Unsurprisingly there is much talk in Church of England circles about the results of the recent elections to General Synod. The level of wider interest is open to question but that is for another day.
The position on Synod following the elections appears to be that the liberal and evangelical groupings are broadly neck-and-neck in both the House of Clergy and the House of Laity, each holding roughly two-fifths of each House. The remaining fifth belongs to those who are either non-aligned or who belong to our own Catholic Group.
It does need to be acknowledged that the Catholic Group is diminished following the elections but also that it still punches above its weight. The Group has gone from comprising approximately ten per cent of Synod down to seven per cent but that should be viewed against a backdrop of there being four per cent of Church of England parishes with a resolution in place.
Nonetheless, it is hardly surprising that some of our supporters are feeling demoralised as the election results follow hot-on-the-heels of Bishop Jonathan Goodall’s sudden departure to Rome. Further, news has just come through of an eminent former diocesan bishop in the evangelical tradition, Michael Nazir-Ali, joining the Ordinariate.
So, what are we to make of it all? The general view appears to be that there is still much of a value in our parishes, both liturgically and pastorally. So how do react to what is around us in the Church of England?
The General Synod elections appear to have boiled down to a yes-no answer, as binary and divisive as the Brexit referendum, to the question “Should same sex marriage be permitted in church?” with an increasingly aggressive liberal faction arguing that it is unthinkable not to permit it contrasted with a staunch evangelical faction which will simply not countenance it. We now know that the evangelicals comfortably have the one-third vote required to block such a proposal in Synod, at least for the next five years.
Our own position on this issue combines Catholic sacramental theology with pastoral accommodation and sensitivity. It is absolutely the right position to take but it is hardly surprising that our message was drowned out by highly organised evangelical and liberal campaigns whose messages, in markedly different ways, resonated better with a contemporary audience. After all, two-fifths of the electorate viewed it as an issue of justice and another two-fifths viewed it as a matter of scriptural authority.
We know that the sacraments do not belong to us but to the wider church. As a result, we know that there is no other option available to us. So, what else can we do?
There has already been some talk of reviewing our approach to General Synod elections. There would be no harm in doing that, and good practice dictates a lessons learnt review should be conducted, but we need to be honest in acknowledging that it would not lead to a sea-change in voting patterns. Instead, we could consider the following three actions.
Firstly, renew our efforts on mission. Internal debate within the Church of England is all very well but we need to continue to go out there and preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments. This embodies incarnational ministry more than Synod deliberations.
Secondly, put in place better working arrangements across our charities to ensure that funds are forthcoming for support to the clergy – ordinands, curates, new incumbents – and for materials which help those clergy to communicate the essentials of our faith.
Thirdly, pray for the appointments of the new Bishops of Ebbsfleet and of Beverley and support them in post once they are appointed.
To conclude, I would like to draw on two recent visits to Society churches, one in each province. Both were fine occasions. The incumbents involved are young and highly competent. They were both beginning primary school when Synod voted to ordain women to the priesthood. In fact, we have Society priests who were not even born when that vote took place.
I think we owe it to all those priests, following the confidence they have shown and the commitment they have made to orthodoxy, to work within the settlement the Church of England has given us, to concentrate on the positive aspects of what we can bring about through the structures of the national church and to give thanks to God for the blessings which flow to us.
As we do all these things, perhaps matters of Synod will seem that little bit less important and not quite so pressing as those of the Kingdom.