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The General Synod’s Business Committee has its priorities wrong

28 June 2021

It should be debating how richer dioceses can help poorer ones, not reopening old wounds over the Sheffield débâcle, says Philip North

Church of England

The General Synod, meeting remotely via Zoom, in April

The General Synod, meeting remotely via Zoom, in April

THERE is nothing quite like a pandemic for clarifying one’s thinking, and, in common with so many other bodies, the Church of England is currently going through a process of setting priorities for the years ahead. What is urgent? What can wait? What can we stop?

To inform us in that task, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, has set before us three rich and challenging comparative adjectives. The Church of England is going to be humbler, simpler, and bolder (News, 27 November 2020). As a humbler Church, we are going to be more dependent on Christ. As a simpler Church, we are going to be more transparent and honest. As a bolder Church, we are going to live out what we believe with confidence, and so face up to tough decisions.

It raises a fascinating question. Seen through the lens of that threefold challenge, what issues in our common life do we most urgently need to address? There will be a range of answers, but most would agree that confronting inequality in our own financial structures should be high up the list; for, within the life of the Church of England, we embody the very injustices that we most vocally condemn when we see them elsewhere (Comment, 1 June 2018).

Would a humbler Church really be content with a situation in which the wealthiest diocese has inherited assets of £92.29 per head of population while the poorest has just 95p? Would a simpler Church look on and do nothing when poorer dioceses fret about insolvency, while others sit on assets which will sustain them for many years? Would a bolder Church continue to live with a situation in which clergy deployment is contingent on inherited wealth rather than missional need? It would not — it would act immediately and decisively.

THIS is why the proposals to be laid before the General Synod by the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, on mutuality in finances are so prophetic and important (News, 28 May).

They will not lead to the forced seizures of assets; but they will clear away legal barriers to mutual generosity, and so make it easier for dioceses to support each other, as has been so beautifully pioneered by the dioceses of Oxford and Ely.

So far, so good. The trouble is that those who agree business for the Synod do not seem to concur with this particular set of priorities. Transferring the July sessions online has rendered it necessary to trim the agenda; and it would appear that addressing chronic and unbiblical inequality in the very heart of the life of the Church is not an especially urgent matter. The item on mutuality in finances has been cut.

What makes this decision even stranger is casting one’s eye over the items that have been adjudged worthy of precious time: for example, a private member’s motion on the débâcle after my own appointment to the see of Sheffield (News, 17 March 2017).

That motion, which was drawn up in early 2017, has been multiply overtaken by events, and is wholly extraneous given the exhaustive report on the affair written by Sir Philip Mawer (News, 22 September 2017), and the work of the Implementation and Dialogue Group (also on the agenda for these sessions). This motion risks undoing all the good work of healing that has taken place in the diocese of Sheffield since 2017 by unnecessarily reopening wounds.

In vain I have sought a rationale for these agenda-setting processes. The root cause of decisions such as this, however, is institutional and embedded. A quasi-parliamentary synod finds it so much more comfortable to rehearse old and familiar arguments rather than look ahead to where God is calling us next.

There is a straightforward solution to the immediate problem. The private member’s motion on the Sheffield affair needs to be dropped, and the item on mutuality in finance restored to the agenda.

BUT, even if this is done (and I doubt that it will be), there will remain searching questions about the fitness of the General Synod to lead the Church of England in the direction that our strategy demands.

We need a synod that can step up and play its part in leading a Church which longs, with all its heart, to renew a nation under Christ by proclaiming good news to the poor. We need a synod in which the voices of deprived communities are heard clearly and loudly. We cannot allow learnt habits of behaviour and an addiction to conflict constantly to drag us back to the stale binaries of the past.

Later this year, we hold elections. So, if you really want a simpler, humbler, bolder Church, led by a simpler, humbler, bolder General Synod, download the nomination papers now.

The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley in Blackburn diocese.

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