A change gonna come *

Sore eyes: the home Zoom setting

The second day of the Zoom Synod (Tuesday 24 November). But our tired eyes and washed-out brains were kicked into life by a dramatic new look at how the dear old C of E will tackle the great challenges of the next ten years. Against a background of declining numbers and post-Covid disruption… there is a plan! Or, more accurately, a vision for change. It’s gonna come.

The Archbishop of York, as I have noted before, is a superb speaker. He brings enthusiasm and a direct reference to the gospel that many Synodspersons can’t quite manage. So his presentation of a new Strategy and Vision for the Church of England was given con brio (as musicians would say).

Con brio: Archbishop Stephen Cottrell, working from home

He spent some 40 minutes outlining a Very Big Idea: a vision of what the C of E’s purpose should be over the next decade. There was a lot about the Vision, but less about Strategy – but that’s all to the good, since the strategy needs to follow the overarching vision. But he left us in no doubt that, at the national level of the C of E, change is coming.

Apart from his own ebullience, his tool for setting out this vision was a simple graphic, which, as he expounded the various points, like Topsy, grew in size.  Inevitably, there were soundbites and what felt slightly like Cummings-esque slogans. So we want to be a church that is Christ-centred and Jesus-shaped. We want to be Humbler, Bolder and Simpler. And so on.

Emerging: the graphic of the vision

Now at this point you may be thinking It all sounds like some terrible mangement-speak  presentation. The old cartoon of the bigwig who turms up at the struggling branch outlet and says “I’m from Head Office and I’m here to help you.”

Motivational speaker – and retreat leader

But it wasn’t like that at all. This was multi-sensory learning, with video clips and art. In fact, what we had was a cross between a motivational speaker and a retreat leader. Nowhere was this unusual conjunction more evident than when he spoke, slowly and reflectively, about a painting by Gillian Bell-Richards depicting the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24. He took us through the three ‘panels’ of this triptych:

  • confused disciples on the left
  • Christ made known in breaking the bread
  • purposeful returning to the city afterwards.
The Emmaus Road – Gillian Bell-Richards

Then he moved on to detail, and combined the managerial and the missional with a KPI (Key Performance Indicator) for the vision: it’s about the number of feet we wash, not the number of people attending services. There was talk of an ‘iterative process’ (classic management-speak) as well as our call from God to be a church of ‘missionary disciples’.

The diagram got ever-more complex as he expanded the vision, bringing in  talk of a ‘mixed ecology’ covering traditional parish ministry and new forms of community life like chaplaincy on the edge and digital church. But he stressed we must be a church of diversity in unity. ‘Every trbe and every tongue’ are involved, as we develop a church that looks like the community it serves. I noticed he stressed that a younger, more diverse C of E will have to serve networks as well as neighbourhoods.

Archbishop Stephen’s Vision and Strategy video

Who decides?

That is never and easy question to answer in the C of E. At the beginning of his presentation, Archbishop Strephen referred to that old chestnut The Church of England is episcopally led, but synodically governed. (Shortened, for the purposes of this blog, to ELBSG).

Now, my ears always prick up whenever a Bishop quotes that riddle in Synod. I recall Archbishop Sentamu reciting it once in York when we had failed to vote for something he was proposing, and then trying to tell Synod that the epicopal bit took precedence. It didn’t go down well.

Archbishop Stephen was not pushing that line explicitly, but he did use it to defend (or explain, depending on your point of view) the way in which this Vision and Strategy work had got to this point. The ‘snakes and ladders’ diagram indicates all sorts of people have been involved in consultation about it. But several at Synod wanted to know why they – or the people they represent – had not been part of the party.

The answer was that casting a new vision requires a new way of operating; less committees, more fleet of foot. So he said there had been no formal Synod involvement at all thus far: it was a call sensed by the Bishops and they had sought out people to consult with, notably a first-ever three-day meeting of Bishops and Diocesan Secretaries.

But I would guess most Synod members knew nothing about this expansive, broad brush re-calibration of the C of E until this morning. I sensed he was getting defensive about this when he returned to the ELBSG doctrine.  Synod will get a chance to comment, and even alter, the vision at our Februiary meeting. As he put it, the vision “is offered for our prayerful consideration.”

I think he was sailing close to the Bishops ‘taking back control’ at that point. But maybe one of the outcomes of COVID has been that the House of Bishops has met very regularly (by Zoom), and probably have more of a common mind because of that than used to  be the case.

Breakdown groups….

Anyway, by Sodde’s Law, the planned 30 minutes in breakout groups – when we could talk about it between ourselves in dicoesan groups – fell apart. The Zoom function didn’t work, and after ten minutes of muted muddle, we resorted to a standard Q&A session instead. As Andrew Dotchin put it, “some people call them breakdown groups”.

Non-event: the Bath and Wells reps glued together (courtesy Tim Hind)

I’m in two minds about this Vision process. It would be ridiculous for a Synod of 470 people to attempt to draw up a vision statement.  Every special-interest group and cause would be fighting to get their name on that snake and ladders chart or on the graphic. Synod’s job will be to deal with implementing a stratey at national level.

Maybe the COVID lockdowns have prevented better communication with the wider church. However, the danger is that the messenger from Head Office who emerges ot help parishes (and dioceses, who can be independently-minded) will not be well-received. Sadly, the parishes I know best (in deep rural Somerset) find it hard to think strategically, and may even be suspicious of a posh shiny vision.

When Vision does turn into Strategy, communication of the outcomes – and the reasoning behind them – is going to be critical. We are invited to comment and contribute, and you can watch Archbishop Stephen and download the initial paperwork, released today: find it all here.

From big-picture stuff to detail

Next up was the final look at the Cathedral Measure. This is a process that started with a major review of cathedral governance that began in 2018: we now have a very detailed text covering all sorts of aspects of how our cathedrals will be governed in future. Today was a ‘tidy-up’ of the Measure, and when I say it is detailed, this excerpt will show you why.

Detail: it does make sense. No, really…

The Bishop of Bristol, Viv Faull, explained how in the last 20 years cathedrals have ‘turned themselves inside out’. There have been  financial and relational crises in some. She hinted that there have been diifcult and complex discussions with the Charty Commission (Regulation of cathedrals is to be shared between them and the Church Commisisoners, and there is a Memorandum of Understanding being drawn up to clarify who is responsible for what.)

Supervising: the Registrar at work

The complexity notwithstanding, we got through the 9 votes at top speed. It was entertaining to see the 18th-century figure of the Registrar in wig, gown and tabs using their 21st century mobile phone to time the 60-second voting periods. If you are very keen to see the detail of this hard-worked-over Measure, go here.

In charge: William Nye

Interestingly, as I commented in yesterday’s report, the powers that be have agreed that three minutes is too long for the voting period on the formal votes, and we were told that it was to be reduced to 2 minutes. William Nye, the Secretary-General, made a rare appearance to announce this, and a change to the Crystal voting program – which we all coped with admirably. If you’re interested in how it’s done, there’s a very clear account of how they work in Andrew Nunn’s blogpost – read it here.

And then we had lunch! 90 minutes away from the screen. Bliss!

Rainy day? Or monsoon?

There were more warnings of change to come when Synod’s other ebullient speaker took the screens over when we reassembled. John Spence, responsible for finance at the Archbishops Council, took us through the revised budget figures. Revised because of the massive impact of COVID on church finances at all levels.

John Spence, Chair of Archbishops’ Council Finance Committee.

The budget for 2020 had been put together in a relatively stable climate, but the pandemic meant emergency action had to be taken to offer cashflow support to cathedrals (who visitor income had disappeared with lockdowns) and dioceses (whose main income stream is contributions from parishes (whose main income stream is from regular church attenders…). He said that people were using up their carefully planned reserves (most charities aim to have 6 months spending ready in reserve for a rainy day). But John Spence said we were in a monsoon. And there are enormous ranges of differences between dioceses. So far 22 dioceses had drawn a total of £14 million from the hastily organised Sustainability Fund.

For 2021, then, the planned flat budget had been revised to have a 1.6% decrease – to lessen the load on dioceses apportionment (i.e. their contributions to the centre). But beyond that, there will have to be changes.

There is, he said, an imbalance between the wish-list we have, and the resources that will be available. He saw more storm clouds coming in 2022 –

  • the long-term impact of COVID, leading to changes in parish life
  • further safeguarding expenditure as we progress the IICSA recommendations to the C of E.

So, he said the hard questions will have to be asked at the National Church Institutions (and, by implication, in diocese and parishes: what does not need doing?)

A sober discussion followed:

  • Carl Fender pointed out that parish income was thought to be down by 12% this year: we will have to be a simpler church, reshaped, and changed (in the way the Vision and Strategy work was encouraging.
  • Philip Plyming, from Cranmer Hall , a ministry training institution  reminded us that the budget contains £18 million for supporting ordination training – there are soe 1400 people being supported as they train at present. We must invest in tomorrow’s leadership.
  • Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, put in a plea that the COVID effect must not mean we break our promises to the poor.

The budget was passed, but I think we all realise that tough times are ahead. You can see the details of the budget here

From ‘due regard’ to ‘comply’…

Lastly, we wrestled with the first safeguarding-related item on the agenda – one of the ‘essential’ items that meant this Zoom synod had to be called. Just four years ago we put a Safeguarding Code of Practice into place which said that clergy must pay ‘due regard’ to the House of Bishops safeguarding policies. But the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has criticised this wording as too weak, and even the Archbishop of Canterbury, when a witness at IICSA hearings, agreed.

So the plan is to have a new Code of Practice which has much stronger wording and is more explicit about who it applies to. Readers with particular interest in safeguarding will want to read the paperwork on this: the key documents are the Policy Paper here and the Explanatory Notes here.

Once finalised, the new Code of Practice will form part of the Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline Measure, For the first time, ‘persons’ who must ‘comply’ (rather than ‘have due regard’) are specified, and include what you might call corporate persons such as a Diocesan Board of Finance and the National Safeguarding team.

This was not the occasion to retell experiences of abuse, but to form the new regulations. So the debate was measured and thoughtful. I think two threads emerged:

  • The major one was that the new Code does not cover laypeople  – such as churchwardens and other parish volunteers – who do not comply with it. Several speakers brought this up. Of course, it is hard to apply Clergy Discipline systems to non-clergy individuals. A priest has a licence, takes oaths of obedience, and so on, and therefore a process for discipline, and establishing sanctions for breaking the rules exists. No such parameters surround a churchwarden, bellringing tower captain or volunteer youth group leader.
  • We were told that the Clergy Discipline Measure in its current format is to be completely revised, with first steps hopefully being taken at the February meeting. The issue of laypeople will require a different route, perhaps.

So, it was a long day…

We started at 9.15, and carried on till about 7.00, wth a lunch break and a couple of screen breaks. Was it any good?

  • We are more at home with the two electronic voting systems.
  • We’ve heard about a substantial effort being made to get the whole church to re-frame itself for the changes of the next decade – in Archbishop Stephen’s words, to be less task-oriented and more Christ-centred
  • We’ve crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s on a new way of governing the mission and life of our cathedral churches
  • We’ve taken prudent steps to ensure financial safety in the immediate future
  • And we’ve dipped our toes into the safeguarding issues that will return tomorrow morning with a substantive debate on IICSA’s six recommendations to us.

I won’t pretend it was a much fun as being together in London: but we got the job done. I am full of admiration for the calmness with which our Chairs conduct debates under trying circumstances, and the efficency with which the backroom staff get us on the air, take our votes, and run everything by remote control. It’s hard work, but impressive.


* Change gonna come: Sam Cooke’s wistfully prophetic song from 1964, anticipating the Civil Rights changes that would gradually improve the lot of African Americans. Took a while. The C of E may not have that long…

There’s a lovely video of the song:

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6 Responses to A change gonna come *

  1. John Paul Hoskins says:

    Many thanks as ever for this extraordinarily helpful summary, Stephen!

  2. charleswread says:

    thanks – excellent summary as always. I too am a bit concerned about the process of forming this new vision – though the vision itself is good. There needs to be buy in by clergy and laity and starting with bishops and diocesan secretaries was maybe not a smart move.

  3. Annie says:

    Informative, as usual. There will be some very challenging times ahead. I read with interest that the Clergy Discipline Measure will be completely rewritten and also the comment that the code doesn’t cover lay people. Where do Readers come in all of this? We’re licensed but not clergy, betwixt and between. Churchwardens get a mention but not Readers.

    • Yep. Readers and other volunteer lay ministers and officers of a PCC lay outside its scope. Readers have some accountability, because they are licenced by the Bishop: the others are often at liberty to be loose cannons. Though I hasten to add the vast majority are wonderful, faithful and conscientious.

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