Thursday, September 03, 2015

Reform and Renewal – news from General Synod Feb 2015

One of the highlights of February’s General Synod was the appearance of the Rt Revd Libby Lane as part of a presentation on some work in India that Christian Aid have led. A woman bishop at General Synod who was not a visitor from overseas, a genuinely wonderful moment. But of course, that leaves the question of what Synod has to talk about now that argument is over … 

The Archbishops had an answer to that – it is a programme of “Reform and Renewal.” Over the summer, four task groups were working. Their reports, together with a paper on Discipleship and a paper from the Church Commissioners, formed the meat of the February group of sessions of the General Synod. They will continue to be a significant part of the work of the whole Church of England over the coming months and years. They aim to build on the recent report From Anecdote to Evidence, which offered an understanding of how growth is happening in the Church of England; and also on the three priorities that the Synod has already set out – to promote numerical and spiritual growth; to reimagine ministry; and to contribute to the common good. 

The Archbishops were very clear about the urgency of the work. The Church of England is declining at a rate of about 1% per year; the age profile of the church is significantly older than that of the population of England; and the age profile of clergy is also increasing with about 40% of parish clergy due to retire in the next decade. Unless something changes, the Church of England in its current form is not sustainable. It is that simple. 

Hence the four task groups. Four pieces of work that aim to set the Church of England back on course. But the shape of this work is to be undergirded by an understanding of discipleship as “the living-out of our Christian faith in the whole of our lives.” Fostering this ‘missionary discipleship’, by nurturing the vocations of all Christians is the foundation of all of the work of reform and renewal. There will be, we are promised, on-going work at national level to develop discipleship. 

On that foundation, the first task group has looked at Resourcing Ministerial Education. In order to meet the ambitions of Dioceses for the provision of clergy, they say that we should be aiming for a 50% increase in the numbers coming forward for ordination, year on year from 2020. That is probably the headline. There are also suggestions about enabling every minister to offer collaborative and adaptive ministry; younger and more diverse clergy; the development of lay ministry; and the continued commitment to offer ministry in every geographical location. The Bishop of Sheffield, who led the group, spoke about a parish in his diocese that had just been filled and his fears for filling it the next time it fell vacant. 

The second task group looked at the financial resourcing of the Church of England. This task groups begins by offering a commitment to the spiritual and numerical growth of the Church, and ensuring that is “good growth”, that is growth that benefits all communities and especially the poorest communities. While the financial burden of the Church will remain with parishes and dioceses, the element of central funding from the Church Commissioners will be reformed. The method of allocation of funds will change. Focussing on the aim of numerical and spiritual growth, and the statutory obligation on the Commissioners to provide for the parishes in most need of support, the Commissioners money will no longer be provided as a block grant. Instead, some money will be given to Dioceses in which the poorest communities are found, and that money must be spent in those communities. In addition there will be money available for projects and initiatives that promote growth. For the first time there will be some accountability, and Dioceses will be responsible to one another for their use of funds that they are given. Some thought has been given to how this is to be introduced, and the Church Commissioners are considering offering extra money in the short term. This is not done lightly, but only when the Commissioners are satisfied that the need and the consequences are serious enough to warrant spending money from which future generations will no longer be able to benefit. 

The third task group, led by the Bishop of Willesdon, is looking at simplifying the Church of England’s structures in order to enable mission. I confess that I thought this would be the dullest read of all the papers, but in fact it was the one that gave me the most energy. This really does seem to be about releasing energy from church bureaucracy and putting it back into mission. In a largely rural diocese like Derby, this could be of great benefit. There are no specific proposals yet, but examples of proposals include the Clergy Terms of Service Measure, the Mission and Pastoral Measure and regulations around church buildings. The Simplification process won’t lead to the end of faculties, but it may lead to an easier process for Bishops Mission Orders. In conversation over lunch, the Bishop suggested that they are actively seeking suggestions of how to enable a simpler process for rural parishes. 

Finally, and most (in)famously the final task group, led by Lord Green, suggested was in which the leadership of the Church of England can be supported, developed and nurtured. This was sent as a paper to Synod, but no debate was allowed. The matter, we were told, was simply one for the House of Bishops. The implication was that we should be grateful that we saw the paper at all. There was plenty of debate outside the chamber, and in the pages of the Church Times and on blogs. But there was none in the Synod itself. 

This, then, is the shape of the package of Reform and Renewal that the Synod approved and will form the conversations at national and diocesan level for the coming months and years. I want, at this point to suggest three questions that should be asked and then offer a personal conclusion. 

The first question is about the range of voices that are being heard. It was the same few people who stood up to answer questions at Synod. In the lists of members of the task-groups, the same names recur. At questions during Synod, there were two apologies for the lack of women and the lack of people from black and ethnic minority communities. There were also questions about the involvement of Self-Supporting Ministers in it all. This is not a complaint about quota filling, but merely an observation that if we don’t hear some different voices then the solutions we are offered will be limited (I gave a speech to this effect!). 

My second question concerns the centralisation and fear of debate that characterised some of the presentations. The lack of any conversation about the Green Report,and the very stage managed approach to the package does not inspire confidence that the leaders of the Church are listening. But it is not all like this. The Church Commissioners certainly seem to be listening (consulting Synod when they were not obliged to), and the paper on financial resourcing is clear that responsibility and decision making for the use of money is at a diocesan level. 

Finally, my question is ‘Does this re-imagine anything?’ The paper on discipleship, which speaks of the ministry of the whole people of God, led to a motion which gave one action to dioceses and two to bishops. The resourcing of ministry seems to focus on enabling the church to maintain current patterns of ministry. The default seems still to be full time, stipendiary ordained ministry, to the cost of all disciples, lay ministry and other forms of ordained ministry. I miss any place for properly imaginative work that might offer reform and renewal to the Church. There is an institutional anxiety that runs through all these questions, and this risks anxiety being all that is heard. 

And so to my conclusion. Broadly, I welcome the shape of the programme. Even the Green Report has identified something that needs to be addressed. But unless the three big questions can be addressed as the programme is taken forward, it will never reach its potential. And, of course, there is an elephant in the room – the debate on sexuality which we all know is coming (and which the Synod was blocked from discussing). This will provide another great and divisive argument for the Church of England. The Archbishops were almost certainly right to get us going on something more constructive before that fight begins. 

Published in Outlook, the Magazine of Derby Cathedral and given as a paper to members of the Derby Diocesan Synod

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