DID YOU HEAR the one about the clergyman who was thrilled by a General Synod Report? Well, he really does exist and he went public on his private fetish in a recent debate. Opinion in the bar afterwards was that he must come from a very sleepy parish, where the weeks and months between Synod meetings pass very slowly indeed. Then there was the clergyman who assured the Synod that he had no need for Viagra. I can’t remember the exact context in which this revelation was made, but it certainly served to keep the House of Bishops awake.
The Synod agenda at York had a fairly turgid look about it – plenty of liturgy and plenty of legislation. In the event there were some lively debates, including a motion from Robert Leach (Guildford) calling on the Government to allow churches to reclaim Value Added Tax on their expenditure: don’t think that the Synod is all about esoteric things with no relevance to the parishes!
I had the temerity to ask two questions about bishops’ expenses. One noted that fees received by clergy for occasional offices were generally assigned to their Diocesan Stipends fund and asked if a similar practice was followed in respect of allowances received by bishops for their attendance at the House of Lords.
The Church Commissioners assured me that such payments to bishops were not ‘fees’ but ‘as allowances paid for overnight accommodation, subsistence and secretarial costs’. Perhaps someone in the Home Counties might care to ask a question at their diocesan synod to elicit what kind of overnight accommodation their bishop actually uses when he is on duty at the Lords. What’s the betting that there will be good reason in the standing orders for ruling the question out of order?
My second question was about who authorises expenses claims submitted by bishops. How bishops can run up expenses of thousands of pounds a week defeats me, since there must be a limit to the amount of claret you can drink!
Apparently the bishops don’t have ‘ expenses’. In Church Commissioners’ newspeak, they have ‘working costs’. These are, of course ‘wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred in the performance of a bishop’s duties’, in order to satisfy Inland Revenue rules. However, I got the distinct impression that if the Inland Revenue did not question the claims, the Church Commissioners certainly weren’t going to question the bishops’ accounts. There is a quarterly audit, of course; but to all intents and purposes it would appear that expenses are incurred, and paid for, on bishops’ say-so. Even the Queen, the Church of England’s Supreme Governor has to submit a Civil List to parliamentary scrutiny and approval. Might it not be appropriate for the humble pastors of pastors to submit their stewardship to the scrutiny of others too?
I spent one lunchtime chatting with a Northern bishop who was concerned that people seemed to be gunning for the bishops. He was at pains to point out that much of a bishop’s work receives no publicity, and that the power to suspend churchwardens, for instance, was more necessary than some parliamentarians and laity appeared to appreciate. I won’t recount the salacious incidents he recounted to me, because I promised I wouldn’t; but I must admit that I have a lot of sympathy for him. As he said, ‘If my mother had known what being a bishop was really like, she would probably have advised me not to become one.’ Sadly, though, it is the bad guys who give the good guys a bad name. While the House of Bishops has members with the pastoral sensitivity of Attila the Hun, I suspect that bishops will have to endure their share of criticism.
It was good to find Synod addressing the problems of Kosovo and also to hear from the Bishop of Stepney, who has had a major role in the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. Both Philip Giddings, vice-Chairman of the House of Laity, and the Archbishop of Canterbury urged the Synod to work towards a Church and a Society where the colour of your skin doesn’t matter. As the Archbishop poignantly observed: ‘If it weren’t for the colour of his skin, Stephen Lawrence would be alive today.’
And finally…we had a report before us (GS1342) Rules to Order the Service and other miscellaneous liturgical proposals. It all looked fairly anodyne. But I did note a sentence which read: ‘ In the reading of psalms and other potions of scripture any version of Holy Scripture which is not prohibited by lawful authority may be used.’
This seemed to be a radical departure from previous practice where only versions which were specifically authorised could be used. So I asked the question: ‘Which version of Holy Scripture are prohibited by lawful authority?’ I received the disarmingly frank answer. ‘None of those currently on the market’.
Readers may draw their own conclusions about the liberality and inclusiveness of the new anything-goes-Church-of-England.
Gerry O’Brien is lay member of the general Synod representing the diocese of Rochester.