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Synod: Amendments fall as Synod uses its ‘still, small voice’

14 July 2017


“Confidence in our position in this country”: the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, in discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury

“Confidence in our position in this country”: the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, in discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury

A NEW values-based politics should be developed to restore faith in politics and politicians, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said as he opened the debate that had been tabled by the two Archbishops on the opening afternoon of Synod. The motion, “After the General Election, a still small voice of calm,” was a late addition to the Synod agenda.

“The Christian vision is of a world in which we are created for fellowship and mutual responsibility rather than for individualism and consumerism,” Dr Sentamu said. “A world in which the principal aim of policy is to enhance the well-being — that is, the personal and communal flourishing — of all in society.”

He said that the 2008 financial collapse “taught us that we had become obsessed with money. People were borrowing money that they didn’t have, to buy things that they didn’t need, to achieve happiness that wouldn’t last.

“We must learn from our present political and economic challenges to think less about the price of things and more about the value of things. There will be many lessons to learn from the fire in Grenfell Tower, but we are already aware that false economies can lead to human tragedy.”

He said that the promotion of well-being required the development of “systems and policies which provide for people according to their need in order to release their talents in turn for the common profit of us all”.

He decried the language of “welfare benefits” and suggested that it should be called, instead, “social insurance”, which underlined that the focus was about both “need” and that “we are all in this together.”

The Archbishop said that much of the public debate was between those who argued for a reduction in spending, and those who argued for an increase in taxation. The proposed solutions “pit one section of society to provide the funds”, he said, as he argued for both options. “Surely the nature of communal action is that it is precisely action taken together.”

He asked for a show of hands to indicate how many members of the Synod “would be prepared to top up freely our income tax from our net monthly take-home pay for education, health, and social care”. The majority of Synod members indicated that they would.

“We are among the 48 per cent who, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, wanted higher taxes to pay for more spending on those three areas of the social good.”

He concluded with his call for “a new, values-based politics” that reflected four core principles: the recognition of the equal value of all in society; a commitment to offering everyone the opportunity to flourish; the appreciation of essential human inter-relatedness; and the acceptance by people of responsibility towards themselves as well as towards others.

This would enable society to “regain faith in politics and in politicians, to sustain hope for justice, and to fashion policies which deliver the common good”, he said.

“Faith, hope, and charity — these are the three anchors which hold fast the ship of the mind amidst the dangers of the waves, and, I may add, the Ship of State as well. After the General Election, this is a still small voice of calm.”

The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Caroline Spelman MP, said that it was difficult to be an elected representative, “in an era of global instability”. Any party in government would seek “what was good and right for the people in its care”. She suggested that some of the Government’s policies should be welcomed by the Church, including work on tenants’ rights, domestic violence, patient safety, and mental health, as well as “firm commitments” to the Paris climate-change agreement and international aid.

The key priority had to be establishing a new relationship with the EU, and she would work with the Bishop of Leeds and the Bishop in Europe “to impress on our ministerial colleagues the concerns of churches and congregations who remain within the EU”.

Recent tragedies had shown “the need to focus on what unites rather than divides us”. She had been “alarmed to see how wide is the public distrust of official information, simple facts, and our institutions. Facts seem to count less than a good story, and the press is only too delighted to write of a Church at war with the state or itself, and be careful not to play into this narrative.”

She requested that the Synod “consider carefully how debates are heard both in the wider Church and country. If we are to move forward, we need to speak about how our politicians and institutions can work together for the common good, and lead by example.”

She asked the Church to “be brave and look outside itself at our communities, and take lead in promoting that calm”, and for every parish to “play a practical part in public life, helping to heal inter-generational inequality and support fellow faith communities to tackle extremism”.

The Church could play a “key role in areas where political constraints have often thwarted progress” including social care, education and social housing.

Debbie Buggs (London) said that recent events had been a reminder of the importance of good leadership. Without it, people were “defenceless, insecure, and vulnerable”. She suggested that “even though we don’t live in a theocracy, we need a ruler who, like Solomon, humbly recognises that he or she cannot rule rightly without the help of God, and who therefore earnestly prayed to God for wisdom.” Christians should pray for those in power, and she welcomed the reminder from the Archbishops to do so.

The Revd Professor Martin Gainsborough (Bristol) spoke as a professor of politics as well as a priest. He was “rather underwhelmed” by the motion. “It doesn’t feel like one written by a Church set on fire by the Holy Spirit. Rather, for me, it smacks of one written by a fearful Church, fearful of saying anything substantive, of naming the issues, in case they upset someone. It is not one that makes me particularly proud to be a member of the C of E. If we are going to speak, let’s say something substantive; otherwise, let’s keep silent.”

He was worried that the current motion “just makes us look a bit silly and will just be ignored”. For example, clause (c) proposed praying for courage for political leaders; “but what we have is a failure of leadership by our political class. Let’s be a Church that names these things.”

The Institute of Fiscal Studies had got it “absolutely right when they said during the election campaign that neither Labour nor Conservatives were being honest with the public about the spending implications of their manifestos”.

There were “so many other areas where we are not having a grown-up, non-partisan debate about the issues”. Examples were life outside the EU and the global refugee crisis, and also the “systematic institutionalised mistreatment of the poor in this country”. He referred to Grenfell Tower, but also “how successive governments have approached welfare reform. . . What kind of society do we want to live in? Let’s tell people.”

He suggested that the Synod could decide that the motion be not put.

St Paul had said that you must pay everything that you owed, Dr Nicholas Land (York) said. A week after attending diocesan synod, he attended a lunch in honour of Jo Cox. Many MPs felt threatened in their work, he said, and were paying a high price. He urged the Synod to think of good stories to tell of their MPs, the NHS, and education, to create a clear, truthful, and honest discussion, for the kind of “high-quality” society that the Synod would want to live in.

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, agreed that these were “febrile times of unprecedented challenges”, and that the debate was a good opportunity to “ponder” the state of the nation. But the Synod should not dwell on its good doings, he warned. For the first time in centuries, the Church would no longer be at the heart of the political identity of the country.

Electorally, the Church must realise that the country was divided much more by education and geography than class. A party with a strong majority would mask some of the difficulties society faced, he suggested; so perhaps a hung Parliament was a good balance of power.

Southwark was possibly one of the most diverse dioceses of economic and cultural vibrancy. Its cathedral had closed in the wake of terror attacks, throwing politics into sharp relief. The Church had shown the ability to respond rapidly, and had gained the trust of the community, which had been humbling, he said. Its response was also in close partnership with other faith leaders. But there was also a need for social and political theology, which should be signposts for the Church’s actions. He supported the motion as as written, and even as amended.

Ian Yemm (Bristol), raising a point of order, said that Canon Gainsborough had suggested that the motion might not be put forward at all. Was there a provision to effect this?

There were a number of procedural motions, and it was not up to the chair to advise, he was told.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) proposed an adjournment. He had watched and listened to conversations surrounding this motion, and many had said that it was motherhood and apple pie. Given the amount of interest and response to Professor Gainsborough’s point, it was worth attending to, he said.

Dr Sentamu said that the Church dealt with the specifics when it had done the study. There was a time to deal with general principles, and this was it. He resisted the adjournment.

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent (Southern Suffragans and Acting Bishop of London), said that the Synod had got into a mess over how to respond to the questions before it. The contributions of the Church, historically, had had both great detail and prescription, and the motion did not try to project into the public debate.

This was an opportunity for the Synod to say that politics was not in a good place, he said. The Church’s place was to engage, and this motion helped with that. The amendments were not particularly worth while, and were too prescriptive. The Church needed to give a useful offering on how the country could move forward.

Martin Kingston (Gloucester) was tempted to ask how the Synod thought it would look if the C of E adjourned a debate about its vision for the nation. “What will the headlines say?” he despaired. The Church should be heard, and passionately. “Do not adjourn our care for the nation,” he warned. “Let the nation know that we care.”

The Revd Neil Patterson (Hereford) supported the motion to adjourn. The motion was open to interpretation in the headlines.

The procedural motion was lost.

David Lamming (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) said that the main motion was “bland” as it stood. He referred to a letter in the Church Times which said the motion was “platitudinous”. Paragraph (a) committed the Church to giving thanks at the electoral turnout, but if this was to be meaningful, he suggested that a positive and specific amendment be put forward, hence his suggestion to lower the voting age to 16.

The system was unfair, he said, since not all votes had the same weight. The single transferrable system was not new in the UK: it was used in Northern Ireland and Malta, and would change the seats won dramatically. The UK was no longer a two-party state, since there had been two hung Parliaments in the past seven years. “Surely, it would be better if the Government was truly represented by the votes across the country.”

The Synod used this very system, and could use its experience to inform the nation, he suggested. The Church has led the way previously, and, since 2004, a person had been eligible to be elected to the diocesan synod and General Synod from the age of 16 or upwards. “What is good for the Church is good for the country as a whole,” he concluded.

Dr Sentamu said that he did not realise that his motion was to become a “prickly Christmas tree” on which baubles were being hung. He urged the Synod to reject amendments. “I want to have a vision that the Church can use and speak,” he said.

Penny Allen (Lichfield) said that the reason for voter apathy was not the lack of STV, but that people were “disillusioned, dispirited, and disquieted about various national concerns, including Brexit and the entire political process; and their confidence in politicians is at a very low ebb”. She spoke as a local independent politician. The amendment was “irrelevant, political, and perverse”.

Andrea Minichiello Williams (Chichester) moved her first amendment, which defined the common good as that “revealed in the Bible and taught by the Church”, quoted from the Coronation Oath. She spoke of the 1967 abortion ruling, which meant that millions of vulnerable citizens had not been protected, and to the “sexual revolution”, which had led to “not freedom, but slavery”, and to examples of Christians taken to court or taken off training courses. She called on the Synod to “put the gospel at the heart of our message to the nation”.

Dr Sentamu, resisting the amendment, argued that it “restricts the language of the common good to the Bible. Many traditions have a concept of the Common Good.”

John Spence (Archbishops’ Council) spoke as a cabinet member of Essex County Council, and described the challenges of funding social care. “I won’t be able to find that solution, and will be looking to the community — and the only organisation that is in every community of my county is the C of E.”

He argued that “this debate should not be about words or this word or that: it should be about a statement of intent which says, in this motion, we tell you, Government, that you cannot do without us; that the power of the gospel as personified in the C of E is that which you will require, to tackle the major issues facing us.”

The Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes (Durham) wanted to resist the amendment, because it “misunderstood” the theological heritage of the C of E. The principle of national law was fundamental to the debates of the 15th and 16th centuries, she said. “It is written into the very fabric of the world, which the original motion acknowledges.”

An impetus to help in times of trouble was not limited to Christians, she said. Practically, the amendment would make the motion “much more easily ignored” in the wider world.

The Revd Mark Lucas (Peterborough) said that he was increasingly aware that the constitution of the nation was being “hollowed out”, and that it was becoming increasingly difficult to be a Christian, as had been shown with the resignation of the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron. “It should be a Christian country,” he said. He supported the amendment.

The amendment was lost.

Moving his amendment seeking a fresh UK referendum for Scotland, Canon Jonathan Alderton-Ford (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) said that there was “not a drop” of Scottish blood in his veins. His speech had been made for him by the Synod, because it had forgotten Scotland. Scotland had voted to remain in the EU, and England had voted to leave.

“There is a deep wound in our Union which is the elephant in the room; so how can we dictate to the nation?” he asked. The Church had not always been bland, he said, and pointed to a report two years ago, Who Is My Neighbour? “We forget them too often.” He knew that the amendment would be voted down, but if he was assured by the panel that the whole nation would be considered, he would happily withdraw it.

Dr Sentamu said that the motion was interesting but “not our business”.

Dr John Appleby (Newcastle) said that he had been a serial failure as a parliamentary candidate, but that he had bothered to continue because he wanted to ask the right questions, and express differing views. The Church needed to urge calm in the situation. MPs wished to do the best for the public, and that respect needed to be restored, he said. MPs should calm down, and stop scoring points on Brexit and social care, which, he said, could not be sorted out in five years.

Anne Martin (Guildford) said that the Synod was straying into political ground. Scotland had no appetite for this sort of motion, and most people had mixed heritage across Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England, including herself. She was also moving from Surrey to Edinburgh imminently.

The Revd Amanda Fairclough (Liverpool) was moving to Glencoe in the West Highlands, and would be joining the Scottish Episcopal Church. She agreed with the Archbishop that “it isn’t our business.” The only person in the room concerned was Bishop John Armes. Should the Scottish Episcopal Church decide to come up with a view on the state of the nation, then the C of E should continue to support it, as it should as an Anglican Communion partner on all issues.

The amendment was lost.

Dr Sentamu sought to amend the motion with the words: “Invite our co-dwellers in the United Kingdom of their own free will to top up their income tax from their net monthly pay to supplement public expenditure on education, health and social care, and request HMRC to consult all taxpayers on whether they would be willing to do this.”

Enid Barron (London) said that she had spotted a flaw. Although she would be happy to put money into these items, it was not possible to hypothecate. She didn’t want her tax money spent on bombs or leaving Europe.

Dr Christopher Angus (Carlisle) argued that the cost of HMRC’s changing its systems accordingly would be “magnitudes greater than whatever might be raised”.

Gavin Oldham (Oxford) supported it because it was close to a policy close to his heart: people paying for universal benefits that they used if they were able to afford them. He was happy to pay for his bus pass, for example. Sajid Javid had told him that it would be “electoral suicide”. But he suggested that it could be very effective.

Brian Wilson (Southwark) argued that the amendment was unnecessary: “People give voluntarily from their own generosity without a motion from the C of E to do so.” He returned benefits that he received to various charitable causes.

The amendment was lost.

Mrs Minichiello Williams moved her second amendment, urging the Government to reduce the gap between rich and poor in the UK, safeguard the sanctity of the human person from conception to natural death, promote marriage and the family “as understood by the canons of the Church of England”, and maintain and promote “the fundamental freedom of biblical based speech and the manifestation of the Christian faith”.

The Revd Professor Mark Chapman (Oxford) spoke in favour of the first clause, on the gap between rich and poor, which was “at the heart of the Christian gospel”.

The amendment was lost.

Clive Scowen (London) moved his amendment, which urged “all bishops, clergy, and lay people at this time of anxiety and uncertainty to take every opportunity to commend to all the people of England faith in Jesus Christ, who is King of kings, the Prince of Peace, and the Hope of every nation.”

He rejoiced that the Church had two Archbishops committed to evangelism. The amendment sought to align the Synod with that passion.

He referred to the 17th and 18th century and how the gospel had transformed the nation, bringing about social reforms. All of the elements of the motion were important, but the heart of the Church’s mission and vision for the nation must always be Jesus, he said.

Dr Sentamu said that it was hard to argue with the amendment but that it belonged elsewhere.

He asked Mr Scowen to consider the person who arrived from Uganda, arrived at the gates, and went through “something to declare” and said “Jesus is the son of God.” The authorities at the desk were interested in the contents of his suitcase.

Susie Leafe (Truro) said that her heart was warmed by this story. “There is a real joy there.” She described how Primates gathered in the country had told he they had led a barman to Christ. “Please can we not be English about this. The world has a great and deep need to hear the gospel. Please can we take every opportunity to commend to people the joy of knowing Christ.”

Helen Lamb (Ely) detected “pretentions of moral superiority” in contemporary politics where people were tarred in various ways. Yet churches must surely contain voters of many persuasions, “possibly even UKIP voters, too”.

While she never liked describing the C of E as the Tory Party at prayer, she did not want it to be known as the Labour Party moral action group, either. “Our support for any political philosophy will always be tempered by the fact that most of all we need a lord and saviour.”

She said: “Jesus is at the core of everything we do. Feel free to be as partisan as you like, but not on behalf of the Church that belongs to the Lord Jesus.”

The Archdeacon of Oxford, the Ven. Martin Gorick (Oxford), spoke of living in a house built on the foundations of a synagogue where Jewish people had undergone “terrible persecution” at the hands of Christians, including being required to hear Christian conversion preaching week after week. They had eventually been driven out of the country altogether. What seemed like an “innocuous and lovely” amendment might be received otherwise by Jewish people.

The text of the Scowen amendment would also encourage British First Christian Patrols that paraded crosses through Muslim areas. “I love the Lord Jesus, but I love all people, and the motion needs to speak of the common good of all.”

The amendment was lost.

When the debate resumed on the substantive motion, the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, spoke of the pressure facing MPs after a General Election with such a narrow majority.

“The pressure on MPs of all parties to be available for voting in the House will inevitably limit their time and effort for constituency work and the range of other engagements through which they both contribute to wider society and are informed by its needs and concerns,” he said.

“The danger is that Parliament becomes increasingly focused on the processes of winning or losing a vote. If MPs are not allowed to be fully attentive to the needs and experience of those they serve, they run the risk of destabilising the checks and balances that make for the ordering of a healthy society.”

The Revd Dr Sean Doherty (London) a priest serving in north Kensington, described how, three nights after the General Election, he had been woken at night by the sound of sirens. He had looked out of the window and seen “the horrific sight of Grenfell Tower covered in flames”.

“The tower is 250 yards from my house. I put on my dog collar . . . and went to see what I could do. I got the privilege of waking up the Vicar and explaining to him what was going on.

“This is why we can be an example: we are there. I wasn’t first on the scene because I am some slick professional or a whizzy Alpha vicar, as Giles Fraser put it a few days later, but because I live there. And so does the Vicar, the parish priest.

“And, secondly, we can be an example because we have visibility in that place. We have got our collars on. We opened the building; and people started coming in.

“In the Church of England, we know what to do in a crisis: we put the urn on; we make tea. It was a simple sense of humanity. It was simple things, like firefighters coming in to use the loo. I saw one firefighter kneeling to pray briefly before going back out into the fray. . .

“Most of us, thankfully, aren’t called to the level of tragedy; but we are ‘there’ too, and so we can be an example.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that Dr Doherty’s speech had “summed up much of what he wanted to say”. He had visited the scene on the day of the fire, and described the response of the Church, working with other community groups, as “very, very beautiful indeed”.

“We also do the same thing in so many ways in less dramatic times: in our schools, a vision for education which is deeply Christian; serving the common good in Near Neighbours; in every chaplaincy and parish.

“This motion calls us to be confident in that; so we are confident in who we are under God and we are confident in what we say. That is why I hope we will support this motion overwhelmingly. It speaks to our confidence in our position in this country.”

In his response to the debate, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that rejecting Mr Scowen’s amendment should not be seen as rejecting that the principle “Jesus is the Lord of everything else.”

The unamended motion was carried overwhelmingly. It read:


That this Synod, mindful that the recent General Election has left many questions unanswered about the shape and priorities of our government at a critical time in the nation’s history:

(a) give thanks, nonetheless, for the increased turnout and call upon all parties to build on this by addressing the causes of voter apathy and non-participation;

(b) pray for all those elected to Parliament that they will prioritise the common good of all people in everything they do, especially in negotiations between parties to secure support for a legislative programme;

(c) pray for courage, for our political leaders as they face the constraints and opportunities of uncertainty and weakness, and for the people of the nation as they too face unprecedented questions about the future;

(d) call upon Christians everywhere to maintain pressure on politicians of all parties to put the cohesion of the nation and its communities at the heart of their programmes;

(e) commend the continuing work of the churches serving the poor and vulnerable, at home and worldwide, as an example of the priorities which we hope to see in the programmes of government; and

(f) commit the Church of England to maintaining strong and generous international relations, through our dioceses, the Anglican Communion and ecumenical links, as relationships within the United Kingdom, across Europe and worldwide face new tensions and challenges.

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