George Austin on the York Synod 2002
Whatever else the Synod is – especially at York – it is theatrical. And it is modern theatre, with audience participation, no curtains, an open stage where minor characters flit on and off before the play begins, chatting to each other, moving props, occasionally wandering into the audience, adding to the anticipation of drama to come. And drama there was at York in July 2002.
But it made a slow start, with that curious need to have interminable discussion on the Report on the Agenda before the real action could get under way. Frank Knaggs asked, in a slightly different context, ‘Why presentations? If there is nothing new, why bother? If not, why was it not in the Report in the first place?’
In fact, the first few Acts could have been missed out altogether. The curtain went up (metaphorically) on the first day at 3.30pm but, after such a prolonged overture, it was 8.30pm before the real business began, with a debate on Regionalization. Now it is not that this is not an important issue, any more than it could be said that Urban Renaissance is not an important issue, with their findings important contributions to a wider national debate.
But was a debate needed? Could not the time taken have been used instead for fuller consideration of Private Members’ Motions about social issues – such as that on abortion and the one that was actually discussed on Christian Witness in a Plural Society?
And in that debate there was an unexpected result. Just as when one has seen a Shakespearean play many times and can be surprised by joy and the fresh insight that a new production can introduce, so in Synod debates. I listened convinced that it would be the old story – good arguments but a final rejection of the premise that ‘the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ is for all and must be shared with all including people from other faiths.’
Ten years ago, such a debate would have produced assurances that ‘of course we believe in the Good News’ but then at the end, if not a proposal to move to next business, certainly a rejection of the main premise on the grounds that it smacked of ‘religious imperialism’. I could not have been more wrong, with George Kovoor’s motion being passed by 301 ayes to a mere 10 noes
Question Time too could well have been deleted from the agenda. This is supposed to be an opportunity to put questions to Board chairmen that they do not wish to answer, yet most questions on the York order paper either need not have been asked at all or else could more properly have been dealt with by letter.
The pantomime volleying, now almost entirely absent, of ‘Oh-yes-it-did’ and ‘Oh-no-it-didn’t’ used to be one of the highlights of a Synod meeting. And now there is even a proposal to limit such supplementaries to two. I left for home after half an hour to watch one of our 96 television channels and found there was nothing worth watching there either.
More serious than emasculating Question Time were proposals to reduce drastically the size of Synod membership. As I listened, I felt rather like Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream when he found he was in fairyland with Titania, Pease-Blossom, Cobweb and the rest. And it was not simply that Synod, the only subordinate law-making body below Parliament, was considering a drastic reduction in the membership of the very people, archdeacons, who in their day-to-day work see church law in its practical expression. Reducing archdeacons – I ask you!
One of the greatest strengths of the Synod is that, particularly in its lay membership, there is hardly a subject on which at least one member is a star in that field, and their expertise has been able to nourish many a debate on a wide range of important issues. Without this, Synod would deserve little credibility.
Moreover, the requirement to have at least three clergy and three laity from every diocese does mean a proper representation of the wide range of theological outlook within the Church of England. In what fell two points short of a sermon, a non-elected member of the Archbishops’ Council, Jayne Ozanne, urged the Synod to be ready to trust a vastly smaller elected membership.
She argued that as they would no longer represent parties within the Church, they would be able to respect all points of view, ‘trusting each other to speak for all.’ As she said this, I swear that from the press box I could see a herd of pigs flying among the rafters of the hall.
Yes, Jayne, ideally it would be more Christian. Unfortunately the qualification for membership of the Church of God is not that we should be saints but that we are in fact sinners, and so it simply would not happen. Anyway, I cannot help feeling that part of becoming mature is when we realize we can never properly and fully express other people’s views.
In the end, although the synodical turkey refused to follow Ms Ozanne by voting for Christmas, it did agree to reduce its membership from 570 to 500.
In one sense it matters little since Synod seems fairly toothless anyway, even in minor matters. It has always been the practice for there to be a general debate on everything in a Report, to be followed by a substantive motion on particular issue contained within it, the purpose being to spend perhaps a couple of hours on the first so as to be able to move quickly to vote on the second.
The Bishop of Winchester submitted meekly when he was in effect told to sit down by the Chair, simply because he referred to something in the following motion. Well, of course he did, because what was in the motion was surely in the Report. Where were the Oswald Clarks or Tim Belbens of yore to jump up and point out the chairman’s error?
And in earlier and more irreverent days when in another debate the speaker was congratulated by the Chair for her ‘wise words’, the Chamber would have been in uproar at such improper partiality.
Methodists Mark II
So much for the niggles. One over-riding good impression was that the general standard of debate is far higher than it was ten years ago. Because there was inevitably a sense of déjà vu as old issues returned, it was not too difficult to make comparisons, rather as one might judge successive productions of Hamlet.
Again, my pessimism was not fulfilled. I thought there would be assurances in the Anglican/Methodist debate that ‘nothing was being decided now’, only to find a year later that objections would be dismissed on the grounds that ‘we can’t upset our Methodist friends by going back on July 2002.’ Not so.
In the similar production in the 1970s, there was an unrealistic expectation that the two churches could simply find a form of words on which they could agree, to which each at the same time gave a different and sometimes mutually exclusive meaning. It was unity by ambiguity.
Not so the Covenant proposals, and if they eventually fail, it will not be because of haste. The three most memorable speeches were from orthodox Catholics – Fr Houlding, and the Bishops of Chichester and Beverley. It was not simply what they said, nor the fact that all three spoke supportively while at the same time spelling out clearly the theological and practical problems that must be faced. Rather, it was the sympathetic attentiveness of the Synod as they spoke and the enthusiastic applause they received at the end. That was a new element in the debate and one much to be welcomed.
I wish I could say this of the discussion (it was not intended to be a debate, rather questions and comments on the Bishop of Rochester’s video presentation) on the matter of Women Bishops. Although it was dominated by those in favour, that was not really the downside.
Rather, it was the sour note introduced by two of the sisterhood from the St Albans diocese (where else?), who made it chillingly clear that there is a powerful and vociferous group within the church who are determined there will be no conscientious provisions, and that even the present provisions of the Act of Synod must be removed.
Sometimes a Synod debate will reach the heights, and that was certainly the case in the debate on the report Israel/Palestine: An unholy war, which was expert, thorough and evenly balanced. As one nurtured in the world of the Synod/WCC ethos of the 70s and 80s, I was expecting speeches denouncing Israel (and of course the USA) and absolute silence on the cruel activities of the suicide bombers.
I could not have been more wrong, for it named evil by whomsoever it was perpetrated in a manner that would have almost been shouted down in earlier days. As a result it was a valuable and valid Christian contribution in the face of an almost intractable situation, and a debate of which Synod can be truly proud.
Don’t mess with me
Last year, I recorded how Colin Buchanan once again fell foul of that most unpleasant of synodical techniques – rejection by ridicule, rather as Malvolio in Twelfth Night is humiliated by Sir Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek and Maria. When Malvolio finally reappears in his master’s household, he is in no mood for forgiveness. Instead, he departs and with a chilling warning: ‘I will be revenged. On the whole pack of you.’ And you know he means it.
Synod is of course too Christian for revenge. Instead the best weapon is the principle, ‘If you can’t join them, beat them.’ At York, Colin began his speech in the debate on the appointment of bishops by making clear that he would not expect this time to be ridiculed. It was spoken quietly (mind you, with Colin, ‘quietly’ is a relative term) but it was a clear warning, ‘Don’t mess with me.’ And they didn’t.
Yet it was clear from the start that the Synod would have nothing to do at this stage with abolishing the Prime Minister’s involvement, though there were formidable speeches by the Bishop of Worcester (for Buchanan) and the Bishop of Durham (against). The defeat was overwhelming; but it will be back for a second performance.
The York Shambles
The debate on the Scott-Joynt report, Marriage in Church after Divorce, was frankly a shambles. It began late and was dominated by long and for the most part ludicrous amendments (save to add the word ‘exceptional’), and it was clear that as usual the Synod was having none of this, wanting only to vote on the main motion. There was only a perfunctory debate, with the crucial experience described by the Bishop of Sodor and Man of the practice of a direct episcopal involvement, together with his description of the abuse and threats (in language of a kind only his naval experience had prepared him), now to fall on the parish priest, being completely ignored.
Synod was not going to be dissuaded by reason or experience and accepted the proposals by 269 to 83, after which it quickly dispatched the Convocation regulations to oblivion.
Between tears and laughter
Like much in Shakespeare, Synod sometimes hovers between tragedy and comedy. For instance, in Much Ado about Nothing when Leonato rejects Hero on her wedding day, she appears to have died of grief. To punish Leonato, her father pretends she is really dead and Leonato in his guilt might well have killed himself, and comedy would have become tragedy, mirroring Romeo’s suicide on the supposed death of Juliet.
With some of the Synod’s decisions in York, the future offers a similar choice. Will the marriage reform fulfil the sincere hopes and intentions of the Bishop of Winchester? Or has Synod now brought about the death of marriage discipline in the Church of England? Will the work of the commission on Women Bishops be as thoughtful and as compassionate to those who reject its proposals as the Bishop of Rochester intends? Or will the feminist fundamentalists be triumphant?
Has the curtain in fact begun to come down on traditional and orthodox believers in the once comprehensive Church of England? Are those of us who, like Charles Wesley, would have wished to live and die as members of the Church of England and whose faith we accept entirely, soon to be given our marching orders?
I am packing my bag just in case.
George Austin was for some years a member of the Standing Committee of the General Synod.