“THERE seem to be some people here who think legislation happens hurriedly in the Church of England,” observed Penny Allen, a lay member from Lichfield, at General Synod’s meeting in York last week. “I have no idea why this opinion exists.”
As if to prove her correct, members went on to vote for a more measured pace in the move towards legislating for the interchangeability of ministers with the Methodist Church. They had perhaps heard the earlier admonition of the Archbishop of York, who took the opportunity of his last presidential address to decry “a Church which has got used to jumping to conclusions quickly, driven by the need for a crisp sound-bite, a Church no longer capable of pursuing a question patiently and in hope”.
The Methodist debate revealed the breadth of the Synod’s understanding of ecclesiology. One member, the Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone, asserted that Bishops were not “essential” for the Church.
A statement from the Methodist Church welcomed the vote. Ruth Gee, Assistant Secretary of the Methodist Conference, and connexional ecumenical officer, commented: “Though we had hoped that the Synod would be willing to move to legislation, we understand the reasons why some members of the Synod felt it important to give this vital matter more consideration.”
Last weekend’s Synod sessions took place against the backdrop of further hearings at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). Members gave a standing ovation to Phil Johnson, a survivor of abuse by Peter Ball, who suggested that, “it would be nice if the Church spent as much on supporting survivors as it does on lawyers”.
At the beginning of the group of sessions, several members challenged the Archbishops’ rejection of a request for a safeguarding debate, as opposed to a presentation and questions. A request for the Bishops to “speak from their hearts” prompted the Archbishop of Canterbury to report that every case of safeguarding failure was “a knife in our soul”. There were “many” survivors of abuse among the bishops, he said. His concern was not to pre-empt the IICSA process.
Andrew Graystone, a Christian communications adviser who works with survivors, spent the Synod outside the chamber fasting.
He said on Wednesday: “At the moment what we have in the Church is one bishop or adviser after another saying: ‘I think I have got a better idea of how to fix this.’ What we need to do is say: ‘God, we are in a mess. Help us.’”
The Synod needed to “discuss the nature of sin and failure and what it takes to restore lives that have been broken.” But he had been encouraged by conversations with members, including bishops.
A debate on what might have appeared to be an uncontroversial piece of legislative tidying-up revealed “the inevitable contradictions that now exist between the law of the land and the law of the Church”, the Revd Neil Patterson observed.
The flare-up related to the definition of “spouse” in legislation concerning the consultation of relatives before building could take place on a disused cathedral burial ground. Although he held a conservative view on the Church’s teaching on marriage, Prebendary Simon Cawdell warned: “This is not a moment to be earning Pharisee points.”
Synod members were told again by the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, who chairs the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) project, that members looking for (as one put it) “a conclusion about where we stand as a Church” were destined to be disappointed.
“The pain is being shared around,” reported Dr Eeva John, who is facilitating the work. “We are involved in a process of doing things in a new way, a way that requires hope and holds out a promise, were it to be fulfilled, that would speak powerfully to a nation that seems to be gorging on polarisation and division.”
Standing orders were once again suspended to enable members to engage in LLF seminars and workshops. The Revd Andy Lightbown, Rector of Winslow, summed them up on Wednesday as “necessary, interesting, and a little bit irritating.
”I understand that the materials are designed to lead to a further period of reflection; but there is, for me, a real sense of ‘How long, O Lord, must we wait?’ I think that the Bishops do need to be more open, and perhaps courageous, in pointing towards a future direction of travel; ruling out that which is in all probability unlikely or impossible, but ruling in that which may be possible.”
Canon Rosemarie Mallett, who introduced the debate on serious youth violence, spoke of 12 years in her parish “bookended and punctuated by deaths of young people, their lives steeped in tragedy before ending tragically”. Angela Scott (Rochester), in a speech on Anna Chaplaincy, challenged a culture in which fear of dementia left people isolated and lonely. She had once found her mother sobbing, still able to articulate fear of not knowing who she was or what was happening.
Many speakers stood to praise Fresh Expressions in a debate marking 15 years since Mission-shaped Church. It was “the single most significant development in the Church in this country for decades”, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, suggested. But the “false paradox” of a binary between the parish and Fresh Expressions was challenged.
In the wake of announcements about grants from the centre, there were reminders that parish and diocesan finances are under strain. The chair of the Archbishops’ Council finance committee, John Spence, said that many parishes were drawing on reserves to pay their parish share, and that planned givers were down by 16 per cent.
“It’s no good having three new youth workers funded by SDF [the Strategic Development Fund] in a diocese if three of their parishes have had to cut down and make redundant their own youth workers,” Keith Cawdron of Liverpool diocese complained. “That is not progress. We need and honest and fuller picture of what is happening in our dioceses and parishes.”
Read full coverage of the General Synod here