THE General Synod has existed for nearly 40 years. It had a brief honeymoon, when expectations were pitched too high. The collapse of the Anglican-Methodist unity scheme soon after the Synod’s inauguration was a defining moment for many who have been impatient with it ever since. So its history has been accompanied by adverse criticism for as long as we can remember — some of it from the reform-minded, but not all, since, of course, the Synod has also been accused of changing too much that was traditionally characteristic of the Church of England. It cannot be expected to please everybody.
Any governing body may fall under the condemnation, at some time or another, that it is little more than a talking shop. The charge is most likely to stick to the Synod when it seeks to express the Church’s mind on moral aspects of current affairs. The complaint comes most often from those who wish the C of E to keep its nose out of politics. But there is also, of course, a grain of truth in Giles Fraser’s suggestion in his column this week that there is something ridiculous about addressing the world when it is not listening. Our staff occasionally hear speakers warn that a Synod pronouncement is likely to get such-and-such a sensational headline in the daily papers, knowing that they are the only press reporters left in the gallery to hear it.
The Synod’s precursor, the Church Assembly, was once, and probably more than once, described as full of “elderly bores”. The age profile of the Synod — and there is indeed difficulty in getting busy younger people to stand for election — is not necessarily relevant to the quality of the debate. Sometimes a debate can be dominated by one or two members who would be told in a less gracious forum to “get a life”. But routine topics can take an unexpected turn; and speakers take heroic pains to make bread-and-butter business endurable. This group of sessions offered few thrills. There was, for example, a long clause-by-clause revision of draft legislation. But it concerned marriage in church, which is an aspect of pastoral work and outreach about which there are strong feelings. Not all will like the result; and few will be impressed to know that the matter had been under consideration since 1999. But there would also be complaints if new rules were imposed without a proper legislative process.
A striking feature of the sessions at York was the repeated focus on those who are disadvantaged. This is not always a cause for self-congratulation. The Synod heard about clergy widows, surviving on a reduced church pension, whose housing costs are set to increase; minority-ethnic churchgoers who, in other circumstances, might now be in positions of leadership; clerics with disabilities, whose needs and gifts have only recently begun to be recognised by diocesan authorities. For such subjects, a debate in the Synod brings a varied body of churchpeople together with a remarkable degree of penetration into the life of the Church as a whole. This is not to be undervalued. The Synod does not always get it right. But a Church run by episcopal diktat would be the alternative, and few members of the C of E are in the market for that.