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Synod round-up

02 November 2006

Wednesday's round-up

IN the only piece of legislative business of this February session, Synod gave final approval for the admission of baptised children to Holy Communion. The debate has been going on for 35 years, and the Bishop of Dover emphasised in his opening speech that there could really be no going back on the principle.

There had been some "wonderful stories of how the Holy Spirit had transformed the lives of children, families, congregations and even some clergy," through the practice in the parishes which had been experimenting with it, he said. Speakers cautioned against the regulations being seen as "a soft option", but an amendment that sought to demand evidence in the children of " a living faith in Jesus" was lost.

Most felt that the regulations had been tested and developed and now needed to be allowed to work. But Simon Butterworth of Manchester drew loud applause when he suggested more was now being asked of children coming to the Communion rail than was being asked of adults.

A series of questions relating to the sale of the remaining properties on the Octavia Hill estates was isolated from the rest and brought forward in the session after Synod protested at their original scheduling for the very end of the session. Andreas Whittam Smith, the First Estates Commissioner, was forced on to the defensive with a series of supplementary questions that opened with the Bishop of Southwark’s suggestion that a charity’s duty was to optimise, not maximise its assets. Dr Christina Baxter wanted to know whether the Assets Committee was answerable not only to God but to Parliament.

Concerns were expressed about the governance of the Church Commissioners, and their duty to consult with the dioceses. A terse Mr Whittam Smith said only 20 calls had been received between July and December 2005, which suggested that concerns expressed were not so widely shared as suggested. He reiterated, "I firmly believe this is an extremely satisfactory outcome. The Church Commissioners are not big enough to be a housing charity. Capital values have increased and actual income – after £20 million was spent on improvements – was close to zero."

Reader ministry provoked one of the liveliest and fiercest debates, a Private Members’ Motion moved by Nigel Holmes. Synod voted for an amended motion which asked the Archbishops’ Council to look at how Readers could be more fully and effectively deployed in the context of a proliferation of voluntary local ministry, both lay and ordained.

Frustration about under-deployment and low morale were robustly expressed – Readers said the ministry was regarded as "fag-end ministry", a "second-class calling", "half-baked clergy." Many were leading or preaching just once a month, yet lay people with little or no training were being called on to preach, without the wider endorsement of the Church. Canon Philip McDonough drew huge applause for his assertion that he had been called on only when "the incumbent, the curate, the 85-year-old retired assistant bishop and the organist" were going to be absent. The debate was dignified by the contribution in sign language of Mrs Hilary Sage, a representative of Deaf Anglicans Together, and herself a Reader.

A motion on The Human Genome, moved by Canon John Ashe on behalf of Guildford Diocese, expressed a belief that the genome should not be patentable, called for strict control on the availability of human genetic data and expressed regret at the EU Directive making legal provision for the patenting of genetic material of human origin. The debate failed to get off the ground after an amendment by Dr Philip Giddings was carried. Synod felt the issue was far too complex and technical for a summary debate and voted that the Mission and Public Affairs Council should explore the theological, ethical and legal implications of patenting, and report to Synod by February 2007.

But a debate on the Commemoration of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which takes place on March 25 2007, fared better. The Bishop of Southwark reminded Synod in his opening speech that the Church of England, with many other people and institutions, was complicit in the transatlantic slave trade – Bishops in the House of Lords had with biblical authority voted against abolition, and the Church had owned sugar plantations in Barbados.

Slavery represented "unfinished business," he said, noting that at least 12 million men, women and children around the world were forced to lead lives as slaves today, sold like objects and at the mercy of their employers. It was acknowledged to be an uncomfortable and highly emotive subject where the Church’s part in abolition must also be commemorated. Much debate revolved around whether an apology should be offered. The Archbishop of Canterbury supported an amendment which recognised the damage done to the heirs of those enslaved and did offer an apology to them.

An apology was "necessary and costly," he said. The Body of Christ existed across history: "We therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of or predecessors and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the Body of Christ, is prayerful acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us, not part of some distant ‘them’. The amendment was carried, together with another by the Bishop of Willesden, which affiliated the Church of England with the campaigning group, Stop the Traffik Coalition’.

Synod took note of a report on the Quinquennium, squeezed out from the morning’s business and opened by the Archbishop of York, before proceeding to the final business of the day, a very well debated motion on Hospital and Healthcare Chaplaincy moved by the Bishop of St Albans. Chaplaincy would need to re-think its remit once again in demanding times of turmoil and change in the NHS, he contended, citing the impact upon chaplaincy services of less hospitalisation and more care in the community; patient-centred care; new technologies and pharmaceutical products; fragmentation, and money.

Speakers, many of them chaplains or practitioners, spoke movingly of their experiences, none more so than Prebendary David Houlding."In the face of suffering, illness, pain and bereavement, we are often lost for words. But in the silence, it is the Word that speaks," he said. "By being there, by our presence, the healing work of God can be carried forwards."

THE chamber and galleries were full for the second stage of the debate on women bishops, with fifty-one Synod members having registered a wish to speak. The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Christopher Hill, made it clear in his opening speech that the working group could not recommend a Third or Free province, although it had taken the published proposals from Forward in Faith seriously.

In essence, they represented a proposal for "an autonomous, indeed independent Church," he said, calling this over-simplistic and reiterating, "It seemed to us that this would be to deliberately fracture the Church." Those urging a Code of Practice for those who did not recognise women’s ministry had not spelt out in detail what would be in such a code, and the surest way to create the necessary assurance for opponents would be to include something in the Measure itself.

The Guildford Group viewed the solution of Transferred Episcopal Oversight (TEA) as " a sophisticated and admittedly complex solution" offered as illustrative and not prescriptive. "If we want to go forward with this greater inclusivity, I think it behoves us to work on the other inclusivity as well: how do we make assured space – a room – for those who do not see it this way," Bishop Hill concluded.

The debate took all morning, was courteous and embraced all points of view. Some saw TEA as a "lifeboat" enabling those of a different disposition to carry on with their work; others, like Christina Rees, urged the breaking down of old walls [the repeal of the Act of Synod], not the building of new ones. Conservative Evangelicals insisted their voice must not be ignored; one speaker suggested women could become suffragans as part of a "gradualistic" approach that did not plunge the knife so deeply into the Body of Christ.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was the last to speak, in a brief contribution which identified division about where authority lay as being the theological foundation of the debate. Synod voted unanimously to take note of the report. The debate moves to the third stage on Thursday, when members will be asked to vote on whether to invite the House of Bishops to produce a statement on the theological, ecumenical and canonical implications of the TEA approach, and to determine the next steps.

A debate on Rural Affairs and the Church of England opened the afternoon session, introduced by the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish. It was the first debate on the subject, other than farming, since 1990, and a new report, ‘Seeds in Holy Ground’ was highly praised as something fresh and accessible.

The debate focused on the contribution of rural churches to rural community development. Synod was asked to affirm the C of E’s commitment to work with ecumenical partners to sustain and support an effective Christian presence in the rural community; to contribute from their own experience in urging government to recognise what a major stakeholder in rural affairs the church continued to be, but also to consider the adequacy of the national support for the presence and witness of the rural church. "At a time of great fragility for rural communities and the rural church alike, fragility and uncertainty in our own position is hardly to be seen as Good News," said Bishop Langrish.

The Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Revd John Saxbee, declared the biggest challenge to be a change of mindset. The rural churches did have a reputation for "going to the nation with a whinge and a begging bowl," he said. They were not so good at declaring up front what they brought to the table, not always adept at marshalling their forces to say strongly why the nation needed them.

Synod commended for study a report on informal Anglican/Baptist conversations, ‘Pushing at the Boundaries of Unity’. After more than a decade of dialogue, the participants had discovered some surprising convergences, especially in the deeper patterns of Christian initiation and of pastoral oversight, said the Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Ian Cundy, in his opening speech. He described the report as "an example of the tough but courteous and friendly ecumenism that the Council for Christian Unity promotes."

The final debate of the day was on the place of the church colleges within a higher education system where more than half of the 11 colleges had become universities in their own right. The report, ‘Mutual Expectations – The Church of England and Church Colleges’ provoked thoughtful debate on how to meet the challenge of being distinctly Christian and yet inclusive.

Synod embarked on the first of three stages in the debate on the Guildford Report on Women in the Episcopate, with responses to the Rochester Report by representatives of the Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the URC. Their choice of presentation rather than debate proved something of a handicap, as questions submitted in advance did not allow members to respond to particular points raised.

The Methodist representative, Professor Frances Young, reaffirmed her Church’s preparedness in principle to embrace episcopacy within the historic episcopal succession. The question was, ‘What sort of bishops?’ The thrust of the gospel of salvation was that "men and women were "in this together", and gender was irrelevant if typology was properly understood, she said, concluding: "In an episcopally ordered Church, the theological logic that made it right to ordain women as priests also made it right for them to be ordained as bishops."

The Roman Catholic response from the Revd Anthony Milner affirmed his Church’s position that women bishops would be a risk too far for the Church of England, given the continuing impasse on the ordination of women as priests. Sacramental assurance was also a key issue, in which the ordination of women bishops would create a further major obstacle to any future mutual recognition and reconciliation of ministries involving the RC Church and the C of E.

The URC, represented by Dr David Thompson, sought clarification on the relationship between the presbyterate and the episcopate, the appropriateness of placing restrictions on one and not the other, and the question of reception – "We are puzzled and concerned by the suggestion that the principle of ordaining women might be reversible…. I find it inconceivable - unless you want to halve the number of your priests overnight." .Dr Thompson was also "frankly astonished" at the attempts to advance understandings of male headship based on Genesis 3:16 as a basis for episcopacy.

Synod was brought up to date on the implications of what Shaun Farrell, secretary and chief executive of the C of E Pensions Board, called "one of the biggest upheavals in the pension industry for 40 years" and its implications for pension provision in the Church of England.

A report by the Ethical Investment Advisory Group provoked a strong debate, especially on the involvement with Caterpillar, whose earth moving equipment had been used by the Israeli Government to demolish Palestinian houses.A following motion was carried urging disinvestment from companies profiting from the illegal occupation, such as Caterpillar, until they changed their policies.

Forthcoming Events

6-7 September 2022
Preaching as Pilgrimage conference
From the College of Preachers.

27-28 September 2022
humbler church Bigger God conference
The HeartEdge Conference in Manchester includes the Theology Slam Live Final.

More events

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