Reviewing the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011 does not sound like the most exciting thing to deal with first thing in the morning, especially after that football match on Sunday night. But you have to start somewhere, and that was on our agenda at 9.00, after morning worship.
How do you close a church?
The paper Mission in Revision is a heavyweight item (you can read it here), and was introduced by Dr Eve Poole, the Third Church Estates Commissioner, who had been asked by the Archbishops to lead a team to tackle a review of this very complex area. She described the document as a Master’s degree dissertation, not a Wikipedia entry. Its 49 pages cover a huge range of issues both practical and missional, focussing particularly on parish structures and what do about church buildings.
At the moment, for example, any proposal to close a church is ‘bottom up’ – i.e. has to be started and pursued by the PCC concerned: it’s an open question as to whether the diocese ought to be able to be more proactive, which might help their PCC to grasp the nettle. Even joining parishes and benefices together is complex – and often hard-fought by small communities concerned about their future.
- The Revd Julian Hollywell from Derby said the report did not describe accurately enough the tide of potential future church building closures that may hit us soon. While country churches hold memories for their villages, the same is not true for the vast Victorian structures to be seen in many cities. Talk of re-purposing them for community use is optimistic. Equally a church plant into an old building cannot replicate what used to be there.
- Archdeacon Simon Fisher from Liverpool noted that we are nowadays an ‘anxious church’, and clergy and laity are looking for clarity and simplicity when pastoral reorganisation is in the air: we will need a Wikipedia version. He was involved in the town-wide scheme in Wigan that the report covers on page 21, and noted the successes and the things that had not gone right.
- Canon Joyce Jones, the York Prolocutor, spoke from experience of being involved in pastoral reorganisation in semi-rural communities. She was looking for a speedier and simpler process if a church has already had to be closed because it is not safe for use: the standard procedure of enquiry about re-use takes so long, and is disheartening when it is the PCCs clear desire to close the church before it deteriorates further. Pandemic lockdowns have made it worse. So she wants current consultation procedures to be streamlined.
- Pete Broadbent, The bishop of Willesden, led all the work on ‘simplification’ in recent years. He was grateful to see that at last we were seizing the opportunity to revise the Measure. He wanted to see appeal procedures revised to work more effectively, and had other suggestions, but his chief thrust was that the Measure needed to be flexible enough to handle the mixed economy church (parishes, pioneers, church plants, Bishops Mission Orders etc.…). His parting shot was that at the end of this process, we must avoid an over-prescriptive Code of Conduct.
- The emotive subject of clergy dispossession was raised by Emily Bagg from Portsmouth. When parishes are amalgamated or boundaries revised, a priest may be, in secular terms, ‘out of a job’. She warned that clergy’s office-holding status meant dispossession compensation arrangements raise tax problems: she spoke of HMRC requiring £20,000 from a priest. She wanted this looked at very carefully indeed. Several following speakers expressed sympathy for her and her family.
- Viv Faull, Bishop of Bristol, indicated that if we are to keep the ‘ecclesiastical exemption’, funding for historic buildings is also going to be an issue. Conversations will be needed with Members of Parliament and the Treasury
- Canon Philp Blinkhorn from Manchester stressed the urgency of improving processes for closing un-needed churches. In Manchester, he said it has become even more urgent as the effects of Covid have meant more closures are going to be required. He wanted the reformed Measure to deal with a way of arranging multiple closures, rather than one at a time.
There were several hot potatoes in this debate: how to close a church, and how to reorganise parishes and benefices in the light of clergy shortages and new ways of mission. People talked about the loss of energy when a closure is proposed as people ‘melt away’, making it even harder for a PCC to grasp the nettle. One speaker defended the significance of patronage (the right to put a candidate forward to a parish vacancy) in preserving a varied ecclesiology (i.e. evangelical parishes, Anglo-Catholic parishes, etc.) and avoiding a grey uniformity across the church. Some would say that patrons can be a block in trying to reform parishes and benefices…
We then moved on to an update on the church’s Vision and Strategy work, fronted by Archbishop Stephen Cottrell. His paper (read it here) sets out the current state of play. He stressed that in starting out, consultation had included a much wider range of voices than is usual. He believes that the stripping out of normality during Covid had helped to focus the vision for the church in the future: to be more like Jesus Christ.
“We believe that God is calling us to be a church of missionary disciples that looks more like the places it serves”, he said. Mind you, to avoid frightening the horses, he also went to some length to stress that the parish system is the root and centre of all this, and that parishes and dioceses will be in control – it’s not a diktat from Head Office.
The aspiration is to become a church where a mixed ecology is the norm – i.e. parishes, chaplaincies, church plants, and so on. The report says a such mixed ecology will enable every person in England to have an “accessible discipleship pathway into an enriching, compelling and accessible community of faith”
This is all around the strapline of Simpler, Humbler, Bolder. And there is a video which sets out some of the ground – watch it here. (It only lasts a minute)
As with LLF, the difficulty of getting all this off the ground during a pandemic is that those who’ve been in the discussion and consultation are well-informed and on board, and even enthused. But everyone else is out of the loop, and it may take more than Cottrell enthusiasm and video to bring the strategy and vision home. As he pointed out, even at Synod, we have not been able to have any small group work because we are online.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not against this. we do need some redefinition of what the C of E is about. But communicating it and helping people to get on board will go off at half-cock until those who have come out of COVID in one piece are able to catch up. The people running this need to let the rest of us catch up.
The debate that followed was generally supportive of the report, with one or two nervous clergy saying they wanted to be sure that traditional parish ministry was going to be part of the ‘mixed economy’.
Getting more effective…
Our intensive morning continued with another presentation – Transforming Effectiveness. This is obviously related to the Vision and Strategy – it’s one of the workstreams alongside it. A group has been looking at how the National Church Institutions (NCIs) could work more effectively and more economically. Their report is here, and it was introduced by Bishop Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. The standard questions apply here: what needs to be done nationally – and what does not.? Where is there duplication?
There were two key areas:
- How does what the NCIs do serve the local church?
- How does what the NCIs do support the national and international role of the Church of England?
The upbeat tone was lessened by a slight shadow – Bishop Martin said he could not be explicit about some aspects, as consultation with staff had not yet taken place. So they are talking about restructuring and redundancies…
Despite Covid, the group has consulted as widely as it could. Around 400 people have been involved across dioceses, key diocesan players, and focus groups of clergy, chaplains, Deans, and others, including, of course, the leadership of the NCIs
Emerging from all this are a number of possibilities
- Reducing repetition and duplication across 42 different dioceses
- Joining up functions of the various NCIs
- Implementing simpler support for dioceses and worshipping communities.
Adrian Harris, the national officer organising this work, then put some flesh on the bones. Interestingly, and in the light of COVID creativity across the C of ED, there is an emphasis on digital offers that churches and dioceses can use. For example, software that will enable parishes to administer baptisms, weddings, and funerals. That might ease the burden of paperwork cluttering up clergy studies, churchwardens ‘ mantelpieces and musty vestries- especially for the rural parishes I know best. Anyone with an IT background will be relieved to know they are not talking about custom-built programs, but established ones. There are other targets in their sights, such as
- Reducing Bishops’ and Deans’ costs by 10% – in the search for a humbler church
- looking for different ways of being a charity at local level – reducing the burdens of GDPR, compliance and so on
In debate, the issue of trust came up. Bishop Martin had remarked that we need better trust between the different elements of the church – at parish level, between parishes and their diocese, and between the dioceses and the NCIs. In response to comments, Bishop Martin reminded us that trust arrives on foot, but flees on horseback.
N.B.- we’ve heard a lot recently about the ‘mixed economy’ church. Via Twitter, Bishop Pete Broadbent reminded us that the preferred phrase is now ‘mixed ecology.’ As one commentator said, “economy is utilitarian: ecology speaks of growth”.
Better late than never?
After lunch, we dived straight into controversy. The longed-for ‘mutual flourishing’ within the church, between those supporting, and those unable to accept, the ministry of women is becoming a bone of contention. (If you are a new reader, I attempted to summarise the complicated background in my preview post – look for ‘You have saved the best wine till last’ and ‘The Famous Five’.)
The focus for debate was the 139 pages of analysis, history, and explanation of our journey through the consecration of women as Bishops in the Implementation and Dialogue Group’s (IDG) report.
Members of WATCH (Woman and the Church) had held an online fringe meeting about this report, and been clear on social media that they would take the nuclear option of declining to vote to ‘take note’. (This was last used over the Bishops’ statement on same-sex relationships that led to the LLF process).
As one leading light, Rosie Harper, put it on Twitter: “The Five Principles simply embed and legitimise sexism, but no-one dares say it”
Aware of this incipient opposition, James Langstaff, the outgoing Bishop of Rochester began his explanation by explaining that the Covid pandemic had meant the report was coming to Synod at an unhelpful time:
- this is last session of the outgoing Synod
- the report was a year old, and the IDG had started work three and a half years ago
- he accepted the report is somewhat dated, but still useful
- he regretted that the lockdowns meant it had not been possible to review the Implementation and Dialogue Group work in a more informal session.
Preparing the report had been hard work: discussions had been difficult at times and one member could not support two of the recommendations. If you want a one-sentence summary, it’s from page 4: there has been implementation, but not dialogue.
The idea is that a Standing Commission should be established to keep the ‘settlement’ established in 2014 under constant observation and review. One factor is that new clergy, and new members of Synod will not have the ‘history’ of 2014, and will need help to comprehend it. (If they really want to know the gory story, my blogposts from that period will remain available, even though I will not. Find them here)
- The Revd Esther Prior made a moving speech expressing the difficulty, and the importance of mutual flourishing, referencing the positive relationship she has with the Revd David Banting, m a leading ‘complementarian’ evangelical on Synod.
- At the other end of the theological spectrum Fr Christopher Trundle spoke positively about his experiences, noting that the Five Guiding Principles are a starting point for making flourishing work in the future.
- After that positivity, it got more difficult. The Revd Alicia Dring, a former Dean of Women, said she could not vote even to take note of the report. She cited examples of difficulties and prejudice, as well as a new Bishop’s Mission Order which was riding roughshod over a parish. She saw the Five Guiding Principles as necessary five years ago, but now just a way of protecting the minority.
- The Bishop of Sheffield – a diocese which was the trigger for the review of the Famous Five which led to the setting up of the IDG said this summer they had managed to keep ordinands of both traditions together during the ordination procedures (up to the ordinations themselves). Sheffield, he said could see the strength of its different traditions as a glory, not a problem. He highlit the firth of the Principles – to achieve the “highest possible degree of communion” between the differing views.
- Canon Jenny Humphreys – a fellow Bath and Wells rep – called for parish websites to be clear about their views on women in leadership (it can be very hard to spot whether the leadership of a particular church is ‘complementarian’ (evangelicals holding a doctrine of male headship), or (Anglo-Catholic) under alternative episcopal oversight). She also rejected the idea of more ‘non-ordaining’ suffragan bishops being appointed: there are already enough in each Province to work with the numbers of parishes who need them: it would be disproportionate to consecrate more.
- A later speaker, Dr John Appleby stressed that this affects recruitment as well as membership. “If we are proud of our tradition, we should say so”. Even using phrases such as ‘under the oversight of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet’ do not make things clear to new members – or uninformed present members.
Are the Bishops of one mind on this?
The first Bishop to threaten to break ranks was Christine Hardman, Bishop of Newcastle.
- She was one of those who drafted the Famous Five. She felt the report only dealt with the principles 4 and 5, and assumed Principles 1,2 and 3 were just fine. The first principle reminds us that all orders of ministry are open to all, regardless of gender, but she felt it is in danger of being disregarded, with people questioning the validity of the ministry of men ordained by a woman Bishop. She said she had not decided how to vote.
- As the Revd David Fisher put it, we are trying to square a circle. The Famous Five are not that famous – people in parishes don’t know about them. He stressed that they are not there for Catholics: they are there for the whole church.
- Bradley Smith from Chichester – a diocese with a concentration of parishes both traditionalist Catholic and conservative evangelical – commended the graceful approach of the Bishop of Gloucester in working with two parishes who were seeking alternative oversight from the Bishop of Ebbsfleet. There, and in Chichester, he had seen mutual flourishing at work.
- The Bishop of London indicated that like the Bishop of Newcastle, she had reservations about much in the paper, but she would vote to take note. Work in the diocese of London had been difficult: her arrival meant that issues that had been fudged in the past could no longer be avoided.
We ended up with a vote by houses – which always serves to flush out who’s in favour and who’s opposed…. The result was:
- Bishops 25 in favour, 1 against and six abstentions.
- Clergy 93 in favour, 39 against with 14 abstentions
- Laity 93 in favour, 40 against with 20 abstentions.
So those unhappy with the report – who were very vocal on social media – did not have the numbers to achieve the ‘fail to take note’. The Bishops are clearly not of one mind, which makes the IDG’s next phase pretty difficult. To repeat Bishop Langstaff’s line: we have had implementation of the Famous Five, but not a lot of dialogue.
“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?”
Those words of John Wesley seem appropriate after a relatively routine item about setting up a new body to oversee our progress in the Joint Covenant with the Methodist Church turned into a bit of a row. (Read the details of the proposal here.) Not because there is a general predisposition to want to avoid our fellow-Christians, but because of the decision, last month, by the Methodist Conference to allow same-sex marriages to be performed in Methodist churches.
- An amendment was put by Chris Gill from Lichfield. He wanted to prevent the new body being setup; with his own experience in a Local Ecumenical Project he saw local ecumenical work as more important than national level bodies. Other speakers wanted more clarity about how Anglican-Methodist work on the ground – especially in ecumenical projects – would be affected in the light of that decision.
- Susan Howdle, the ecumenical Methodist representative spoke carefully about Methodism’s decision to live with two differing understandings within their church, commending it, perhaps, as a possibility for us, too.
- The Archbishop of York intervened to say that in his view, the recent developments meant it was more important to stop and pray, and then to engage with each other, rather than walking away. He wanted us to resist the Gill amendment, and continue the conversation.
After more debate, the unamended motion was passed by 200-odd votes to 73. That does give an indication of how unhappy some members of this Synod are about even talking to the Methodists after their same-sex marriage decision. I wonder what the proportion will be in the new Synod…
Better Bishops (again)
Before he led us through the jungle of different amendments, Aidan Hargreaves-Smith made us all smile by noting that the camera position he and others used in Church House made him look “a little Napoleonic”. In the best style of Private Eye, I have collaborated with Charlotte Gale so that you may make your own comparison, and decide if they are related.
After our Friday debate, the Standing Orders Committee met on Saturday night to tidy up the formal documentation that we were now to vote on. So we had a fairly formal run through with about a dozen votes on the tweaks that had been discussed on Friday.
Then a similar process happened with respect to the diocesan Vacancy in See (ViS) Committees. This time there was some debate, and we had to resort to the 40-member rule to decide whether to pursue the amendments or not.
Prebendary Simon Cawdell wanted to change the new rules so that the Chair of a diocese’s ViS could be elected as one of their six CNC representatives. (I will not comment on this, as Bath & Wells is currently in the middle of the ViS process, with an Archdeacon as the Chair.) Simon’s point was it was not for Synod to be bossy and controlling, but to leave the local people in the diocese to make a free decision as to who should be elected to their CNC. Aidan Hargreaves Smith resisted this, so in a short debate, we heard members of the revision group opposing, and ordinary Synod members supporting the amendment.
- Opponents, like Debra McIsaac (currently engaged in the Salisbury vacancy process) said that ViS chairs should be entirely independent, and able to encourage a diversity of views.
- Supporters were very much of the mind that local people could be trusted to do things that worked for them.
It did feel like a bit like Head Office telling the lower orders what was good for them and nearly all the speeches from ‘ordinary’ Synod members were in favour of the Cawdell amendment. But it was lost by 10 votes, with 16 abstentions…
Linda Ali then moved an amendment that would ensure equal numbers of clergy and laity were elected by the diocesan ViS to be diocesan representatives on the CNC. This was in the original O’Donovan Report that gave rise to all; this, and it would ensure the diocesan reps balanced the central CNC members, who are half clergy, half lay. However, her amendment was lost
Lastly Simon Cawdell came back with an amendment permitting only member of the diocesan staff team (for example a diocesan officer) to be elected to the CNC. He did not gain 40 members’ support, so the amendment lapsed.
And that was the end of all debates and motions. Before closedown (sorry, Dissolution and Prorogation – see below) some farewells to Bishops and other significant Synod people were made.
We had formal farewells to
- Loretta Minghella, the first-ever woman First Church Estates Commissioner.
- The Bishops of Beverley (Glyn Webster), Rochester (James Langstaff), the Bishop at Lambeth and to the Armed Forces (Tim Thornton) and the Bishop of Willesden (Pete Broadbent)
I take a special interest in Pete Broadbent’s farewell, as Pete and I have been friends more than 45 years. Archbishop Stephen gave a rollicking appreciation of Pete’s contribution to the life of the national church, and the London diocese. We were reminded how Pete had led the recent simplification work –“the patron saint of simplification” – and in former times he’d been Chair of the Business Committee.
Perhaps his most significant moment was the impact he had on the “women bishops” debates that eventually freed the logjam and enable us to move ahead. Anyone who was in York that weekend in 2013 will remember how “I agree with Pete” became the phrase of the day, indicating that his clever suggestion of doing the Revision stage of the legislation in full Synod, rather than a backroom committee, got everyone locked into a process that would stay on track. It’s pretty historic, so you might want to read up on it from my blog of that day here – look for “Bishop Baldrick’s cunning plan”
A slide show of Bishop Pete at work in his beloved London accompanied the farewell. Sadly, it did not include this reminder of how some of us remember him from the far-off days of the late 1970s. I am grateful to/blame Charles Reed for supplying it.
Archbishop Stephen said Pete was “made for Synod”, with his forensic eye for detail and desire to shred red tape. He also recalled that Pete’s capacity to speak his mind occasionally “got him a few juicy headlines” when he got into hot water.
He also reminded us – not everyone would know this – that Pete had been a leading light in the Spring Harvest movement that has brought so much to so many over the years.
A backroom boy also got a well-deserved farewell. Jonathan Neil-Smith has clocked up more than 40 years’ service in the NCIs, first at the Commissioners, then at Church House as Secretary to the House of Bishops and many other complex tasks. I’ve come across him as Secretary to the House of Clergy Standing Committee. I learned from the Archbishop’s comments that he is a Lay Canon of Guildford Cathedral: who knew?
Jonathan’s work colleagues have not been able to say goodbye in person – because everyone at Church House has been furloughed or working from home. The same applies to all the farewells today: it’s been very hard not being able to hug, drink, pray and joke together.
We are dissolute! (Or do I mean dissolved..?)
Proceedings ended with a Service of the Word, and the formal Dissolution statement.
There was some lovely Gilbertian flummery about writs received from the Queen to dissolve the two Convocations (York and Canterbury) “We command you to dissolve the said Convocation on the said day… …in the 70th year of our reign”.
In the absence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London read out the formal Canterbury dissolution, and the Archbishop of York read the York one. He then added that ‘in consequence of the dissolution of the Convocations, the General Synod is dissolved”. Looks like you can’t have lay people meeting without the clergy!
A short Service of the Word followed, led from the Church House Chapel. And then we were prorogued. And dissolved.
So ended my 16 years on the Synod, and nine years’ blogging about it. It’s been hugely enjoyable, and some of my friends regard me as a ‘Synod nerd’. That’s a bit unkind: I might accept ‘Synod geek’.
But it do believe in what Archbishop Rowan told us in my early Synod days: that the word means ‘walking together’: laity, clergy and Bishops, discerning the right path (or at least, the best one) for that bit of God’s church we call the C of E.
I also believe in encouraging people to take it seriously. Hence this blog, to tell people what’s going on from my own perspective. I’ve tried not to bang any drums , just give an impression of what it’s like to be there.
And if that encourages you to stand for election, then I’ve achieved an aim – of demystifying it enough for you to see you could play a part.
* Still crazy after all these years: A Paul Simon classic, the title song of his fourth album in his early post-Garfunkel period. The mood of reminiscence and affection strike just right for my own feelings as I leave Synod behind. Give it a listen here.