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General Synod: A case of 'shuffling the pack'?



This weekend, nearly 500 members of the General Synod of the Church of England will convene in York. In preparation, they have each been sent more than 800 pages to read and digest. Over the next five days, they will spend approximately thirty hours debating the contents of those papers and listening to further presentations.

Yet, despite the diligence of the elected Synod members it is hard to see what impact they will be able to have.

For years, Synod members have been complaining about the plethora of group work and undebated presentations on the agenda and this Synod is no exception. If the elected members are not trusted to do little more than 'ask questions' or 'share their concerns', while central bodies and the Bishops act with impunity, there is no accountability and no trust.

As one of those 800 pieces of papers says, ""the problems at the heart of National Church governance identified by the GRG [Governance review Group], are both an expression of and contribute to a culture of mistrust which harms the reputation and effectiveness of the Church and diminishes its prophetic voice."

Three items on the agenda illustrate this point.

Living in Love and Faith

Following February's vote to "welcome" the Bishops' response to Living in Love and Faith, the implementation phase has begun. Much of Saturday afternoon has been put aside for Synod to engage with an update on the plans for implementation GS 2303. How this will be done has not yet been revealed - though voting and formal debate are off the agenda. The Bishops have been 'listening' for nearly four months but there is little sign that the concerns raised by faithful Anglicans have been heeded. For example:

  • Despite "significant critical comments" that the prayers of Love and faith were too like marrriage, the Bishops have changed almost nothing during their 'refining' process: two suggested readings from Song of Songs have been removed (though they could be replaced by any couple who wished to use them) and what were two alternative "prayers when rings are worn" have been combined and moved from the main section of prayers into a section on "symbolism" and the phrase "By your blessing may these rings be..." has disappeared.

  • While the Bishops claim to uphold freedom of conscience for clergy, as to whether they use these prayers, the very real concern that this will prove divisive in parishes up and down the country has been met with the suggestion that the archdeacon, or a consultant, might be brought in to mediate between clergy and their PCC to find an appropriate way forward. It is difficult to see how in practice such a process, with the inevitable intrusion by local media, can avoid putting severe pressure on the consience of faithful clergy.

  • Those seeking a Third Province or other "structural" solutions have been heard - but the Bishops have decided to only consider "structural approaches where they are congruent with the Pastoral Principles, where they maximise mutual working together and seek the Gospel imperative for the Church to be one." This seems to rule out any structure that would offer any "visible differentiation" at all.

It is hard to argue that General Synod is any more than a 'talking shop' - with those in authority avoiding the concilliar processes by which decisions should be made. A point that has been highlighted in a letter sent to members of the College of Bishops and published this week by representatives of eleven organisations.

Safeguarding

Much has already been said about the decision of the Archbishops' Council to sack two out of three members of the Independent Safeguarding Board. The timing of this decision prevents these individuals reporting to General Synod on the progress of implementing the requirements of the IICSA report.

Ironically, when the proposal for the current Independent Safeguarding Board was agreed by the Archbishops' Council, in January 2021 they were told, "Culture change is not the only solution to the church's failures but without it there is no way forward." Four signs of such change were noted:

  1. Alertness to disparities of power becomes instinctive in all relationships

  2. Group-think and tribalism are challenged effectively from outside the "club"

  3. Responsibility is clearly attributed and shared

  4. Systems respond to failures by holding those responsible to account and changing to prevent recurrent failure.

Unless it can be shown that the now ex-members of the Independent Safeguarding Board were in fact those with greater power than their employers, came from within the 'club', and were entirely to blame for the breakdown in relationship outlined in their Dispute Notice, it would appear that there has been no change of culture at the 'top' of the Church of England's heirarchy. No wonder the Deputy Lead Bishop for Safeguarding, Rt Rev Julie Conalty, said the Church "seems less safe", as a result of this decision.

National Church Governance

The report quoted above, continues, "To overcome a legacy of mistrust will need not only governance and administrative reform, essential though those are, but a sustained commitment to collaborative action and habits of mutual respect by every leader and institution within the Church of England."

True - but with very little evidence of such a change in culture - Synod will need to rely on the structural elements of reform. Yet, at the heart of these reforms, is a Board that is more centralised, more powerful and arguably less accountable than the present chaos.

The flagship of reform is a new charity - Church of England National Services (CENS) - which will take on "all of the functions of the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners (excluding investments), Church of England Central Services, and some of the activities of the Office of the Archbishops subject to transitional processes."

This centralisation may bring more "clarity" but in effect it will put greater power in the hands of a smaller number of people, fewer of whom will be elected and fewer of whom will even need to give lipservice to the doctrine of the Church of England.

The current Archbishops' Council has 19 members - the CENS board will have 15.

In effect the structure will remain very similar - 2 Archbishops (ex-offico), 2 elected bishops, 2 elected clergy, 2 elected lay people and 7 appointed members, one of whom will be a paid Chair - in place of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The four places that have been removed are ex-officio positions - all elected members of General Synod - the two Prolocutors (senior clergy) and the Chair and Vice-Chair of the House of Laity.

Further the report encourages the CENS Board to follow the lead of the Church Commissioners to enable not just members of the Church of England, but also those who are members of "a church which subscribes to the Holy Trinity," to be appointed to the Board. This would be inline with one of the key benefits of this Governance review set out in the Appendix, that, "The governance of the national church should be inclusive, promoting richer decision-making that more properly reflects the Church and the Nation."

By reducing the number of clergy and the number of lay members of the Church of England involved at the highest levels, the governance of the Church will be even further removed from those in the pews. Those in favour of these changes may point to the new opportunities to be involved, after all, "wherever feasible, limited life, task-focused groups should be preferred to standing groups." But has no one considered the unintended (?) consequence of this - the reduction of 'institutional memory,' which gives greater power to those in long-term roles, who have a habit of using that power to channel their inner Sir Humphrey Appleby.

The report recognises that the current mechanisms of the Church of England to hold the national institutions to account are "not perceived as adequate". The only solution to this that is offered is the formation of "a synodical committee...to scrutinise the work of the National Church Institutions, through regular engagement with Trustees, Chief Officers, and staff."

At its best this will provide the opportunity for Synod members to ask more questions, generate more pieces of paper and more working parties - while the same group of people keep doing the same things - just in a different structure.

What can be done?

Christians know that governance and legislative reform can only have a limited impact. Jesus himself warned us about the ability of the human heart to use the law to justify itself and oppress others (Luke 11:37-52).

Cranmer encouraged the people to pray for Christ's Church militant here on earth, calling on the Almighty and everlasting God to:

  • "...inspire continually the universal church with the spirit of truth unity and concord: And grant that all they that do confess thy holy name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love"

  • "...grant to... all that are put in authority, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion and virtue."

  • "...give grace... to all Bishops and curates that they may both by their life and doctrine set forth thy true and lively Word and rightly and duly administer thy sacraments."

  • "...all thy people give thy heavenly grace.. that with meek heart and due reverence, they may hear and receive thy holy Word; truly serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life."

Sadly, without agreed truth, a shared understanding of true religion, godly church leaders and meek hearted people, all the papers, votes and scrutiny committees in the world cannot solve the problems at the heart of the national Church.

It is time to fast and pray.

 

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Thank you to Samual Regan-Asante at Unsplash for the image we have been used.

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