So, another day, another General Synod on Zoom. There are various preliminaries that always happen at the start of a new Synod session. One is the welcome to new members, or new postholders. So after morning worship, we welcomed Canon Joyce Jones as the new Prolocutor for the York Province.
We love these titles (I myself am a pro-Prolocutor (deputy) for the Province of Canterbury), but few people know what they mean. Basically, a Prolocutor is the Chair of the House of Clergy: it’s a very ancient office, and there is one for each Province. My Latin is rusty, but I think Pro = ‘on behalf of’, locutor = speaker. So the Prolocutors speak on behalf of the clergy.
They are elected by the clergy on General Synod, and become members of the Archbishops Council – a serious and time-consuming responsibility. The two prolocutors (but not their deputies) also get speaking rights at Synod. Joyce is a wise and experienced priest: I am not in the least surprised that she was elected.
After other welcomes to new members, instead of the traditional applause Archbishop Justin improvised by saying: “shall we all wave vaguely at our cameras as a sign of intense enthusiasm”. And we did, all three hundred or so of us.
The Archbishop of Canterbury introduced a Loyal Address to the Queen – an item put into the agenda in the light of the death and funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh. After the blanket coverage of the last two weeks, there was very little new that anyone could say.
- The Archbishop referenced the funeral as something he would remember for the rest of his life. He then reminded us of the Queen’s role as the head of the Church of England (we know what he meant) and her regular involvement with the Synod with her well-informed and witty speeches on inauguration day every five years.
- Canterbury Prolocutor, Simon Butler, spoke of the privilege clergy have of conducting funerals and praying for and with families: something that is the same for the highest and the most ordinary people in the land. Clergy know about being put on a pedestal not of their own choosing by parishioners: how much more it is true for members of the royal family?
- Rachel Jepson gave an impressive testimony to the effect being on the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme had had on her as a young person, leading her into a teaching career and many public services.
Needless to say, the motion was carried practically unanimously, with 277 for, no-one against, and 1 abstention.
Responding to racism in the church
As predicted, in the week when the report From Lament to Action was published, and Panorama carried several piercing testimonies of those on the receiving end of racism in the church, Archbishop Stephen Cottrell’s short Presidential Address dealt with racism.
In his characteristic blunt way, he declaimed “Racism is a sin”. He went on to respond to the programme, notably saying that Non-Disclosure Agreements should not be used in the church, and outlining a number of changes that he and Archbishop Justin intend to put in place. They include co-options to the Synod, and observers at the House of Bishops.
He repeated that modern cliché: we must become the change we wish to see. But the urgency of his tone indicated he meant it. After such a powerful and critical speech, the wise Dean of Southwark, in the chair, called us to a moment of silent prayer before moving on.
You can read the text of Archbishop Stephen’s address here: it’s well worth a look.
What’s on the agenda? And what isn’t?
Robert Hammond was introduced as the new Chair of the Business Committee, with a note that he is the first lay person to hold the role since Synod was invented in 1970. (There was a huge row about ten years ago when it was suggested that a Bishop might take the role: the peasants were revolting – they did not like the idea of the Bishops having what looked like a free pass to deciding Synod’s business! The outcome of all that was the election of Canon Sue Booys, who has now stood down after 8 years as Chair.)
Everyone is on tenterhooks to know what is going to happen about our York residential meeting in July. Robert cheered us up by saying, in effect, that Plan A is to hold the meeting in person: Plan B would be to revert to Zoom if the Government’s plans for removing restrictions stays in place.
The debate on the agenda is always fascinating: despite warnings from the Chair, Rachel Jepson, that speeches must be about the agenda itself, people ride their hobbyhorses, or find a way to get a speech in early before a major debate. People also legitimately complain if some topic has been omitted from the agenda.
To give you a flavour:
- Peter Bruinvels pushed for a follow-through debate in July on the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant, citing the military’s key role in supporting the NHS through COVID, and the commitments made
- Sam Margrave said we need to re-think our accessibility: people with serious illnesses or autism should be able to join Synod from home once the pandemic is over. Angela Scott asked whether provision would be made in July for those uncomfortable with mixing in a large gathering. (The answer to a Question had indicated this was not possible)
- Andrew Moughtin-Mumby expressed disappointment that discussion on Lament to Action and Panorama was going to have to wait until July. We have an overall culture of discrimination in the church – not just on race, but on gender and much else. We should all be passionate and horrified.
- Brunel James called for a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’–type process in the church to deal with the way we failed the Windrush generation.
- The indefatigable David Lamming spoke from a hospital ward, where he awaiting surgery. He expressed concern at the impossibility of dealing with the number of questions submitted in the limited time; and criticised the Business Committee for not giving time to Private Members Motions, even when they have gained considerable support.
- The Dean of Manchester, Rogers Govender, supported Andrew Moughtin-Mumby, saying we must not lose the momentum that currently exists around racism discussions and action.
Robert Hammond gave a polite but necessarily brief response, and we voted to accept the report. Strangely, we voted via the online voting system, not just by a Zoom poll, which seemed overkill for a non-contentious matter.
Fast-tracking safeguarding changes
This is a matter that is being handled at speed (though the protracted voting processes meant it didn’t feel that way…) We started it in November, and today we have the Revision stage, and tomorrow the Final Approval. (Normally, things are spread out to give time for people to consider the detail carefully.) But, as I pointed out in my preview post, we are fast-tracking it in response to IICSA’s recommendations. The Steering Committee responsible for the Code helped us out by issuing a document explaining how they have handled matters raised when we looked at it in November. You can read that here.
The Dean of the Arches (Morag Ellis QC) and the Ven Pete Spiers as Chair took us through the debate. There wasn’t much debate as such, as we were looking at a long series of very detailed amendments made by the Committee in the light of the November comments. What we had was a succession of online votes, so it was very bitty.
- The general drift is to improve accountability to better define the people the Code applies to, and to set some democratic accountability in stone.
- The full Synod will not get to sign off the final Code – that, we were told would be unwieldy, especially against the time pressure of IICSA scrutiny – but it will not be left to the Bishops: the Standing Committee of the Houses of Clergy and Laity will have to sign it off. What’s more, survivors and victims of church abuse will also be consulted.
- Then finally – and perhaps controversially – the final bringing into force of the Code needs some sort of Synod agreement. But as we only meet twice a year, and the heat is on, the Committee have invented a system whereby all members will be sent the Code when it is ready. Unless 25 members indicate within three weeks that they wish it to be debated, it will be deemed to be accepted, and therefore come into force.
As we worked through the list of fairly technical matters, it wasn’t hard to spot that although by now there were 370-odd people in the Zoom Synod, even the North Korean-style unanimous votes in favour only attracted about 270 votes. As veteran Synodsman Clive Scowen pointed out, these matters are uncontroversial, so it is hardly surprising many members had chosen to enjoy the sunshine. (Or, like me, chosen not to vote as I was busy writing this blogpost or on Twitter…)
By the mid-afternoon screen break, we were behind schedule. Since only about two of the 11 votes attracted any discussion, let alone debate, this was largely caused, in my view, by the use of the electronic Crystal Voting Platform, which required repetitious announcements by the poor Chair, plus a minute of actual voting and some reporting back. It could have been done by Zoom ‘blue hand’ voting, but we were told that doing it the slow way was not permitted. So Robert Hammond appeared for his first request that we ‘alter the order of business’. Someone had done some quick calculating, and decided to remove the changes to Standing Orders from our agenda, and return to it in July.
And now for something completely different…
The mood changed rapidly when we moved on to a debate about Freedom of Religion or Belief. Bishop Nick Baines listed a number of places around the world where there is no freedom to have a particular religion, or to choose to change your religion. He stressed that this is not just about Christians freedom to practice their faith: it is about the Uigher Muslims in China, Bah’ais in Iran, and many more. We cannot claim ignorance of what is happening in so many places.
He reminded us that the Government had asked Philip Mountstephen, the Bishop of Truro, to undertake a report into religious persecution, which was published two years ago. He also gently reproved the government over the cuts in foreign aid.
Bishop Baines closed by reminding us that we need to discuss religious freedom with humility: the Christian church does not have a good record in supporting freedom of religion or belief across many centuries.
The Coptic Archbishop Angaelos, an ecumenical representative at Synod, reminded us of a number of acts of deadly violence against many Christians in the Middle East in recent years. He suggested that we may have freedom only to be able to share it with others. He had been pleased to be involved with the Mountstephen Report, and he wanted Synod to realise we are called to stand with and for those less fortunate than ourselves.
Jayne Ozanne fully supported the motion, but wanted to amend it to make specific reference to the Christian churches own imposition of restrictions on the freedom of many: minorities are often persecuted because of religious belief, and our motion should recognise that. Her key phrase was to qualify the support for freedom of religion or belief ‘up until the point that it causes no harm’. By this, she was referring to the way many religious group enforce their own restrictions, especially on women, girls, and LGBT people, to the point where these people are victims of persecution, violence and even death.
Bishop Baines resisted the amendment, but more than 25 members wanted to debate it. After a few speeches, it was defeated. Further speeches on the main motions referred to:
- the cultural element to persecution: violence against communities often extends to destruction of their buildings and historical artefacts. Bishop Christopher Cocksworth.
- intra-Christian discrimination and persecution in matters of family and adoptions (Prudence Dailey)
- Bishop Philip Mountstephens said that his report had put religious understanding and persecution on the government’s agenda, but he was not overly confident. He saw religious persecution and climate change as the two biggest threats to many communities, and racism intersects with them.
The motion was carried nem con
Looking after your Vicar’s pension
The complexities of Church Pensions were explored next. Simon Butler introducing a raft of changes to the governance of the Pensions Board. He noted how much external governance there is – Pensions Regulators, Charity Commission and others all keep an eye on pension provider. (Declaring an interest, as the recipient of a clergy pension, I am glad somebody does.)
Among the changes are;
- Reducing the number of members of the Pensions Board and improving how they are elected, for example enhancing Synod’s role by ensuring one member is a clergy rep on Synod, and ensuring elected Trustees are pre-qualified i.e. they come with some knowledge of pensions law.
- Bringing the Pensions Board in line with best practice in the charity and pensions world.
- Proactively bringing annual reports to Synod
- Abolishing the often-ignored statutory requirement for each diocese to have a ‘Widows (sic) and Dependants’ Committee
Not everyone is persuaded that every change is good. The idea that people elected from Synod to the Board would have to pre-qualify with pensions knowledge was objected to by some, particularly as the procedure being used (an LRO – Legislative Reform Order) precludes a full Synod debate. The Scrutiny Committee had not been entirely happy about this: apparently they had OK’d several suggestions only by a 5-4 majority, and so several speakers came with this objection.
On the other hand, the Chair of the Pensions Board, Clive Mather, pointed out that our governance is very unwieldy compared to the other pensions administrators we are busy lobbying about climate change investments. It also costs money that could be put to better use in supporting pensions payouts. He warned that he expected the Pensions Regulator to shortly require changes like this anyway.
Summing up, Simon Butler defended the LRO process as being appropriate, and the ‘pre-qualification’ as something not too onerous, but useful for elected Board members to check if they are suitable for the role. The motion was carried.
A hundred questions… 48 Answers
Questions was the last item of the day. The Bishop of Fulham, Jonathan Baker, was in the chair, and he not only reminded us of the usual caveats about keeping supplementaries to the point, but he also thanked people for notifying their intention to ask a supplementary, in order to improve the flow. Doing questions under a Zoom with 360 people signed on is not easy. Despite all that, we learned, amongst other things:
- In the light of the focus on racism in From Lament to Action, the C of E will not withdraw from using ‘unconscious bias’ training as it is seen as effective in tackling people’s unconscious prejudices. (This will be fodder to those who regard the church as a bunch of woke lefties.)
- There is still concern that some parishes are illicitly charging wedding couples for some charges which, according to the law, are ‘optional extras’ over and above the basic wedding fees. (We thought we had squashed this naughty practice when the current fees rules were put into place some years ago.)
- There is wide interest and concern about racism, fuelled by some sharp Questions (submitted before the Lament to Action report came out) and some passionate Answers
- There is a national ministry plan being formulated in order to deal with concerns that there may not be enough stipendiary posts available in two years’ time for curates who will come out of their training posts at that point.
- Though there was no specific Living in Love and Faith item on the agenda, there were plenty of warning shots in the church’s own ‘culture war’ with questions about sexuality, marriage, abortion, and conversion therapy.
- The much-desired reform to the Clergy Discipline Measure will be the subject of a paper at the July Synod, the full legal process to put a new Measure into place will follow in the new Synod to be elected this autumn.
- A number of members are pressing questions about the use of individual cups to administer Communion (arising particularly after giving Communion in both kinds was stopped because of Covid). I sense this is not a major concern for most people.
- Confusion and annoyance about safeguarding Core Groups abounds. The Lead Bishop, Jonathan Gibbs did his best to try and explain what a church core group is about, and what it does not do. (Have a look at Question 45 in this document if you want to understand more)
Out of the one hundred Questions tabled, we got through forty-eight in a session that lasted just over an hour. It was all pretty clunky, with long gaps while people got unmuted and ready to speak, or lost their internet connection. I noticed we were down to about 270 people by the time it ended. The ebb and flow that happens when we are all in the same room was missing, so there was little follow-through or reaction when people were disappointed or felt short-changed by an Answer. A couple of things that would make it better, but probably won’t happen:
- Sometimes the discussion cries out for a second supplementary when the Answer begs a further question.
- Sometimes, when a question is ruled ‘out of order’, no explanation is given by the Chair, and we are left suspecting that the platform party are just glad to close down a ‘difficult’ subject.
With any luck, this was the last Zoom Questions we’ll have to endure and we’llbe back to the cut and thrust, with a few jokes thrown in, when we meet in York in July.
I’ve gone into some detail reporting today as I know there are people who are considering standing for Synod in this autumn’s elections. I hope that my not entirely objective account gives some of the flavour of being at General Synod, and it’ll help you decide.
But if you compare a Zoom Synod with the full-fat in-person meetings in London or York (have a look at some posts I did a couple of years ago) you’ll understand that what we are enduring at the moment under Covid regulations is a shadow of the full Synod experience, so don’t be put off!
Tomorrow we have a full day, and judging by the decreasing attendance and the absence of chirpy Twitter comments towards the end of today, it’s going to be a long haul. I’ll report as ever, once it’s over.
* See my friends: not the best-known of the Kinks singles. A 1965 Ray Davies composition, something of a sad ditty, but captures something of the strangeness of seeing one’s Synod friends without actually being with them.