Friday, March 04, 2016

General Synod February 2016 – Some Reflections

Synod began, more or less, in silence as we remembered the 21 Coptic Christians martyred in Libya for their Christian faith on the anniversary of their death.  An important moment.  There was little silence thereafter, as we moved into the normal pattern of debates and presentations.  February was a relatively short Synod, across three days.  It was the first meeting of the newly elected Synod other than the short gathering for its inauguration last November.  This means that there were lots of maiden speeches, lots of new voices to listen to. It means that we the newly elected Prolocutors of Canterbury and York (the chairs of the House of Clergy) and the Chair and Vice-Chair of the House of Laity were presented to us.  It feels like the new Synod is still being run in.

Business started with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Presidential Address.  This was mostly about the Primate’s meeting, and was clear and helpful.  He spoke of the depth of communion between the Primates. He also suggested that the main issue was one of reception – The Episcopal Church, in changing the doctrine of marriage, has taken the “consequence” of that step.  The Anglican approach to authority, he said, is one of “spiritual discernment in relationship”, not laws and procedures.  It was a hopeful account, careful and realistic about the remaining challenges.  I’m still left with the sense that “consequences” are a kind of ‘Yes Minister’ irregular verb (I take a prophetic stance for the Gospel; you are heretics; they suffer the consequences for not being in agreement with others).  But the grace and hope that Archbishop Justin conveyed were significant.

After the Archbishop, the chamber emptied somewhat as legislation was discussed.  An Amending Canon (number 34 if you are collecting the numbers) was enacted.  This makes changes around safeguarding matters, including a new Canon C29 ‘Of Safeguarding’.  Then we had the first consideration of a Mission and Pastoral Amendment Measure.  This aims to simplify the way the church works, but it needs scrutiny.  Part of it affects communities with a Bishop’s Mission Order, and Mark Broomhead from the Order of the Black Sheep in Chesterfield made his maiden speech clarifying some of the needs of his community that the Measure didn’t address.

Monday concluded with a presentation about the Shared Conversations in which Synod will take part in July.  The Agenda described these as Conversations on Spirituality, Scripture and Mission, but they are actually about sexuality.  This was encouraging, with the Archbishop’s Director of Reconciliation suggesting that conflict was something that could be creative and helpful for the Church.  Then we had questions time, which got through nearly all of the questions asked (a Synod record?), but lacked some of the whimsy and sparkle that sometimes comes through such a time.

Tuesday morning was given over to consideration of evangelism.  It began with a really good session in small groups, and then we had a debate on a Report from the Archbishops’ Evangelism Task Group.  The report, I confess, was a little disappointing.  But the debate was good and encouraging.  The Bishop of Liverpool who led the debate, spoke well about the need for joy, beauty and prayer in evangelism.  The Bishop of Burnley spoke passionately on the Church of England’s neglect of people living in estates.  There were helpful contributions of working with children and young people, and especially on allowing them to shape what the church does.

Tuesday afternoon was the first piece of real controversy on which the Synod had a vote.  The Columba Declaration, an ecumenical agreement between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, was up for debate.  Ecumenical agreement seems a good thing, but the Scottish Episcopal Church (the Anglican Church in Scotland) had not been involved in the final form of the report.  This appeared to be the CofE overstepping boundaries.  An amendment was put which would have required new work involving the SEC.  It lost, but the whole debate was dominated by relations with the SEC rather than with the Church of Scotland.  In the end, the Columba Declaration was approved but with more than a third of the Synod voting against or abstaining. 

The pace picked up as Synod rejected a Diocesan Synod motion calling for an amendment to the way fees are charges, and accepted a proposal to draft legislation allowing the faster and simpler repeal of legislation.  That allowed the Synod to debate another Diocesan Synod motion on blood and organ donation.  This simple motion raised the profile of donation as a form of Christian service and was gladly accepted by Synod.

For the final day, we had yet another Diocesan Synod motion – this time on the impact of benefit sanctions.  There were many speeches telling hard stories about the way sanctions are used in cruel and inflexible ways.  I spoke about some research in Derbyshire on the way sanctions increased dependency.  The motion was overwhelmingly passed, with no-one against and only three abstentions.

Lunch on Wednesday offered an opportunity to hear from a mission society (Us, formerly USPG) and from three bishops about their work in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone combatting Ebola.  It was only when the churches became involved that the tide began to turn, because only the churches had the reach and the standing help communities to change long-help customs and practices that were enabling the spread of disease.  A moving yet hopeful encounter.

After lunch, it was back to Synod for debates on funding Ministerial Training (a fraught issue, that seems far from being resolved) and resourcing the Church of England.  And then it was over, at least until July.

This was a wide ranging Synod, looking at internal affairs, relations with other churches, issues affecting society and how faith is shared.  If there is a thread running through, for me it is that of courage.  Courage seen in the Coptic martyrs, refusing to disavow their faith; the Primates of the Anglican Communion. Meeting together despite serious differences; in ordinary people who donate their blood and organs; in those facing impossible choices because their benefits have been sanctioned; and in the bishops who led their people through the unimaginable horrors of the Ebola crisis in West Africa.  Courage is what Synod will need in July as we take part in our shared conversations.  Please pray for us.

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