My aim in this blog has always been to give an impression of what it’s like actually being at a General Synod meeting. Saturday’s one-day informal gathering of members presents a challenge: for a start, technically it was not a formal session, and practically it wasn’t there: it was here – in my kitchen and in the Archbishop’s study and your attic room and (I suspect) in several gardens and maybe even greenhouses, as the weather was so fine.
What we had was a webinar, rather than a Synod: no votes, no debates, not chatting in the corridor. My preview post was fairly low on expectations, so I rejoice to report that, all things considered, the planners and tech team did a very good job, and though we could not see each other, we did learn a lot, and even had some inspirational content amongst the long presentations.
Sue Booys, Chair of the Business Committee, explained why it had been decided to scrap the planned ‘proper’ February Synod and have today’s webinar, followed by two days business sessions in April. (Easing of lockdown means the April will have to be a Zoom Synod).
- The Church House authorities could not allow even a small number of key Synod staff to operate from the building in the way they had in November.
- It was not fair to ask even that small number to operate a Zoom Synod from some other location.
- Even with our best Chairs, chairing a lively meeting with speeches and votes could simply not be done by one person from their home with no support staff or backup.
So she acknowledged the frustrations felt by everyone, but said this informal meeting would bring us up to speed on key business, and enable at least some question-and-answer time.
On a personal note, Sue reminded us that she had served 20 years on Synod, and it was time not to stand for re-election (elections, delayed from last year, will happen this September). She was therefore standing down now as Business Committee Chair, so that we could elect someone now who could bring their experience to bear with a new Synod. (There are two candidates standing, Robert Hammond and Clive Scowen, both with Business Committee and other Synodical experience. She did gently remind us to vote on their potential as Chair, rather than on any views they may hold on particular issues.)
Since Zoom Chat was not available, Twitter came alive with affectionate tributes to Sue’s calm handling of what is a very difficult job. My contribution was this: “approachable, friendly, firm when necessary, and (for us synod bloggers and tweeters) annoyingly discreet.”
Instead of a Presidential address from one of the Archbishops, we had a vaguely-titled item called Reflections from the Presidents. I have previously referred to the warm relationships between Their Graces Justin and Stephen as a ‘bromance’, but this turned out to be a bit of a thoughtful chat-show: not so much Ant and Dec as a Radio 4 panel discussion about the impact of the present crisis.
- Canterbury’s guest was Dr Gary Bell, a psychiatrist, who suggested we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in clergy distress. Dr Bell works with St Luke’s, the clergy health charity, and was wise about self-care and realistic survival strategies.
- York’s interviewee was Kirsten England, Chief Executive of Bradford City Council, who told us some stark truths about death rates in her communities. She also talked about how we are all missing physical intimacy – hugs, and so on: the very thing that gives you well-being also can give you the virus.
Both guests were powerful, though maybe there was nothing new in what they had to say. However, the conversation gave us some insight into how Archbishops Justin and Stephen operate in an informal setting. Both got away from generalities and spoke about their own exercise regimes, ability to get things wrong, and their health.
To simply, boldly, humbly, go…
The headline item for the day was Vision and Strategy (V&S). Last year we were introduced to Archbishop Stephen Cottrell’s vision of a ‘simpler, bolder, humbler’ C of E. (See my report here). The V&S programme is a huge rethink of how the church might be different in the future. It has already had to navigate difficult waters:
- Scary Press coverage suggesting closure of churches and sacking of clergy (this has been strongly denied by both Archbishops)
- The COVID lockdowns preventing face-to-face consultation, discussion and debate
Against this tide, Archbishop Stephen was his genial, chirpy, non-defensive self. He produced a slightly revised version of the concentric rings diagram – modified to stress ‘Jesus Christ centred, and shaped by the Five Marks of Mission‘. (If you don’t know what they are, go here.)
Some bullet points from his address:
- We are looking for a theological renewal of the church, not administrative/structural changes
- Our historic vocation to be a church for every person in every location remains – but we must offer a ‘mixed ecology’ because people live their lives in different communities – physical, social and , increasingly, digital.
- We need more priests – and a huge development of lay ministry
- We must become younger and more diverse – to look like the communities we serve.
- We must face up to our failures to reach many groups, including LGBTI+
Then came a new diagram! It takes some looking at, but attempts to show the vast scope of all the streams of work currently going on across a very complex Church. Concluding, he saw the COVID times as a time of ‘painful opportunity’, and we must remember that the front line is the bottom line.
You can read the full text of his address here. The Q and A session that followed was not very satisfactory, as we could not see the questions or the questioners: they were read out and a panel responded. This, to me, illustrates the difficulty we are in. There are evidently all sorts of Zoom meetings and ‘consultations’ happening at the centre of C of E structures, and Bishops and key diocesan players are in on them.
But ordinary parishes and clergy are struggling to maintain their activities at present. Even if resources and grass-roots discussions were available, people do not have the capacity at present to work on bigger issues. (The same problem exists with rolling out Living in Love and Faith discussions.) So there is a huge risk that ‘the centre’ is going ahead at speed, while the ‘front line’ is stressed out and unaware.
Synod does lunch!
After the first of four Stories of Hope and Salvation (see below), the 50-minute lunchbreak did give a chance to actually see people.
A new Zoom call was available when we could just chat with each other – about 50 of us, out of the 370 attending, went into breakout rooms. It was so refreshing to see faces, catch up with one or two old friends, and watch each other eating sandwiches or having our soup.
The lunch prize clearly went to the Revd Debbie Flach, vicar of Lille in Northern France, who was brought a scrumptious-looking lunch by a kind neighbour.
Straight after lunch we had Laura Leatherbarrow’s Story of Salvation and Hope (see below), and then it we were into an info-heavy item on safeguarding.
We cannot mark our own homework…
Bishop Jonathan Gibbs took us through the responses to the IICSA enquiry’s recommendations for the C of E, and Malcom Brown explained the thinking behind the paper we had been given.
This was necessarily downbeat stuff: Bishop Gibbs reminded us that the church had failed, and there was a need for repentance and change. But there are no quick fixes: they might make headlines, but they won’t do what is needed.
He tried to manage expectations by saying he was not going to cover every issue – for example, reforming ‘core groups’ was not on today’s list. But plans for bringing setting up an Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) were, and took up most of his time.
It seems extraordinary that only six years ago the national church had only one part-time safeguarding staff member. Now there is a National Safeguarding Team, and how their work is supervised was the focus. “We cannot mark our own homework” was his theme, and a supporting paper carefully laid out the issues involved and the difficulties in setting up an ISB. The document is well worth reading. Other points he made were:
- Safeguarding Training is to be renamed as ‘Safeguarding Learning’: not just a fancy tweak, but a recognition that we have to have a culture change from tick-boxing and fulfilling a requirement to embedding beliefs and values about making the church a safe place.
- All safeguarding policies are being updated. There will be a high workload for dioceses, but we must move forward.
- Quality Assurance is a requirement of IICSA’s recommendations. The National team will do this – so there is external accountability to local responsibilities
- Survivor engagement must be apart of how we do things: victims and survivors must be involved with interview panels, the Past Cases Reviews, Clergy Discipline review, as well as the ISB. He outlined progress on the Safe Spaces project, where Victim Support are currently involved with 95 cases. The programme is operated on behalf of the C of E, Church in Wales, and the Roman Catholic Church.
- He made a pledge last year about redress for victims and survivors of abuse. This needs to be built into the Strategy and Vision programme, and requires funding. The processes should be operated in a way that means wherever possible, adversarial and legal routes are not required.
Independence – Phase 1…
Now, one of the frustrations about safeguarding progress is the immense pressure from victims and survivors of abuse and their advocates. IICSA has shone a bright light into some dark and dusty corners of how the church has dealt (or failed to deal) with them. So they, understandably, look for rapid progress and open discussions. So Malcom Brown explained how his paper was trying to set out just how complex it will be to set up an ISB at speed.
- Should we wait till it is up and running before we deal with outstanding issues?
- How can we consult well with victims and survivors under lockdown conditions?
Hence there is a Phase 1 to install three key posts in an ISB: to get professional supervision of the National team (but not to manage them); to help bring about the necessary culture change nationally and in dioceses; and to begin the long-term development of independence, where there is clear responsibility for diocesan and national teams, but also clear accountability. Phase 2 can only happen once the basics have been put together in Phase 1.
All this may sound like ‘dither and delay’ to some, but a careful read of the paper may help to illuminate the complexities of establishing truly independence in the middle of a heavy caseload and under pressure from IICSA.
As with the morning sessions’ Q & A, questions about this presentation were frustrated by our inability to see the questions, and just listen to a fairly hastily-collated resume, done during a 10-minute screen break. Points mentioned included how funding for all this could be found during the current financial drought in dioceses. And, as one might expect, criticism that we were not being consulted, we were being informed!
But, if the rest of the day was padding, this one item was significant to indicate to us all that we are on the move, despite the frustration (rightly) felt by victims and survivors and their Synodical advocates.
After the third Story of Hope and Salvation (see below), we came to Housing. The Archbishop’s Commission’s report Coming Home is a major piece of work – it was compared to the Faith in the City report, which in the 1980s drew much anger from the then Conservative government. Archbishop Justin said that dealing with poor housing should be an important part of re-imagining Britain past-COVID. We were reminded that:
- 8 million people live in sub-standard housing
- There are more children in sub-standard housing now than was the case in the 19060’s,m when the TV drama Cathy Come Home caused such a stir
- The problem is not simply availability: it is affordability. We have no national plan or strategy for housing, unlike the arrangements for a National Heath Service
A panel drawn from the Commission team explored various aspects, from Bishop Graham Tomlin’s theology of good, safe housing, to practicalities of what churches and dioceses can do to promote good housing on land they control.
Charlie Arbuthnot, the Chair of the Commission explained the well-rehearsed problem: that people believe charities can only dispose of land at the best possible price – which means developers buy it to build the kinds of houses that are either not in short supply, or are too expensive for those in need. So the Church Commissioners and dioceses (who control glebe land) are prevent3ed from doing what they would prefer – support good social housing. He put it this way: Driving ‘best value’ is damaging the mission of the church”
The Revd Lynne Cullens suggested churches should prayerfully discern what they are called to do with their land and property, and pointed us to a wide range of case studies and ‘how to…’ guides that parishes should look at – see them here.
David Orr talked about the need for government to have long-term coherent objectives for housebuilding, rather than the piecemeal emphasis on ‘starter homes’. The strategy should not just cover the numbers of units built, but affordability and decarbonisation. Landlord-tenant relationships needed reworking, and he reminded us that three-and-a-half years after Grenfell Tower, there was still no rapid action on cladding strategy.
Details of the Coming Home report are here, and you can download a summary or the full report from the same page.
Tell me a story…
One innovation in the programme was that sequence of four Stories of Hope and Salvation, spread across the day. I was a bit suspicious of this and had rather dreaded it, anticipating mini-presentations by chirpy vicars telling us all how online worship had drawn vast numbers of people into their nets. How wrong I was!
- The most effective of the four, for me, was Chernise Neo, who runs a bakery in Coventry that works with refugees. She told us an inspirational tale of her own experience of immigration to the UK from Singapore, leading her to get involved with supporting women from Syria, Iran, and other places. Before having to leave their home countries, these women were natural, confident bakers, feeding their households: as refugees in the UK, they were often lost and lonely, unable to contribute, and without much hope for a secure future. If you’re inthat part of the country, they are at https://proofbakery.co.uk/
But they were being drawn together by the Proof Bakery project to use and develop their baking skills, and thus find meaning, company, language-learning, employment – and hope! Proof Bakery itself has gone from strength to strength. Coming just before the lunchbreak, this was a real moment of positivity out of the dreariness and fragility of lockdown.
- We also heard from Laura Leatherbarrow, a Liverpool priest with a nursing background. She gave a thoughtful and positive account of helping people in her community come to terms with the grieving for lost certainties and opportunities that COVID lockdowns have inflicted. We hear a lot about ‘mental health issues’ and ‘well-being’: here was a concrete example of the church being a source of strength and rebuilding confidence in people.
- Tosin Olidipo, a curate in Hackney, talked about the ‘cataclysmic’ effect of lockdown and work shutdowns on people in East London, living under poverty in poor housing and vulnerable in so many ways. One statistic: he said that the provision on meals by church-based bodies had risen from 5,000 a year pre-COVID to 250,000 in the last year. I found that both shocking (in scale) and admirable (in showing a Christian response to those in need).
- Towards the end of the day, the Revd Andy Dovey, a South London healthcare chaplain, gave a moving account of being with the dying in hospital, going to the extent of holding a phone to a dying man’s ear so that his imam could say the appropriate Islamic prayers for him, and holding the and of another person for forty minutes as he dies, with is family unable to come to the hospital. He left je with one take-away gem: the times when people say “How are you” and you reply “I’m OK”. But then they come back to say “No, how are you really?” And his point was not just that this is something we all might do with a friend, but that this was something hospital colleagues were asking him – because they cared for him and valued his contribution to the crisis.
I really hope we don’t have to do this again…
I must admit, even though we could not see each other, the day was not as bad as I had feared! Hats off to the Church House team who were all working from home to bring a complex series of people and presentations to us throughout the day.
- We’re certainly better informed about developments on the three main subjects (Vision and Strategy, Safeguarding and Housing).
- And the Stories of Salvation and Hope were much more than just propaganda or light relief.
- On the other hand, we weren’t able to see each other, and the Q&A sessions were rather dull.
- But one very bright thing was that the whole of the proceedings were provided with BSL signers – Deaf Anglicans Together are a key constituency in Synod. If only the government COVID briefings has signers on BBC1, instead of parking them out of the way on the News Channel. Their presence (or absence) makes an important statement.
But as Sue Booys put it: I really hope we don’t have to do this again. We are to have a two-day formal Synod on Zoom in April (23/24th, book the dates) and everyone is really, really hoping that the summer meeting in York (9-13 July) can happen in person. It will be the last meeting of this Synod, so for many of us who won’t stand for election again, a chance to make farewells. Hopefully, it won’t be I can’t see nobody all over again and we will be able to see somebody in person. But social distancing on the campus will not be easy…
* I can’t see nobody – an early Bee Gees classic (1966), issued as the ‘B’ side of New York Mining Disaster 1941. Nina Simone did a very soulful version, too.