It was a day where most people’s attention was focussed on what looked like good news about vaccines, and modified good news about changes to lockdowns. So the doings of General Synod today (Monday 23 November) will seem even more insignificant than usual. But we did some interesting things, some important things – and some very new things.
The new things were, of course, all about how we coped with a non-physical meeting. Everyone from the Archbishops to the humblest new member was on Zoom. It had a very different feel.
Business Chair Sue Booys thanked us all ‘for welcoming Synod into our homes’. From the comfort of our homes we saw the hall at Church House, empty except for the Chair’s thinned-out platform party. During the opening worship, I tried to imagine I was there, with people all around me. But it didn’t work. An insightful member pointed out on Twitter that the platform party looked like one of those classical Dutch masterpieces.
This will go down in history as the Optrex Synod…
For the 410 of us sitting it out at home – and spread across 17 screens of 25 faces – the Zoom-ness of the thing had ramifications:
- There was the un-muted mutt – a barking dog from the someone whose ‘Mute’ function failed.
- There was a delightful mother-and-child moment during the closing worship.
- Procedurally, everything happened in slow time, with long pauses as we moved from one speaker to the next.
- And it’s very hard on the eyes.
Yes, but what about the business…?
The first thing to do was to make us legit. So we had to approve the Temporary Standing Orders (see here for the history), which we did – eventually. They include provision for two sorts of votes:
- the informal “simple” vote, via a Zoom poll, which replicates the usual ‘show of hands’ vote
- the “formal” count, conducted on special software, to cover anything that needed an accurate count, a special majority, or a vote by houses,
There was a struggle to establish whether or not the names and votes that Zoom records anyway during a poll should be destroyed after Synod. The reason being that the traditional show of hands never offers a record of who voted each way, while a Zoom poll does.
Naturally, voting on a technical amendment about this should have been simple, but the first Zoom poll failed to work, and we ended up having a complex formal vote about a simple matter.
Anyway, the amendment was defeated, largely on the grounds that you should have no reason to be voting anonymously. And we passed the Measure, which came into effect immediately. Meaning we could then turn to the agenda proper.
When 1+1 = 4…
What had been billed as a two-headed Presidential Address (i.e. both archbishops speaking, as has been the case since the archiepiscopal bromance of Welby and Cottrell started) actually turned into a four-way item, with the Bishop of Coventry and Dr Eva John joining in to talk about Living in Love and Faith (LLF)
Archbishop Justin gave us a sobering catalogue of the effects of COVID on the poor, the elderly and the less privileged in the UK, before going on to remind us that it is even worse in other parts of the world.
I noted down four horsemen of this current apocalypse – bereavement, illness, suffering and fear, but he went on to list seven woes. He said that 2020 will go down in people’s memories just as “9/11” marked the year 2001 for a previous generation.
Archbishop Stephen, speaking from York, dropped some hints about his presentation tomorrow on the ‘Visions and Strategy’ work bein done for the C of E, before adding an eighth item to the list – the climate crisis.
He listed some of the Church’s own problems – the terrible safeguarding failings listed in the IICSA reports, and the stretch in finance caused by COVID.
His main point I felt, was that we need to change: COVID forces change on us at every level, and we will have to stop many activities to concentrate on prayer, mission, and service to others.
The Bishop of Coventry and Dr John then spoke about LLF as a new way of doing things: the church sitting down together, and learning from each other. In 2022, we will have to weigh up whatever decisions on human sexuality-related issues that the Bishops offer in the light of wide discussion using the LLF materials. (You can catch up with LLF here)
Archbishop Justin then reminded us that we got to LLF because in February 2017, Synod rejected a previous House of Bishops statement and process. (Read my account of that tram-smash here), and re-stated the words he had used the next morning “we need a radical, new, Christian inclusion in the Church”
Breakout is squeezed out…
At this point, we should have had some questions, and then gone into breakout groups. But because we were running late, that didn’t happen. Personally, I thought that a huge mistake. If the whole point of the LLF process is to talk, listen and learn from each other, a brief Q&A session was not a great idea. However, I know that there are Synod members who would have found talking about something so personal to an electronic room full of strangers too difficult.
My discomfort was compounded by the fact that the brief Q and A session was mostly the usual suspects, asking their questions from their usual bunkers. The one ray of light was a question asking whether our progress on this was going to be about loving one another (which is sacrificial and painful) or just C of E niceness (which, in the long term, is unloving).
So either way, an opportunity was missed.
COVID’s multiple effects
Our discussions on COVID were overshadowed by the fact that the Prime Minister was busy announcing changes to lockdowns, and the plan for winter was being explained in another place. But Archbishop Stephen began this item with a typically energetic speech talking about the learnings of this pandemic year.
- The fact that the ideas behind the NHS were formulated during the Second World War – I.e. during the crisis, they planned for what would happen after the crisis ended.
- He quoted some horrendous statistics illustrating the ‘scandalous’ effects of the pandemic on the poorest and the most vulnerable – who were taking the biggest hit, financially and health-wise.
- Loretta Minghella, former CEO of Christian Aid spoke powerfully about priorities in coming out of the pandemic: we won’t build recovery on the backs of the poor”
- Archbishop Stephen on the aid budget: we won’t eliminate COVID anywhere unless we eliminate it everywhere
- Alison Coulter from Winchester spoke against any special pleading for churches to remain open when businesses and social services were shut down (At this point, someone intervened to say that the PM had just announced churches were to re-open)
This was a squeezed debate: too many amendments, too many speakers with good things to say, not enough time. It weas also too wide-ranging. We covered health, effects on church life, and – on a late amendment – the rumoured Government plan to renege on the UK’s 0.7% of GDP for international development work. The motion was tweaked, and duly passed. The Chairing was superb. But there was just too much material to cram into the time, and it felt like a pot-pourri of differing concerns.
Have we got the right agenda?
Unusually, Sue Booys, Chair of the Business Committee, had to wait until the afternoon session to introduce their report on the agenda. She explained that the pandemic restrictions meant we could only deal with necessary and urgent business this November – safeguarding changes, the budget, and legislation that cannot wait.
This debate is always an opportunity for hobby-horses to be exercised, and despite the naming and shaming that now happens when lists of speakers from the last sessions are given to us, the Zoom ‘blue hands’ (indicating a wish to be called to speak) had too many of the usual suspects. Having said that, there were significant contributions.
- Jayne Ozanne from Oxford made a plea for synodical debate of LLF. To my mind, focussing on debate avoided the genuine points she wanted to make. For a start, very few of us will have read all 400-plus pages of the LLF book. What’s more a debate, means a vote, and a motion, and therefore division -when the LLF process is meant to be about genuine listening to each other’s views.
- On a different tack, Paul Benfield from Blackburn spoke against the need to meet virtually at all: he found it an unsatisfactory way to do business and much of the agenda was not as important as we were being told.
Before the ending of the day…
Question time was our final item, but it lacked its usual spontaneity and occasional bursts of laughter. This was no fault of the Chair: Zoe Heming presided with admirable calm, warning us of the inevitable slow pace. Zoom procedures meant gaps between speakers, and occasional mix-ups as to which Question somebody was asking a supplementary about.
The list of Questions (read them here) was something of a rag-bag, with no clear theme shining through, as is sometimes the case. The hot topics were
- ‘green’ issues – with an interesting query about the merit of replacing wooden pews that are not carbon -producing with all new chairs that have to be manufactured. (It’s Question 36, if you want to check it out)
- COVID – mostly questions about ways of receiving Communion under the current rules. There is a vocal undercurrent wanting a change in the Canons, so that individual cups/glasses can be used, as in many Free Churches
- Safeguarding – in the light of the IICSA report (a full debate is on the books for Wednesday morning) and one very distressing case in Oxford diocese.
- In between, there were all sorts of varied minutiae about disciplinary cases, gender breakdown of ordinands, and much more.
Question Time is a cornucopia of people’s concerns about the life of the dear of C of E. Previous over-runs mean t that we voted to extend the session by 15 minutes, meaning we finished at 7.15 p.m.
We are a muted Synod in more than one way. I think there is one lesson from today: that doing it on Zoom for long hours is exhausting. Yes, we had screen breaks (2 lots of 20 minutes) , but by the end everyone was tired:
- there were 400 people at 1.00 p.m.when we started the day
- 300 when Questions began
- only 200 at the end of the prayers which concluded proceedings at 7.15 p.m
- equally, backchat on Twitter was very lively early in the afternoon; it quietened down by the end of the day.
Tomorrow has the capacity to be even worse, as we start at 9.15 and finish at 6.30. There are two screen breaks, and a 90-minute lunch break. But as people are at home, they will be juggling cooking, walking the dogs, doing school runs and much else besides. There were people there who were going straight off to another local church Zoom meeting as soon as we finished.
That is not to say a Zoom Synod is unworkable. But we must adjust to it by being self-denying with amendments, long speeches and having the usual people saying the usual things. (That may sound a bit harsher than my usual observations. But I’m just saying…)
I’ll be back tomorrow with a report on what, agenda-wise, might be quite a significant day.
* Can’t take my eyes off you: 1967 number. pretty well everyone’s had a go at this – Franki Valli (of the Four Seasons), Andy Williams, even Boys Town Gang in 1982.
Franky Valli’s original version is here. Takes you back