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Synod will debate dentention amid heavy church legislation

23 January 2008

Margaret Duggan surveys the agenda for the General Synod next month

THE General Synod, meeting in a fortnight’s time, will challenge the Government’s plans to extend the period a police suspect can be detained without charge.

A draft motion before the Synod expresses “grave concern” that an extension to the current 28-day maximum for terrorist suspects would disturb “the balance between the liberty of the individual and the needs of national security”.

The motion also calls for government pressure on the United States to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay; and asks for an early review of the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The General Synod will meet in Church House, Westminster, from the afternoon of Monday 11 February to Thursday 14 February. It will be a mid-term meeting for the present Synod, William Fittall, the secretary general, told the press this week, “and there is a lot of stuff to be shifted”, including nine hours of legislation.

There will also be debates on mental health, casinos, Crown appointments, and Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue. There had been speculation in some quarters, he said, that women bishops would feature on the agenda, but this had never been the expectation of the Synod authorities. There will be a “significant debate” on the subject in July.

THE FEBRUARY SESSION will begin with a presidential address by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The rest of the afternoon will see the usual report from the business committee, which gives members an opportunity to comment on the agenda, and then a debate on standing orders, followed by questions.

Almost the whole of Tuesday will be given to legislation, starting with two brief items: the promulgation of the amending canon to the Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure 2007, and the proclamation as an Act of Synod of the Vacancy in See Committees Regulation 1993.

There will then be a first consideration of the draft of the Pensions (Amendment) Measure (the Synod has already had two sessions discussing the principles behind it). In effect, it is to extend from 2011 to 2018 the period when the Church Commissioners can go on making capital payments towards the cost of lump sums and pensions payable under certain pension and superannuation schemes. Another piece of “relatively straightforward” business will be the approval of the Code of Practice for the Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure.

The fifth item of legislation scheduled for Tuesday morning will be “quite big stuff”, said Mr Fittall, who expected a “lively and contentious debate”. This is the reform of the incumbents’ freehold under the draft Terms of Service Measure. It was debated by the Synod in February 2004 and February 2005, and the revision committee has given nine full days to the large number of amendments.

A significant change since the last debate is that parsonages should no longer be the traditional “parson’s freehold”, but vested in new parsonages boards of the dioceses (as distinct from diocesan boards of finance). The clergy will hold office under common tenure, and still maintain many of their present rights, but Mr Fittall acknowledged that, for many clerics, the principle of freehold is “hugely important”.

The last piece of legislative business of the day is a draft Miscellaneous Provisions Measure of “bits and pieces” — mostly small amendments to ecclesiastical measures — including one that clarifies the difficulty over legacies or gifts made in favour of “the Church of England”. This is because there is no corporate body called “the Church of England”, and such gifts have to be dealt with under the Royal Signal Manual. The proposal is that, in future, such gifts will automatically go to the Archbishops’ Council.

To round off the day, the Synod will debate a private member’s motion, brought by Thomas Benyon (Oxford) on casinos, calling on church leaders to redouble their effort to oppose the Government’s “astonishing promotion of the opening of casinos”.

After a celebration of holy communion in the Assembly Hall on Wednesday morning, the Synod will return to yet more legislation. It is proposed that the Church should modernise and “improve its customer service” in its parochial fees, to give greater clarity, and to avoid the occasional awkwardness that the present system can cause.

In the report Four Funerals and a Wedding (a title recognising that the Church of England conducts four times as many funerals as it does weddings), there are a number of recommendations, including the abolition of the incumbent’s fee in favour of having all fees paid direct to the diocese. Retired and self-supporting clergy, and Readers, should be remunerated “generously”. Funerals for children under 16 should be free, and the separate fees for banns should be discontinued.

The final piece of legislative business could cause upset, said Mr Fittall. This concerns Canon 28, and is about modifying the requirement in ecumenical projects for an Anglican eucharist to be celebrated on all the main feast days. He thought this might be the first occasion on which the new electronic voting system in Synod would be used.

Wednesday afternoon and evening will see three quite different debates. A motion from Durham asks the Bishops to commission a eucharistic prayer suitable for children.

A debate on continuing issues in mental health should see the Synod reflecting on the Church’s involvement with mental-health care. As well as calling for improvement in mental-health services and encouraging parishes to ensure that they are a priority in the Church’s ministry, it will also call attention to the needs of mentally ill people in the criminal-justice system.

The day finishes with a take-note debate reviewing the Bishops’ suggested redrafting of the Anglican Covenant.

The first debate on Thursday morning will be on how Crown Appointments could work in the future, if the Government agrees. Though the Prime Minister would no longer make the decisive choice in senior appointments, a senior civil servant would continue to take an advisory part in the process of appointing bishops, deans, and other senior officers. There are also new proposals for appointing deans.

A bishop would no longer chair the selection panel, though he would be part of it. The chair would be taken by a senior lay person, though the bishop would still have a right of veto.

The rest of the morning will be on Growing Together in Unity and Mission, the report from the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission. It will be a “taking-stock” debate, surveying 40 years of dialogue, said Mr Fittall. He mentioned that the debate on the report about Mary, which some people had expected, would take place when the Bishops had had a chance to consider it.

Detention without charge will be debated on Thursday afternoon; the report was still being written.

Finally, the Synod will consider a private member’s motion from Timothy Cox (Blackburn), asking for Bibles to be readily available in all churches, before Dr Williams prorogues the Synod at 5.30 p.m.

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