George Austin covers the verbal volleys at York
In Boot Hill graveyard in Tombstone, Arizona, there is a monument to George Johnson ‘hanged by mistake’ in 1881. ‘He was right and we was wrong’ goes the inscription, ‘but we strung him up and now he’s gone.’ Would I, I mused, suffer a similar fate in the OK Corral at the York Synod?
The trouble was that when I covered the November 1995 Synod for the BBC’s Sunday programme, just after I had been ejected from the club by archidiaconal bouncers, I was refused a press pass. It meant that I had to put together a ten-minute slot of interviews and comments without the usual facilities. Worse, I had to sit in the public gallery, for all the world like one of those sad folk who get voted out but can’t keep away.
My paranoia was misplaced, and Sheriff Wyatt Beaver and his deputies looked after us well – a fridge full of bottled water, Coca-Cola, beer, chocolate bars, offers of crisps, and even a TV set on which we could follow Wimbledon. What more could anyone want?
Maybe anyway in 1995, the press contingent was so large that there simply wasn’t room for one more. Certainly then the BBC alone had a large team of radio and television journalists permanently in residence whenever and wherever the Synod met, together with representatives of all the broadsheets and in some debates even of other newspapers.
What has happened since then that in 2001 the BBC only had regional reporters paying an occasional visit, while other journalists were much fewer in number than I can remember? Sometimes Wyatt and his large posse easily outnumbered the hacks.
Board in control
Is the Synod uninteresting and irrelevant? Or is it (as a bishop gently explained to me) that the Church has been so successful in controlling the media that they now print only what the Church wants them to print? And if that is true, is it something to boast about?
What has happened to Question Time that the media are almost totally uninterested? I should explain that the purpose of Questions is to make bishops and other Board representatives answer questions they do not want to answer. The secret is to put an acceptably innocuous question which you then follow up with a devastating supplementary, drawing your opponent to the net and then slamming a volley to the base line. Question time ought to be full of exciting rallies, tense and illuminating, but at York it was as if the pre-match warm-up never ended.
On the plus side, the debate on globalization saw the Synod at its very best. When I read the motion, I confess I expected a debate like those that members of the old British Council of Churches had to endure – all heart and no head. Not so: the Synod used the wide expertise of its membership to the full. Not everything needs to hit the headlines, and this debate (and others, of equally high quality) did suggest that the Synod really does have an important role to play in feeding input into policies and issues of the secular and political world.
Racket not club
The media flocked in for a fascinating establishment match on the Centre Court between the bishops and the rest of Synod, at first on the issue of whether or not bishops should continue to hold on to their 26 seats in the House of Lords. These they gained originally because they were medieval landowners and it is of course important for the Church to preserve such traditional values. Especially when it includes membership of the most exclusive club in London.
Synod went with the bishops, who won the set by 6 games to 1. The single hiccup was that it allowed the Bishop of Woolwich, Colin Buchanan, to question the match rules. At least it gave Michael Brown the opportunity, for the first time in the twenty years he has been reporting the Synod, of getting the word ‘disestablishmentarianism’ into his report in the Yorkshire Post. But it was an easy victory: Synod has a technique for dealing with uncomfortable prophets – patronize and neutralize. ‘A jolly good chap, Colin, always entertaining, what?’
Then there was the matter of the appointment of bishops, and I cannot remember a more devastating (or a more accurate) report than that introduced by Baroness Perry. There was the ‘excessive secrecy’, the power the present system ‘concentrates in the hands of the Secretaries and individual bishops’, concern at the ‘selective summaries of unattributed references’, a ‘lack of trust of those in authority’. And there were the poor bishops, 43 of them, hearing speech after speech denouncing, utterly and completely, the very system that had brought them where they were. But the fact that none of them sought to defend the indefensible produced an honourable 6 games to 4 victory.
The Bishop of Selby in his opening speech in the globalization debate had suggested that the Church of England can seem ‘obsessed by material security.’ ‘How can we,’ he asked, ‘avoid our prosperity being at the expense of others?’ A dangerous and radical question for a bishop to put, and one that brings us to the next set in which someone might have slipped in an unreturnable match winner on bishops’ expenses?
Even though there had been the clever ploy of publishing the Mellows Report on these on the day of the General Election, so that it would be lost in the political turmoil of the day, would some wicked person start making unpleasant innuendos? Or even comparisons with the fine statements made in the debates on globalisation, on rural affairs, and on the health of the poor.
To be true, there had been a moment when the play might have begun to go against them. The Commissioners are exploring the possibility of raising rents on the Octavia Hill Estates, which provide low-cost housing for the poor, and seem determined to go ahead. A Southwark delegate, in a brilliant speech, brought justice, theology and personal experience to bear against it, and the debate could easily have moved on to make unpalatable connections.
Fortunately, the Commissioners’ opening speaker had served one unreturnable ace: ‘The press well know this: the bishops’ own costs are tightly managed. There is indeed no extravagance or excess.’ What more could be said? Well, a lot actually, but not within the restricting dynamics of a Synod debate. The bishops won by 7 games to 5 after a tie-break. It was game, set and match to the bishops.
I enjoyed watching from up in the gods. The Synod has much improved in the quality of its debates since the 1990–95 period. But I was left with the nagging thought that in the first century, Jesus would have been hitting the headlines – ‘Galilean calls Pharisees ‘whited sepulchres’; ‘Den of thieves charge in Temple’. St Paul would have used the media as a challenging opportunity for mission, while as for John the Baptist – ‘Arrested for attack on Royal morals. Will he survive?’
George Austin is a writer and broadcaster who served on General Synod for 25 years.