The November General Synod (GS) began with an induction day. This was to help orientate the 60% of the synod reps who were new and to act as a refresher for those returning. It was much needed. Church House is something of a maze and this feels like a metaphor for the business conducted within its walls e.g. very confusing for those who do not know the lie of the land!
The induction day had a soft start with two optional sessions where reps could attend seminars introducing three key aspects of the developing Vision and Strategy: a younger and more diverse church, a church of missionary disciples and a mixed ecology church. All you had to do were find the rooms where the seminars were happening, which as I suggest above was easier said than done! The sessions were facilitated by school pupils from schools across England, including a team from our own Blue Coat school in Coventry. The young people were articulate, prophetic and courageous. It was an inspiring start.
Between sessions you could visit a series of stalls giving information on everything from digital mission to bats in churches. I also – to my delight – finally found the all important coffee room.
In the afternoon, we assembled in the main chamber for a series of introductory talks. Some previous synod members sat on a panel and gave us good advice on how to serve well as GS reps both in sessions and when back in our dioceses. We had an update on the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) journey from Eeva John and the Bishop of London. Then the Registrar reminded us that one the key tasks of GS is developing new legislation, so he described the process of making laws (which can be measures, canons or secondary legislation). He was very clear in explaining the points of the process in which we can really influence the emerging legislation.
There was then a mock debate. Some previous members of GS alongside continuing members staged a debate on whether every parish should have a dog (because dogs were better than cats) to assist in mission and ministry. It was hilarious as every cliche associated with a church debate was role-played with relish. We had an amendment and a point of order and then used the electronic voting devices to make our decision. I am delighted to say the motion was passed! But the serious purpose was to teach us in a memorable way how debates were conducted in the chamber, to prepare us for doing this for real the following day.
The day concluded with Evening Prayer.
GS began its new Quinquennium properly with a Eucharist at Westminster Cathedral. The Coventry GS team were tucked in the back of Poet’s Corner and so could see very little of proceedings, but the music was divine, the sermon both inspiring and short, the prayers beautiful and we shared communion.
Back in Church House, the Earl of Wessex represented her Majesty the Queen and gave and address on her behalf. It was wise and kind. I found it very moving to know the Queen was praying for us. The full text can be found here: https://www.royal.uk/queens-message-opening-session-11th-general-synod
After lunch, the Archbishops gave their presidential address, the full tex of which can be found here (https://www.churchofengland.org/media-and-news/press-releases/archbishops-presidential-address-synod) and we then debated the Business Committee report. The Chair of the Business Committee, introducing the report, indicated that the Archbishop of Canterbury would be keen to say something following his recent statement on his conversations with Ghanaian bishops. Indeed ++Justin was the first to stand to speak, and provided helpful clarification, emphasising that neither he nor his colleagues in Ghana condone the criminalisation of LGBTQ+ people. Simon Butler, Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation (which basically means he is chair of the house of clergy) responded, thanking the Archbishop for this clarification, acknowledging the complexity the Archbishop faces in his position in the Anglican Communion, but emphasising the need for great care in how we speak about these issues. Then as an act of witness, members of GS who are from the LGBTQ+ community stood silently, some with signs saying “soon to be imprisonable in Ghana”. It was a painful but powerful and moving moment. It was an important reminder for the GS which will later discuss LLF that behind the discussions and debates are real siblings in Christ.
The next item on the agenda was a debate on whether it should be easier for Dioceses to support one another financially. There is great disparity between dioceses in their historic assets. Some dioceses have over £90 per head of population while one has less than £1. (By this marker, Coventry is the second richest diocese in the Church of England!) Most historic assets come from the glebe land which was used to provide income for clergy. In the 1970s, that glebe land was put under the management of individual dioceses and the income from these assets went into their diocesan stipend fund (DSF). Money from the DSF cannot currently be used outside of the diocese. The Bishop of Sheffield, who had been chairing the Mutuality in Finances group, proposed that we should explore ways of changing our legislation to allow richer dioceses to be generous to poorer dioceses, should they feel called to do so. Speakers in the debate acknowledged that reducing inequality in the CofE is extremely complex and historic assets are just one component of it, but most were broadly in favour of the motion. The Bishop of Gloucester made a stirring appeal that we should not sit and agonise over the utensils and ingredients in our individual diocesan kitchens, but rather envision the feasts we could create together to which all might be welcome. The motion was overwhelmingly passed, and so draft legislation on how this might be accomplished will return to GS at some point in the future.
The day finished with Questions. GS reps can submit questions ahead of our meetings, and a written response to that question will be provided. 132 questions were submitted and they included everything from use of non-disclosure agreements to…well…bats in churches. During the Questions segment of GS, supplementary questions might be asked. Supplementary questions in the chamber must a) actually be questions, b) be asking for information and not an opinion and c) not impute bad intent. The Dean of Southwark Cathedral was rather fierce in enforcing these rules, especially for returning GS members, and several people were ruled “out of order” and asked to sit down. A welcome moment of levity was when the Bishop of Gloucester pointed out that she was both the Episcopal Champion for Setting God’s People Free and the lead bishop for prisons…and then tried to escape before her turn at the lectern was over! I couldn’t blame her. Those at the lectern answering the supplementary questions get a bit of a grilling at times. However, it is useful for everyone to know about questions, as it is a way of asking the Archbishops Council, House of Bishops and other key groups at the centre of the CofE for information and explanations. If you have a question about the life of the CofE that you would like your reps to ask on your behalf, please do get in touch.
The day began with worship and the Archbishop of Canterbury proposing a loyal address to the Queen.
There was then an impassioned debate introduced by the Diocese of Leeds, in which they proposed that GS call upon the government and all political parties to commit explicitly to reducing the wealth gap between rich and poor and the disadvantages which come from it. This was a motion which had started in a Deanery Synod in Bradford, was supported by Leeds Diocesan Synod and was now being debated at national church level. The speakers unanimously supported the motion, but there was a fascinating discussion on the different drivers of inequality, it’s consequences and what we as the Church and individuals might do to reduce inequality. At the end, someone requested a counted vote so the strength of feeling in synod may be demonstrated. There was a sudden rush as all the reps who were watching the debate in the different rooms in Church House, grabbed a voting machine and entered the chamber to register their support of the motion. It was passed with over 300 in favour, two against and three abstentions.
John Spence presented the Archbishops Council finance report, describing the financial challenges faced by all levels of the church during the pandemic and explaining how the national church institutions have worked to reduce their costs by over 3% thus reducing the apportionment (financial contribution) dioceses must pay to the national church structures. He finished by reminding us that money is not the end but the means, that we long for all people to know the joy of Christ and that as the church adopts bold and creative ways to share the Gospel, he and his team will do all they can to ensure we have resources to do it. The synod voted to take note of the report.
A couple of more routine matters followed. Changes to the way in which Vacancy in See committees operate, agreed by the last synod, were made official and became an Act of Synod. Acts of Synod are not law as such, but are a statement of intent which are expected to be followed. Then a new member of Archbishops Council was nominated and elected.
The afternoon session resumed with a presentation on the Vision and Strategy for the 2020s. Following a short video showing varieties of worshipping communities in the Diocese of Edmundsbury and Ipswich, the Archbishop of York suggested that “mixed ecology” is a misunderstood term. It is not a new idea, it is not about replacing the parish system but revitalising it. He said that if he had organised Pentecost then all the world would speak one language to make communication of the gospel more efficient. But rather that Holy Spirit enables the church to proclaim the gospel in EVERY language. Mixed ecology enables the church to proclaim the gospel in contextual ways and enable worship in the many and varied communities we serve.
There followed some interesting questions and comments on the funding of pioneer ministry, the accessibility of our worship, the need for patience with churches which find themselves smaller, poorer and less confident rather than simpler, humbler and bolder after “the car crash” of the pandemic and the possible richness of ecumenical vision. The Archbishop was challenged to say more about the theology and ecclesiology of the vision, and he promised that a group who are working on the theological underpinnings of the vision will be reporting to Synod in due course. Another speaker challenged us to be careful about imagining ourselves as people who “meet need” as Jesus often allowed others to serve him as well as serving others. Someone asked if there is evidence that a mixed ecology approach “grows church” as effectively as the provision of stipendary ministry, but the Archbishop said that there is no difference. Most mixed ecology ministry develops from a priest and a PCC, inspired by the Holy Spirit, identifying a need or an opportunity. This strategy aims to enable them to do more of it!
The final substantial item on the agenda was a presentation on the Review of Governance undertaken by a group chaired by the Bishop of Leeds. The current governance structures of the CofE have developed over years (in some cases, centuries) and as a result are not the most efficient or effective way to organise ourselves. The presentation was designed to bring the new synod up to date in order that we might be better prepared to debate the report’s recommendations in future GS sessions. These recommendations include reducing the number of governing bodies within the CofE, reducing the number of boards and committees and ensuring that those who remain have clear terms of reference. Committee members would be appointed based on skills not elected. Furthermore the recommendations include enhancing the role of bishops and reforming GS. These are not entirely uncontroversial ideas as efficiency carries a risk of centralisation and a decrease in representation.