TRUST IN ME!
A large brown envelope thudded on to my mat for the third time in a month. Synod sessions at York must be drawing near. Some years ago at Synod there was a wag who used to ask questions about the weight of paper which was sent out to members in advance of each group of sessions. Over coffee, during the sessions, he would indulge in speculation as to what acreage of lumber forest in Canada had to be felled annually to satisfy the needs of Church House for paper.
One of the items in the recent mailing was GS 1209 ‘Progress Report No 1’ on the Turnbull Report. It ran to thirty pages and offered some insight into the thinking of the Follow-up Steering Group. The objective of the whole process was laudably restated as switching from maintenance to mission. “Our national institutions, at present”, the report continued, “are fragmented, and less effective than they should be, not least in mobilising the use of all our resources in support of the proclamation of the Gospel to a world in desperate need of Christ’s message”.
“The remedy proposed by the Commission has won widespread acceptance, at least in principle,” asserts the report. Nevertheless it admits that “some” have been concerned that the Council would be Archiepiscopally dominated, insufficiently accountable., centralising, bureaucratic and over-demanding of the energies of the Archbishops. I suppose it all depends on what you mean by the words widespread and some, Acceptance may be widespread among Archbishops, but my soundings would lead me to be a little bit more cautious than the report at this point. Equally the word ‘some’ could apply to five or ninety five per cent, but my guess is that it could mean a majority in the House of Clergy and the House of Laity.
The report claims that the “emerging proposals’ seek to guard against their concerns in a number of ways But the assurances it offers are vague and insubstantial. For example, to say that “at least half the members of the Council will be elected by the General Synod” reads like Newspeak. All the members of the existing Standing Committee, save the Archbishops, are elected by the General Synod. The partial replacement of an elected body by one where nearly half of the members are appointed surely implies a lack of confidence in the electorate and those that they choose.
Then we are told that ‘there will he additional mechanisms requiring the Council to be answerable to the Synod.’ The mechanisms turn out to be submitting a report of the work and proceedings of the Council to each meeting of Synod and laying a budget and audited accounts before Synod annually. To ensure that Synod surveillance will really have teeth, “the Standing Orders of the Synod will provide for the proper consideration of, and the questioning of members of the Council about, such matters.”
Next, “the Council will be required to work closely with dioceses.” In some areas, its role will be executive and an example is given of “implementing at national level policies of the House of Bishops or the General Synod,” It would be interesting to know what policies of the House of Bishops someone has in mind to implement, which are not also policies of the General Synod. Are we to have two policy making bodies’? I may be naive, but I thought that the House of Bishops was one of the three houses of the General Synod. If the ‘policies’ of the House of Bishops are to be implemented independently, what about the ‘policies’ of the House of Laity?
The Steering Group “aims for less not more bureaucracy in the Church”. Its plan for doing this appears to be “to explore with Boards and Councils whether a shift of emphasis is sensible or possible towards, more flexible working in teams.” How this will achieve the aim is far from clear. Finally, “the Archbishops will be no more burdened than they are now, indeed there will be opportunities for them to delegate to others as they see fit”. One cannot help wondering if that is not what they do at the moment.
At the York Synod we will be treated to a full hour of presentation and questions and answers. Alan McLintock will need to come up with some substantial answers to the concerns that Synod members feel. Vague waffle in a report is all very well, and promises to conduct consultations with interested parties about the developing proposals can sound very reassuring, but nearly a year has passed since the publication of Working As One Body and the proposals are still not much firmer than a jelly.
In the Walt Disney film Jungle Book, there is a captivating scene where Kaa, the snake mesmerises young Mowgli and sings an alluring song ‘Trust in Me”, whilst slowly coning himself around the man-cub. It takes the tiger, Shere Khan, to unravel the situation. But that’s fiction, isn’t it?
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.