A SPECIAL one-day session of the General Synod has successfully changed its rules to permit the C of E’s governing body to meet remotely during the pandemic.
Wearing face masks and keeping socially distanced, a skeleton Synod gathered at Church House, Westminster, on Thursday, with a single item of the agenda: a new Measure that would create an exception to the constitution and allow remote meetings in the future.
Over just a few hours, the 103 bishops, clergy, and laity pushed the legislation through its introduction, revision, and final-approval stages in quick succession, paving the way for a normal full-strength, multi-day meeting of the Synod in November — all taking place online.
The Thursday gathering began with a shared presidential address by the two Archbishops.
Geoffrey Tattersall QC (Manchester), chair of the steering committee, then rose to move that the sole item of business — the Measure to create new temporary standing orders — be considered in full Synod.
The constitution of the Synod requires members to be present in the same place when they vote, but that was currently impossible given the 500-strong size of the Synod, he explained. Because the Government had not found any parliamentary time to legislate to allow the Church to enact its business remotely, the Synod had to do it itself by Measure. This will have to then go through Parliament to be approved, and ultimately receive Royal Assent. If the Measure did not receive final approval during the course of the day, the Synod could not meet again until the end of all social-distancing restrictions, he warned sternly.
Many Synod members spoke to endorse the Measure. Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham), who chairs the House of Laity, said that the choice before the Synod was simple: pass the Measure or “go into hibernation”.
The Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Mark Tanner, welcomed the changes to the rules, noting how meeting online would improve access for the disabled and reduce the environmental footprint of Synod sessions.
But others expressed caution and concern: Peter Bruinvels (Guildford) bemoaned how impersonal Zoom was, and asked why the Synod could not ape the House of Commons’ hybrid model, with some members physically present and others joining via the internet.
But Canon Jonathan Alderton-Ford (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) hailed how the Church had risen to a unique challenge with flexibility. “We are showing ourselves not to be the woolly, old fossils some people think of us as being.”
The Measure was put to the vote and carried easily.
AT THE revision stage, a number of amendments were proposed, starting with one by the Revd Paul Benfield (Blackburn) which would only allow the officers of the Synod (the two Archbishops plus the chairs and vice-chairs of the Houses of Clergy and Laity) to make standing orders once under the new Measure. Any further amending or extending of the orders thereafter could only be done by the Synod.
This amendment was quickly voted through, which led to a more substantial debate on an amendment proposed by Philip French (Rochester). His changes would strip out a prohibition in the Measure on debating so-called Article 7 business during any remote Synod meeting.
Article 7 business includes anything related to doctrine, services, or the sacraments, which was not uncommon or necessarily controversial, he said: nine items had come up as Article 7 business since 2015.
The pandemic might throw up any number of issues which needed to be taken under Article 7, Mr French suggested, and remote meeting could last for many years. “In the perilous circumstances we now find ourselves, it would be foolish to close off the possibility of dealing with sensitive matters in the near future,” he warned.
Several speakers said that they agreed with Mr French’s argument, but were concerned that, by passing the amendment, they might prompt others to block the entire Measure.
Others spoke of their experiences of handling complex and controversial topics on Zoom meetings, including the entire vacancy-in-see committee process in the diocese of Chelmsford.
Yet others urged that the amendment be rejected, arguing that doctrine had to be decided as a gathered community and not solely determined in isolation as a matter of personal opinion. When it came to a vote, the amendment was narrowly defeated.
Clive Scowen (London) then attempted to amend the Measure to restrict virtual Synod sessions to discussing solely matters deemed “urgent”. This found no support among the Synod, but did prompt one of the most impassioned speeches of the day from Canon Wyn Beynon (Worcester), decrying what he said was “foot-dragging” and “fearfulness” among the House of Clergy.
“I’m appalled at the fearfulness of my younger brothers and sisters in orders,” he said. “We live in a new age, and we need to move forward. We have got to stop these amendments which are dragging us back.
“We have got to get into the 20th century, never mind the 21st. It’s time for change. Stop being what you have been for the last five and a half years: a rebellious, fearful, foot-dragging house. God is calling you forward. Wake up!”
There followed a discussion of more technical and procedural amendments of which Synod accepted some and rejected others. The only further substantive discussion came after Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) proposed a sunset clause, which would automatically make the new rules elapse at the end of November 2021.
Mr Tattersall resisted the amendment, as it would impose a sunset clause on the whole Measure, not just any new standing orders created under it. If the Measure was allowed to lapse, a further special session of the Synod would need to be called physically once again to recreate the legislation.
Despite scattered support, the amendment was comfortably defeated.
THE revision stage completed, and the Synod moved on to debate final approval.
One of the most notable speeches at this stage came from the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who echoed Canon Beynon earlier by urging the Church to get to the place where people could trust each other without always seeing “conspiracy theory around the corner”.
In a counted vote of the Synod by Houses, the Measure passed unanimously in the House of Bishops and Clergy, and by 45 votes in the House of Laity. There were two recorded abstentions. Presuming the Measure is passed speedily through Parliament and gains Royal Assent, new standing orders under the provisions will be made to enable November’s scheduled meeting of the General Synod — and any subsequent meetings until the pandemic eases — to take place online. The precise platform and technology to be used has yet to be decided.