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General Synod: religious communities

Autonomy to be kept in a ‘usable’ canon


THE Synod give first consideration to Draft Amending Canon No. 40, which had been drafted in response to a request from the Synod in February for the Business Committee to bring forward a new canon to provide a framework for religious life in the Church of England.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, said that he was delighted that the Church could be “seen to move quickly” on some items of legislation.

He had been called as a witness to the IICSA hearing in March, at which the proposal for the canon had been “received very well”, he said. It was “vitally important” that the idea of religious community was not over-specified on the face of this canon, he said, since religious communities could not be defined by legislative text.

Dr Walker told the Synod that the heart of the canon was the recognition of religious communities by the House of Bishops, which had delegated its oversight of religious communities to the Advisory Council, which he chairs.

The two types of accountability were regulation and guidance. There were clearly things that the House of Bishops should regulate, namely, safeguarding, financing, and vows. The Advisory Council would work in close contact with the revision committee for this canon. “Clear, canonical provision” was the clearest step to the regulation of how members of religious orders should be ordained, he finished.

Clive Scowen (London) welcomed the draft canon, and, apart from the safeguarding issues that made this canon urgent, thought that religious communities should be covered by canon law. But, as it stood, the canon was “too inflexible” for rapidly developing, small religious communities to be included.

He wondered whether a community operating under a Bishop’s Mission Order (BMO) should be included; whether the size of a community should be specified; and whether this should mean a minimum number of members. “Even traditional monastic communities are now very small,” he said.

The Archdeacon of Bournemouth, the Ven. Dr Peter Rouch (Winchester), supporting the canon, said that the Church needed to “seize the opportunity” to become more creative, and by doing so remove the need for renewal and reform.

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent (Southern Suffragans), said that there was a parallel with BMOs, which had been amended and simplified. He said that it would be “foolish” to devise a similarly “impenetrable” canon for religious communities. The legislation should be very clear in its regulation, and it should be clear who was accountable, he said. The differences between a BMO and a religious community should be designated.

The Revd Stephen Trott (Peterborough) said that it would be a difficult task to produce legislation that would address all circumstances of religious communities. He had three questions: would recognition by the consent or invitation of the community itself, or imposed by the Church. What sort of community was included? Thirdly, would the regulations would duplicate the responsibilities of the Charity Commissioners?

The Revd Tiffer Robinson (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) raised a concern that the Canon did not ask for consent from the communities themselves. It would be best written into the Canon to avoid confusion later on, he suggested. 

Ian Yemm (Bristol), in a maiden speech, said that one of the blessings of religious life was having a superior who had the responsibility of dialogue with bishops. He urged the steering committee to look at the Roman Catholic provision to see how they dealt with autonomy.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) said that Mr Scowen’s point about what constituted a religious community was important. Discipline was something that needed to be covered by the canon, he said, since some regulation might be necessary.

The direction of the motion was supported by the Revd Francis Orr-Ewing (Oxford). He urged the steering committee to make the canon usable and clear. The language surrounding the bishops had “unnecessary ambiguity”. He also said that the autonomy of religious orders should be protected.

Responding, Dr Walker said that the legislation would not cover small BMOs; no group of Christians would be “compelled” or “forced” to be acknowledged by the Church; and the minimum size would be half a dozen.

The steering committee were not proposing much that was new, he explained, and they did not want to overcomplicate the canon. Rules over discipline would be clear for religious communities: the CDM would apply for those ordained, and separate rules would apply for lay members.

The motion was carried, and the draft canon was committed to the revision committee.

Read a report of every General Synod presentation and debate from York 2018, here

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