathwellschap will know that it is my habit to read through (well, all right, glance through...) the physical documents that are the basis of Synod meetings. But – as in so many spheres of life – the pandemic means that we are currently all-electronic: no hard copies have been sent out, to avoid people having to work in printing and sending stuff out.

Nostalgia: how it used to be.

So far, I’ve not enjoyed working only from a screen; physical paper means you can scribble on it; throw away (I mean, recycle…) items you are not interested in, and have easy reference to the ones you are. I suspect the ‘march of the pdfs’ will mean less scrutiny by members, and possibly, more ill-informed contributions to debate.

Voting: all legal votes count

Which takes us to voting. Because we are making laws when we make measures, and we take decisions that may affect parishes, clergy and people looking to the church for all sorts of things, counting votes is very important. But with 467 of us on multiple screens, the staff cannot possibly catch a ‘show of hands’ votes. So an special electronic programme has been brought in to manage and record our votes.

Training chat

Although the designers have tried to match the feel of our normal electronic voting machines, it’s so different that in the last week they have run three training sessions on how to vote.

For simple things, a Zoom poll will do, but for significant ones, we have a special programme, and we were taught on the training to have Zoom on one device, and the voting programme on a separate one, so we don’t get lost.

It’s all password-protected of course, so they can check that no non-members are voting. And it can handle votes of the whole Synod, and votes by separate houses with ease. Apparently.

We even had a trial run (above), and I can reveal that we took a vote on our favourite pizzas. I am not at liberty to disclose the result. Zoom Chat will not be available during sessions (probably as well, it might get flooded out), so those of us who like to whisper to each other during speeches will have to rely on Twitter.

And finally…

So, if you are the praying sort, pray for patience, liberal supplies of Optrex for tired eyes – and perhaps especially for gracious and sensitive conversations about the safeguarding elements of the meeting.

And give thanks for the extraordinary hard work and thoughtfulness of the backroom teams who have made this meeting possible. In February, none of us dreamed we might end up working like this. Despite all the technology:

Not just for members: the Synod App has all the info


* A picture of you. A delightful ditty of forlorn love from Joe Brown and the improbably named Bruvvers; big hit in 1962.

Poor chap, never knew her name, what could he do? He only had a picture of her… If you want to be transported back to that crew-cut and the acoustic guitars of ’62, it’s here.

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