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Big debates on crime, Trident, mission and clergy terms

08 February 2007

by Margaret Duggan

Past triumphs: the debating chamber in Church House, Westminster

Past triumphs: the debating chamber in Church House, Westminster

IT WILL be a General Synod meeting full of weighty debates, some of them contentious, William Fittall, the Secretary General of the Synod, told the press on Monday.

There would be four big issues of public policy: debates on Trident as a nuclear deterrent, the planned growth of church secondary schools, criminal justice and prison policy, and standards in the media. Two major debates — on homosexual relationships and civil partnerships — together with one on clergy pensions, are likely to elicit strong feelings among members.

The Synod will be meeting in the newly refurbished Assembly Hall of Church House, Westminster, from the afternoon of Monday 26 February to the evening of Thursday 1 March. Almost the first item on the agenda will be a presidential address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, after his meeting with the Primates of the Anglican Communion in Tanzania.

No debate or questions would follow, said Mr Fittall, but what Dr Williams reported would be likely to have some bearing on the later debates on questions of sexuality.

Then, following the usual report by the business committee, the main part of the afternoon will be taken up by the debate on Trident, based on a report from the Mission and Public Affairs Council, asking that the Synod should express “serious questions about the proposed renewal of the UK’s minimum deterrent”. The early evening will be given to Questions, restored to their traditional place at the end of the first day.

Now that the parishes are having to raise an extra £10 million for clergy pensions this year, the Archbishops’ Council will come to the Synod with a series of proposals to ease the burden in the future. They are the result of a widespread consultation, held since the subject was raised in the Synod last July. The debate on Tuesday morning will start with a presentation by Shaun Farrell, secretary to the Pensions Board, making it clear that the Board holds fast to a defined-benefit scheme, but some reductions must be made.

The most significant recommendations are that a full pension will require 40 years of service rather than the present 37, and that pension increases should be linked to the Retail Prices Index up to a maximum of 3.5 per cent, rather than to the national minimum stipend as at present. This is likely to prove contentious, admitted Mr Fittall, but he reiterated that the dioceses were having to pay 17.6 per cent more than last year.

Most of the rest of Tuesday will be given to legislative business. The draft Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure, which gives more powers and flexibility to bishops to promote mission projects in their dioceses, will be before the Synod for final approval. The draft Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure, which is intended eventually to bring all clergy into a position of common tenure, rather than freehold, in their parishes will be given its first consideration; and the revision of the draft Marriage Measure, allowing couples to marry in a wider choice of churches, will also be debated.

The latest revision, said Stephen Slack, Chief Legal Adviser to the Synod, narrowed some of the qualifying connections one or other of a couple must have to the church for their marriage, and removed the more tenuous ones, such as having been to a school in the parish. Tuesday evening will finish with a presentation on Fresh Expressions, introduced by the Archbishop of Canterbury, outlining some of the Church’s more successful innovations in mission.

Wednesday will be dominated by the two homosexuality debates, both brought by private members. The first, from the Revd Mary Gilbert (Lichfield), invites “parish and cathedral congregations to welcome and affirm lesbian and gay Christians, lay and ordained, valuing their contribution at every level of the Church”. She hopes, she says in her background paper, that the ensuing debate might start “a dialogue that will make the Church more able to include those it currently appears to reject”.

The fact that some provinces of the Anglican Communion find such dialogue impossible makes it all the more important that the Church of England should set an example and make every effort to do so, in line with the recommendations from the Lambeth Conference, she says.

The afternoon debate, brought by the Revd Paul Perkin (Southwark), follows a different view when it comes to civil partnerships. His motion complains that the House of Bishops has created confusion by not stating clearly that civil partnerships entered into by gay couples were inconsistent with Christian teaching, and by not requiring lay people in such partnerships to declare the nature of their relationship before being prepared for baptism, confirmation, or admission to communion.

The Bishops have added their own background papers, restating their position, to both motions.

In between those two major debates, before and after lunch, there is more legislation connected with the transfer of church funds, and with the plans for electronic voting in the Synod. Then there is a third major debate, that on education and church secondary schools, at the end of the day. It is to approve and endorse the strategies that have followed the Dearing report, which had set a target of 100 new church secondary schools by the end of the decade. Mr Fittall said that 38 had already been opened, another 32 agreed, and 114 such projects “were under serious consideration”.

Thursday sees two debates of public concern. In the morning, the debate will be based on the report Taking Responsibility for Crime, “a very timely debate in the light of the present overcrowding crisis in prisons,” said Mr Fittall.

It will start with an address to the Synod by Phil Wheatley, the Director General of the Prison Service. The motion asks the Government for more effective non-custodial sanctions, and the practice of restorative justice. It also wants “concerted action to remedy the treatment of women, children and young people, mentally ill people and members of the black and minority-ethnic groups in the criminal justice system”, and more church-based help for ex-offenders.

With a brief return to legislative business after lunch to clear up any outstanding matters, the Synod’s final debate will be on a motion brought from the Lichfield diocese on media standards, and the probability that they are fatally eroding standards of human behaviour.

The diocese is particularly concerned by the way hard pornography is being made more accessible by downgrading the classifications that control it, and by the sort of abuse that was tolerated in the recent Big Brother programme. It is asking the Government to consider whether such images are encouraging exploitation.

After a number of farewells to members, including the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Richard Lewis, the Archbishop of Canterbury will prorogue the Synod at 5 p.m. on Thursday.

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