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Not all about sex: agenda of the next General Synod outlined

20 January 2023

Clergy training, cost-of-living, safeguarding, and governance reforms on February agenda, alongside five hours of debate on the blessing of same-sex unions

Clive Mears/Church of England

The chamber in Church House, Westminster, where the General Synod is to be held in February

The chamber in Church House, Westminster, where the General Synod is to be held in February

DEBATES on clergy training, the cost-of-living crisis, safeguarding, and governance reforms will compete with the much anticipated sessions on sexuality at the next meeting of the General Synod in February.

While discussions on the Bishops’ proposals for services of thanksgiving and blessing for same-sex couples (News, 18 January) will likely dominate the three-and-a-half days of the Synod when it meets at Church House, Westminster (6-9 February), the agenda also includes a number of other items.

Monday afternoon will be divided between legislative business (pensions and stipends) and Living in Love and Faith (LLF) group work, followed by formal Questions to the Church’s leadership. More legislation and further Questions will take up Tuesday morning, together with a loyal address to King Charles. Among the legislative business on the agenda throughout the sessions are amendments to several canons to replace references to the Queen or “her Majesty” with “the King” and male pronouns (News, 16 September 2022).

On Tuesday afternoon, members will consider an update from the Resourcing Ministerial Formation project, which is currently reviewing how the Church of England funds training for clergy and lay ministers.

Among the key proposals is the creation of long-term, multi-year funding for theological colleges and courses based on their expected number of ordinands, rather than matching an annual grant from the central Church to the precise number of new students each college manages to recruit each year.

There will also be proposed reforms to ensure that every penny disbursed from the central pot to dioceses for training is actually spent, rather than this building up unspent in diocesan accounts unable to be redirected to other purposes.

An innovation fund will also be set up to allow theological education institutions to try new ideas, particularly in response to the C of E’s Vision and Strategy. The working group did not, however, have anything concrete to bring to the Synod on the reform of ordinands’ maintenance grants or more funding for lay ministerial training, on which discussions are ongoing.

The rest of Tuesday afternoon is given over to more LLF group work.

The following morning, on the Wednesday, the Synod will debate a motion on the cost-of-living crisis, brought by John Spence of the Archbishops’ Council. It urges prayers for those attempting to mitigate the crisis — including the Government — and commits the Church at diocesan and parish level to do “all we can to support the most vulnerable”.

It goes on to warn the Government that the nation’s resilience can stretch only so far, and to call for more “generous support” for those who are sliding into poverty as a result of soaring inflation and energy prices.

Shortly afterwards, the Synod will be invited to approve a new schedule of fees for weddings and funerals, which will see the costs of these services throughout 2023 and 2024 increase by either five per cent, or CPI inflation, whichever is lower. As inflation is currently running at 9.2 per cent, the rise is below the increase in cost for most other products and services.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Synod will finally get a chance to debate the Bishops’ proposals to allow church blessings for same-sex unions (see separate story). Five hours has been cleared to debate the Bishops’ motion.

On Thursday morning, the Synod will look at the question of the Church’s constitutional structure and governance. The National Church Governance Project Board, led by the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, will present an update on its thinking and a report on its proposals so far. Key among them is the amalgamation of most of the existing National Church Institutions into a new Church of England National Services body (CENS).

This would fold in the Archbishops’ Council, some of the Church Commissioners’ responsibilities, Church of England Central Services, and the Office of the Archbishops. It would be responsible for disbursing central funds and services throughout the C of E and leading on strategy and policy.

The Church Commissioners would remain as an independent charity charged with maintaining and growing the historic investments and endowment of the Church. The National Society would also remain a separate institution to focus on education, and the Pensions Board would also retain its independence.

The report argues that these reforms would end much of the duplication in the national Church bodies, while retaining independence for some with narrow, focused objectives. A new CENS board would be created, comprising both the Archbishops, two elected members from each of the Synod’s Houses of Bishops, Clergy, and Laity, and a further seven appointed members, one of whom would serve as chair.

Later on Thursday comes the now regular item on safeguarding, which this time includes updates on implementing many of the recommendations from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (News, 13 January), which wrapped up late last year (News, 21 October 2022).

The long-awaited redress scheme for victims and survivors is still far from completion, the National Safeguarding Team will tell the Synod. Its report warns that this project is “high risk”, as its funding remains uncertain and many policy decisions about how it will run have yet to be made. It is expected that dioceses, parishes, and cathedrals will be asked to contribute financially towards the redress scheme, and legislative proposals are expected in time for July’s meeting of the Synod.

Other reforms include the rebranding of diocesan safeguarding advisers as officers, and the continued roll-out of new casework management software. The report also notes that two current lessons-learned reviews, concerning John Smyth and Trevor Devamanikkam, are approaching completion.

One of the final items on the agenda is a diocesan synod motion from Lincoln, which calls on the Government to exempt churches and charities from Insurance Premium Tax. The motion arose from a rural deanery concerned that parishes were cutting back on their buildings insurance because premiums were becoming too pricey. The paper states that exempting all charities would cost the Treasury only about £50 million a year, approximately one per cent of its total revenue from Insurance Premium Tax.

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