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General Synod digest: Members raise matters including abortion, climate, Smyth, and finances

18 February 2022


THE chairs of the General Synod Q&A sessions last week were clearly on message to confound the Machiavellians hoping to disguise speeches as questions. Professor Joyce Hill (Leeds) warned members that she was “listening for the inflection at the end of your sentence”, and the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn (Southern Deans), said: “If I don’t hear a question mark, I’ll be moving on.”

Rationing members to no more than two supplementary questions kept the variety of speakers up. Questions — and what lay beneath — encompassed a broad range of concerns.

One early question came from Rebecca Hunt (Portsmouth), who asked what steps had been taken to ask the Government to end the policy of allowing women to take pills at home to induce an early abortion (News, 29 November 2019). The temporary provision brought in during the pandemic to reduce unnecessary travel and risk of infection was due to expire on 24 March, but the Government had not ruled out an extension.

The written answer from the chair of the Mission and Public Affairs Council, Mark Sheard (Archbishops’ Council), stated that one in 17 women using the pills at home were being admitted to hospital with medical complications. The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, had also written to the Health Secretary to ask for the provision to be ended, so that women did not have to face this alone.

The statistics in the written answers to Synod members produced as good a snapshot as any of its present state of health. Taking random examples, figures showed that 78 per cent of churches were running foodbanks — the equivalent in 2011 had been 33 per cent; 17 dioceses had a designated chaplain for Gypsy, Traveller, and Roma communities.

More than half (57 per cent) of parishes recorded a deficit in 2020-21; there were 4501 single-parish benefices and 2151 multi-parish benefices, the largest containing 29 parishes; and at the end of 2019, the total of unrestricted funds held by dioceses was £798 million, £184 million of which was held in cash.

Andrew Orange (Winchester), wanted precise figures on the parishes being served by an incumbent priest or priest-in-charge. The answer given was 6200 benefices with at least one ordained cleric, and 4940 benefices with at least one cleric whose post was described as incumbent or incumbent-status.

Canon Andy Salmon (Manchester) asked how much of the Strategic Development Fund grants in the past five years had supported mission in the most deprived communities. The figure was £19 million (42 per cent).

Climate questions were also raised. The carbon footprint of the average large urban church was noted as 15 times the average small rural church; 31 per cent of churches had recorded their energy footprint tool data for 2020, of which 3600 (23 per cent) jad completed a response with usable data; seven per cent of churches had reached the target of net zero carbon.

Introduction of the use of individual cups at the eucharist was on many minds. Questions and answers exposed a multitude of ambiguities and a variety of practices.

The disbanding of the Rural Affairs Council, “made on the basis of the staffing requirement and the group’s effectiveness”, troubled members. Debbie McIsaac (Salisbury) asked the Archbishops’ Council how the C of E could be “‘for all people in all places’ in areas where there was little or no public transport, poor connectivity and infrastructure, and where the norm is large multi-parish benefices with a single incumbent?”

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York acknowledged that its presence needed to change to reflect the rural context. The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, later reiterated that the introduction of a new Synod rural group would enable “new policies and proposals to be scrutinised from a rural perspective”.

Why had the C of E Youth Council been abolished, and who had made the decision, asked Jayne Ozanne (Oxford). It had not been abolished, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler said; numbers were no longer viable, and the decision had been taken to disband. “If Synod wants much greater youth representation, it needs to put in a proposal,” he said.

The Archbishop of York said that the House of Bishops had met 49 times in the past year, not all of these meetings, he acknowledged, under Standing Orders. He defended the value of “first thoughts” and the freedom for bishops to speak under Chatham House rules when necessary.

The John Smyth case was on members’ minds, principally the lack of progress in supplying the Archbishop of Cape Town with the information needed to investigate abuse during Smyth’s time in South Africa (News, 10 May 2019). Helen King (Oxford) was persistent and direct: “Who will make the decision?” she asked, and declared black children to be every bit as valuable as “white privileged victims”.

The Bishop of Huddersfield, Dr Jonathan Gibbs (Northern Suffragans), answered unequivocally that “a victim is a victim.” Canon Simon Talbott (Ely) wanted an update on progress, and deplored the lack of accountability for “the best boys in the best schools”.

The Revd Zoe Heming (Lichfield) wanted to know what mechanisms were in place to ensure that material such as healthcare data was not held in the “blue file” beyond ordination. Amanda Robbie (Lichfield) had been told that cases remained on file even after dismissal or no case found, for 70 years. “Has this been tested?” she asked.

Those responding to supplementary questions were sometimes defensive, sometimes guarded, sometimes open. Questions surrounding the language of difference in relation to Living in Love and Faith led the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, to say: “I have learned the hard way that my words can damage other people.”

All 150 questions received a written answer. Questions were not taken chronologically, but there was an opportunity to ask supplementary questions on all but question no. 53, concerning the publication of the Independent SCIE Safeguarding Audit in respect of Bishopthorpe Palace and the office of the (former) Archbishop of York.

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