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General Synod digest: Hybrid meetings and future dates debated

18 February 2022
YouTube/Church of England

The chair of the Business Committee, Robert Hammond, introduces its report

The chair of the Business Committee, Robert Hammond, introduces its report

Business committee

THE General Synod’s first piece of business was to revive the temporary Standing Orders that had permitted hybrid working, enabling members who could not be present in the chamber to participate, speak, and vote via Zoom.

It followed the Archbishop of Canterbury’s welcome and introduction of the new Prolocutors of the Lower Houses of the Convocations — the Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller (London) for Canterbury, and Canon Kate Wharton (Liverpool) for York — as well as the Chair and Vice-Chair of the House of Laity, Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) and Alison Coulter (Winchester) respectively.

Geoffrey Tattersall (Manchester) reminded the Synod of the need to add a further date, 7 August 2023, to their diaries on the revived Standing Orders. Peter Bruinvels (Guildford) asked for consideration to be given to making hybrid working a permanent facility. It was user-friendly and inclusive, he said.

In a maiden speech, Fiona MacMillan (London) said that the tragedy of the pandemic had given opportunities to learn and grow, and for people to experience something of the daily lives of people living with disabilities. Online participation had been a lifeline for many disabled people to join in, build communities, and participate in public life. “Now it’s beginning to be forgotten again and our voices largely unheard,” she said. Permanent hybrid working would open up the Synod to disabled people and to those with caring responsibilities. Ms MacMillan recognised the resource implications and the steep learning curve involved, but it would be a sign that “the Church takes disabled people seriously.”

It was good that the message about disabled people had been heard, Canon Valerie Plumb (Oxford), said via Zoom. “It’s really important that those who can’t participate physically don’t have their work and ministry invalidated,” she said. “ I feel proud to say we fully value all people. We are present.” She urged the Synod to vote for this extension, and to make it open ended.

The Synod voted in favour by a show of hands and the online voting platform.

The chair of the Business Committee, Robert Hammond (Chelmsford), assured the Synod that it had included as many hybrid elements as possible into the business for the 50 members who were joining remotely. “It may be a bit clunky, but we’re trying to get it right.”

The committee had been “overwhelmed” by the numbers of contributors to the online survey. Much of the feedback had been about Questions, with disquiet about the lack of time given to them, and, for some, the manner of both questions and answers. A further hour had been assigned, with two sessions totalling two and a half hours, as well as new rules restricting supplementaries to two per person.

Some questioning had been “a little aggressive, hostile, and unpleasant in tone”, he acknowledged. “Consider others: your acceptable robustness may appear to some members as unacceptable aggression.” It was “not an opportunity to anticipate items to be discussed later or open up a new [debate]. Be restrained and targeted.”

The debate turned out to be predominantly about Questions. Canon Andrew Cornes (Chichester) acknowledged that questioning had been done in a hostile and aggressive way in the past. Holding power to account should be done in a spirit of kindness and generous enquiry, he said, but attributed some of this to the blandness of replies, where the response to a confrontational question was “to get the questioner off my back”. He pressed for answers that were “full, honest, and including acknowledgement when mistakes have been made”.

Vivienne Goddard (Blackburn) recognised that there was a system of expenses for Synod members, but was concerned about the personal expense involved in setting up systems to participate remotely. Equipment to enable Zoom had cost £250, she said, and a mobile phone and tablet added to this.

In a maiden speech, Gillian Verschoyle (Salisbury) said that priorities in the timetable were wrong. The list of subjects was “deeply disappointing”, she said. The Church was in crisis, with falling numbers, revenues, and congregations, and with ever increasing parish groupings. “Parish share is in everyone’s inbox,” she said; church insurance was more than £5000. She hoped that future timetables would include issues of amalgamating dioceses and cutting bureaucracy.

Sam Margrave (Coventry) wanted the implications of the rising cost of clergy living to be put on the agenda as emergency business. “It’s our job to look after them.”

Gavin Drake (Southwell & Nottingham), via Zoom, was unhappy about the format of presentations, take-note debates, and group work in lieu of full debate: there were 13 diocesan motions waiting in the wings. He complained about formats under which members were unable to make a point or express an opinion. A promised panel discussion on the Clergy Discipline Measure had been “relegated to a fringe meeting in a small room on a first-come, first-served, basis”.

Emma Gregory (Bath & Wells) was pleased that the extended time for Questions would maximise the chance to hear from more Synod members. It was also an important way to read the temperature of the Synod, she suggested. Limitations on supplementaries was “a gentler way of getting the balance”, she said, but, with the experience of a teacher, warned that it should not result in “stifling the most vocal in the class. Let’s keep the vehicle for the voices to be heard as open and unrestrained as before.”

Adrian Greenwood (Southwark) urged the Business Committee to review the overall size of the Synod compared with 20 years ago. As a primarily legislative body, it needed enough expertise to achieve that purpose.

Canon Tim Goode (Southwark) asked the committee to consider bringing forward a new Measure to make hybrid working a permanent feature.

The Revd Julian Hollywell (Derby) thought that describing the manner of Questions as aggressive was a one-sided view. What was perceived as disrespect was often frustration; the written answers were often intended to shut down rather than engage. He suggested renaming the session Questions and Answers, reminding everyone of their joint purpose. “There is no need for us to be combatants. We are all on the same side.”

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) added another dimension to the question of Questions. There were three parties involved, and it was open for the chair to “intervene and avoid obfuscation and waffle”.

Martin Sewell (Rochester) wondered whether there could be a provision that an answer could be ruled out of order. He acknowledged the pressurised nature of supplementaries, when “you suddenly see a point of view to make.”

Mr Bruinvels reiterated the request for a Measure to make hybrid working permanent. On Questions, he noted that, compared with the House of Commons, Synod members were spoiled by seeing answers to questions early, “which does encourage more informed questions”. He wondered whether topical questions might be offered, as in Parliament.

The Archdeacon of Liverpool, the Ven. Pete Spiers (Liverpool), asked whether consideration had been given to training Synod members in how to ask a question, “to avoid speeches masquerading as questions”.

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, noted Mr Drake’s plea that presentations should not be used in place of debate, but argued: “It’s intelligent and respectful to Synod that we brought the governance report for first consideration, so that we could have a more informed debate the second time round.”

The Synod took note of the Business Committee’s report.

Synod members had received dates for future meetings until 2026. York dates were fixed and used the full amount of time allocated, Mr Hammond said. The November session was scheduled for urgent business. February sessions did not always need to use the full allocation, but setting aside this time gave the committee flexibility when setting the agenda.

Stephen Hogg (Leeds) said that he could not support the proposal for the February dates, “which asks us to block out nine days”. He asked that the window be narrowed to five days, and, if a weekend was needed, “go for it.”

Rosemary Lyon (Blackburn) also urged the committee to think again. “We need to have clear dates, well in advance.” Dr John Mason (Chester) thought the November session should be on a contingency basis. Siân Kellogg (Derby) asked that the February sessions did not clash with half-term holiday. John Wilson (Lichfield) noted that the February session rarely used the full time allocated. Luke Appleton (Exeter) wanted weekends to be ruled out: “Six days shalt thou labour. . .” Adrian Greenwood (Southwark) reminded Synod that weekends had been introduced to aid people who had weekday jobs.

The vote was carried by a show of hands (and green ticks on Zoom).

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