IT IS NOT DIFFICULT to criticise the General Synod. We all do it from time to time, and there are many voices encouraging us to do so. There is a school of thought that says the Synod is liable to exceed its competence and pronounce on issues when it lacks the authority to do so, and they may have a point. Others would say that Synod is often manipulated and abused in pursuit of sectional interests, and they may have a point too. I suppose it all depends on whether you subscribe to the conspiracy theory or the “cock-up” theory. So let me relate an everyday story of Synod folk which started in York last summer.
One evening, there was a debate on the Lord’s Prayer – not whether we should have one, but which words should be used in the new Common Worship book which will replace the ASB. There was general consensus that there should be a traditional version (Our Father, which/who art in heaven …) and a modern version (Our Father in heaven …). The question was which modern version.
Let me quote from the Archbishop of York who said in his speech introducing the debate, “The decision in effect lies between continued authorisation for the ASB modern language text or the English Language Liturgical Consultation’s (ELLC) text. The differences between those two texts lie in the translation of two lines ; ‘and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’ or ‘save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil’. …There is a choice to be made … The (Liturgical) Committee hopes that the Synod will speak with a clear voice.”
There followed an uneventful debate with eight contributions before the Archbishop summed up. Most of the arguments advanced were a bit lightweight, Bernice Broggio for example advocating adoption of the ELLC text “in order that we may share with people around the world”. Her reasons were something to do with a multicultural church school in Tooting where neither ‘temptation’ and ‘time of trial’ were likely to be particularly meaningful.
Synod duly took note of the report and then we moved on to a motion from Professor Canon Tony Thisleton who asked Synod to reject the ELLC text. He was scathing. He started by asserting that ‘save us from the time of trial’ profoundly violated the Greek text of Matthew and Luke. It would seriously depart from the teaching of the Church fathers such as Origen, Basil and Augustine. He pointed out that the E in ELLC stood for English, not ecumenical, and that the first person who did not mind changing the Matthaean and Lucan text was the second century arch-heretic Marcion, who simply deleted Matthew and changed Luke for the reasons advocated by the Bishop of Worcester (in the previous debate).
He exposed how flimsy the grounds for supporting the ELLC text were and said, “This is a matter of does the Synod go for truth or does it go for liturgical fashion and convenience? Which is really the important thing? Which do you actually want? He concluded by saying, “I began by thinking that the translation was marginally problematic; I am now totally convinced that it is a disaster.”
Three speeches followed, supporting Professor Thisleton by two to one and then the Bishop of Salisbury summed up. He could clearly read the mood of the Synod, and being unwilling to spit in the wind, back-pedalled and left the decision to Synod. However he explained the significance of the vote to be taken thus, “If you pass Professor Thisleton’s re-commital motion, we (the Liturgical Commission) will take it that what we should be doing is bringing back to you the (lead us not into temptation) text. I want people to be crystal clear before we move to vote that that is what we shall take it as reading.”
The motion was put and carried by a large majority.
A revision committee was formed to reflect on the debate and consider any representations that might be made. The Chairman of the committee of eleven was the Archbishop of York. Other members included the Bishop of Salisbury and the Provost of Derby and it looked balanced (five men, five women, five ordained, five lay), but apart from the Archbishop none of them could really be described as either “orthodox” or “conservative”. When the committee met the Archbishop was “prevented from attending”, and one can only speculate how the high-powered liturgical duo persuaded the other eight members of the committee to dismiss the clearly expressed will of the Synod.
It was certainly with some consternation that Synod members discovered that the committee had decided to retain the ELLC text along with the ‘lead us not into temptation’ text, notwithstanding the Synod vote and notwithstanding the submissions from Synod members which were against ELLC by a margin of more than two to one.
When Synod considered the Revision committee’s report in November there were a dozen or so motions asking for various changes, the last of which was a motion from Joanna Monckton asking that the ELLC text (save us from the time of trial) should not appear in the Common Worship book on the strength of the Synod vote in July. This was the last motion to be called in an afternoon of liturgical business but there was three quarters of an hour remaining before the next timed business.
Mrs Monckton made only a short speech commending her motion, knowing that a number of members, Professor Thisleton amongst them, were eager to speak. But no sooner had she sat down, than up jumped some prize nincompoop of a clergyman, on a point of order, to move straight to the vote.
At this point an experienced Chairman would probably have said something like, “I would like to hear one or two speeches first,” and called Professor Thisleton. However it was not to be. Perhaps the chairman was flustered, or perhaps she was half-asleep, but the point of order was accepted and we moved to a vote, with many members unsure whether we were voting on a point of order or the substantive motion. The motion was lost and the texts were forwarded to the House of Bishops.
It seemed worthwhile to write into the House of Bishops asking them to respect the will of Synod so clearly expressed in July and about forty members did so.. Six of the bishops were prepared to back Synod’s July motion, but the majority of 29 preferred to go along with the shambolic vote on Mrs Monckton’s motion in November. It would be surprising if the Bishop of Salisbury did not encourage them to do so, which leaves one to wonder exactly what value there is in a Synod debate if someone who disagrees with the decision we reach can ride roughshod over it (provided he happens to be a bishop, of course).
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.