The What the Why and the Wherefore

THE Sacred Synod is convened by the Provincial Episcopal Visitors, the Bishop of Fulham, and the Master of the SSC, with the full support of other ‘traditionalist’ bishops, most of whom will be able to be present. It runs from midday on Wednesday 16th October and concludes in the early evening of Thursday 17th October. Most of the proceedings are at the Emmanuel Centre, Westminster, though we shall be going to Mass at St Margaret’s, Westminster, and Choral Evensong at Westminster Abbey on Thursday 17th October.

‘National’ Sacred Synod

The Sacred Synod is now a ‘National Sacred Synod’. Since the first Sacred Synod in 1999, there have been one or two local Sacred Synods – for example in Wolverhampton. We may see this pattern grow further. Indeed our ‘national’ Synod will be in a sense international, as there will be clergy there from other parts of the British Isles, from very different contexts as far as Anglicanism is concerned.

A Sacred Synod is foremost a gathering of clergy. It complements – rather than contradicts – gatherings of clergy and laity together (such as the Forward in Faith National Assembly). Gatherings of clergy are important in the life of the Church: Catholic and Orthodox continue to be governed almost entirely by gatherings of clergy and the convocations of the Provinces of Canterbury and York have a long and distinguished history.

Not ‘the General Synod’

The National Sacred Synod is especially useful because it is a gathering of like-minded clergy: clergy who very largely agree on the substantial matters of faith and doctrine. It also meets, in some sense, as a gentle rebuke to the Church of England, and other Anglican churches. These churches have allowed their admirable experiments with church government to be compromised by presuming to put doctrine to the vote.

Often the General Synod has done very well: it has a very good – but largely hidden – record on opposing abortion, for example. Yet during my time on General Synod (1990-2000) – very enjoyable socially – I was horrified to hear often uninformed discussions of major doctrinal topics. The activity of the Holy Spirit in the Incarnation. Doctrines of the Eucharist. It was unsurprising that this body felt itself authorized to correct popes and patriarchs on the nature of the ordained ministry and issues of gender symbolism. The bleakest moment was when the Patriarch of Constantinople visited – second in honour only to the Pope – and delivered a clear rebuke on the issue of women’s ordination. The rebuke was couched in a diplomatic, not to say oriental, flourish of esteem and politeness, so much so that it was heard as a rebuke only by those who had ears to hear, a very small number indeed.

What was hair-raising about these discussions and votes was that the Synod clearly contained representatives of three or four major theological traditions slugging it out – as well as a fair amount of Clapham omnibus theology. Sometimes it was like watching a soap opera. Would children be admitted to communion or not? Would the Church of England be disestablished or not? Which would win, the Greek creed or the Latin creed?

Marriage and Divorce

The Second Sacred Synod will have nothing of the soap opera about it, although it will have plenty to interest. For instance, we are right in the middle of a national church debate on marriage and divorce and, back in 1999, the PEVs and the Bishop of Fulham undertook to deliver to the next Sacred Synod some guidelines on how this matter should be handled. At the time of writing, these guidelines are in draft form but are very nearly ready for publication.

One important context for discussing marriage of those who have a partner of a previous marriage still alive is modern Western Catholic sacramental theology. Accordingly we shall have a presentation by Mgr Michael Quinlan, a Roman Catholic canon lawyer.

Anglicans, Methodists and Roman Catholics

The most pressing topic for Anglo-Catholics is ecumenism. What is our future? A ‘Free Province’ and/or ‘Home to Rome’? Is the Anglican-Methodist Covenant a threat or a promise? Will it mark the final collapse of Catholic ecclesiology in the Church of England or will it give the necessary breadth for our continued existence? Or both?

The Bishop of Chichester, Chairman of the Faith and Order Advisory Group (FOAG), will be helping us through some of these issues.

Catholic Social Action

The third main topic is Catholic Social Action. There is an increasing feeling amongst us that we have become more and more ecclesiastical in our interests and energy and less and less committed as our famous forefathers in the faith were to Catholic Social Action. I am far from convinced this is the case: bishops do the rounds in some of the areas of greatest under-privilege and find immensely encouraging signs of priests and parishes engaging with social issues.

But some of us – bishops and priests – could do better and some of us could do with having our batteries re-charged.

The Bishop of Burnley is going to lead our thinking on this immensely important topic.

‘The Notices’

One criticism of the First Sacred Synod was that it was a bit too much like the notices between the Prayer after Communion and the Blessing. One notice after another, delivered by one or other inspiring speaker. We nearly had no notice-board at all this time but we have put in a session, co-ordinated by the Master of SSC, so we can hear from around the place what is going on.

We cannot promise this time a visit from the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury or from the incoming one. What we can promise is the three substantial discussions I have outlined, each with significant input. We can promise too the social experience of the tea-room and the no less social experience of worshipping God together and being renewed by word and sacrament and by prayer and fellowship.

‘Of Obligation’

The bishops hope that, for the priests and deacons who look to them, the Second Sacred Synod will carry a sense ‘of obligation’. That those who can come will come. ‘Obligation’ comes from the same word as ‘religion’. We accept certain things as binding on us. The Sacred Synod is not ‘of obligation’ because there will be cliff-hanging votes like the General Synod. It is not ‘of obligation’ because, like the Supreme Soviet, it is a display of pressed strength and unanimity. It is ‘of obligation’ because those of us with pastoral charge who are looking for a more excellent way of being Catholic Christians must come together in love to pray for and work for the unity of the Church and the life of the Kingdom. Please come.