So, this strangest of Synods began at lunchtime on Friday (9 July). It’s strange because…
- We’re on Zoom, all 380 or so of us.
- It’s the end of an unusual Synod. COVID has meant that for the first time in its 51 years of existence, this Synod has been extended to a six-year term. There has been some nifty rewriting of legislation and standing Orders to make this possible
- There’s an emotional heave (for many of us) in seeing good friends and co-conspirators on screen, and not being able to chat, eat, drink, and pray together.
Overture and beginners
There’s a routine to any first day of Synod: it begins with worship. Then we welcome new members. Bizarrely there were two or three – they get just this one bite of the Synod apple before the elections later this year. And after that, we get a Presidential Address.
The archiepiscopal bromance between York and Canterbury was not in evidence, as Archbishop Justin is in sabbatical mode. So Archbishop Stephen Cottrell spoke reflecting on what this Synod has achieved over its six-year term. He harked back to the preacher at the inaugural service in 2015, the Catholic priest Fr Raniero, who spoke of the need to ‘rebuild the church’, and Pope Francis’ vision of “reconciled diversity”.
For Archbishop Stephen, this ties in with the Simpler, Bolder, Humbler vision that is the current theme. He reminded us that this Synod has had to deal with IICSA, Living in Love and Faith, simplifying its procedures, and a whole lot more. He referenced the rows about ‘clergy as a limiting factor’ (see yesterday’s preview post if you don’t know what this is about) and assured us priests and deacons that we are a vital part of the future.
And, inevitably, there was a Euro 2020 gag – quite a classy one:
Otherwise, it was quite a subdued address – you can read the whole thing here.
Change… and debate
And the last item in this overture is always a debate on the Agenda. Robert Hammond, Chaiur of the Business Committee apologised that we were meeting on Zoom, and that the agenda had had to be trimmed. He also indicated change is in the air, saying
- as a public legislative body, Synod needed to look at its members code of conduct, and balance freedom of speech with the contentious matters that we sometimes discuss. I am not clear whether he was referring to members behaviour in meetings, or to the ever-excitable social media comment
- no more hard copies of Synod documents will be mailed to members in future. He said printing and mailing costs were £18,000 a year
- my feeling is that this is a retrograde step: when it comes to simple documents, pdfs are fine, but when you get contentious long documents (for example Monday’s report of the Dialogue and Implementation Group runs to 130 pages) pdfs are a nightmare, and a print copy is more or less essential
In the debate, we had a bit of understated drama. David Lamming indicated he was withdrawing his Private Members Motion about the Five Guided Principles (see ‘The Famous Five’ in yesterday’s preview post). Bishop Philip North, at the centre of that storm, then said he was delighted at that, especially as it might make time for the Business Committee to reinstate a debate on the unequal finances across dioceses that had been parked until November
- Mike Laws protested that many members never get called to speak because Chairs keep calling ‘the usual suspects’, which is proved by the list of speakers published after every Synod
- He was closely followed by Jayne Ozanne (who probably is one of the ‘usual suspects’) registering a complaint that the agenda is full of presentations, with no space for proper debate. She had a point there – when we did get to proper debate on the CNC later on, we over-ran. People join Synod to speak, as well as to listen.
Shocked and disappointed…
Then to business. There was a sharp intake of breath moment when we got to the Racial Justice Commission item next. This arose out of the powerful report From Lament to Action, with its 47 recommendations for action on racial justice within the church.
Archbishop Stephen introduced the report about setting up the Commission, which will run from September this year to September 2024. After he announced the independent Chair would be Lord Boateng, former Labour MP and minister, he handed over the Revd Sonia Barron, co-chair of the Task Force that produced the report.
She immediately said she was “deeply shocked and disappointed” at the Archbishops Council’s decision not to support finding a key recommendation to appoint Racial Justice officers in each diocese, as set out in From Lament to Action. The plan was to have a Racial Justice Officer post in each and every diocese.
The shock, of course, is that just ten weeks ago, the two Archbishops put out a very strong and positive statement backing the Task Force’s approach. And now she had to speak about the Commission in front of one of them. Awkward…
It was gracefully put, but it was pretty blunt, and she got considerable support on the Synod Twitter conversations. Later, in Questions, Archbishop Stephen spoke of his ‘disappointment’ at the decision not to go ahead, saying it’s not the answer he wanted, but the commitment to racial justice is still there. “There are other ways of taking this forward. It’s not what was hoped, but it’s not nothing”
Zahida Mallard asked him how money is being found for other equality issues (I’m guessing she meant Living in Love and Faith) but not for the racial justice work. He struggled to answer that effectively, though he again acknowledged the disappointment the decision has caused.
Back to better bishop-making
We then got to the main event of today: making some choices in response to Responsible Representation, the report of a working group on how the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) is set up. (You might want to read the Better Bishops paragraphs in yesterday’s preview post to make sense of this.)
Aidan Hargreaves-Smith, introducing the various proposals, rather gave the game away by reminding us that his working group had had two months to get the proposed legislation in shape so it can be passed this weekend, ready for the new Synod to elect a new CNC in the autumn.
Another way of looking at that is that it’s being done in a hurry, and writing legislation in a hurry is not a good idea, especially when COVID restriction prevent full converstaion by people in the same room.
The aim of the changes is simple: to get more voices around the table to better reflect the varied voices in the church. This could mean diversity in respect of ethnic minorities, disability, and sexuality. Or it could mean diversity in terms of ‘church tradition’ – we heard a lot about caucuses who put forward ‘safe’ and ‘sound’ members for election to CNC to ensure the ‘right kind’ of Bishops are chosen.
The report’s solution is to put a system of ‘pairs’ in place, thereby doubling the number of people available to sit as CNC ‘central’ members (i.e. elected by Synod. The argument is about how the pairs are chosen. The first proposal went through without much argument: instead of the House of Clergy electing its three CNC members, and the House of Laity likewise, there’ll just be one combined electorate to choose 3 clerics and three laity.
But there was a lot of opposition to other suggestions and amendments.
How to choose a fair pair?
Up until now, elections to the CNC have been done by postal vote. Turnout has been low and there’s little opportunity to know much about the candidates. So the big idea is to take the votes while we are actually all together at a Synod meeting, in the context of prayer, and with the ability to actually meet the people putting themselves forward. This is admirable, but it all got complicated when we had amendments about how to include people who could not be present physically, through illness or some disability. (This, of course in the light of 18 months experience of electronic meetings and votes, where such situations can be dealt with.) I chipped in here to point out the inconsistency of setting up a complex voting arrangement just for CNC elections, when all our other elections for committees, etc. are done in the (very) old fashioned way with postal voting on forms that date back to a former age.
The debate was an unhappy conflict between sympathy and emotion on the one side, and practicality on the other.
When it came to how to set up the pairs, there was more difficult debate, with two Synod heavyweights taking opposing views.
- Aidan Hargreaves-Smith pressed the point that there are a raft of episcopal vacancies coming up, so a bigger cadre of CNC members would be very useful. On the other hand, some felt that CNC members needed to not be swapping around, so they can get experience, and learn how to handle to pressures of the discernment process. (I’ve been on one CNC as a diocesan rep: it is tough going.)
- Clive Scowen recalled the original proposals of the O’Donovan Report (which started this business off):that all that was needed was to elect a main member who would have an alternate for vacancies when the main person could not, or would not, sit on that particular CNC.
- There were some expert, well-informed speeches: the highlight being Michelle Obende from Chelmsford, passionately making the point that if we want to deliver diversity, pairs were not the best way to achieve it.
- As sometimes happens, a couple of Bishops chipped in to try and rally us round the platform proposal and not amend it heavily.
- One fairly technical amendment brought by Simon Cawdell squeezed through by 128 votes to 125.
The final tally in favour of the whole package was 217 votes to 69. We’ll come back to it on Monday to formally vote through the actual legislation. It’s understandable that we’re in a rush: if the changes aren’t made now, they’ll miss the bus of a new CNC elections, and it’ll have to wait for five years. But although the proposals went through largely without amendment, experienced Synod hands who were called to speak were expressing considerable doubts about the wisdom, or the workability, of the proposals.
Tackling climate change with money
It all took a lot of time,and the overrun meant that a very worthwhile item on the church’s ability to campaign on climate change through its investment policies got a very short slot. We heard from Loretta Minghella, the outgoing First Church Estates Commissioner, about the Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI).
She described the various National Investment Bodies’ (wonderfully knows as the ‘NIBS’ – that is, the Commissioners, the Pension Funds and others) as “a mighty weapon in the fight against global warming”, and she, with Clive Mather, the Pensions Board Chair, gave examples.
- The TPI sets target for companies they are invested in.
- It’s not just oil and gas outfits, but papermakers, shipping, service industries and many more sectors.
- The aim is to challenge and change to operations of individual companies: they differentiate between companies that are changing the way they work, and those that aren’t. If change does not happen within a set timeframe, TPI disinvests from the company.
- We were told that last year they have disinvested from 9 companies, and their pressure on Shell had led to three directors being replaced and a policy shift.
That’s the cry that rings out when we meet normally and someone wants to ask a supplementary question to the formal Answer that’s been given. Alas, doing it all on Zoom has killed the spontaneity. But given that, Questions was ably chaired by Canon Professor Joyce Hill – juggling people who wanted to get a supplementary in when there are 280 faces on the screens, ensuring people stick to the rules, and doing so with calm good humour is quite a task.
- We got through 45 or so of the 129 Question tabled – you can read the Questions and Answers here
- Maybe the removal of the Lamming motion on Monday might allow a return to Questions to get through a few more, but I suspect we’ll just extend other business
- Question 3 from Sam Margrave about Bishops’ expenses of office has picked up some coverage in the Telegraph and the Grauniad, possibly as he used the word ‘chauffeur’, which is always going to excite people with visions of prelates being driven around in a Roller by a man (always a man…) in a peaked cap. The fuller answer to Sam’s Question (available here) contains this rather clear statement:
I made possibly my last contribution to Synod with a supplementary to the Bishop of London about the timings of the Living in Love and Faith project.
- I posted yesterday that the timetable of getting parish/deanery/diocesan LLF courses done effectively this autumn was optimistic in the light of people’s time and energy levels as churches recover from COVID restrictions.
- Her initial answer to Mike Laws’ Question 44 was a bit less than definite about the likelihood of extending the very tight timescale for what she described in a later answer as “one of the most far-reaching processes that the Church of England has conducted in recent history”
- So I asked Bishop Sarah if the Next Steps group would reconsider the timescale to give us ‘a better chance to do LLF better’.
She didn’t say ‘yes’: but she did indicate some sympathy for the problem. The word ‘listening’ was used. I dare to hope they will allow us time to actually do it, and do it well.
90 is the new 60…
No, we’re not talking about age. We have a new e-voting system, and things were complicated by the way it was working.
Originally, we were told that simple votes (replacing the traditional ‘show of hands’ at an in-person meeting) would have a 30 second voting window, and more significant ones (representing a counted vote of the whole Synod) would have a 60-second window.
But people found this too brief, as most of us were using separate devices to cast our e-votes.
After some grumbling, it was announced that 60 seconds would be the new 30 seconds, and 90 seconds would replace the old 60 seconds.
And that was Day One of four. Andrew Nunn has written a much shorter, and sweeter, reflection on the day here. It was a short day, just the 6 ¾ hours. Tomorrow will be longer…
* I just stay home the whole day long and think of you Plaintive line from one of the great pop songs: Carole King’s 1962 lament It might as well rain until September, co-written with Gerry Goffin. I could listen to it for hours. And it’s a swine to try and work out the guitar chords. Give it a go.