MOST SPORTING EVENTS are sponsored nowadays and we have even grown used to the weather forecast being sponsored by PowerGen or Legal and General, but if you were watching a BBC TV Everyman programme a few months ago, you’ll be aware that we now have sponsored sermons.

In a ground breaking partnership between Thomson Holidays and the Intercontinental Church Society, forty retired clergy couples spend seven week stints with Thomson resort teams to provide all kinds of ministry for the clients of the Thomson ‘Young at Heart’ programme for the over 55s.

It may sound like a great wheeze – exchanging the rigours of a British winter for seven weeks in the Mediterranean sunshine, but in reality it can be a hard slog, trekking round the hotels to all the welcome meetings, putting out the chairs to turn hotel bars or ballrooms into makeshift churches and visiting those holidaymakers who are unfortunate enough to end up in the local hospital through accident or illness.

I can recall asking one couple about the best and the worst features of their winter chaplaincy. They looked at each other, and then with a genial twinkle in his eye he queried, “You want to know the worst bit? I think it’s when we finally get back home and people at church ask us if we’ve had a good holiday.”

However there are lots of good things too, as the BBC’s painfully titled Costa del Soul programme found. One of my abiding memories of a visit to Benidorm is of the chaplains and their wives joining the Young at Hearters on the beach for a keep fit routine.

I watched the golden oldies, stretch to the left, stretch to the right, squat down, stand up and turn around, all together in a perfectly synchronised motion. Perhaps some of them had been Tiller Girls some years ago and they had never lost the knack but, like a Mexican wave, the co-ordinated action was a delight to behold.

Well, sitting in the Central Hall at York University, in the middle of a Synod debate, I had that sense of déjà vu. Up jumped the white haired, but sprightly, Bishop of Leicester to call for a vote by houses. “Are there twenty five members standing?” asked the Chairman, and with a perfectly synchronised motion the 44 members of the purple team all rose as one. If you’ve ever wondered what working as one body would be like, there it was.

So we all trooped through the division doors to discover that in the House of Bishops, there were none in favour and forty four against the amendment. The rest of the Synod was certainly not of the same mind. In the House of Laity, for instance, the voting was 114 to 123, but the figures from the House of Laity were quite irrelevant since the amendment was already lost in the House of Bishops.

A couple of minutes the whole charade was re-enacted. When the next amendment was put, up jumped the Bishop of Leicester, to call for another vote by houses. “Are there twenty five members standing?” asked the Chairman, and with a perfectly synchronised motion the 44 members of the House of Bishops again rose as one.

We shouldn’t have been surprised. Early in the debate the Bishop of Oxford had warned the Synod that the House of Bishops would not tolerate any amendments to the motion. He urged the movers of amendments to withdraw them and warned of the draconian measures to which the House of Bishops would resort, to veto any amendments that were put.

So what had brought about this unprecedented display of Episcopal solidarity, employing tactics which might once have won the admiration of the Supreme Soviet? It was in fact a motion commending a House of Bishops report for discussion in dioceses.

Well it was the Issues in Human Sexuality report which was issued five years ago and has been widely misunderstood ever since, and it was an Archdeacon from Southwark Diocese rather than a member of the House of Bishops who was proposing the report should be commended to dioceses. The motion was a cleverly worded one, consisting almost entirely of excerpts from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s introduction to the report, so it was difficult to oppose.

But the implications the Archdeacon sought to place on those words and the outcome of the diocesan discussions he hoped would take place were clearly diametrically opposed to the Archbishop’s intentions – as the Archbishop himself made crystal clear in his speech during the debate.

The irony of the situation was that the bulldozer employed by the House of Bishops was, in the event, quite unnecessary. Their intervention made no difference to the outcome of the votes. Nevertheless it has left an unpleasant flavour in the mouth and an uneasiness that the House of Bishops are prepared to ride roughshod over the Synod’s attempts to communicate its sentiments when these are not exactly congruous with those of the House of Bishops.

In November, the House of Laity, like a young tom cat on his first visit to the vet, will need to be suspicious of any kind-hearted soul seeking to administer the anaesthetic. An alluring offer of efficiency and streamlined decision taking will be on offer, but after July’s foretaste, members of Synod may well be very wary of handing the Bishops even more power when the National Institutions Measure comes up for debate.

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

(916 words)