Burning Bridges

MOTION NUMBER 9 on November’s General Synod agenda (That the Synod do take note of this report) had that innocuous look about it. The Report in question was the Report of the Review Group appointed by the Standing Committee of the General Synod on Synodical Government in the Church of England GS1252 (yawn!).

The Bridge Report, as it is more popularly (?) known had not had a good press. Indeed I wrote in New Directions in July about some of the more outrageous proposals contained within it. Nevertheless, Canon Bob Baker, in jaunty mood, commended the report to the Synod.

Some of his remarks evoked a fairly hostile reaction and no sooner had he sat down than someone was attempting to move next business, a procedural device that would have terminated discussion on the Bridge proposals until the next millennium. Synod was minded to let the debate continue, but widespread hostility was only thinly veiled.

Canon Hugh Wilcox, the Prolocutor of the Convocation of Canterbury was the first to speak. “High on the list of God’s gracious gifts to the Church of England are its parish clergy, its laity, its diversity, its history and its traditions,” he began. “This unacceptable report is an attack on all of them.” He concluded with an impassioned plea, “I believe this report and its proposals to be unsound and untimely. I shall vote against; I urge Synod to do the same.”

It became evident when the Bishop of Winchester spoke that the Review Group had failed to do their homework with respect to their proposals concerning the Channel Islands. It had apparently escaped their notice that Acts of Parliament in Westminster did not apply to the States of Guernsey and Jersey and therefore proposals that they be regarded in the same way as the rest of the Diocese of Winchester for the purpose of elections to the General Synod might prove rather more problematic than they had realised.

Synod became restless as the debate proceeded with only one third of the members called to speak being laity. In fact, no fewer than five of the twenty one speakers were from the House of Bishops. The House of Laity was clearly not getting much of a hearing.

Now when Synod ‘takes note’ of a report it means no more than that its existence is acknowledged and that Synod may return to the subject matter later to decide what if anything should be done about it. It is therefore the custom that Synod takes note of virtually every report presented to it with a near unanimous vote.

The last time I can recall Synod not taking note of a report was when the Lincoln Report, which proposed the closure of Oak Hill and Mirfield colleges on quite specious grounds, was thrown out some years ago.

When it came to the vote, the Bridge Report suffered the indignity of a vote by houses on even taking note of it. The Bishops, largely unaffected by its proposals, voted 24 to 4 in favour. In the House of Clergy the margin was much narrower. The figures were 111 to 92, a majority of 19. In the House of Laity, the Report scraped through by just twelve votes, the figures being 114 to 102. Clearly there is little prospect of the Bridge Report making much headway given that sort of reception, which is sad because Bridge asked a lot of the right questions – it just came up with a lot of wrong answers.

So, what went wrong? Lord Bridge’s Review Group was a collection of the great and the good. Among them were some members of General Synod and some past members of Synod, but also a number who had no direct experience of the workings of General Synod and therefore perhaps less than a full appreciation of the dynamics within that body. The Chairman of a Diocesan Board of Finance, a trustee of the Church Urban Fund and a former Chairman of the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament can obviously bring some fresh insights to the structures of Synodical Government, but they will do so from the outside looking in, as it were. The result is that elected members of Synod, who are familiar with the current workings of Synod may find that proposals from outside lack a certain realpolitik.

The platform tried to slag off Synod members by dismissing their criticisms of proposals that might affect their powers and their influence, but we can hardly be expected not to defend the interests that we have been elected to represent. Sadly though, this was not an isolated incidence of a yobbish approach.

When Synod was debating the National Institutions Measure, we were treated to the ‘Yaboo, shucks’ treatment from the platform and several reasoned and constructive amendments were simply bulldozed out of the way. For example, the Vice-Chairman of the House of Laity pointed out that the proposed quorum of the Archbishops’ Council, could be composed entirely of appointed members. He proposed that part of the quorum should be made up of elected members – a modest proposal, which in practice might hardly ever have been invoked. But his suggestion was dismissed with, “Here we go again – why can’t we trust one another?” and his request, which incidentally was well supported in the House of Laity, was swept aside.

The real problem is that the worthies who were appointed to the Bridge Commission are just the sort of worthies who the Archbishops are likely to appoint to their proposed Council. If Synod gives final approval to the National Institutions Measure in February, I fear there is a real danger that we will be unleashing a monster like Lord Bridge’s group which will bring unreasonable proposals to Synod which will at best scrape through or possibly be lost in the House of Clergy or the House of Laity.

The whole idea of Turnbull was to break down the tribalism between the Church Commissioners, the Synod and the Central Board of Finance to get us all working as one body. The way things are going one fears that such synergy is likely to elude us. If Synodical Government means anything, it is about bishops in synod, not Archbishops’ diktats to Synod. One fervently hopes that November’s unhappy group of sessions was merely an aberration. If it is a sample of things to come, one fears that in the new year many Synod members may be seeking to learn a trick or two from Swampy and his friends.

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