Gerry O’Brien has just a few questions

Elections, let it be said at once, are no guarantee of a prophetic voice. Those of us who are elected to General Synod may pander to populism and bend to the wind just like anyone else. But what elections do

So the Standing Committee have decided that we can’t discuss the draft Turnbull legislation in July as originally planned. It would appear that they have come to the conclusion that Michael Allison’s article in the March edition of Synod Spectator was not just hot air after all. There are those little practical matters like persuading the Ecclesiastical Committee to support the legislation, and convincing Parliament that they should vote for it – both of which may prove more difficult than was at first supposed. The whole package has been presented to the Church and the public as a managerial reorganisation designed to improve decision-making efficiency – a thoroughly laudable aim – but most Synod members are well aware by now that the package, as proposed, implies a significant centralisation with power moving decisively from elected members of Synod to the Archbishops.

Part of the problem was the original report. Working As One Body expressed the hope that its proposals would be implemented swiftly. There was even an illustrative draft measure for the legislation – and at that time Synod members and the wider Church hadn’t even seen the Report. The suspicion that a steamroller was being set in motion certainly had a measure of credibility and much of the present process of consultation is having to deal with the unease which was generated right at the beginning.

Over the last few months, much has been written about the need for reform of the Church of England’s structures. There is evidently a widespread consensus that Turnbull’s diagnosis of the problems associated with the present structures is close to the mark. There would however appear to be growing doubt as to whether Turnbull’s prescription would make any improvement, let alone effect a cure.

It may be significant that one of the defects of the existing central structures of the Church was summarised thus in Working As One Body: “there is no national equivalent to the coherence achieved in dioceses through the workings of the model of the Bishop-in-Synod.”

At a recent Diocesan Synod, we were addressed by Dr Andrew Purkis, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Secretary for Public Affairs. He gave us an interesting insight into the thinking at Lambeth. For instance he assured us that “Turnbull doesn’t change the status of Dioceses as the fundamental units of the Church”, which was quite a novel concept for many of us who would regard the parish, rather than Deanery or Diocese as fitting that definition. When he admitted that the Commission had gained a lot by thinking of the Bishop-in-Synod model at Diocesan level, a number of pieces of the jigsaw started to fall into place.

Those of us on General Synod know that it is quite different from any other body in the Church. Amongst its members will be found vast amounts of experience and expertise. There are few subjects on which Synod cannot muster an expert or several experts. As a result, Synod certainly has a mind of its own, and is quite prepared to throw out proposals which are poorly thought through. In recent years for instance, a report calling for the closure of three theological colleges was rejected and proposals to “road test” half a dozen Eucharistic prayers were thrown out. Worse still, Synod can even set its own agenda and discuss issues that Bishops would rather were kept under wraps. It must be frustrating for members of the House of Bishops to find that when they consult the Synod, the Synod sometimes doesn’t agree with them.

How they must yearn for the cosy arrangements of an average Diocesan Synod, where controversial issues hardly ever come up. Meetings can be restricted to half a day three times a year and much of the time is taken up with a Presidential Address or presentations on this, that or the other. Members are suitably deferential at being summoned to the Episcopal presence and the vast majority make no verbal contribution to the proceedings. I wonder why Turnbull finds this model so attractive?

I think there are a lot of questions that need to be answered before we get involved in legislation – here are some to be going on with:

How is the consultation process on the proposals going to work? At the February Synod a motion to refer the legislation to Dioceses was defeated. It will be well nigh impossible to gain acceptance, approval and commitment from the grass roots, if people feel they haven’t been involved in the process – and that their views don’t count.

How are we to find people with the time and energy to fill the places on the proposed Archbishop’s Council?.

Would members be paid? Would they be full time or part time? What time commitment would be envisaged?


Would it be realistic to expect a Diocesan Bishop to serve on the Council, in addition to his duties in his Diocese and the House of Lords?

Those members of the proposed Council elected by Synod would presumably serve fixed length terms and then offer themselves for re-election, if they wish. By what mechanism could an Archbishop’s appointee be removed?

Would Synod be reduced to a purely reactive role, with the theoretical power to refuse to endorse the Archbishops’ nominees and to reject legislation proposed by the Council? How could Synod initiate business without the prior agreement of the Council, if Synod had no Standing Committee?

How many members of the proposed Council would be elected by the Synod? Many Synod members feel that 10 out of 19 is far too few for the Council to maintain the confidence of the Church at large.

What exact proposals are being made for the reform of the Church Commissioners? Are they really to be left with the task of investment (which they have done badly) and be stripped of the responsibility for distribution of the funds (which they have done well)? What would be the impact of any changes on Church-State relations?

When will proposals emerge for the shape of the organisation to replace the existing Boards and Councils? Will Synod be expected to legislate before the implications are clear? How much thought has been given to the practicality of some of the mergers that have been mooted?

When will the proposals be costed, and more importantly what costs will ultimately fall to parishes?

What is meant by “balancing accountability with the freedom to get things done”? Such phraseology fuels the suspicions of those who are disinclined to trust bureaucracy.

What future role is proposed for the House of Bishops, as distinct from the proposed Archbishops’ council?

Working As One Body dealt in generalities and was rather short on detail. What we need now are some specific answers. Only then will Synod be able to assess whether Turnbull’s prescription is as good as the diagnosis.

Gerry O’Brien is a member of the General Synod and the Church of England Evangelical Council.


Synod Insider

I had not expected to be in a studio at Broadcasting House, taking part in a Radio 5 Live phone-in, even twenty four hours before it happened. But time and tide wait for no man, so my Thursday had to be hurriedly rearranged. The programme was put on in response to a trailer which said that Lord Runcie would admit in a Radio 4 programme that evening that he had knowingly ordained practising homosexuals.

That was clearly worth a headline or two, but when I got hold of the embargoed press release to see what he had actually said, the story began to emerge. “Yes,” said Lord Runcie, “but it wasn’t quite as dramatic as that because I have not knowingly ordained anyone who told me they were a practising homosexual and were living in partnership with somebody as if it was a marriage. I have not ordained anybody – in fact I have halted an ordination – when I discovered that. On the other hand, there have been many times in my ministry when I have acted in a ‘don’t want to know way and why should I enquire way’ and I never liked the prospect of enquiring into what happened in a man’s bedroom unless he’s prepared to tell me.”

Well, we can make of that what we will. One could draw the conclusion that Lord Runcie did not carry out his duties with the due diligence that we might reasonably expect of an Archbishop. On the other hand one could argue that potential ordinands who wish to preach and teach the Christian faith (which places a high value on honesty), should properly be expected to volunteer information on any activities which might be relevant to the testing of their vocation in the eyes of ABM selectors or Bishops, and not to be economical with the truth – or worse still downright dishonest.

I shared the studio with a homosexual vicar from Southwark, who was both charming and courteous – though he couldn’t see that there was any connection between the gospel he felt he was called to proclaim and the lifestyle he chose to follow. We were also joined by the Chairman of the LGCM who admitted that potential ordinands were advised to conceal their sexual practices, for fear of “discrimination”. Frankly it seems pretty outrageous to me that we are faced with potential ordinands deliberately seeking to hoodwink the selection process and seeking to justify themselves on the grounds that its the only way by which they can make their contribution to the Church. Does the church need the kind of contribution which is only offered by deceit?

It’s also alarming how the Bible is disregarded whenever it fails to affirm our chosen course of action. It seems to me that if Scripture describes certain activities as “detestable” and an “abomination”, that whatever it means, its hardly likely to mean that these activities actually meet with God’s approval. Someone said on air that the opposition to homosexual activity is based on only about seven references in the Bible, but I had to point out that I couldn’t think of any passages of the Bible that commend such activity. Seven nil is a fairly emphatic score line, isn’t it?

Another caller said he was surprised that the Church couldn’t find something more relevant to talk about, given the needs all around us. I guess he was right, but we do seem to allow ourselves to be at the mercy of single-issue pressure groups. It is certainly not the Standing Committee of the General Synod making the running on this issue.

I had no sooner got back to my office than I had a phone call from a BBC World Service radio producer in Boston, Massachusetts asking me to take part in a studio discussion in the wake of the collapse of the trial of Bishop Walter C Righter, the retired Episcopalian Bishop who had admitted ordaining a practising homosexual. So in the evening, I found myself in a studio in Bush House, while the interviewer was in Boston along with an American Episcopalian female lesbian priest.

The outcome of the Righter trial came after major setbacks for supporters of homosexual ordination in other US Protestant denominations earlier this year. In January two small Lutheran congregations in San Francisco that had hired homosexual pastors were expelled from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And last month the United Methodist Church’s legislative body, its General Conference, voted to retain a clause in that church’s rule book that pronounces homosexual practice “incompatible” with Christian teaching.

My fellow interviewee hailed the Court’s finding that in the Episcopalian Church “there is no Core Doctrine prohibiting the ordination of a non-celibate homosexual person living in a faithful and committed sexual relationship with a person of the same sex.” What could I say? If the court is correct, then it would appear that the scope of Episcopalian doctrine in this area is seriously deficient. If they don’t have a doctrine in this area, I would respectfully suggest it’s time they had one. And just in case there is any lack of suitable source material, I will drop a hint to one of my friends in the Gideons that he might find it worth his while to visit the Episcopalian Church’s General Convention in Philadelphia next year.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.