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What happened at the General Synod in London this week?

01 March 2024

All calm and carry on: a guide to the key debates

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

AFTER early warnings about tone, and with a motion on members’ conduct on the agenda, the General Synod took a more gracious approach to the wide range of issues up for debate in Church House, Westminster, over last weekend.

In his presidential address at the start of the February sessions last Friday, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that observers of the Synod’s deliberations in recent times had noted the “angst-ridden tone” and “unfair attacks” — bitterness and personal abuse had become normalised in the Church, he said.

“We need to assume the best rather than the worst,” Archbishop Welby warned members. “Suffering and enemies are faced best in communities with trust across the divide rather than in self-protecting and reinforcing huddles.” This was difficult, but the Church would not be able to minister to the outside world unless it was dealing well with its own internal issues.

Three motions dealing with behaviour were brought to the Synod.

A private members’ motion on sanctioning lay officers for bullying (News, 9 February) was brought by the Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland (Blackburn), and approved, on Sunday afternoon. It asked the Synod to recognise “the serious pastoral problems and unfairness that arise while clergy can be subject to penalties for bullying that include prohibition and removal from office but there is no means of disqualifying a churchwarden, PCC member, or other lay officer who is guilty of bullying from holding office.”

Many personal examples of abuse of clergy by lay people were given during the debate. The Revd Sonia Barron (Lincoln) recalled experiences of lay churchgoers who felt that they “owned the church” and so could openly undermine or intimidate the incumbent.

Also approved by a large majority was a Chelmsford diocesan synod motion asking whether a code of conduct for PCC members and lay volunteers might be drawn up. A review would include consideration of a disciplinary process for the removal of PCC members who showed “persistent departures from acceptable standards of behaviour”.

Introducing the debate on Saturday, the Revd Dr Sara Batts-Neale (Chelmsford) said that the motion was “not about a one-off loss of temper, a one-parish incident, a one clash of personalities. . . Sometimes, when things go wrong, they go wrong badly. . . Too many people are getting hurt.”

Another motion, also passed on Saturday, requested the Business Committee to revise the current Synod members’ code of conduct. During a short debate, Nigel Bacon (Lincoln) said: “Whatever side of the issue we stand on, the tenor of recent debates has, sadly, done us all a disservice.”

Debates on the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process have certainly been fraught in the past few years. This week was better. A motion from the lead bishop on LLF, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow — that the Synod “welcome” a set of ten commitments to the process – was aired. Speakers managed to avoid restating personal views on how the agreed Prayers of Love and Faith (blessings for same-sex couples) would be implemented. But after an amendment calling for “legally secure structural provision” had been defeated, the Archdeacon of Liverpool, the Ven. Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, proposed that the debate be cut short through a procedural motion. Members agreed, in the expectation that more concrete proposals will be brought back in July.

This was accepted by a self-confessed “tired” Bishop Snow, who later described it as an “open, thoughtful, and gracious debate”.

Polarised views on marriage slipped into other debates, however — most unexpectedly during the approval of a draft Order prescribing parochial fees for the next term. In his introduction on Tuesday, Carl Hughes (Archbishops’ Council) declared himself “singularly depressed” that the Synod had been unable to affirm a traditional view on marriage in an earlier motion commending a report from the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households, Love Matters.

Mr Hughes later apologised for the “inappropriateness” of his comment, which the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, described as “unnecessary and disappointing”. “Get over it, and get on with it,” she said in exasperation. “We are here for all and not just for the people who look like us and speak like us and believe what we believe.”

Love Matters, which was commended by the Synod on Monday, affirms the value of marriage, and includes a recommendation that the Church offer high-quality marriage preparation.

During the debate, the Revd Jo Winn-Smith (Guildford) warned: “Putting marriage first as a hanging bough means we don’t focus on love first.” It brought the risk that people would stay in damaging relationships; and children in homes with same-sex couples was not a second-best place, she said.

Bishop Hudson-Wilkin made a similar argument for equality when she introduced a motion commending the outcomes of From Lament to Action: a report from the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce, published three years ago (News, 22 April 2021).

She had seen the word “woke” bandied about in relation to racial justice, but its use was always incorrect, she said. The word had emerged among Black communities, and referred to the need to be socially aware. The racial-justice mandate did not flow from “identity politics”, she said, but the Christian identity. The Church must therefore continue in its work “embedding racial justice at all levels”, she said. “Lip service will not do, nor will ticking boxes.”

Most of the 24 speakers were from global-majority heritage backgrounds, and relayed personal experiences of racial discrimination. Daniel Matovu (Oxford), a new member of the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns, said that “you white folks have no idea” of the experience of racial injustice. Rosemary Wilson (Southwark) said that many of her extended family still reported that Christianity was not an option for them, because they did not see brown and black faces represented in its culture. “For years we’ve been saying it . . . now it’s time to sort it,” the Revd Folli Olokose (Guildford) said.

The Revd Amatu Christian-Iwuagwu (London) said that people on the front line of the climate crisis had mostly been people of colour, battling droughts, flooding, rising sea levels, and heatwaves. The mainstream environmental movement was built by people who cared about wildlife and trees but “did not care about black people”, he suggested.

Care of the environment was forefront during a short debate on Saturday afternoon on a motion encouraging greater biodiversity and sustainable use of church land. It was introduced by the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, as an invitation to “live out the Fifth Mark of Mission” (a set of objectives agreed by the Anglican Communion) to safeguard the integrity of creation and renew the earth.

Church land was a gift from God which parishes and diocese must steward wisely, he said. “How can we manage it in such a way that it is a blessing to nature and to the wider human community?” Churchyards “should be places of the living, not just the dead.”

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, also referred to the Five Marks in his paper on AI and the future of work, which was debated on Saturday. 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.”

Many welcomed the motion, which was passed, as amended by the Archbishop of Canterbury with an endorsement of the Rome Call for promoting an ethical approach to AI.

But 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 C of E has no capacity to lecture anybody on how to treat their employees.”

Clergy pay was also raised during a debate on clergy pensions, and what could be done to restore them to previous levels after a cut in real terms. The Revd Graham Kirk-Spriggs (Norwich) did not mince his words. “The terms and conditions that we are suffering as clergy are . . . an absolute scandal,” he said. “A clergyperson now earns less in their stipend than a first-year teacher.” Paying clerics properly in a cost-of-living crisis was “a matter of justice”, he said.

Robust speeches were also made during debates on the Church’s mission. The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, spoke passionately about his desire to refresh the Church’s commitment to estates ministry and evangelism. His motion called on the whole Church to address urgently structural and financial injustices was agreed unanimously by the Synod.

Several speakers gave personal examples of living in or ministering to impoverished housing estates, including the Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, whose mother had found faith through an estates church at the age of 16.

The Revd Lis Goddard (London) said that there were “gifted evangelists” in these deprived areas, who, despite hardship and poor education, should be considered for leadership roles. The Revd Chantal Noppen (Durham), who had worked on estates in the north-east for a decade, agreed: “They have taught me who God is, how God is, and why God is.” Canon Jane Richards (Chelmsford), speaking as a “council-house kid”, advised those discerning a call to estates ministry not to “make assumptions about us based on what you see or what you think you see”.

Personal experience was also prominent in a debate on a private member’s motion to remove the canonical impediment to ordination in relation to divorce. Under Canon C4, a faculty from an archbishop was required for candidates for ordination who were divorced with a living spouse, or married to someone who was divorced with a living spouse.

The Revd Eleanor Robertshaw (Sheffield), a divorcee who has married again, said that the only judgements made were from other Christians. “We are a faith called to forgive and not to judge,” she said. “And yet, because of the Canon C4 faculty process, this is exactly what we seem to do.”

Synod voted overwhelmingly to amend the canon so that a diocesan bishop or acting diocesan bishop may grant a faculty to remove the impediment. An amendment was also approved that requested national assessment guidelines to be issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

An action-filled Synod it may have been, but not on the subject of safeguarding. The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Helen-Ann Hartly, said in an interview on Sunday that it was “disgraceful” that the Synod had not agreed immediately to adopt a new, independent safeguarding structure. Apologies and accountability were demanded, and offered, during Saturday’s debate, but amendments that would have committed the Church to a new, alternative safeguarding system — which Dr Hartley spoke in favour of — were rejected in favour a period of consultation.

The debate focused on two reports: Dr Sarah Wilkinson’s report on the demise of the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) (News, 11 December 2023), and the report compiled by the former chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), Professor Alexis Jay, which was published only three days before (News, 21 February). Much of the debate concentrated on this latter report, which recommended the creation of two independent charities to carry out and scrutinise the Church’s safeguarding work.

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