Reflections on the end of a Quinquennium

Synod has a quintessential love of long words. Any other organization would manage to conduct its affairs without recourse to words like Convocation and Prolocutor – but then without our little eccentricities, life would be more bland.

The higher profile part of Synod is the activity within the debating chamber, with the questions, the debates, the points of order and the votes. But like an iceberg, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Friendships are renewed over meals, ideas are exchanged over coffee and pressure groups seek to influence members through fringe meetings. The press and the media have an all-pervasive presence.

On the Friday night I found myself in the BBC Studios in York for the After Hours discussion programme on Radio 5. The show began after the midnight news and went on for a couple of hours. Despite a panel of five Synod members and a journalist, whose views must have spanned the entire spectrum on most of the current issues in the Church today, we were pleasantly surprised at the courteous way in which we could agree to differ, as we struggled to explain our positions on disestablishment, homosexuality, living in sin and women priests – to a largely unchurched audience. We were left in no doubt about the real priorities in life as the discussion was firmly suppressed every half hour for the things that matter most – the news and sport.

On reflection, it came to me afterwards that it was in fact our attitude to Scripture that was underlying our differences on virtually every issue. Evangelicals sit under the authority of God’s word written, and therefore seek to discern his mind through the Scriptures. Catholics look to the Early Fathers, but in effect this leads us to an understanding of how earlier generations understood the Scriptures – and since we assume that God is not in the habit of changing his mind, the two groups can often come to similar conclusions. Liberals, in contrast, assume that as we understand more and more about the world in which we live, so God will reveal fresh truth to us.

Therefore if our understanding of genetics, for instance, is more advanced than it was in the first century, then it is perfectly possible that God may be telling us that such-and-such, though prohibited by a first century understanding of the scriptures is in fact perfectly permissible today. There is a delightful arrogance that suggests that every century (except our own) has been culturally conditioned. Underlying this point of view, though, is the implicit assumption that God himself can be culturally conditioned – which is quite untenable for Christians with an orthodox viewpoint.

For many, one of the high points of the Synod weekend in York is the Communion Service in York Minster. With the Archbishop of York as celebrant, the Archbishop of Canterbury as preacher and a fair sprinkling of the congregation wearing purple shirts, it is certainly out of the ordinary. Amidst all the solemnity of the occasion, I couldn’t help smiling at the (probably unintended) humour of some dignitary at the Minster who arranged the order of service. It was uplifting to sing

“Awake and rise up from the dead, and Christ his light on you will shed”

– but hardly appropriate at the precise moment that the Archbishop of Canterbury was ascending the pulpit steps!

At the end of the service, though, something very special happens. The choir sing Psalm 150 O praise God in his holiness as they process out of the Minster. There is something hauntingly beautiful as the sound of their singing echoes around the building and gradually dies away “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord”. There could surely be no more fitting way for new arrivals to be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven, and if that indeed is the kind of reception that awaits us, we have everything to look forward to.

After the serious business of approving the Porvoo Declaration and extending the commendation for use of the Revised Catechism, Synod was invited to receive a report on additional eucharistic prayers. In keeping with long-established tradition, Synod had asked for five prayers, the House of Bishops had asked for two, so the Liturgical Commission struck a good Anglican compromise and offered us six. Fortified with Sunday supper, we returned to address Mandatory Life Sentences, after which Synod was ready to adjourn to Derwent College and let its collective hair down with a late night revue Extraordinary Business.

Clearly Synod boasts a number of members whose humour and musical talents have been hidden away for too long. There was the Church of England Report on the Day of Judgement, with the members of the Working Party being called together after the sound of the last Trumpet – but then we never have been ahead of the game, have we? The General Synod staff had the opportunity to say the things they can’t say in the debating chamber – and to lampoon some of Synod’s oddities. My favourite act was the three singing bishops (whose identities will not be revealed here) who delighted the audience with a Gilbertian song and dance routine which some thought came dangerously close to reality:

“Ah take one consideration with another, A Bishop’s job is not an easy one.”

So the House of Laity and the Convocations returned home to write their election addresses and go to the hustings (except for the 100+ members who won’t be standing again) and the Synod staff returned to London to prepare for Turnbull and everything else that the Autumn will bring.

Gerry O’Brien has been a lay member of General Synod since 1980.