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General Synod: what will they debate in York next month?

21 June 2024

Sam Atkins/Church Times

Synod members on the University of York campus in July last year

Synod members on the University of York campus in July last year

THE new clergy discipline system, more time off for priests, and support for disabled children are among the items on the agenda at the General Synod meeting next month.

While debates on Living in Love and Faith (News) and safeguarding (News) have dominated headlines, members gathering at the University of York on Friday 5 July also have a plethora of other topics to keep them busy till the following Tuesday.

Among the legislation to be discussed is the Clergy Conduct Measure, the disciplinary framework intended to replace the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM).

Now at its revision stage, the Clergy Conduct Measure has already been approved in principle by the Synod through its committee stage (News, 14 July 2023). The committee reported that much of the feedback from Synod members would be implemented, not in the text of the measure but in its accompanying code of practice.

Among the legislative amendments agreed was to hand over responsibility for handling complaints against an archbishop to the President of Tribunals rather than the other archbishop.

Also, the assessors will not be organised regionally as envisaged earlier, but will be a smaller, more professional, better trained and paid national group, appointed by the Clergy Conduct Commission (rather than bishops). A diocesan safeguarding officer, or member of the National Safeguarding Team (NST), can become party to a proceeding if it involves a child or vulnerable adult. And the code of practice will not be introduced until it has first been approved by the Synod.

A number of diocesan-synod motions are also on the agenda, most notably one from Winchester, which calls for all office-holding clergy to be entitled to 36 hours of rest every week (including an uninterrupted 24-hour period).

The Winchester proposers suggest that this reform would be an appropriate response to the “ever-increasing pressures on clergy colleagues” and the rise in clergy burnout, with its associated negative impact on parishes and ministry.

They acknowledge that the current regulations for office holders already permit clerics to take more than the minimum 24-hours’ rest stipulated in Common Tenure. But given how difficult many priests find it to take this time off, they hope that the motion will begin shifting culture.

An accompanying paper by the secretary-general, William Nye, argues that, as office-holders, clergy are already free to organise their time as they see fit, including taking as many days off a week as they deem appropriate (provided their duties on Sundays are still met). He also says that there is a risk that, if passed, the motion might put pressure on clerics to condense the same workload into a shorter week, therefore hampering their freedom to respond to “pastoral emergencies and mission opportunities”. A 36-hour entitlement to rest would also, ironically, be greater than that legally mandated for employees in wider society, he says, for whom the law stipulates 24 hours off a week minimum (although, in practice, most workers’ contracts give them two days off a week).

A large part of Sunday afternoon will be spent debating a diocesan motion from Liverpool on the “human dignity of disabled children”. Moved by the Archdeacon of Knowsley and Sefton, the Ven. Pete Spiers, it calls on the Church to “challenge the common assumption that bringing a disabled child into the world is a tragedy to be avoided”. It also calls on the NHS and the Government to improve support given to parents of children with disabilities, and asks for mothers who are told that their unborn child is disabled to be given better advice and “unbiased information”.

In a press conference held at Church House, Westminster, on Thursday, Archdeacon Spiers said that the motion was not about reducing the number of abortions of disabled children, and that he backed a “woman’s right to choose”.

He did, however, wish the Church to stand up for the idea that it was not intrinsically bad if children with Down’s Syndrome, for example, were brought into the world. He had been affected by Thalidomide in the womb, and was born with disabilities as a result; he was grateful that it was in an era before ultrasound scans.

“I often wonder what would have happened if a choice had been made available to my parents to terminate me or not,” he said. “I’m very glad they didn’t, and lots of people would say the same.”

Archdeacon Spiers hoped that the motion would spur churches to support families who were facing a similarly difficult situation, to offer “a lot of compassion, a lot of love, [and] no judgement”.

He did, however, say that there was an ongoing public debate, and in Parliament, about abortion in the UK, which currently allows for abortions up to term for a child diagnosed with a serious disability. “Some people would say that is unfair, unequal, and discriminatory,” Archdeacon Spiers said.

The Soul Survivor abuse scandal will also come under the microscope. The Revd Robert Thompson, from the diocese of London, is due to move his private member’s motion on Sunday evening: that the Synod call on the Archbishops’ Council to commission an independent inquiry, led by a senior lawyer, into the affair.

Mike Pilavachi, the prominent priest and pastor who founded and led the Soul Survivor youth festivals for almost 30 years, faced allegations last year of spiritual and emotional abuse (News, 6 April 2023). These were later substantiated, and an investigation by the NST was begun (News, 8 September)

New Wine has commissioned an external review of the case, led by Fiona Scolding KC (News, 1 March). Mr Thompson’s motion argues that the National Church should follow their lead, describing the internal investigation as neither “sufficient or right in principle”.

The Synod is also due to discuss a call for a review of social-security provision. A diocesan synod motion from Sheffield, moved by the Archdeacon of Sheffield and Rotherham, the Ven. Malcolm Chamberlain, asks members to note the increasing dependence on foodbanks in Britain, many of which are church based.

The motion argues that this “reflects serious inadequacies in the social security system”, quoting the Trussell Trust, which warns that the UK must either accept foodbanks as the “new normal”, or “work to create a more dignified, compassionate and humane society where everyone has enough money for essentials”.

An accompanying paper from Mr Nye refers to government statistics which show that 3.3 per cent of households had used foodbanks in the financial year to April 2023, and that 7.2 million people were experiencing food insecurity. The Trussell Trust distributed 3.12 million food parcels through its network of mostly church-based foodbanks in the year to March 2024: its highest ever annual figure (News, 17 May). Bishops had often spoken on the topic of poverty and the benefits system in the House of Lords, Mr Nye says. He refers to calls from the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households to reform the social-security system.

Mr Nye concludes that there are “evident” failures which should be addressed, and cautiously endorses calls from anti-poverty charities that the rate of benefits should be tied to the cost of buying the essentials that each household requires (estimated at £120 a week for an individual; £200 for a couple).

Among the other items on the agenda are: legislation to reform how chancel repair liability affects the Church Commissioners; and a paper from the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, exploring why so many of the constituent parts of the Church of England “deeply mistrust” each other, and how this might be restored (News story here).

Major constitutional reforms to the structure and governance of the C of E will be discussed on Sunday, when the National Church Governance Measure has its first consideration. These reforms draw on several years of consultation and proposals, drawn up by the Governance Review Group, which have already debated by the Synod in previous sessions. These involve streamlining the National Church Institutions from seven to four, and the creation of a new NCI: the C of E National Services.

A final diocesan synod motion from London will call on the Archbishops’ Council to work ecumenically to establish a “national day of prayer and action for the persecuted Church around the world”.

An accompanying paper from Mr Nye states that, while the C of E is deeply engaged in work overseas to uphold the rights of persecuted Christians, its approach has tended to focus on the most serious violations of freedom of religion and belief more broadly, rather than prioritising Christians in particular.

He also says that there already exists an International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, which is marked on the first Sunday in November by a number of charities, including Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Release International.

“It may be more helpful for us to actively support existing initiatives rather than create something new,” he concludes.

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