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What happened at the General Synod in York, 2023?

14 July 2023

Hattie Williams reports on a packed agenda. Click here to read the full coverage

Sam Atkins

Members of General Synod met at the University of York last weekend

Members of General Synod met at the University of York last weekend

SAFEGUARDING and sexuality dominated the news from the General Synod in York this week, but tensions were equally palpable in debates surrounding the future of church governance and finances, parish ministry, climate change, and clergy discipline.

The Synod kicked off on Friday with a warning from the Business Committee that “time is not elastic” to accommodate all the contentious issues that members were intent on debating. This proved to be so. More than one item overran, and a presentation and questions on managing the behaviour of Synod members was cut short — “shamefully”, one member said — at the end of five packed days.

The issue was picked up by the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, who said on Twitter after the prorogation on Tuesday: “The Business Committee tried to squeeze too much into the 5 days. Probably because so much of February was spent on LLF [Living in Love and Faith]. But three DSMs [diocesan-synod motions] was asking a lot. Also, some deemed business was subject to demands for debate and members are increasingly using Following Motions.”

One such motion was used by Gavin Drake (Southwell & Nottingham) to ask for an independent inquiry into the Church’s safeguarding structures in response to the ISB débâcle; it was shoehorned into a debate on the Archbishops’ Council’s budget after initially being deemed out of order, but lapsed. Mr Drake later resigned from the Synod.

During the main item on Friday, the Business Committee was called upon to find a way to increase the voices of young people on the Synod. A private member’s motion from Samuel Wilson (Chester) called on the Archbishops’ Council to re-establish an elected body for young adults, to replace the recently disbanded Church of England Youth Council (CEYC) (News, 18 February 2022). This was carried by the Synod, after impassioned speeches, including from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that young people would “shape, transform, and render our vision useful and extraordinary powerful in the society in which we live”.

On Saturday, then national investing bodies (NBIs) were congratulated on their recent disinvestment from fossil fuels (News, 23 June). But other contributors to a debate on their background report were quick to lament the failure of the Church to effect significant change in the fossil-fuel industry in which they were recently shareholders.

Also on Saturday was a substantial debate on the the rehabilitation of prisoners, which delved into the sticky theology of forgiveness and reconciliation. The motion from Worcester diocesan synod — carried by 331-2, with three recorded abstentions — recognised that faith and forgiveness could have a positive impact on offenders’ behaviours, and commended the value both of the probation service and prison chaplaincy.

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, the lead bishop for prisons, said that short-term policies were not serving offenders and victims well: 17,000 children a year had been separated from their mothers, 60 per cent of whom had experienced abuse. “But, as a Church, we can be good news. Love, hope, reconciliation, and transformation are at the heart of the gospel message.”

The issue of forgiveness was also raised on Sunday. As well as the extraordinary presentations on the now disbanded Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB), the Synod heard a presentation on the long-awaited and much criticised National Redress Scheme for survivors of church-related abuse.

Jane Chevous, a survivor of church-based abuse, said. “Redress is so much more than throwing money at survivors and hoping we then go away.” Redress must be generous, timely, non-litigious, and, above all, focused on survivors, she said.

The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, brought a motion to “test the mind of Synod” on the scheme’s progress. It was passed, but not before a series of poignant questions and concerns on both work done and its future. The Revd Lindsay Llewellyn-Macduff (Rochester) ended the contributions with a warning that redress would not “end the cycle of mistrust and injury” within the Church.

A third heavy weight debate was held on Sunday, this time on plans to overhaul the governance structures of the Church of England. The National Governance Reform project has been under way for several years. Its latest report (News, 7 July) received an overwhelming vote of support from Synod members, although some had attempted to move amendments related to concerns about specific areas.

The proposals include reducing the national church institutions (NCIs) from seven to four, and replacing the Archbishops’ Council structure with a new charity: Church of England National Services (CENS).

During the debate, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, backed the proposals, but warned that Church was more like an “organism” than an “organisation”, and would, therefore, never be “neat or streamlined” as it evolved to meet the changing needs of the country that it served.

The issue of mistrust between parts of the NCIs came up repeatedly. The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, recalled from personal experience the last attempt at governance reform in the 1990s, which, he said, died “the death of a thousand amendments” because vested interests had battled to secure their positions in the institution.

Instead, he urged Synod members to be courageous and simply to choose to trust one another. A culture of trust was not something that could emerge out of thin air: “Trust is a choice. It develops as we do the work together.”

On Monday, minds turned to church finances. The chair of the Finance Committee, John Spence (Archbishops’ Council), presented the annual budget for the last time, before stepping down. It was, in parts, a bleak picture: church income had fallen by 14 per cent, and expenditure had fallen by seven per cent. Parishes had an aggregate surplus of £319 million between 2012 and 2021. But more than half (56 per cent) of PCCs ran a deficit in 2020 and 46 per cent in 2021.

Mr Spence “deeply regretted” that, in 2024, less would be spent on Vote 1 (training for ministry) than in 2023.

The Synod closed on Tuesday with a more light-hearted debate on a Blackburn diocesan motion — presented with wit by the Revd Tom Woolford — to support a pilot project to scrap church wedding fees. This was later amended to become a time-limited regional trial, after a lively debate on the place of marriage in the Church’s outreach to poorer communities.

Finally, before prorogation on Tuesday, the Archbishop of York bade farewell on the Synod’s behalf to the Bishops of Exeter, Coventry, Carlisle, and Sodor & Man, and also to Mr Spence, who is retiring. The tributes would usually have been shared with Archbishop Welby, but he had left the Synod early on Saturday afternoon to attend to his seriously ill mother.

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