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War, work, and weeds: wide-ranging agenda for February General Synod

09 February 2024

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

THE war in Ukraine, the future of work, and canonical impediments to ordination for divorced people are among the items on a diverse agenda for General Synod this month.

Members are due to meet for five days from 23 to 27 February, at Church House in Westminster.

A number of diocesan-synod motions are scheduled. On the Friday, members will debate a motion from the diocese of London on parochial fees. In 2019, General Synod passed the Draft Parochial Fees and Scheduled Matters Amending Order, which transferred from the PCC to the diocesan board of finance the small fee (then £30, currently £32) for burials or cremations taking place at crematoria or cemeteries following services in church (News, 1 March 2019). The London motion would return the fee to the PCC, “to reflect the contribution made by parishes in support of such services”.

On the Saturday, a diocesan-synod motion from Oxford on the future of work will be debated. The Synod will be asked to “affirm the dignity and value of purposeful work as a significant component of human flourishing; endorse and commend the five principles used for evaluating fair and dignified platform work in the gig economy by Fairwork; and 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.”

A background paper from the diocese states that 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”. It lists challenges for workers, such as “the weakening of collective bargaining, the long term downward pressure on wages through different modes of globalisation, and a persistent dilution of the United Kingdom’s social safety net”.

The “AI-mediated industrial revolution may be the first to eliminate more well-paid jobs than it creates”, it warns, while observing “a sense that many contemporary jobs lack meaning or purpose”. Among its suggestions is that people consider “taking personal responsibility for our own use of apps and platforms with a record of poor worker treatment”.

In 2008, General Synod voted in favour of a motion to “affirm daily work, be it paid or unpaid, as essentially a spiritual activity” (News, 11 July 2008), and asked the Mission and Public Affairs Council to “compile a collection of supportive resource materials for church members” — something undertaken in the form of theological essays in the journal Crucible, published in 2011.

Saturday will also see Synod members discuss the Wilkinson review, a report that examined the events that led to the termination of the contracts of members of the Independent Safeguarding Board (News, 15 December 2023). A background paper, written by Dr Jamie Harrison of the Archbishops’ Council, and the Bishop of Stepney, Dr Joanne Grenfell, sets out a proposal for how the Church might engage with both the report and the forthcoming review from Professor Alexis Jay, who has been given the task of developing proposals for a fully independent structure to provide scrutiny of safeguarding in the Church of England (News, 20 July 2023).

The Jay report was expected to be completed by the end of 2023, but is now expected “only very shortly before Synod meets”, the paper reports. “It will be unrealistic for Synod to give it the substantive consideration it deserves at this meeting, and so the Synod motion as regards the Jay review will be about process.” The paper sets out immediate steps for responding to the lessons learned from the Wilkinson report.

The Bishop of Norwich will move a motion that intends to “bring biodiversity up the agenda of the Church of England’s overall Environment Programme so that it is given equal consideration with net zero”. It asks diocesan secretaries to allocate a named person or committee to create an action plan to achieve the “land” section of the Eco Diocese Silver Level by 2026.

Chairs and secretaries of all diocesan property/finance committees are asked to “incorporate nature-positive objectives into their asset management policies within the next six months”, while all parishes, cathedrals, TEIs, NCIs, offices with land they manage or influence are asked to complete a number of tasks, such as recording the biodiversity of their green spaces, through taking part in Churches Count On Nature each year (News, 11 June 2021).

On the Sunday, there will also be discussion of a report on racial justice, including progress on the implementation of From Lament To Action, the report of the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce (News, 21 April 2021), which is described in a briefing paper as “moderate at best”. It notes that there are “still few deans, archdeacons and senior staff in the NCIs and no GMH/UKME diocesan secretaries or TEI principals”.

A panel set up to distribute triennium funding allocated to racial justice has so far approved approximately £4.1 million over three years to dioceses, TEIs, and other networks. The Archbishops’ Commission for Racial Justice is set to complete its mandated three-year term in November, and a motion asks Synod to ask that the Archbishops’ Council “ensure effective structures exist for monitoring actions and outcomes on racial justice”.

On the Monday, General Synod will receive an update on the Church Commissioners’ response to links to the transatlantic slave trade. Last year, they announced the creation of an “impact investment fund” worth £100 million to mitigate long-term consequences of their fund’s connection with the trade (News, 13 January 2023). The oversight group for the work is preparing to publish its recommendations (News, 28 July 2023).

Members will also be an opportunity to discuss the report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households, Love Matters, which was published last year (News, 28 April 2023). In addition to welcoming it, Synod will be asked to request that work to be undertaken on how recommendations to Church and Government might be developed and put into practice.

The topic of estates evangelism will return to the Synod on Monday, following a commitment made in 2019 to have a “serving, loving, and worshipping Christian community on every significant social housing estate in the country” (News, 1 March 2019). The motion has the Synod “dedicate itself afresh” to the goal.

The 2019 motion followed the establishment of the Estates Evangelism Task Group in 2016, which was awarded £259,000 of capacity funding from the Strategic Investment Board for the 2019-2025 period.

A paper lists progress made, including mapping work: currently there are more than 1300 parishes with more than 500 social-housing homes where there currently appears to be no Church of England worshipping presence directly on the estate. It has also established a network of diocesan “Estate Focal Leads”, held biannual conferences, and worked with three northern-province TEIs to pilot “action learning vocational pathways”.

Contained in the motion is a request that the whole Church “address as a matter of urgency the structural and financial injustices that prevent flourishing and sustainable worshipping communities on every estate”.

On Tuesday, a private members’ motion on divorce, tabled by the Revd Mark Bennet (Oxford), requests that the Archbishops’ Council “introduce the necessary legislation to remove the canonical impediment to ordination in respect of a person who has remarried and, the other party to that marriage being alive, has a former spouse still living; or who is married to a person who has been previously married and whose former spouse is still living”.

A background paper notes that faculties enabling ordination in these circumstances are “granted much more regularly than was originally envisaged, with one in six ordinations requiring a faculty”. This is partly a reflection of the older age at which people are ordained, it notes. “Experience, of course, includes adult relationships, including failed relationships.”

The paper raises concerns about the faculty process, arguing that: “It is no longer divorce per se, but rather behaviour, which is at the root of any refusal to ordain. Routine decisions are being made under a procedure designed for exceptional cases, and pastoral decisions are being made by people who do not know the whole history of the candidates involved.”

A section on the impact on candidates observes that, in cases where domestic abuse and violence was involved in the divorce, “enquiries of a former spouse may involve a safeguarding risk, potentially to the candidate and to children”.

Although the motion does not give details of how the canonical provisions should be replaced, Canon Bennet writes that his “strong preference would be for routine decisions to be covered by appropriate guidance, and to be made by those who know the candidates best in the context of a fuller picture of the candidate’s life”.

The Mission and Public Affairs Council will bring a motion on war in Ukraine and the challenge to international order, which includes a call to all political parties to “set out ahead of the General Election their vision for a desirable international order and their strategies for ensuring that existing international rules and principles are attractive, both domestically and to a broader global constituency”.

A supporting report considers “the war’s weaponisation of religion and its impact on human rights, especially freedom of religion or belief”. It warns that: “At a time of crisis such as this, the Church could be co-opted on to a broader political agenda that provides uncritical support of the Ukrainian war effort or the Government’s support of it. Such risks are well illustrated by the unwavering moral support the Russian Orthodox Church has provided the Russian government.”

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