Five years, these days, is a long time in theology. Those who have been elected to the new General Synod have a programme of business before them – foreseen and, one suspects, unforeseen – which may yet again change the face of the Church of England.
The dominant issue in the coming session is set to be what the House of Bishops coyly calls “Issues in Human Sexuality”. On that subject the clergy of the capital, at least, have made their feelings felt through the ballot box. In Southwark and in London the polls were topped by heavyweight homosexual activists – The Revd Malcolm Johnson (who had a famous victory in London) and The Revd Dr Jeffrey John (who managed to dislodge the engaging Dr Sentamu in Southwark). The Bishops, who are clearly not ready for a dust-down with the Evangelicals so soon after the ordination of women, look like been steamrollered again.
The Turnbull Report will take up a good deal of the Synod’s immediate attention. It all sounds so plausible. To quote Bishop Turnbull at the press launch, the aim is “to make quite sure that the centre is not performing functions which could otherwise be done at the level of the parish and the diocese”. But the Synod will need to watch the ensuing prestidigitation with great attention. Subsidiarity has been the declared policy of a number of modern governments: but it has never been the real aim of any of them.
The weak points in the quasi-democratic constitution under which the C of E currently operates are not hard to find, and the crucial one is the diocese. No one who has experienced a Diocesan Synod could suppose that it was a robustly democratic body. Dr Gareth Bennet’s assessment of where real diocesan power lies is no less true now than it was at the time of his tragic death. We predict that subsidiarity, in the Turnbull sense, will end at the diocese and so accrue to the bishop. But true subsidiarity and democratisation in the Church of England demands power for the parishes; power to spend their own money according to their own priorities, and power, in so doing, to set the priorities of the national church. It is that for which the Synod must now fight.
At some stage in its five years the Synod will need to address the problem of ordinands and of theological training. Hopes that the ordination of women would arrest the decline in numbers have proved unfounded. The number of colleges for priestly training and formation looks set to decrease further. The future is bleak and is edging its way into the present. If a professional, residentially trained ministry, attracting young men and women as a first career, is to survive into the next century, radical steps will need to be taken to provide for it now. And since it is by no means clear that all those involved both at diocesan and at national level in the selection and training of ordinands are committed to its survival, radical pruning may well be required.
Pruning is also what the episcopate needs. The growth of a substantial – indeed numerically predominant – class of bishops-without-jurisdiction has been an unwelcome and ill-considered development. The transfer of the payment of such supernumeraries from the Church Commissioners to the dioceses will provide an excellent opportunity for strategic reassessment. What are bishops for, and what should they be doing? The Synod is in a unique position, as a democratic gathering of the consumers of the service which the episcopate provides and of the donors and generators of the wealth which it expends, to give firm advice and direction. If a major reassessment of the role of the episcopate, including the methods of its appointment, does not accompany the other reviews of church structures currently being undertaken, the Synod will live to rue its inaction.
The Synod also needs, in the next five years, to review itself. There is much to be done. The Rotten Boroughs in the House of Clergy – the pompously-named `dignitaries’ who feature separately in the Church of England Year Book – should go. The place of `dignitaries’ in a modern church is on the hustings, taking their chance with their brother clergy, as some already do. The House of Laity, too, needs further democratisation. At present the electoral college is made up of those who are prepared the endure the extraordinary tedium of the Deanery Synods. Small wonder that it is effectively a self-selected bunch. We can do better than this, and show ourselves distrustful of basic democracy if we do not. Let this new Synod be the occasion for a Reform Bill which will enfranchise every member of every parochial church council.
It could be an exciting five years. The Turnbull Report, after all, is only a beginning. Basic Structural Reform has long been necessary; but it should not be left to a bevy of archiepiscopal quangos. Once the djinn of Reform is out of the bottle the General Synod, we are inclined to think, may well find it intoxicating.