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Synod is falling victim to process

18 February 2022

Rebecca Chapman expresses her unease at procedural moves and general discontent

Clive Mears/Church Times

The Archbishop of Canterbury presides at the General Synod eucharist last Wednesday

The Archbishop of Canterbury presides at the General Synod eucharist last Wednesday

AFTER three days of the General Synod, I feel wrung out. Why am I so weary?

I worry that it is the sense of mistrust which pervades church governance there. What I witnessed last week appears to be an increasingly unattractive spectacle in which procedural methods are used to wrongfoot elected representatives. The Synod is being reduced to a talking shop.

In a recent blog post, the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, wrote that there seemed to be an unfortunate level of mistrust in the Church of England. “Healthy scepticism is not a bad thing, but unhealthy cynicism at the heart of the Church is not so good.”

We can all agree that mistrust is damaging. Despite the Archbishop’s words in November about “disagreeing well”, the Synod can often feel like an echo chamber. Some speakers are called to speak on multiple occasions, while others feel the need to take to social media to ensure that their voices are heard.

Over the course of this group of sessions, avoidance techniques were in evidence: procedural motions were used to stop amendments; original documents were not recirculated, but replaced with brief summaries. Synodical procedure is never straightforward; but we were almost blinded with process.

The day before the meeting, The Times leaked a consultation document about structural change. Oddly, the task group that had produced this did not seem to have included any clergy other than bishops. Its scope was considered worthy of 80 one-hour interviews with “key stakeholders”, including all 42 diocesan bishops. Whoever was consulted, it might have been better to test some of its suggestions more widely, judging by the press response.

The leaked document referred to the importance of creating a culture in which all bishops felt free to express their views rather than defer to “those perceived as more senior in the ‘hierarchy’”. The task group also heard that the selection and formation process for bishops was “not robust or transparent and is therefore open to ‘political’ manoeuvring”.

How are normal people to decode this management-speak?

I will leave aside the question that I raised about the Archbishops’ new Appointments Secretary. A speech by the Revd Mae Christie revealed that the proposal for reducing the number of Canterbury representatives for choosing the next Archbishop of Canterbury had originated not in the diocesan synod (as was claimed in the consultation document), but in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Council.

The proposal to increase the Anglican Communion representatives had not come from the diocese at all. The process had not been nearly as “grass-roots” as was implied. Had we been misled?

A tense atmosphere was also present when the work of the National Safeguarding Team (NST) was discussed. A paper before the Synod was the subject of a motion calling for a full and independent assessment of the work and performance of the NST and of the “myriad safeguarding bodies of the Church of England”. The debate on this was shut down on a point of order.

This apparent use of process to avoid discussion of critical matters created a feeling of unease. On social media, it was described by a Synod member as reminiscent of “an assassination”.

The next morning, in a governance debate, concerns were raised about the input that the Synod would have, as well as the information that it was given access to. Supporting an amendment that sought further reporting before legislation was brought, the Revd Marcus Walker asked the working group to go back and allow the Synod full sight of the end goal. He suggested that the Synod shouldn’t be deciding on this without sight of the whole.

The Revd Daniel Valentine described a sense that the current governance status quo had been built on the “shifting sand of a lack of transparency and of abuses of power, and a lack of checks and balances”.

Concern among members was soon picked up. The Chair of the House of Laity, Dr Jamie Harrison, said that he was “worried about the anxiety in the chamber”. The Northern Prolocutor, Canon Kate Wharton, suggested that “perhaps there is a question here of trust and accountability.”

More strikingly, a member of the Archbishops’ Council, Joseph Diwakar, described his frustrations: the feeling that policy execution was falling into the cracks; and concerns that decisions made elsewhere were rushed to the Council to be rubber-stamped. He said that “all the other statutory bodies and governance bodies seem to feel the same.”

We were not “disagreeing well”. Debate was being hurriedly suppressed; dissent was being stifled.

The Bishops’ paper was published in full at the end of the week. To the Bishops themselves, “it appears to many that some decisions are being made before discussion in the House or College.” Even they are feeling shut out. If bishops cannot speak freely even to other bishops, what hope have those of us lower down the hierarchy of making ourselves heard on behalf of those who elected us?

The Synod is a vital part of the Church’s checks and balances. We must rebuild trust by encouraging openness, and listening to and hearing voices at all levels. I hope and pray that this Synod finds its voice in time for our next meeting in July, and that those in power are willing to listen, and to act on what they hear.

I pray that we will all be able to work together, and that no one will be left feeling silenced. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” says Proverbs. But those irons must not be too sharp and not point at anyone’s back.

Rebecca Chapman is a General Synod member for Southwark diocese.

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