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General Synod: Culture shift on laity has started, but will take time

12 July 2019

Madeleine Davies, Adam Becket, and Tim Wyatt report from the General Synod in York


The General Synod meets in York, in 2019

The General Synod meets in York, in 2019

A FOLLOW-UP motion to the report Setting God’s People Free (SPGF), on lay discipleship, was debated and much extended by the Synod on Tuesday morning.

Introducing the debate, Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham), the SGPF lay champion, said that there had been much debate and no little concern about: “Not another initiative! Not another programme! When will all this end? Are we really happy with the title?” The vision was about two culture shifts: encouraging and equipping lay people to live out their faith with greater confidence; and encouraging the laity and clergy to celebrate one another. Previous attempts had had limited effect.

He was delighted that there were now 33 dioceses running discipleship learning communities. Learning was being disseminated, local champions had been established, and simple interventions had been made. He cited the depiction of Christian friends in C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, and said: “This is not about clergy being set free from the laity, or laity being set free from the clergy, but about our common baptism. This will mean becoming more vulnerable and taking risks.”

He gave the assessment: “For too long, some laity have acted as consumers of religion, treating clergy as some sort of functional service-provider. Equally, some clergy see laity as only whether they are performing in church mode.” The culture shifts sought were complex and would take time. Progress was being made, but there was a danger that it led “to more people doing more churchy things”. He welcomed all the amendments.

Dr John Mason (Chester) described how, returning to the “winter of discontent” (1978-79), the Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, had effectively asked, “Crisis, what crisis?” He had failed to understand the severity of the situation, or that something drastic needed to be done, and he had paid the political price for apathy. Being part of the SGPF learning community in Chester had been a very positive experience, and lots of good work was under way. But “we were challenged to remember that SGPF is not a programme about doing: it is about culture change, and that is hard, very hard. Progress will not even start unless there is sense of urgency that the current position is unacceptable.”

The Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, spoke about “getting things in the right order”. The work of the Ministry Council was being realigned “to start with the whole people of God as the foundation, and then ask ministry questions that flow from that”. A similar reorientation would appear in a forthcoming paper on theological education. In his diocese, he had learned that “this is a big vision and lots of small steps.”

Hannah Grivell (Derby) agreed that urgency was required, but was disappointed that this debate had been scheduled for the Tuesday morning. Some members had already had to leave to get back to work. In Derby diocese, many courses or meetings were held during the day or week when she was at work. “If, Synod, your desire is for more people in work to come to church and fully partake, the culture change starts with you. Please put things on in the weekends and evenings.”

The Worldwide President of the Mothers’ Union (MU), Sheran Harper (Communion Guest), said that she had the strong feeling that at the heart of SGPF was “the call for God’s people to serve in unity and cause the transformation that is so much needed in society today”. The MU equipped people with “passion and confidence” to engage as disciples of Jesus in their local communities. “Like you, we recommend it be done seven days a week. . . When clergy are supportive of lay people, when clergy help to champion lay people and build their confidence, our work flourishes.”

Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) began by signing and paid tribute to what Sarah Tupling of Deaf Anglicans had taught her about inclusion. She moved her amendment, which emphasised that “all can and should play a full part in living out the Good News regardless of their race, class, sexuality, or physical ability”. It was important to remember that “all means all always . . . There are no exceptions, no caveats, no second-class citizens in this report.”

Some might wonder why she had bothered to introduce this amendment. But the aspiration of the report was “not the actual practice in so many of our worshipping communities: rules and exception clauses have been created to create a second-tier system where some are in and some are not. We may all be equal before God, but we are not all equal before one another.”

She knew far too many people who had been told that they could not become disciples or use their gifts, including LGBT people “treated appallingly”. Some had been told that they could not even make coffee, and were “only fit to clean the toilets”. People with disabilities were “hampered from living out their callings because of the limitations we have placed on them”, she said. “So many of our churches have such inbuilt levels of unconscious bias they do not see how they exclude people on the margins. We, Christ’s body, are all the poorer for it.”

April Alexander (Southwark) moved her amendment, which simply added the word “gender” to Ms Ozanne’s, which had been omitted by mistake, she said.

The amendment was amended

Caroline Herbert (Norwich) welcomed the whole motion and the amendments, which reminded them that all the People of God had a part to play in living out the Good News. She noted the previous day’s Bible study from 1 Peter. “What we have in Setting God’s People Free is not original. Peter got there first. If we pass this motion, we can say, ‘We agree with Pete.’”

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) supported the spirit behind the amendment, but regretted the effort to name particular groups and emphasise what divided the Church rather than what united it. She did not want to be “facetious”, but why not include weight, height, attractiveness, age, or mental ability, she asked. “God doesn’t see us in terms of our race, class, or physical ability. He sees us as individuals.”

The Revd Henry Curran (Southwell & Nottingham) backed the amendment, particularly the use of the word “should”, which was stronger. “It is important it is made explicit. The words ‘all God’s people’ include people regardless of their sexuality and gender,” he said. Although he was a conservative Evangelical and opposed same-sex marriage, he said that it was vital that those, including his director of music, who were “same-sex attracted”, knew that they were vital to the ministry of the gospel and played their full part in the living out of the Good News.

The amended amendment was carried.

Alison Coulter (Winchester) offered a “friendly” amendment focused on the second cultural shift called for in the original report: to greater mutuality between clergy and lay people, for the “health and wellbeing of our Church life and witness”. “It’s not about the laity getting on with it, but how we do this better together.”

Dr Harrison accepted the amendment, and it was carried.

Nigel Bacon (Lincoln) said that he applauded the motion which was aligned with the agenda already under way in Lincoln diocese. The challenge was to “pick up the pace” of that cultural change, he said, and not allow the Church to get distracted and lose focus. The objectives of Setting God’s People Free were too important to risk failure; so his amendment asked the Archbishops’ Council to make a commitment to it as a strategic priority for the next quinquennium.

Dr Harrison accepted the amendment and it was carried.

Shayne Ardron (Leicester) asked the Synod whether they were working for God’s Kingdom to come, or for the Church to come. Her amendment would add a clause encouraging further work to broaden understanding of the Kingdom in people’s daily lives.

Dr Harrison accepted the amendment, and it was carried.

Canon Ruth Newton (Leeds) noted that much of Setting God’s People Free overlapped with recommendations from an earlier 2015 report, Released For Mission, on growth in the rural Church. “Where the rural Church leads, the rest of the Church seems to be following,” she said.

Lay ministry in the countryside sometimes seemed to be about keeping the show on the road, she admitted, maintaining buildings and trying to put on Sunday services without many priests. But lay people were also “conspicuous Christians” in their communities each day, and active in social engagement. She hoped that the recommendations in Released For Mission would be subsumed into the SGPF agenda.

The Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd David Ison (London), said that cathedrals had an important part to play in this discussion. They had thousands of volunteers and lay staff members engaged in mission. His own cathedral had just appointed Dr Paula Gooder as a stipendiary Reader who was acting as a de facto residentiary canon. He asked whether the rules could be changed so lay people could become part of a cathedral Chapter in this way.

Jenny Humphreys (Bath & Wells) endorsed both the main motion and the amendments.

The Revd Mark Murthen (London) said that there was much that was exciting in the report, including national portals, digital portfolios, diocesan learning communities, and pilot schemes. But it was vital not to lose sight of the wood for the trees, and to keep the “the main thing” in view. The deepest problem — “our cold hearts” — would not be solved by techniques and programmes, but by God’s grace and the “fire of the gospel”.

The Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Pete Wilcox, said that culture change was “notoriously difficult to engineer”, but it was clear that, just two years on, SGPF was making a huge impact. The report properly identified the changes it wanted and how these would be implemented, and it was no coincidence that the working group which produced it was almost entirely lay. The inter-diocesan learning communities were particularly valuable, Bishop Wilcox said.

Adrian Greenwood (Southwark) said that the second culture shift sought by SGPF was just as vital as the first: full mutuality between the clergy and laity. “This is about the whole of God’s people involved in the whole of God’s mission throughout the whole of God’s world.” Everyone, especially ministers, should not tame, but liberate, others in the service of the mission of God, he urged.

Dr Harrison, responding to the debate, thanked the Synod for engaging in “constructive challenge rather than death by anecdote”.

The motion as amended was clearly carried.


That this Synod

(a) note the progress made in implementing the recommendations of the report Setting God’s People Free (GS 2056);

(b) affirm the importance of work undertaken in dioceses and across the NCIs to enable the whole people of God to live out the Good News of Jesus confidently in all of life, Sunday to Saturday;

(c) affirm the importance of the laity within the whole people of God and emphasise all can and should play a full part in living out the Good News regardless of their race, class, gender, sexuality or physical ability;

(d) call on the Archbishops’ Council, the House of Bishops, and the dioceses to drive forward the changes in culture the Report demands, especially in the area of lay and clergy mutuality and relationships;

(e) encourage further work to explore and broaden our understanding of God’s kingdom in our daily lives to enable and embed the desired culture mentioned in this report; and

(f) call on the Archbishops’ Council to maintain focus on this as a strategic priority throughout the next quinqennium.

Read full coverage of the General Synod here

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