We don’t talk any more *

It’s difficult. Normally my preview posts about upcoming General Synod meetings are cheerful, informative, and sometimes even witty. But it’s hard to get excited about the one-day ‘Meeting of General Synod Members’ being held on Saturday 27 February. Why is that?

The exigencies of trying to make Synod work in lockdown mean we’ll be having an even more thinned-out and an even less engaging day than was the case for our previous COVID-affected sessions: the Zoom ‘Optrex Synod’ last November (details are here) and the one-day ‘restricted-but-not-locked-down’ meeting in the flesh in September (details here).

Zoom Synod: computer and cat in the kitchen

Basically, it’s going to be a one-day webinar. No debate, no voting, no spontaneity. The members will not even be able to see each other – except in the lunchbreak. Our screens will only show us the speakers and presentations. We can’t even use Zoom ‘chat’ to communicate with each other, only for specific questions to the team running the day.

It’s not ‘Pointless’…

Now this may sound like a very uncharacteristic whinge, coming from me. But it isn’t meant to be. The Church House staff team, and the Business Committee are having to make the best of a bad job: with everyone working from home, it has been decided that it’s not going to be possible to have a fully interactive Synod, which would require Chairs of sessions, backroom staff, Registrars and the tech crew to all be gathered in Church House.

Instead, we’ll have effectively what is a series of presentations, with a great novelty: rather than Chairs of the various items, we’ll have compères! No, we’re not turning into a game show. Put away all thoughts of Pointless or Total Wipeout. Two excellent long-standing Synodspeople have been chosen to steer us through the day – Canon Margaret Swinson and the Revd Canon Kate Wharton: both are knowledgeable, experienced and unflappable. So we’re in safe hands.

You’ll see that the batting order for the day (it’s not, strictly speaking, an agenda) is pretty thin. Basically, there are just three items of business,

  • Vision and strategy
  • Safeguarding
  • Housing

These are interwoven with screen breaks, worship, and what I imagine are intended to cheer us all up: three ‘Stories of hope and salvation.‘.

In addition, the outgoing Chair of the Business Committee, Sue Booys will introduce the day; and rather than a full-blown Presidential address (which in recent times has been a joint effort by the two Archbishops), 45 minutes are set aside for ‘Reflections from the Presidents.)

Where’s the fun?

Oh, and there is a kind of Question time. Members could email in Questions in the usual way, and the written answers are, as usual, available now – read them here. But there’ll be no supplementaries (because we are all muted and out of vision). So all the accountability and spontaneity – and fun – we associate with Questions is out of the window this time.

A read of the Questions and Answers reveal the lockdown preoccupations of Synod members – or, at least, of those who could summon up the motivation to put a Question in. So there are Questions about using individual Communion cups, about safeguarding, various aspects of current concernsd about human sexuality issues, and about clergy discipline matters.

Three main items

Probably the item on Safeguarding is the one that matters most. After a bruising time with the Independent Inquiry into Child sexual abuse (IICSA), the C of E is making moves to ensure some independence in its safeguarding structures. There’s no doubt that making speedy progress on this has been hindered by the succession of COVIC lockdowns, and the word ‘Interim’ is all over the document explaining what has been done so far. You can read the document here, together with a covering note for Synod members.

There is much talk of ‘Phase 1’ of new arrangements, and some realistic recognition of the nervousness many victims and survivors feel about whether Phase 2 will ever arrive. What strikes me, looking it over, is the complexity of trying to set up independent safeguarding structures, financing them, recruiting the right people to undertake the work – and at the same time gaining the confidence of victims and survivors of abuse.

Vision and Strategy is the snappy title for the work introduced by Archbishop Stephen Cottrell at the November ‘Optrex synod’, with its Simpler, Humbler, Bolder strapline and its much-derided diagram of concentric circles.

Concentric: the original Vision and Strategy graphic

We’ve been given no advance paperwork on this, and – despite what is being said about this not being a ‘top-down’ workstream, the plodding mechanics of thisparticular one-day Synod mean that any real engagement by Synod members, clergy and laity alike, will be hard to achieve. But if anyone can enthuse us, it is Archbishop Stephen.

The Church’s new Housing report made some headlines last weekend, with a piece in the Sunday Times drawing some attention – and some ire. There are those who find it hard to accept that people of faith have anything useful to say or contribute to housing policy… However, the report is a well set out account of the appalling lack of social housing in this country, and suggest some remedies. We’ve been issued with a document Why the Church Should Care about Housing which you can read here. There’s a handy summary of the full report from Inside Housing magazine here.

There’s always a lot of talk about the C of E’s huge landholdings, and the report does make practical suggestions about how the various parties involved (notably the Church Commissioners and individual dioceses) might do more, if allowed by charity law. There’s a rather sparkly map, taken from a diocesan survey in Gloucester by upmarket estate agents Knight Frank which demonstrates that work can be done on assessing what is actually likely to be available.

Sparkly: pilot mapping of church lands


So, that’s a preview of a day which it’s hard to get excited about. It would be rather fun to be able to circumvent the compulsory video muting and see what Synod members are actually doing while they are supposedly paying attention…. Multi-tasking in the garden, perhaps.They certainly won’t be watching the cricket.

As I said earlier, the people in charge are having to make the best of a bad job with this particular event. They have an even worse cloud on the horizon, slightly bigger than a man’s hand. The plan had been to hold a ‘normal’ synod in April to catch up on business that hasn’t been done. The way I read the Prime Minister’s four stages of release from lockdown, gatherings of two or three hundred people in the flesh are not going to be allowed. So we’ll be repeating the Optrex Synod, I imagine… Hey-ho!

Anyway, for this one-day match…

  • We begin at 10.30 with opening worship, and business kicks off at 1040.
  • The day ends at 5.00 – check out the programme here to see when each item is due.
  • There will doubtless be some official tweeting here
  • Unofficial tweets may enliven the day – find them here
  • The Synod YouTube channel will be live streaming the presentations and speakers: the link should be here.

I’ll do a report – if I can stay awake…


*We don’t talk any more – Cliff Richard’s 1979 comeback hit. It’s a lament for a lost relationship…

About bathwellschap

Actual name Stephen Lynas. Retired Church of England priest; widower; Somerset resident for 20 years; fascinated by the engineering, history, and geography of railways. Volunteer on the South Devon Railway; reluctant gardener; cyclist.
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