This weekend’s online General Synod has been overtaken in the news cycle by the release of From Lament to Action, the report of the Archbishops Anti-Racism Taskforce. It has attracted comment – both favourable and critical. Some news outlets have concentrated on what it says about encouraging diversity in church leadership (from vicars to Bishops): others just say the church has gone ‘woke’.
As it happens, it’s not on the agenda for this Synod – the timing is wrong. It would be pretty valueless to discuss a weighty 71-page document just 48 hours after it was published. Synod members need time to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it, as well as work out exactly what the best synodical process might be.
So I think we’re more likely to tackle it at the July meeting which (hopefully) will be in person in York. In the meantime, details of the report are here.
The Archbishops have issued a statement which implies they intend to ‘encourage’ Synod to revise its rules and invent a new form of co-opted memberships – 10 members with full voting rights from minority ethnic laity and clergy. (There is precedent here: we have Deaf Anglican members and Young Anglican members).
But this weekend, the uncomfortably electronic General Synod continues without this report. We have others. We lost our normal February meeting, and had an ‘informal’ session instead – read my account here – but there is legislation that needs to be done, not least about safeguarding and clergy discipline. It won’t wait until our July meeting. And so we will be spending six and a half hours on Friday (23 April) and another six and three quarters on Saturday glued to our screens.
He’s the business…
There’s a fresh face at the centre of Synod. Robert Hammond has been elected Chair of the Business Committee, succeeding Sue Booys – and she will be a hard act to follow.
Robert is a civil servant, and a Lay Canon of Chelmsford Cathedral, well-steeped in Synodical processes, so amid the uncertainties and discomforts of Zoom meetings, he will be a steady hand.
As it happens, he’s already had to negotiate some changes in the agenda that was sent out a couple of weeks ago. The archbishops, as Presidents of Synod, have inserted an item about the late Prince Philip, and a Presidential address, which were not in the agenda originally agreed by the Committee. So there has had to be some juggling done. A motion expressing sympathy to the Queen on the death of her husband has been allotted 25 minutes at the very start of proceedings.
I am not convinced that every Synod member will welcome this: even those not of a republican disposition may see it as shoe-horning an ‘extra’ into an already tight timetable. But perhaps it’s an inevitable consequence of being ‘the Church by law established’ that we are going to formally respond to his death. After all, the Queen has, in all the 41 years of Synod’s existence, been with us in worship and in the Synod chamber to inaugurate every five-year term, and members will doubtless hope she will be able to do so once more this coming November.
Another late addition to the agenda is a Presidential address: billed this time not as a joint effort by the archiepiscopal bromance of Canterbury and York, but from Archbishop Stephen Cottrell alone, who will have just 10 minutes to say his piece. Maybe he will talk about From Lament to Action.
After that normality resumes, with Robert Hammond’s first debate on the agenda: his report can be read here (GS 2196). Then comes our first look at current safeguarding issues, with the Revision stage of the revised Safeguarding Code of Practice. And if that sound complicated, that’s because it is…
Responding to IICSA
We are undertaking a lot of change in order to respond to the heavy critique of the C of E that came out from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual abuse (IICSA). The easiest way to understand what’s going on is to read the explanation of the proposed changes in document GS2182X. However, for some reason it is not available on the C of E Synod documents website, though you can get it on the Synod App.
The sense of urgency and pace is demonstrated in the fact that we will return to Final Approval of the Code on Saturday. It’s full of detail about how things must be done. Just five years ago that we passed legislation requiring bishops and clergy to have ‘due regard’ to the Code. That was not good enough for IICSA and now they will actually have to follow it, chapter and verse.
On Saturday we will also get an update from the Lead Bishop, Jonathan Gibbs.
A duty to campaign for freedom
After the obligatory screen break, the focus moves to the world stage, as we look at Freedom of Religion or Belief. Read the very full document that is the basis for discussion here.
Line of Duty fans will be pleased to know that we have an acronym for this: FoRB. The refers to FoRB many, many times. As early as paragraph 2 we are also introduced to FoRBLN, MPA and FCDO. But cheap jokes apart, we are told that 83% of the world’s population live under regimes where freedom of religion or belief is restricted. The Bishop of Truro, Philip Mountstephen, was commissioned by the Government to make an independent report about the subject, so this looks as if it will be a classic well-informed and passionate synod debate.
You wouldn’t think Standing Orders could attract much passion, and you might be right. However, after some very thinly-attended debates about very significant matters, the Standing Orders Committee is bringing forward a host or recommendations to change to way we do some debates, in order to streamline, or to ensure better engagement with what some see as the ‘Synod nerd’ stuff.
If you see yourself as a potential candidate for election to General Synod later this year, I suggest you might want to read the report, as it will give you some insight into how business gets done. There’s a lovely simple flow chart, for a start, on how Canons and Measures are made. (And if all that seems to hard a mountain to climb, you could always just content yourselves with a few back issues of this blog…)
A further screen break takes us to the last items for Friday – some streamlining of how the Church of England Pensions Board operates, and then Questions.
On pensions, there are 6 (very detailed) proposals for change – read the explanatory document here – if you can take it. (I declare an interest as the recipient of a church pension)
Q and A
Now I have always been a big fan of Questions: it is the one place where ordinary Synod members can hold those with responsibility or power to account. So I regret that15 minutes has been shaved off Questions because of the extra stuff at the beginning of the day. However, the Business Committee have done a good job in tweaking the rules of engagement: trying to have the usual jolly ebb and flow of answers, supplementaries and the odd joke has proved pretty impossible on Zoom.
The Questions and initial Answers are, as usual, available now – read them here. But you will only be able to ask a supplementary by giving prior notice, so that the Chair can marshal speakers effectively.
But the possibility of surprising the top-table person giving the Answer remains, because you won’t have to give away the content of your supplementary when you book in advance to ask it. So we may have some revelations, and even some fun after all.
There are 100 Questions put in, with the star billing going to a block of 15 on safeguarding-related issues (notably, core groups and the Smyth/Fletcher scandals) and – a sign of the times – no less that 25 or so on Climate Change issues.
Clergy Discipline – again
On Saturday morning we start again. After worship, we have an hour or so on another piece of fallout from the IICSA Inquiry – changes to the much-criticised Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM). The Code of Practice is the document that governs how Bishops must respond to allegations made about clergy misbehaviour, and it sets out the procedures to be followed by the person complaining as well as the respondent priest. In the morning we are looking at the legal background – the Clergy Discipline (Amendment) Rules 2021. The best explanation is this document, but it is pretty impenetrable except to lawyers and those who have to put the CDM into operation. Until I retired, I was one of that unhappy group, so I welcome the changes being made to simplify things and to be more supportive to those involved.
One fascinating ‘tweak’ is the proposal to put length limits on submissions being made as part of a CDM procedure: I believe that since my time there have been occasions when people have produced reams of paper, notionally in support of their case, but which over-burden those who have to read them with too much detail or with tangential arguments. Such things lead to justice delayed, so there is talk of a 3000-word limit, and a 25-page limit on supporting documents.
Good and Faithful servant
After a couple of routine appointments to be confirmed, Synod will make some farewells. To my personal sadness, we will – I hope – make a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to my former boss, Bishop Peter Hancock, who has had to take early retirement after treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia. Synod-watchers will remember him as the Lead Bishop on Safeguarding who had to be up front during the scandals and pain of some high-profile cases.
It’s not very widely known that he sat through practically every day of the IICSA Anglican Inquiry hearings. He also put in immense amounts of time seeing or talking to victims and survivors of church abuse. His illness arose not long after he had passed that burden onto Bishop Jonathan Gibbs, and it is a great disappointment that he’s not been able to resume his pastoral leadership of the Bath and Wells diocese.
The obligatory screen break – never quite long enough to make a coffee, wander into the garden or deal with domestic matters – will then lead into the follow-through to Friday’s safeguarding item – the Final Approval of the new Code of Practice.
In February we had some competitive lunch pictures on Twitter from people’s kitchens: perhaps this time it’ll be ‘lunch in the garden’ for some. After the lunch break, we turn to what will be the most interesting debate for many members.
Choosing Bishops: responsibly or irresponsibly?
The Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) is the body that chooses diocesan bishops. To be fair, they would prefer we spoke about ‘discerning’ who is the right choice to be the next Bishop of X. In the light of some discomfort about how the CNC works, a group was set up to report on how the (very complex) processes involved might be changed. You can read their report, Responsible Representation, here. The report’s very title does rather hint that there have been some irresponsible approaches by people elected under the present system.
On Thursday night there was an official webinar with members of the group who have done the work. Their report is 63 pages long, so the webinar helped to clear some of the misunderstandings out of the way – but not all of them. At an unofficial fringe meeting earlier in the week, all sorts of concerns were raised, and amendments considered. There are probably two main concerns on the floor of Synod:
- How we can ensure that the bench of diocesan bishops encompasses a truly diverse range of men and women that reflect the real Church of England, rather than being a gathering of (mostly) middle-aged, (mostly) white), (mostly) men? One straw in the wind is the statement from the diocese of London that when the Area Bishop of Willesden, Pete Broadbent, retires later this year, they hope to appoint someone with a minority ethnic background to the post.
- How more women can be appointed to diocesan Bishop posts, while at the same time, there is mutual flourishing for those whose theological position does not accept the consecration of women as bishops. You may recall the row when Philip North, a ‘traditionalist Catholic’ was nominated as Bishop of Sheffield, only to withdraw when the clergy of that diocese objected to his views on women clergy. (He is now suffragan Bishop of Burnley).
You need to read the report to understand what’s being proposed, as the whole system is fiercely complicated. It covers how the 6 ‘central’ members of CNC should be elected, as well as the local diocesan Vacancy-in-See Committee should work to choose the diocese’s 6 members when a new Bishop of being sought.
I spy two sticking points for Saturday’s debate:
We are being asked to ‘endorse’ the report, rather than ‘take note’ of it. This has got several people very nervous as there are things in it that they would not wish to endorse. The webinar was told that people should not worry, as endorsement did not mean the Group’s recommendations would all be carried out, willy-nilly: any changes to procedures would have to come back to synod for debate and agreement (or rejection). We’ll see how persuasive that argument is in debate…
The report builds on previous work under the O’Donovan report to suggest the 6 central CNC members – elected by Synod – should actually be elected as 6 pairs, so that one person could substitute for their ‘pair’ if diary dates or other factors prevented them from being part of a particular CNC process. The theory is that this would give the CNC a bigger ‘pool’ of experience and expertise (12 people available rather than just the 6) while maintaining the continuity of membership and knowledge.
At the risk of ‘going off on one’, while this is a nice theory, I cannot see how it would work in practice. Anyone offering to serve on the CNC would have to find a ‘pair to stand for election with. They are most likely to choose someone they know, or agree with, rather than some idealised complementary stranger. In the election, Synod members would have a difficult time comparing the pairs on offer.
Last, but not least…
And we end on Saturday afternoon with a safeguarding update: not more legislation, but a report from Bishop Jonathan Gibbs. He willtake us through the significant number of workstreams now in progress to improve our reparations to victims and survivors of church abuse, our training, and our day-to-day safeguarding operations, both nationally and in dioceses.
There is a vast amount of work being done to change the way we do things – you can see the scope of it all here (GS2204)
Following the fun
By 5.00 on Saturday, we’ll all be reaching for the Optrex again, But despite the limitations of a Zoom Synod, I suspect there will be more than a few people more than usually interested in following this Synod: the clergy and laity who are thinking of standing for election to the new Synod this autumn. Obviously, the bathwellschap blog gives you an overview, but you might need to see the action yourself:
- you will be able to follow a livestream of proceedings, if you wish: find it here. We kick off after Opening Worship at 12.30 on Friday 23rd April, and finish at 7.00: Saturday’s meeting runs from 9.15 to 5.00
- the documentation can be found here
- the very handy Synod App also has all the papers, timetable etc. It’s free to download from Google Play/the apple store
- the official Twitter feed is here; unofficial chat and comment flows freely with the hashtag #synod here
* I will be alone again: extracted from the 1967 song Alone Again Or, by Arthur Lee’s band Love. I know not everyone finds it so, but I find Synod a very social and fellowship event: sitting by myself in the kitchen doesn’t quite cut it for me.
Love were the quintessentially West Coast pyschedelic-but-melodic group with some astonishingly beautiful songs with lush orchestrations.
The Forever Changes album is a classic. Listen to Alone again Or here or find their weird but wonderful Glastonbury performance on BBC iPlayer.