DESPITE complaints that they embodied “motherhood and apple pie” and lacked the radical bite of a Church speaking truth to power, the General Synod has agreed to proposals designed to offer a “still, small voice of calm” to the nation.
In a two-hour debate on Friday afternoon, members discussed challenges including inequality, social care, and division. A suggestion by the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, that private property was “in no way absolute” and that “we don’t ‘own’ our money” stood out in marked contrast to early suggestions that the motion he had put forward was insufficiently bold.
The motion, “After the General Election, a still small voice of calm,” was a late addition to the Synod agenda, tabled by the Archbishops. It contained several clauses, including a call upon political parties to address causes of voter apathy, and a commitment to praying for parliamentarians “that they will prioritise the common good”. It called upon all Christians to “maintain pressure” on politicians to “put the cohesion of the nation and its communities at the heart of their programmes”.
The Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, Canon Simon Butler, said that had heard many describe the motion as “motherhood and apple pie”. Canon Martin Gainsborough, professor of politics at Bristol University, was unsparing in his criticism.
“It doesn’t feel like one written by a church set on fire by the Holy Spirit,” he said. “It smacks of one written by a fearful church, fearful of saying anything substantive, of naming the issues in case they upset someone. . . If we are going to speak let’s say something substantive otherwise let’s keep silent.” Among the things to be named was “a failure of leadership by our political class” and “the systematic institutionalised mistreatment of the poor in this country”.
“We are not an adjunct to government,” he told the Synod. “We are the Church of God and we should not be afraid of calling the Government of the day out, to speak truth to power.” His proposal for an adjournment was not taken up.
Bishops defended the motion. The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, spoke of “febrile times of unprecedented challenges”. The debate was a good opportunity to “ponder” the state of the station.
“It is impossible to consider the kind of policies which should shape our future as a nation without first focussing on moral principles and virtues . . . which undergird them,” Dr Sentamu said.
His speech was, in large part, a work of political philosophy, focusing on tax and private property.
“The language of ‘tax’ implies that what we have is ‘ours’ and the state ‘takes’ from what is ours through taxation,” he said. “Tax becomes a concession from a position that makes ‘private property’ an absolute, to be compromised only as far as absolutely necessary.
“The debate about the ‘requisitioning’ of unoccupied flats in Kensington for the victims of Grenfell Tower shows how difficult it has become to make a case for the public good, even in extreme cases transcending our normal rules about private property.”
He argued that the Old Testament contained laws that “witness to a notion contrary to giving absolute status to private property: the land and its produce come from God and are for the people as a whole.”
Tax, he argued, “puts money in its place, interrupting money’s constant tendency to dominate our priorities. Our taxation system should make clear that while private property may be an efficient way of ensuring that our resources are stewarded and cared for, it is in no way absolute. We don’t ‘own’ our money; we ‘care for’ our money as part of the whole human resource or our social flourishing.”
His speech was also a condemnation of materialism. 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.”
He was critical of the Conservative Party’s manifesto proposal on paying for social care and unsuccessfully introduced a new amendment to the motion, encouraging people to pay more income tax voluntarily to help fund health, education, and social care. The majority of Synod members indicated that they would be happy to do so personally, including the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Among the following speakers was the Revd Sean Doherty, who described being part of the response to the Grenfell Tower disaster, as a priest serving the St Francis Church Mission Initiative in the shadow of the tower in north Kensington.
“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.”
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Caroline Spelman, 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, in addition to “firm commitments” to the Paris climate change agreement and international aid. She said that she had been “alarmed” by the extent of public distrust of “official information”.
“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.” Synod should be “careful not to play into this narrative”.
Amendments attempting to insert specific references to the Bible and evangelism were resisted. Clive Scowen (London) sought to urge the Church to “take every opportunity to commend to all people of England faith in Jesus Christ”. The Archdeacon of Oxford, the Ven. Martin Gorick, expressed concern that, what seemed “innocuous and lovely” might be received otherwise by those of other faiths. He warned that the words of the amendment would 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.”
Helen Lamb (Ely) reminded the Synod that the C of E included voters of many persuasions “possibly even UKIP voters,”. While she agreed that the Gospel had political implications, she urged clergy to be “responsible” in how they spoke of political convictions. “Think about whether what you express in a tweet is partisan and risks alienating some . . . Is your tone constructive or superior and point-scoring?
“Feel free to be as partisan as you like, but not on behalf of the Church that belongs to the Lord Jesus.”