Listening, consensus, worship . . .

13 April 2010

. . . If that doesn’t sound like synodical government, why not, Brian Castle asks

IN 2010, we mark 40 years of synodical government, and there is much for which to be thankful. The synodical system has firmly estab­lished the voice of the laity within the governance of the Church of England, and has provided a dynamic where laity, clergy, and bishops can meet to order the institution.

The present synodical system, a child of the 20th century, is, however, no longer fit for purpose in the 21st.

In February, I attended, for the first time, the General Synod, the queen of the synodical system. I found com­mitted women and men attending a meeting organised by efficient and kindly people, feeding a voracious machine that is past its sell-by date.

There were some highlights in the five days we spent together, but these were overshadowed by debates that should have taken place elsewhere. Should a Synod’s time really be taken up with whether the reading set for the Monday of the third week of Lent ought to include an extra three verses?

The time for questions was a real trial. When, after two-and-a-quarter hours, we reached question 60 (out of 84), I was beginning to lose the will to live. Fortunately, this sentiment was shared by the Synod as a whole, because, when asked to extend the session, members voted conclusively against. The rest of the questions would be answered by post, the Synod was told. Why could not all 84 be answered in this way?

I recognise the need for the executive to be held accountable, but this was a graceless way of doing so. The synodical system is creaking, and needs renewal at every level.

In the past two sets of elections, dioceses have found it difficult to encourage people to commit them­selves to deanery as well as diocesan synods. Many people whose talents and insights would be valuable simply do not put themselves forward for election. And when the General Synod meets on weekdays, usually for five days at a time, how representative of its membership can it be?

It follows that the various synods are not regarded as either represent­ative or relevant to the activities of the wider Church.

There are a number of causes of this deteriorating confidence in the synodical system, but I want to identify two. First, the parliamentary, adversarial culture on which the synodical system is based does not provide a creative environment for debate and decision-making for the people of God.

A classic example is the debate at last July’s Synod about the ordina­tion of women to the episcopate. Where­ver one stands on this issue, the environment and style of debating did not allow the “wisdom of the quiet” to be heard. Synodical aficion­ados flourish in such an environment, but others wilt.

Second, the bureaucracy that was developed to support the structures is now dominating it. This leads to a materialistic fatalism, where, crush­ingly, the cycle of cause and effect trundles on without challenge. Meas­uring performance, benchmarking, and agreed outcomes (significant as they are) elbow out imagination and risk (important as they are).

The Church of England as a whole appears to be devoting an increasing amount of its energy to resourcing a defensive bureaucracy whose task is to protect it if challenged, and thus devotes a decreasing amount of energy on promoting the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Church necessarily needs to be synodal, so that those who have the responsibility to lead and manage can consult with the whole body of be­lievers, but the Church does not necessarily need to be synodical.

Synodal means, fundamentally, walking the way together. For An­glicans, being synodal indicates the manner in which laity, clergy, and bishops are held together (in synod) as they do this. The ARCIC document The Gift of Authority points out that being synodal expresses our vocation as people of the Way (cf. Acts 9.2) to live, work, and journey together in Christ who is the Way (John 14.6).

One of the blessings of belonging to a worldwide Church is that we are kept in touch with a variety of forms of deliberation and decision-making. Some communities focus on the need for consensus before decisions are made.

The World Council of Churches has adopted a method of coming to its decisions by consensus. The 2008 Lambeth Conference moved away from the adversarial process of debate by meeting in indaba groups, where listening is more important than speaking. Churches in Germany have used the Kirchentag, a form of church congress, which every two years draws people in their thousands to engage with theological, social, and political themes through worship, discussion, and drama.

We live in a culture of shrill voices and polarised opinions. Forty years ago, the parliamentary model may have been the right vehicle to repli­cate for the synods of the People of God, but times have changed. The Church deserves an environment where listening is valued above speak­ing, and where the ultimate aim is not to demolish the argument of the other, but to take it seriously, even though one may not agree with it.

THE future is open for debate, but a possibility might be to include as one element in the system mini-Kirchentage — regular, but oc­casional, large and inspiring gather­ings where issues and theology can be aired through a variety of media, such as drama and debate, as well as liturgy.

This backdrop would provide the climate out of which a sleeker, more representative Synod can deliberate on behalf of the whole People of God. It could be based on listening, and the decision-making built on consensus.

It would never be perfect — nothing will be — but we need to find a vehicle that is in touch with the en­ergy of the Holy Spirit, the aspira­tions of the People of God, and the realities of the world.

Dr Castle is the Bishop of Tonbridge.

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