This was the Synod when we had the ‘Shared Conversations’ about sexuality. All the build-up was about this. As well as the normal bundle of papers, Synod members were sent three books – all about sexuality, from different perspectives. I did read them all! This Synod also stood in the shadow of the vote to leave the EU. The Archbishops called an emergency debate, and the shadow of Brexit was long.
The actual business of Synod, however, had to happen first. We were addressed by a German Bishop, who reflected on the implications of Brexit and reminded us that the continent of Europe could not be voted away. The Archbishop of York spoke about his Pilgrimage around his diocese, praying and speaking about the Gospel.
Duly fortified by this, we held the emergency debate on the EU. The Archbishops proposed a motion that called ‘for all to unite in the common task of building a generous and forward looking country’. We heard a moving speech from the Bishop of Europe, on the effect of the vote on Anglican churches across the continent. Many people living in Europe felt hurt and betrayed by the outcome. The speech of the synod was made by a vicar from Darlington, speaking of how this was a vote in which people who had felt ignored had made themselves heard. There were concerns expressed about racism, about those who felt excluded from the political process and more. The motion was passed easily. The harder work of being the church in a very different political climate remains.
Saturday morning was given over to legislation. This is one of the real jobs of the Synod, if not the part that folk usually get excited about. We debated a mission and pastoral measure that simplifies how changes are made to church structures; a legislative reform measure, which provides for the tidying up of the laws affecting the church; and a measure about the inspection of churches. All progress along the path to becoming part of the church’s rules. Rather unfortunately, two revisions to the canons had been put together. One concerned the wearing of vestments, the other the funerals of those who have committed suicide. Of course, we spent the most time debating what clergy wear in church, a subject that probably heard the most debate in the formal proceedings of Synod this time.
Legislation done, we moved to debates on Renewal and Reform, which is the wider programme the Church of England is following to change and grow for the future. A debate on a Vision for Education was significant, if not without controversy. Derby Cathedral’s experience of trying to establish a church school, as distinct from a faith school, resonates with much in the new vision. After an evening meal, we then heard from the Archbishops’ Council and passed their budget for 2017. Then the Archbishop of York prorogued the Synod – business was over.
But the work of the Synod was not over. The regular Sunday morning service in York Minster was followed by a three-line whip not to linger over lunch in York. We were back in the chamber for 48 hours of shared conversations. These are governed by protocols drawn up by St Michael’s House at Coventry Cathedral. This limits what I can say about the conversations (and rightly so). The conversations were a mixture of plenary sessions, where panels of people with different opinions on the issues at hand spoke about the Bible, their personal journeys, the changes of culture, the Anglican Communion, and walking forward together. Together with these were small group sessions in which we shared our own journeys, read the Bible together, and talked about how we might walk together. At the heart of it all was prayer. A very few members of Synod refused to take part in the conversations, which is deeply disappointing. Experiences of the conversations very varied. I can honestly say that I found them a deeply moving and important part of the life of the Synod.
So where now? I am simultaneously hopeful and pessimistic. I am hopeful that we have begun to talk honestly and openly in a way that few Synod conversations have been. If we can carry that on, then whatever happens will be better than it might have been. I am pessimistic, because the challenge remains to bridge a gap that for some seems unbridgeable. After the conversations, the bar on debating issues of sexuality is now lifted. Please pray for the Synod as it moves into the dangerous area of these debates.