THE FEBRUARY GROUP of Sessions was a proverbial good thing for the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was in fine fettle, as well he might have been. The long process of reform of the Church of England’s structures, started by Bishop Michael Turnbull reached its Synodical conclusion with a very substantial 90% vote in favour.
Not that there hadn’t been a skirmish or two along the way on the previous day. The Archdeacon of Northolt, wearing his Chairman of the Business Sub-committee hat, had merely ventured the suggestion that the National Institutions Measure might make the February sessions more necessary than in the past. No sooner had he done so than he was fiercely refuted by a blustering Bishop of Durham. The Archdeacon had obviously taken on board that the Synod in general, and the House of Laity in particular, took the idea of accountability very seriously. The implication was that Synod would have to meet so the Archbishops’ Council would have something to be accountable to.
However the Bishop was having none of it. One was left to wonder whether he has so little to do in the Diocese of Durham (where the recently published 1996 figures for usual Sunday attendance per 1000 of the population are the lowest in England) that he intends to stand for election to the Archbishops’ Council himself and devote two days a week or so to managing the bureaucracy of the Church. He clearly found the prospect of untrammelled power seductive; the thought of having to give account of his management to the elected representatives of those who pay the bills much less so.
I found myself quoted in both the secular press and the church press for remarks I made in the main debate about the model on which the Turnbull proposals are based, but more importantly on the workload which will be expected of members of the Archbishops’ Council. My sources suggest to me that membership will be far more onerous than, say, membership of the present Standing Committee. I would be surprised if anyone in full-time employment was able to give the time that will be required to do the job justice. So who will offer themselves as a candidate in the July elections? Several people who I would have expected to throw their hats in the ring have already indicated that they simply won’t have the time. It will certainly be interesting to see whose names are on the ballot paper, but if Bishops with a diocese to run can’t fit it in and clergy with a parish to run find it is impractical and laity with jobs can’t get enough holiday or time off, who will we be left with? Retired laity, non-parochial clergy and supernumerary bishops? I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that either the Church House staff will have effective control of the Council (because they are full-time and the Council members won’t be) or we will finish up making Council membership a full-time salaried position.
The Archbishop didn’t share my concerns, or if he did he wasn’t saying so. His presidential address which concluded the Group of Sessions had a very reassuring tone to it. He reaffirmed, “the foundations on which our Church has built down the centuries are those of the faith once delivered to the saints and there is nothing else that will give the Church of the future the security it needs. As the Lambeth Quadrilateral emphasises, in line with the 39 Articles, it is the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments that contain all things necessary to salvation and are the rule and ultimate standard of Faith.”
Applications forms to join both Forward in Faith and Reform are probably in the post to Lambeth Palace already.
Turning to the National Institutions Measure, which the Synod had just passed, he continued,
“The reforms we have assented to reflect a healthily dispersed pattern of authority and leadership through consultation and consent, with bishops, clergy and laity all bringing their distinctive gifts to the life and work of the Church and searching for a common mind together. None of this will change. The Archbishops’ Council will itself be a balanced body and will in fact be unable to achieve anything at all unless it be through consultation with and the consent of the bishops, clergy and laity of this Synod and of the dioceses of the Church of England whose internal governance is not affected by this measure.
The test of whether these reforms are worthwhile will be whether a Church, no less Anglican in its insistence on consultation, openness and consent, can also be better organised in its mission and witness to the nation and offer better service to the dioceses and parishes and sector ministries which are the front line of the Church through the whole length and breadth of the land. So it is just as well that neither the Archbishop of York nor I are hungry for power. No; we are anxious to serve and we want to help more effectively in the service of Christ. We believe that this is an objective worth pursuing.”
Those are momentous words, which may have surprised some and been overlooked by others. The National Institutions Measure is certainly the most radical reorganisation of the Church since Synodical Government was established nearly thirty years ago. There have been untold hours of work in committees, review groups, implementation groups and the like, but now the die is cast. The Archbishop urged, “so let us all get behind the new arrangements and make them work to the glory of God.” Let us indeed, because we must look out beyond our church structures to the communities we have been called to serve. That is not to say that structures and accountability are unimportant, but that those structures must enable, promote and support the mission of the Church through the parishes. The Archbishop deserves enthusiastic support.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.