This is a week when Synod members would normally be packing their bags for the long weekend (10-14 July) at York University. And we had all hoped that would happen, but the extension of lockdown means the poor old Business Committee has had to make hard decisions. First of all we were going to meet in the flesh in London, but now we’re on Zoom. Again. So we’ll only see each other on screens.
This is how the Synod ends: not with a bang, but a whimper…
Quite apart from all the limitations of Zoom that we’re now used to, it’s doubly frustrating because this is the closing session of a six-year term (a sextennium?). Many of us (your trusty scribe bathwellschap included) will not be standing for re-election. So it’s a real blow not to be able to see and say farewell to so many friends and Synod colleagues.
- No late-night bar fellowship
- No chats about family, ministry, and everything in between over breakfast/lunch/dinner
- No long walks across the York campus to our cell-like student rooms with the shower curtains that, like sin, cling so closely…
A day in the life: how Synod-at-home will work
The Zoom agenda has had to be trimmed to limit us to four days instead of the usual five. Nonetheless, between lunchtime on Friday, and 7.00 on Monday, we are committing ourselves to a total of 24¼ hours staring at our screens. Yes, a whole day’s-worth. There are screen breaks, so it will be possible to rush through coffee, lunch, the bathroom, deal with the dog/children/postie/phone calls and all the other minutiae of working from home. It’s going to be tough. I bet I am not the only one not looking forward to it.
Quite apart from the muted delights of Zoom, there is what the Two Ronnies would call ‘a packed programme’. So much so that trawling through the agenda and papers, it’s very hard to see the wood from the trees.
- some are items that must be tied down before the Synod is dissolved on Monday evening
- others are ‘first looks’ at complex things which the new Synod members will have to discover for themselves when they turn up in November
- one or two are controversial matters that have already aroused comment and even anger since the papers were published.
We’ve only just begun…
So while you are just sitting down to lunch on Friday at 12.30, we’ll be starting the marathon.
Archbishop Justin is on his sabbatical break (you may have seen him selling The Big Issue in Cambridge, so the Presidential Address will be given by the Archbishop of York. Stephen Cottrell is always engaging and positive: he’ll doubtless reflect on the impact of the imminent easing of COVID restrictions in England. Not just masks, but singing and Communion will be on people’s minds.
The Business Committee will perhaps come under some pressure when their Report on the Agenda is discussed. The impact of not meeting in person may bring forth some lamenting.
- The Bishop of Burnley has already dressed the Committee down – read his forceful critique in the Church Times here.
- His complaint is that a report on a more equitable sharing of resources between rich and poor dioceses has been shelved until the newly-elected Synod meets in November.
- If that sounds a bit remote, consider this headline fact: the diocese of Lincoln is the ‘richest’ diocese, with £92 per head of population, while at the other end of the scale, Liverpool has just 92 pence per head of population. Yes, that’s not a typo: 92p, about 1/100th of what Lincoln has.
Then to the business…
The report From Lament to Action opened up a plan to ensure much better representation from UK Minority ethnic communities at all levels of church life, including (controversially to some) co-opted members being recruited for all sorts of bodies, including General Synod.
In parallel with this, a new, Racial Justice Commission is to be set up, and Archbishop Stephen Cottrell will introduce the concept in a short presentation. If you missed the report when it was published in April, catch up here.
The bad news is that the Archbishops Council have decided they can’t fund one of the key recommendations in that report – so expect some fireworks, either here, or at Questions.
All that takes us to the first screen break: 15 minutes away from the sea of faces.
A better way to choose better bishops…
The way bishops are appointed has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. Nowadays the Church chooses its own leaders, through the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC), and the Prime Minister presents their choice to the Queen for formal approval. The issue now is: who gets to sit on the CNC when it is ‘discerning’ (the approved terminology) the call to be the next Bishop of X? (This is a live issue for me, as Bath and Wells is becoming vacant, and the CNC will be finding us a new Bishop next year.)
In a brave attempt to improve the diversity and representational accuracy of elected CNC members, a curious idea is being mooted: that instead of 6 ‘permanent’ central CNC members elected by General Synod (who are joined by 6 more from the diocese concerned), we should elect 6 ‘pairs’.
- There is much dissent about how these pairs should be created and elected.
- There’s a bit of urgency here, because it will be time to elect new central members once a new Synod is elected this autumn.
- So we’re having a high-speed process: on Friday we discuss various options, on Monday we decide.
- We’ll be in the land of amendments when we get to this on Monday.
- If you’re in a diocese with a vacancy, you might want to read the proposals.
The report is called Responsible Representation, and there is a fear in some circles that the proposed changes are really intended to minimise the influence of any central CNC members elected from a particular ‘constituency’, whether it be old-fashioned ‘churchmanship’ (nowadays called ‘church tradition’), or issue-based on matters such as human sexuality or women in episcopal orders.
The carboniferous Church
Another screen break in late afternoon, and then it’s heads down until the finish at 7.00. Having committed the Church to becoming carbon neutral, we’ll hear about how our investing arms (notably, of course, the Church Commissioners) are handling climate change. You might be surprised how much lobbying of big companies, and targeted investment is going on. The details are in this report. GS Misc 1283.
And the Questions which follow indicate huge interest in this aspect of church investments – there are 15 Questions about using our money to affect climate change issues… The mechanics of doing Questions on Zoom are tortuous -especially for the Chair. This time we are trying to have those asking supplementary questions – always the most entertaining part – lined up in advance. We’ll see how that goes. As well as climate change, there are significant numbers of questions about Living in Love and Faith, and some which name no names, but talk about adultery and standards in public life. You can read the Questions and the initial answers here.
Togetherness: A Good Thing
If Saturday morning is usually a lie-in for you, you could (in theory of course) join in with the laptop from the bedroom. But I hope you won’t. We’re easy-going, but we’re not ready for that.
Signs of changing times are that for the first time, Annual Reports from the Church Commissioners and the Archbishops Council will be taken in a single item, first thing on Saturday morning. All this togetherness by the National Church Institutions can only be a Good Thing. Given the difficulties of last year, the reports will not be the usual routine stuff interspersed with cheery success stories. You can read them for yourselves here:
Naturally enough, they are followed by the Budget for 2022 – or at least, the Archbishops Council one. (The Commissioners are still to some extent a foreign country, and they do things differently there.) John Spence, the Council Finance Chair will tell us that finance is very hard to budget at the moment, because of the COVID-related losses of income in parishes and dioceses – who pay for the Council through an annual ‘apportionment’.
He will give some idea of the shortfalls, and warn us that he may have to come back in the autumn with a revised budget, when things are clearer. You can see how it’s proposed to work here in GS2213
Elections: they thought it was all over!
After a screen break, we have a ‘sort-out-a-mess’ item of some urgency. The number of seats in Synod allocated to each diocese is decided by a rather complex formula, which I will not trouble to explain. But if you read the story as explained in GS2214, you’ll see that the numbers we agreed not too long ago, were wrong.
This matters, because the elections to those seats happen across all dioceses later this year.
Suffice it to say that:
- a misreporting of numbers by one diocese has meant previous calculations are null and void, and a reallocation of seats has had to happen.
- It doesn’t affect Bath and Wells, but five dioceses are going to lose a seat, and seven gain one, or in Lincoln’s case, two.
- No, I don’t understand how it works, either, but at the Appendix to GS 2214 it’s all explained, with Large Divisors, Small Divisors, and even Harmonic and Geometric Means.
There will be a test. What you need to know is that “In the largest Divisor method, the division is by (n+1). IN the Smallest Divisor Method, the division is by (n)”
After that mathematical and procedural fog, we take a report on safeguarding progress. This is largely about what’s happening in response to the IICSA enquiry at national level, rather than particular cases or parish-level processes. There’ll be a presentation and questions: read the details in GS 2215 here.
Saturday afternoon is a mixed bag…
We kick off with what sounds tedious, but is significant: revision of our Standing Orders. It’s been apparent in the last six years that many members regard legislative matters as best left to the experts, with the result that the Chamber whether in London or York empties out, and people take a tea-and-gossip break . This means there’s no proper scrutiny of what’s being proposed and important suggestions in the form of amendments don’t get debated. (We have the 40-member rule’, designed to ensure only things with a weight of support get debated.
So the plan is to change to a 25-member threshold, and streamline the Revision stage. This will save time, and – new Synod members, be ready – ensure better discussion and debate in the future.
Then to a hot topic – Living in Love and Faith. The Methodist Church’s decision to permit same-sex marriage in their churches has added heat to the fire within the C of E. Living in Love and Faith is our process for thinking through all the issues – you can catch up on the dedicated website here. https://www.churchofengland.org/resources/living-love-and-faith.
- The plan was to have a lot of conversations around the church this year. COVID has meant that process has been pretty thin. My own Deanery, for example, is hoping to get one study course off the ground this autumn.
- So the report Passing the Baton (i.e. handing the process on the new Synod this autumn) covers where we are up to now, and a timetable for the next few months. Read the report GS Misc 1284 here.
- By September 2022, the House of Bishops intend to make recommendations as to how the C of E might proceed, based on the views and learning expressed across the church.
I think the timetable is unhelpful now, because churches are going to be so busy recovering their energy after COVID that many will not get round to doing LLF well – despite the extraordinarily high-quality materials available, time and energy are short. There’s a Question (Question 44 if you want to look it up) about this, which got a fairly defensive answer from the Bishop of London. There’s a huge danger that those closely involved think everyone is up to speed. They won’t be, and those anxious for change will find it even more frustrating that there has not been a widespread engagement with the materials.
Housing’s coming home!
We finish the day with a follow-through to our previous discussion on the church’s ability to do something about the housing crisis. The Coming Home report – oh, how prophetic was that title! – which we looked at in April is ambitious, and we now have a Lead Bishop on Housing, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Guli Francis-Dehqani
One key item in the new report GS2216 is the discussion about whether churches are bound to sell land for the highest price – which usually means developers and ‘executive housing’ – or whether they can legally offer a cheaper price to a body that is consistent with the church’s charitable objectives. If you have glebe land or other church sites, you might want to read the legal advice on this important subject.
Sunday will never be the same
One of the ‘special’ moments of a York Synod has always been the Sunday morning Communion service in York Minister. For me, it’s also, in recent years, been the occasion to dress up in old-fashioned Convocation garb as one of the Officers of the Synod – we get posh seats and join the procession. I’m not over-enthusiastic about such things, but I will certainly miss this last chance to be part of the throng.
Instead, we’ll all be able to attend our local church – if have the energy – and I feel sorry for clergy and Reader members of Synod, who may not have been able to get cover, and will have to prepare and deliver Sunday morning worship as well as spend these four days on Zoom.
Traditionally, controversial matters are not handled on the Sunday afternoon. Indeed, very often sport has kept some members from paying full attention. Oh… I see the Euro final is on Sunday. But it’s at 8.00, and we knock off at 7.00.
As for being controversial, a further tweak to the Church Representation Rules is called for: the little matter of how many terms on a Deanery Synod your own parish’s reps can serve has proved intractable, and a new version of the rules (designed to prevent Deanery synods from being chock-full of ‘the usual suspects’) is on offer. It’s also being objected to, so we can expect lively debate about Deanery Synods which are, so often, not at all lively… The details are here in GS2217X.
Clergy: from Discipline to Conduct
After a screen break, it gets interesting. The Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) has been in trouble for some years now, with victims of clergy misbehaviour being poorly treated and often not getting justice, and with clergy accused of misbehaviour finding themselves out on a limb, often unsupported, and being treated as if guilty when they are perhaps innocent.
Everyone agrees the CDM needs reform. But there have been competitive suggestions about how to do it.
- the ‘official’ work has been done by a Lambeth working party, led by soon-to-retire Bishop Tim Thornton
- the Ecclesiastical Law Society (ELS) have a different approach
- the marvellous Society of Marth and Mary at Sheldon have also been very active indeed in looking at it.
The ELS are very unhappy at what Lambeth have produced. Peter Collier, a senior church lawyer with CDM experience says the official Lambeth project ‘has lost its way’. His Church Times article explaining why is here https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2021/2-july/comment/opinion/the-lambeth-working-group-has-lost-its-way-on-cdm-reform
Sheldon have invested so much resource into the ‘Sheldon Hub’, with research, consultations, and support of individuals that they have now pulled back, while indicating they do not like what’s on offer either.
Bishop Tim, then, has produced a paper for us to discuss saying that the issue is much wider than the CDM: it’s about the whole understanding of ‘The Nature of Ordained Public Ministry’. His paper (GS Misc 1285 read it here) is significant (even if you don’t agree with it) and proposes a whole lot of work that needs to be done, including a rewrite of the Guidelines for ordained clergy (which we only produced four or five years ago.)
From that we go to the CDM reform proposals as they stand. Or to be more accurate, proposals to replace it wholesale. Read the paper here – it’s very comprehensive, suggesting
- A distinction should be made between ‘a complaint’ about the Vicar, and ‘misconduct’ by the Vicar. Complaints should be dealt with in a lighter, fast-track way, misconduct need full legal process.
- The Bishop’s role is compromised under the CDM (She or he is seen as both ‘judge’ in a case and ‘pastor’ to the priest concerned, and separating the two roles has been very difficult.
- Complaints should be handled by a team of ‘Assessors’; ‘Misconduct’ by a Designated Officer – both a step away from the Bishop.
Because there is so much dissatisfaction about the proposals, there’ll be a ‘following motion’ intended to affect what happens next.
A couple of (hopefully) routine appointments follow, and then we can turn away from our laptop screens to the TV to watch the footy.
The last day…
There are always criticisms of the time it takes to do anything in the C of E. The Simpler, Humbler, Bolder strategy that the Archbishop of York is setting out does rather require a lot more simplification of our procedures than has been the case up till now. So we’ll take a first look at reviewing the Mission and Pastoral Measure – the rules which govern lots of things from changes to church buildings to closures of churches and amalgamation of parishes. The paper that Dr Eve Poole, head of the Church Commissioners will present is called Mission in Revision. Nice one! Read it here GS 2222 – iIt covers a wide range of stuff, including
- retaining the ‘ecclesiastical exemption’ from secular planning law
- abolishing ‘sequestration’ (look it up!)
- dealing fairly with clergy who are dispossessed of their living by pastoral schemes to alter parishes and benefices
- church closure procedures
All this is to be thought through, and a revised Measure brought to the new Synod, by next July. Another ambitious target.
Where there is no vision, the people perish…
Archbishop Stephen then introduces a progress report on the Vision and Strategy work. It’s an interesting snapshot of the story so far. Those of us not in the centre of things will find that a whole lot of work has been going on – including a governance review, led by the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines.
The paper talks of 3 priorities and 6 outcomes, but amid the management-speak, it says we need to ‘streamline’ what we do, rather than get into ‘asset-stripping. Significantly, it also notes that there is a wave of ‘tiredness’ in the church, after the three waves of COVID have taken their toll.
There’s been a huge hoo-hah in the last couple of weeks related to the commitment to church planting and a younger, more diverse church.
A recent conference produced the bizarre statistic that we should aim at ten thousand lay-led new congregations in the next ten years. (Think about it: that’s a thousand a year, more than three a day…)
Coupled with that was an unhappy reference to clergy as the ‘key limiting factor’ in some aspects of church growth. This has really annoyed many clergy: I’m really hoping someone is going to commission this as T-shirts or mugs… For some varied comment on this row:
- see this post from the wonderfully surreal ArchDruid Eileen .
- Or for a more, er, balanced understanding, the Canterbury Prolocutor Simon Butler has written this explainer
- And this heartfelt comment from a clergy spouse is well worth a read.
That leads us into a report on Transforming Effectiveness – a ‘workstream’ (as we have learned to say) about simplifying the work of the National Church Institutions, and making life simpler for parishes, with more effective inter-diocesan co-operation and much more. I found the paper somewhat ethereal, but doubtless it will come down to earth in a debate. Read it here GS2224.
You have saved the best wine till last…
By Monday afternoon Zoom fatigue will have set in, let alone the after-effects of Sunday night’s football. But just as the lights go out on a six-year Synod term, we get a controversial item.
The Report from the Dialogue and Implementation Group sounds innocuous enough, but if you look at the document (GS 2225) you’ll see it treads on dangerous ground. A 3-page gentle canter around the history is then followed by a 130-page detailed report on how we are doing in the central issue: that ‘the Church of England remains committed to enabling those unable to receive the ministry of female bishops or priests to flourish within its life and structures.’
- The House of Bishops note that it’s been just six years since we passed legislation permitting the ordination of women as Bishops and the famous ‘Five Guiding Principles’ were set out.
- Matters came to a head when a traditionalist, Philip North was nominated to be Bishop of Sheffield: he withdrew after strong protests in that diocese. (He is now the Bishop of Burnley.)
- In the light of that debacle, the Dialogue and Implementation Group was set up to review how things are working out, and what needs to be done next. Their recommendations are not unanimous, and there will be some deeply-felt debate around a ‘take note’ motion.
The Famous Five…
Following that, comes a Private Members Motion from the indefatigable David Lamming about the Five Guiding Principles. It was first proposed in the immediate aftermath of the Sheffield mess, and so its original text is way out of date. So David is proposing to amend it to reflect the current situation – and simply require annual reports on how the Famous Five are being kept to. You can read his explanation here (GS2226A)
After that, we’re heading for the exit. Having looked at the various options for sorting out the ‘pairs’ on the CNC on Friday, we’ll come to a vote to set the rules for the new CNC, and also tidy up the diocesan Vacancy in See (ViS) processes in line with Responsible Representation. There’s one minor controversial aspect to this: it’s proposed that the Chair of the diocesan Vacancy-in-See committee should not be permitted to be one of the six people elected by the diocese to serve on the CNC. (This is close to home, as Bath and Wells is in the middle of a ViS process, and we have an excellent Chair.) The details are here (GS 2228X),
Synod traditionally marks the retirement of significant ‘players’ in Synod life with a tribute from one of the Archbishops and warm applause. As we are at the end of a six-year term, there could be quite a few of those, and I don’t envy whoever has to make the choice… (Don’t worry, they don’t farewell bloggers and commentators…)
And then we dissolve! Yes, you can have a dissolution of the Monasteries, and of Parliament. You have the Dissolution of the General Synod as well, and it’ll happen about 6.30 p.m. on Monday.
As ever (well, as ever since 9 years ago, anyway) I will offer a daily write-up of the things that catch my eye. And if you find it fascinating, worthwhile, and even fun, do consider standing for election, whether a cleric or a lay church member. Lots of info about how to do that is here. Whether or not you’re thinking of that:
- 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 7.00
- 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
* This could be the last time: 1965 Rolling Stones number 1 single. Fellow Bath & Wells synod veteran Tim Hind read my mind about what the song lyric for this preview post about the July synod would be. It is indeed the last time I’ll be previewing a synod agenda, as after 16 years, I won’t be standing for re-election this time around. (But there’ll be daily reports this weekend, naturally. After that, the rest will be silence…)