HOME THOUGHTS FROM ABROAD
There is nothing like a holiday to help put one’s thoughts into perspective. And I think that the same goes for the problems of a great institution like the Church of England. I am composing this piece on my hopes and fears for the next five years on the verandah of a holiday flat in Gozo, Malta, with palm trees in the foreground and the deep blue of the Mediterranean beyond. The issues raised in the recent General Synod elections seem a long way away.
There may be more in this than just a passing holiday mood. One of my hopes for the Synod of 1995 to 2000 is that it keeps a sense of perspective. The Church of England is a relatively small part of Christendom and is one of many churches in England. Such thoughts should keep in check those tendencies to “Anglican imperialism”, which sitting in that wonderful chamber in Church House might otherwise inspire. Collectively we need a dose of modesty.
This does not mean however that I have no expectations of the new Synod. In my election address to the lay electors of Southwark I emphasised the three priorities which the Archbishop of Canterbury endorsed for the Church of England in 1991. These were
– increasing confidence in the message we proclaim – encouraging evangelism – enhancing unity in the Church of England and between the churches.
Confidence I am more and more convinced that the spectre of Christians squabbling in public is a major disservice to the Good News. Confidence is undermined by such behaviour. I have been disappointed, if not dismayed, at times by the bitter tone adopted by some Synod members. I am not focusing on any one group as the fault has been widespread. I hope that the new Synod will remind itself of the “harvest of the Spirit” Galatians 5.22. If Synod members appear partisan or even spiteful, the world will question the sincerity of their faith and will turn away.
What else is needed to build up confidence? We must implement the strategy outlined in the Turnbull report. My experience as a member of the Synod’s Standing Committee since 1990 bears out the description in the report of institutional incoherence. Much of the time of the Committee is engaged in discussing matters which other bodies have already discussed or rubber-stamping the decisions of other bodies. We now have a golden opportunity to replace the maze of central institutions with a body designed to really enable the central work of the Church to go forward. Of course there are matters of detail to get right but we should resist those siren voices who will seek to elevate concerns about those matters into a general condemnation of the entirety of Turnbull. The Church in the grass roots must be reassured that there are appropriate institutional mechanisms in place so that never again will their confidence in the central structures be shattered. there will also be a welcome grip on work done at the centre. The National Council must apply the basic litmus test of asking “Will this piece of work promote the Good News, or be merely peripheral to it?” If any project fails this test, then scarce resources must not be devoted to it.
Evangelism The Synod can at best only be an enabler of mission, rather than being in the front line. It is not however impotent. One of the most promising statements in Turnbull is the suggestion that the Synod will deregulate the Church by giving more local and diocesan discretion (para 6.40). Freeing up the Church in this way can only help mission, rather than hinder it.
Unity Like many (most?) Anglicans I value the Church of England’s comprehensiveness, and her reluctance to set up doctrinal fences beyond her commitment to the Apostolic faith. I imagine that many readers of New Directions would consider that the expression of such sentiments is but hot air in the light of the vote of 11 November 1992. I disagree. Resolutions A and B, together with the Act of Synod, mean that those who cannot accept women priests can have and do have an honoured and honourable place in the Church. Personally I will resist any attempt to whittle away those legislative guarantees. The unity of the Church demands their indefinite existence. It will not come as a surprise however that supporters of the ordination of women consider that there is unfinished business. Sooner or later there will be calls for legislation enabling the ordination of women bishops.
Sexuality is another contentious issue. I suggest however that we could unite around a Synod motion calling for the Bishops’ report to be widely discussed in the Church. A debate on such a motion would reveal where the mind of the Church is now, nearly ten years after the Higton debate.
More widely I continue to hope for advances in the ecumenical field, particularly at the moment with the Methodist Church. I cannot see however any prospect of an advance with the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul, and I suggest that would have been so even if we had not ordained women priests. And finally, I return to my opening themes. My primary hope is for an unpretentious and tolerant Synod. A less “political” Synod would surely better reflect Gospel values.
Brian McHenry is a lay representative of Southwark diocese on the General Synod and a member of the Synod’s Standing Committee. He is a former Chairman of the Open Synod Group. He works as a Government lawyer.