When Backbenchers Rule
It was towards the end of the sermon at the Holy Communion service in Westminster Abbey that inaugurated the Sixth General Synod. The preacher was a suitably high powered Regius Professor of Moral Theology. The sermon was about speaking. “Fifthly, you will have known when to stop speaking,” he continued. Old Synod hands fidgeted uneasily as raw nerves were touched.
“Let me commend to you a model”, the Reverend Dr Oliver O’Donovan intoned. “In 1983 your predecessors, making their second or third attempt to address the deeply disturbing question of abortion, framed these words: All human life, including life developing in the womb, is created by God in his own image, and is, therefore, to be nurtured, supported and protected.” In a flash my mind raced back twelve years to the Sports Hall at the University of York at the very end of a July Group of Sessions. I had not expected to be reminded of that Summer day so long ago, to hear the words of the Chelmsford Diocesan Synod motion now being repeated in such different surroundings. I thought of those words conceived in the bar of Alcuin College, modified by several Chelmsford members, recast by the late O R (Raymond) Johnston, then a member for Oxford Diocese, negotiated with the BSR and finally passed by the Synod with a landslide 256-2 vote.
“They took up an issue,” he continued, “on which the conscience of the whole nation was tormented. They took hold of a key Scriptural idea and expressed it in biblical language. They found a large consensus of Synod members from many different points of view, who knew that they had to say that much, and no less, together. They avoided the temptation to pronounce on a thousand secondary questions, of biology, of moral casuistry, of practical implementation, that demanded, and still demand, discussion, but which did not need to be pronounced upon by a Synod. The result though simple, was not bland or empty. It was the kind of simplicity won by care and thought. It addressed the problem at its heart, and defined a place for the church to stand in catholic integrity. It was an authentic act of spiritual government.”
“If what you say for God to the church commands such economy and authority, men and women will acknowledge that the Spirit of God speaks through you.”
And we stood to say the Nicene Creed. The service continued and by mid-afternoon Synod was in full swing, debating the Agenda and indulging Synod’s other little idiosyncrasies. As I took a break from the debate for a cup of tea, I was still mulling over that sermon. My thoughts turned to the crop of Diocesan Synod motions awaiting debate by the new Synod. One, the Newcastle motion supporting Christian Aid’s Trade for Change campaign was down for debate on Thursday afternoon. The others about admission to communion before confirmation, withholding incumbents from parishes which failed to pay a full parish share to their Diocese, a liturgical rite for extended communion and animal rights could wait a few more months. What would a preacher make of these debates in fifteen years time?
Whereas Diocesan Synod motions all get debated eventually, when they reach the front of the queue, Private Members’ motions have to attract more signatures than any other if they are to be debated.
Of the dozen or so motions on the table, three front runners emerged during the week – one dealing with sex, the second with women bishops and the third with mission and evangelism. The Archdeacon of Wandsworth was eager for Synod to contend that the House of Bishops’ report Issues in Human Sexuality “is not the last word on the subject”.
Canon Nick Bury, from Canterbury wanted legislation for women bishops to be introduced as soon as possible. I put down a motion asking PCCs to encourage members of their churches to take a serious interest in mission by getting on the mailing list of at least one of the PWM mission agencies.
By the end of the week came the reckoning. The Archdeacon’s motion had attracted 128 signatures, though interestingly almost exactly twice as many from the clergy as the laity. I spotted Richard Kirker, wearing his Press Badge, checking the signatures on Friday lunchtime. From the look on his face, he was rather disappointed that the Canon’s motion on women bishops had attracted a few signatures more, though this time the clergy/laity split was much more even.
My motion on mission and evangelism was comfortably ahead of both of the others, so if there is any time for private members motions in February at all, that is the one we will be debating.
The other motions further down the list cover subjects as diverse as rural housing, banns of marriage, nationalism, decency in the media, voting rights for retired clergy in Synod elections, abolishing STV in Synod elections and priority for pedestrians. We will have to wait and see which, if any, of them gets to be debated.
As I finished my lunch and left Church House on the Friday afternoon, with Synod week over, my thoughts drifted back to that day twelve years ago when a Chelmsford Diocesan motion had found a consensus which no-one would have thought existed on a very contentious subject. My memories were still vivid and I had good reason to relive those moments, for I had been the mover of that motion.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of General Synod for Rochester Diocese. He formerly represented Chelmsford.