Paul Benfield reflects on the latest meeting of the General Synod
For those newly elected to the General Synod in the autumn of 2015, the weekend of 8 – 12 July saw them experience Synod at York for the first time. They had to get used to the large campus and, for those with rooms in Alcuin College, the fifteen minute walk to meals or anything else. But they seemed to be quick learners and most found food and a bar.
This was a far-from-normal York Synod, since the business was crammed into one-and-a-half days so that we could have two days of Shared Conversations on human sexuality. I hope that the Business Committee will never release such an amount of time with no control over it again, for it led to some unfortunate consequences. Because of the edict that no meetings should take place during the Conversations, meetings had to be crammed into the Friday and Saturday. This meant that the Appointments Committee met at 10.00 on the Saturday night and finished at 11.50. That is hardly the best time for important committees of Synod to do their work.
Synod began on the Friday afternoon with the usual formalities of introducing new members. This was followed by the presentation of a Pro-Prolocutor of the Convocation of Canterbury and two Deputy Prolocutors of the Convocation of York. As I am one of the latter, I duly ascended the steps to the platform and shook hands with the Archbishops of York and Canterbury (in that order) and managed to return to my seat without falling over. Anglican and ecumenical guests were then introduced and the Synod was addressed by the Most Revd Ralf Meister, from the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Hanover.
There followed an emergency business inserted into the agenda by the Archbishops as Joint Presidents of the Synod. The Archbishop of Canterbury moved a motion
That this Synod, recognising the result of the recent referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, welcome the Archbishops’ call for all to unite in the common task of building a generous and forward-looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world, and encourage all members of the Church of England to play their part actively in partnership with everyone in Civil Society in pursuit of this task.
Many of us were nervous about this debate. Sometimes Synod wants to be seen to be up-to-date with current events; but coming so soon after the referendum it was not clear what the debate would achieve. It risked being either apple pie and motherhood or a re-run of the arguments for and against Brexit. Archbishop Welby spoke powerfully about the deep divisions in society and the challenges to identity and integration in the EU and UK. He said that it was important for us to tackle inequality; and that though politics might change the cross of Christ would continue to unite. After speeches by the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe and the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Caroline Spelman MP, Fr Graeme Buttery – a member of the Catholic Group – made a powerful speech about the anger of the people in Hartlepool. Despite the EU pouring vast sums of money into the area the shipyards had sunk, the coal mines collapsed, the steelworks rusted, and the chemical works dissolved. Meanwhile, 600 jobs had disappeared in a day when a call centre was relocated to India. The motion was approved with the addition of a clause which recommended that the Church take concrete action to reunite communities.
No one can remain in the chamber for the whole of the afternoon session – from 2.30 to 6.15 – and engage with the proceedings properly, so I was having a cup of tea when the Archbishop of York gave a presentation on his pilgrimage of prayer around his diocese. It included some singing, which could be heard from outside the Central Hall. It was, no doubt, interesting and informative, but I regard Synod as a decision-making body, and far too much time has been spent recently on presentations to Synod. There followed routine debates on the Report by the Business Committee and the Church Commissioners’ Annual Report.
I am always uneasy when Synod is asked to approve appointments to the Archbishops’ Council or any other body. The Archbishops – or a panel on their behalf – make recommendations, but Synod does not have sufficient information to make a judgement and yet is asked to approve the recommendations. I normally abstain on such votes, but since most members of Synod are compliant and overwhelmingly support the recommendations with a show of hands, this makes no difference to the outcome. So it was that the Revd Dr Rosalyn Murphy and Mrs Rebecca Salter had their terms of office extended.
Friday evening saw an hour-and-a-half of questions to various bodies that are answerable to Synod. This is nothing like Prime Minister’s Questions, for the questions have to be submitted ten days in advance; and on the day members are provided with a booklet of written answers. These answers are not read out, but when a question is reached the number of the question is read and anyone may ask a supplementary question. It may be that I am a slow reader, but by the time I have read the question and the answer (both often lengthy) we have often moved on to the next one. I regret the change from the old practice of answers being given orally. To give an evasive written answer is one thing; but for someone (often a bishop) to have to deliver it orally is usually more telling.
Saturday saw a whole raft of legislative business. If you read the official report of business done we appear to have considered no fewer than twelve pieces of legislation; but in fact many were determined by the Business Committee to be routine or non-controversial, and so were tabled as deemed business unless any member required them to be debated. Fortunately no-one did, so eight matters were disposed of without debate.
The Draft Mission and Pastoral &c (Amendment) Measure had been given first consideration in February, and had been substantially revised by a Revision Committee. It is part of the simplification agenda, and much of it is very sensible: removing unnecessary or complex procedures. The Revision Committee had done a good job, and accepted many proposals for improvement to the original draft. However, there remained some areas of concern. One was the new creation called a Bishop’s Pastoral Order, by which bishops will be able make certain changes without going through the full process of a scheme normally required for pastoral re-organisation. I tabled an amendment to remove the new power of a bishop to abolish the office of Team Vicar (when vacant) by this method because it removed the right of parishioners and patrons to make formal objections and, if necessary to appeal to the Church Commissioners.
The Bishop of Willesden, on behalf of the Steering Committee, opposed the amendment, arguing that no bishop would act without full and proper consultation. The Archbishop of York made an extraordinary speech in which he seemed to say that if you rely on law you are denying the Resurrection. This will need careful reading when the transcript is available. 190 members voted with the Bishop of Willesden to defeat my amendment; but the fact that 140 voted with me suggests that the new Synod is finding its feet, and is not always going to do what it is told to do from the platform.
The Revd Paul Benfield is Vicar of St Nicholas’s, Fleetwood, and Chairman of the Catholic Group