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General Synod digest: Bishop warns about the working realities of an AI future

01 March 2024
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft

THE General Synod affirmed the dignity and value of purposeful work in a debate on Saturday on a motion from Oxford diocesan synod.

A paper from the Bishop of Oxford’s office states that the future of work is one of the most pressing questions of the times. The type, quality, and economic nature of work has been transformed, it argues, and new technology such as AI — characterising “a new industrial revolution” — threatens to eliminate more jobs than it will replace, without any process for sharing the costs and benefits equitably across society.

The paper concludes: “Work is a central theological as well as anthropological concern. . . In line with the five marks of mission, Christians should welcome any technology that augments human dignity and worth in work while resisting anything that exploits or requires humans to behave more like computers.”

About 12 per cent of working-age people globally do not have a job opportunity of any kind, it says. Robot process automation (RPA) was forecast to replace up to 500,000 retail-sector jobs by 2025, but the pandemic has accelerated the transition from high street to digital warehouses. A 2023 report found that AI would soon enable “dark warehouses”, in which every job was automated.

Introducing the motion, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, who leads on AI and online security in the House of Lords, highlighted many of the indicators and forecasts in the paper, and said that, should Elon Musk’s suggestion of a future in which work was entirely optional become a reality, “the challenge would be to find meaning in life.”

He referred to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s description of AI technology as a “lion to be tamed”. “That lion is growing in strength and appetite,” he told the Synod. “We need to better understand the challenges as well as the opportunities it offers. It is a key part of human flourishing and the society we want to build together.”

Gill Ball (Chelmsford) felt that the scope of the discussion should be broadened to address unpaid and volunteer work, as well as the role of women, particularly domestic workers in health care, many of whom were migrants earning much less than their directly employed colleagues, she said.

The Revd Marcus Walker (London) accused the Church of England of “gross hypocrisy”. Given the way in which it treated its clergy, lay workers, and volunteers, he said, the Church did not have the standing to tell anyone else how to behave. “Any stipendiary priest working over 50 hours a week will be earning less than the minimum wage,” he said. ”Non-stipendiary clergy are treated as free labour. The Church of England has no capacity to lecture anybody on how to treat their employees.”

Sandra Turner (Chelmsford) described the motion as a missed opportunity to affirm the value of unpaid work. She moved an amendment seeking to include a reference to “paid and unpaid [work], including child rearing and caring for the frail and old”, which, she said, could be “a great opportunity for the Church to take the lead in valuing everyone”.

The amendment was supported by the retiring Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who thought “naming them does matter. It’s absolutely vital we regard unpaid work as work.”

The amendment was lost by 124-88, with 14 recorded abstentions.

Abigail Ogier (Manchester) then proposed a “short but important” amendment toadd “paid or upaid” to the the words “purposeful work” in paragraph (a) of the motion. “We live in a society where people’s worth is measured by their economic output,” she said. “Our value as children of God is not diminished by our personal circumstances. . . We should recognise that all work is valuable.”

Canon Lisa Battye (Manchester) agreed: her part-time appointment meant that she “straddled work both paid and unpaid”. The Revd Dr Sara Batts-Neale (Chelmsford) said that the consequences of not paying attention to unpaid work — much of it done by women — were that, in relation to things like public transport, “we design systems and structures that don’t help people.”

The amendment was carried.

The Archbishop of Canterbury brought an amendment to endorse the Rome Call for promoting an ethical approach to AI. This would extend the Oxford motion and amplify the call put out by 38 organisations and individuals in society and academia, he said.

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, felt that the motion was becoming something of a “Topsy motion”, including everything that seemed relevant. “We need to be positive about AI as well,” he said. “We create jobs when we go through change: we have to engage with it and look for the positive elements.”

The Revd Fraser Oates (Worcester) supported the amendment. “The world can see the Lord inviting us to a more radical and beautiful way of life.”

Canon Tim Bull (St Albans) believed that the Rome Call wanted to promote transparency: AI systems “must be understandable so that all can know how they work. I support the principle, though I’m not sure it’s quite the right way to do it.”

The amendment was carried. An amendment from the Revd Lindsay Llewellyn-Macduff (Rochester) was not moved.

The Synod debated two further amendments from Rebecca Chapman (Southwark), the first of which sought to encourage all C of E institutions and organisations to implement the living wage for employees. There was a public and media perception of hypocrisy, she said: “We need to be seen to remove any logs from our own eyes. . . This is a chance to show we are calling for this for ourselves as well.”

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesRebecca Chapman (Southwark)

The Revd Jo Winn-Smith (Guildford) also referred to removing the beam in the eye: “We need to be willing to look at ourselves.”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said that the need for a living wage was within the scope of the motion. “If people give employers a hard day’s work, they must be given a fair day’s pay.” It was essential to “catch people before they fall into hardship. We need to lead the way.”

Julie Dziegiel (Oxford) opposed the amendment out of concern for “asking us to pay a certain amount in our parishes. . . If the living wage is not affordable, let’s not make them feel guilty in certain situations.”

The amendment was carried.

Ms Chapman then moved her second amendment, which called on the NCIs, by way of a review of the Transforming Effectiveness/Simpler NCIs programme, to affirm the dignity and value of purposeful work for its own employees. A former staff member herself, she described staff as feeling undervalued, “doing more work and struggling under more pressure”, and wanted the Synod to understand the “real impact of the change”. Working in a faith context when things went wrong could be most difficult, she observed: “Listen to staff and NCIs at every level.”

The Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, who is the lead bishop for the Transforming Effectiveness programme, endorsed Ms Chapman’s encouragement to affirm the dignity of work for NCI staff, but opposed her amendment. The feedback was continuing, and progress was being made, he said. “It would feel like duplication to add further revision.”

Mary Durlacher (Chelmsford) said that the Church should be not just affirming, but modelling, what work was and was not, besides taking a lead on learning and teaching the nobility of work.

The amendment was lost.

Alison Coulter (Winchester) then moved an amendment to add to paragraph (c) “specific advice on how these changes impact the work of women”. There was still a gender pay gap of 15 per cent in the UK, she reported, and under-representation of women in senior positions, especially women from a minority-ethnic background. “By 2040, one in seven people will be over 75, and the need for care will be increasing. AI will not be able to wipe people’s bottoms any time soon.”

Deborah McIsaac (Salisbury) suggested that women in the Church who were non-stipendiary suffered disproportionately. They described themselves as “the invisible group”, never consulted, and always having to prove themselves, she said. “We pay a high price for being unpaid.”

The Revd Dr Susan Lucas (Chelmsford) spoke with gratitude about the support that her elderly mother had received from “a huge army of carers” at home, most of whom were women and on the minimum wage. “Synod, we will all grow old,” she said.

The amendment was carried.

An amendment from the Revd Andrew Mumby (Southwark) wanted to add encouragement to “look at biblical wisdom on work, employment, and economy in its widest sense”, to make more explicit the Christian impulse behind the motion. Dr Croft resisted the amendment on the grounds of its length.

The debate was adjourned on Saturday night, and resumed on Monday.

Luke Appleton (Exeter) applauded what the amendment was trying to achieve. He urged consideration of Thessalonians 3, with respect to the duties, standards, and responsibilities of the employed, as well as the employer.

The Revd Ross Meikle (Oxford) felt that the amendment added something about poverty and the poor: “We have a gospel that speaks about how to care for the poor.” Adrian Greenwood (Southwark) declared his belief in biblical wisdom: the amendment drew attention to the principle of jubilee. Peter Barrett (Oxford) suggested that AI could be used for good or evil. Technology was not all-important, and ethics were important.

The amendment was carried.

Ian Johnston (Portsmouth) then moved an amendment requesting the Church Commissioners to consider conditional investment in new technology companies. He welcomed the report, but said that it was only half the story. Where next? “Start with our practices,” he urged. “Step out of our comfort zones — make a difference.”

Dr Croft resisted the amendment: this course of action was already under active consideration, he said.

The amendment lapsed. The debate was adjourned again, and resumed later on Monday.

The Revd Mike Tufnell (Salisbury) thought it imperative that Christians embrace technology that affirmed human dignity, but oppose anything that dehumanised the workplace. He urged the Bishop to engage proactively with organisations such as the Centre for Cultural Witness to communicate theological insights to wider society.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, said that the nation was failing to harness the skills of asylum-seekers, thousands of whom wanted to work, and had the skills, but were effectively prohibited from working. It had been estimated that lifting the ban on asylum-seekers’ working until six months after their arrival would save the Government £4.4 billion, increase tax by £880 million, and add £1 billion to GDP. “It would allow people to rebuild their lives with dignity and purpose.”

The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, who chairs the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC), agreed that it would be desirable to build on existing work on theology and work, but the FAOC had limited capacity and numbers: it was not “a standing army of theologians simply waiting to take on more work”, and central theological resources had been scaled back with the Transforming Effectiveness programme.

Kenson Li (co-opted) urged the Synod to avoid hypocrisy, given the conditions of parish assistants, many of whom found the personal cost of giving up a stable job too high, and ordinands, who, he said, were also not recognised for their contribution to the ministry of the Church and were paid the bare minimum. “We are treated as unpaid interns who are graciously given opportunities to experience what ministry is like. . . If you want younger and more diverse vocations, show people you are serious about wanting us and pay us accordingly.”

The motion as amended was carried:

That this Synod, mindful of the deep economic effects of the pandemic, the impacts of new technology, and the global rise of new forms of working:

(a) affirm the dignity and value of purposeful work, whether paid or unpaid, as a significant component of human flourishing;

(b) endorse the Rome Call for promoting an ethical approach to Artificial Intelligence (AI);

(c) endorse and commend the five principles used for evaluating fair and dignified platform work in the gig economy by fair work;

(d) encourage all parishes, benefices, dioceses, cathedrals, Theological Educational Institutions and other Church of England organisations to implement, at a minimum, the living wage for employees and to have a regard for work/life balance and dignity at work; and

(e) call for the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) together with Mission and Public Affairs Committee to advise on what is essential to purposeful, dignified, and fair work in the context of the fourth industrial revolution now in progress including specific advice on how these changes impact the work of women and to look at Biblical wisdom on work, employment and economy in its widest sense; and to consider a range of practical solutions from recent economic thinking in harmony with the Christian tradition’s emphasis on grace, justice and mercy, such as questions around pay ratios within organisations, Basic Citizens’ Income, poverty and wealth lines, to strengthen our Christian voice in the public square as a Church.

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