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Episcopally led — and synodically sidetracked?  

01 July 2022

The Vision and Strategy has been steamrolled through without enough scrutiny, argues Rebecca Chapman

EVERY deacon ordained this Petertide can probably quote “episcopally led and synodically governed” to describe how the Church of England is run. It is a ubiquitous, perhaps unhelpful, phrase. Canterbury diocese’s website clarifies it with “synods are our decision-making bodies.” The word “synod” comes from Greek: “syn”, meaning “together”, and “hodos”, meaning “the way”.

The 1995 Turnbull report reminded us that it was used by the Greeks for their “system of assembling qualified citizens to discover the common will”. If synods are fundamentally about discerning the common will together, why has the General Synod been so stunningly steamrollered on the Vision and Strategy for the Church of England in the 2020s?

The vision has three priorities, and six bold outcomes, and much of it is hard to disagree with. Who does not long for a parish system revitalised for mission, or more children and young people in our churches? But those outcomes also include the infamous 10,000 new Christian communities (News, 2 July 2021), arguably a less unifying concept. The General Synod is the Church’s national assembly, whose representatives are elected to make decisions together. When did it sign off on this “shared” Vision and Strategy?

IT WAS first unveiled to the Synod in November 2020, as a presentation to communicate “the fruits of our contemplation and discussion” (News, 27 November 2020). The previous September, 150 bishops and diocesan secretaries had decided to “endorse and own” the proposals. There had already been a large consultative process with those selected to be involved, including a “future search conference” of 120 people, and discussions with 300 young people. Some of those chosen to engage were Synod members, but the Synod itself was told that it would debate it formally in February 2021.

When February came, it was an informal meeting, with minimal opportunity to challenge or engage, despite members’ expressing concerns — in particular, about the mixed-ecology aspects of the vision. That July, the Synod got a formal, take-note debate (News, 16 July 2021). There was a proposal for an adjournment to allow greater Synod engagement. This was followed by the Archbishop of York’s emphasising that voting to take note was to “enter into discussion about it”, and that, “by so doing, we keep the conversation going, which we will come back to in our Synod.” The Synod did as he asked. He expressed the hope that breakout groups would discuss the proposals the following February.

Yet, at the first meeting of the new Synod, in November 2021, he acknowledged that “some of this has not always been presented clearly and has caused some nervousness” (News, 26 November 2021). The Synod received another presentation, reminding it that mixed ecology was now the norm. Synod members were not asked to vote. The agenda for the meeting the following February scheduled an hour of the hoped-for group work to allow the Synod to shape the work; but this was cancelled, owing to time pressures.

WHERE did we pass the point of no return? For, surely, we have. Innovation funding of £4.8 million from the Strategic Development Fund pot, bid for in 2021, was to support work “in line with the Vision and Strategy”. The shape and skillset of the NCIs’ teams have been remoulded to fit it, with redundancies (News, 18 March).

A £1.3-billion investment, over nine years, to enable these outcomes and priorities, has been approved by the Archbishops’ Council and the Church Commissioners, after the recommendation of the 11 people on the Triennium Working Group (News, 13 May). The General Synod will be asked to “welcome these decisions”, but it is unclear whether not doing so would have any consequences.

At the forthcoming meeting of the General Synod in York, we will also have the promised group work. Members can choose two of nine “bitesize workshops” to help us to “engage with our vision to become younger and more diverse”. It is a fantastic line-up, but these workshops seem designed to shape our thinking on “our vision” and its implementation, not to gather our input. That ship has sailed. Episcopally led, synodically sidetracked?

The Turnbull report outlined not only the vital legislative and deliberative roles of the General Synod, but also how the Archbishops’ Council would, with the “guidance of the House of Bishops and subject to the strategic approval of the General Synod, help the whole Church to develop its broad future direction”.

Where is that strategic approval? If the Synod has been so easily circumnavigated in favour of the concentric circle diagram of “our” Vision and Strategy, is it time for synodical reform?

The 2021 Governance Review Group report recommended “a new piece of work to explore the reform of the General Synod and Synodical government”. Even if reform is what it takes, I long for us to move away from decisions behind closed doors — for the Synod to be able to discern openly together the common will for the Church as we look to the future. Then we can all agree to put our money where our mouth is rather than find that money has already been promised, and our part as elected representatives is merely to welcome it, whether we want to or not.

Rebecca Chapman is a General Synod member for Southwark diocese.

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