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Sketch: informal Synod kept strictly to time in first Zoom meeting

17 July 2020

Pat Ashworth watches as speakers are told they will be cut off if they ‘go on and on’

THERE was a girding up of loins and a gritting of teeth as General Synod members tried very hard on Saturday not to show how much they would have preferred to be in York for four days, basking with their morning coffee on the steps by the lake. Ah, those golden days of yore, when few members had even heard of Zoom.

‘Peace be with you, thanks to the mute button’

Opening worship online served even more to remind them of what they had lost. The Canon Precentor of Ripon and chaplain to the Synod, the Revd Michael Gisbourne, struck a lonely figure in a silent and empty Ripon Cathedral, minus its music.

A pristine Room 3 at Church House, Westminster, was the control centre of the online operation: something akin to a school classroom in the holidays when the noticeboards have been stripped and the chairs put on the desks.

The power to mute and unmute contributors lay here with the platform party, and a power it proved to be. Canon Sue Booys, of the Business Committee, speaking from a tent-like structure draped with tartan and gently rippled by breeze and sunshine, made no bones from the start about any likely indulgence. “You will all be muted. If you go on and on and on, you will be cut off.”

And they were. The day belonged to the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, who chaired two long Question Time sessions. At 131, the number of questions submitted was, yes, unprecedented. Written answers had been circulated three days earlier, and supplementary questions had been tabled for a verbal answer; but there was also licence to submit further untabled supplementaries, and contributors needed to “raise a blue hand” to ask one.

The Dean acknowledged that he would be seeing these in his sleep; but the hands never appeared on the screen; so onlookers could only imagine this waving forest of blue.

He was every inch a headmaster. No-shows — “Angus, are you there?” — were ticked off on the class register after a moment when he tapped his fingers on the desk in front of him and twirled his pen between them. You could imagine the latecomers who couldn’t get on to Zoom rushing into the classroom to wheel out the excuses: “Sorry, Sir. Lost my PPE bag.”

Dress code in York is customarily relaxed. Here, it was non-existent. Some of the bishops and clergy did actually appear in clerical dress; lay people sported everything from jacket and tie to jeans and polo shirts.

Backgrounds were the thing. The sight of Canon Rosie Harper in an Alpine valley was a breath of fresh air after a succession of dark interiors. The ubiquitous Sam Margrave bobbed up with supplementary after supplementary on a variety of themes, appearing one minute from his wing chair, the next from a ruined castle or a college chapel.

There was a touch of Rousseau about the ferns and mossy rock of the Bishop of Penrith’s garden. And how many others, I wonder, idly turned to Google Translate to find that the colourful sign on the Bishop of Durham’s wall proclaiming “Imana Ni Urukundo” turned out to mean “God is love”.

When the secretary-general to the Synod, William Nye, appeared against a familiar background of the Synod meeting in the Assembly Hall at Church House, it was a painful reminder of just how abnormal it was to be doing this online.

The questions, as ever, were wide-ranging, from the closure of churches (a long, sometimes weary, sometimes spirited, defence from Archbishop Welby to a barrage of critical questions) to safeguarding.

There were many questions on the likely constitution of the Archbishop of York’s new task force. What criteria were to be used? Would profiles of every member be made available? The Archbishop was firm: there would be a bias towards the young, for which he made no apology; and a really strong BAME representation.

And that need was evident. Looking at individual members on screen rather than physically en masse served only to highlight the demographic of the present Synod. There was a wearying preponderance of male speakers in the later stages of life, and a dearth of BAME faces: when a BAME member, the Revd Dr Anderson Jeremiah, who is from Tamil Nadu in South India, spoke, Archbishop Cottrell told him fervently: “I have learned so much from you.”

There were light-hearted moments. Dean Nunn’s question: “Can somebody unmute the Archbishop of Canterbury?” brought a swift response from Archbishop Welby: “People have been trying to do that a lot in the last few weeks.”

Cut and thrust was inevitably absent, and it was tantalising not to see reactions and stirrings. It wasn’t a seamless operation, and there were technical glitches from time to time, but Church House deserves commendation for the way in which a complex process was managed over a six-hour period.

Canon Gisbourne managed to sum up at the end: “Singing our song of faith to a different tune.”

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