From Maintenance to Mission

THERE’S BEEN QUITE a row in that other place, across the road, about taking seven hours to elect a Speaker. They have a rather convoluted way of doing things, but what fascinated me was how all the candidates seemed concerned to reverse the steady erosion of the powers of parliament.

Ordinary MPs seemed to be quite exercised how the role of parliament has been steadily diminished by a presidential style of government, the activities of the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, the judges in Strasbourg and so on. A not insignificant number seem to be ready to hang their boots up when the General Election comes out of sheer frustration at the diminution of the powers of ordinary backbenchers. Tony Benn, ever one for a quotable quote, has gone on record as saying that he intends to stand down at the General Election in order to “devote more time to politics”.

Well, the results of the General Synod elections have now been declared. The press had quite a field day over two or three dioceses where there were insufficient candidates to force an election. There were some stories circulating that the number of candidates had slumped dramatically, but that wasn’t the case everywhere. In my own diocese, for instance, there were ten lay candidates this time – the same number there had been in 1995.

Turnout for lay electors was around the 50% mark in many dioceses, though higher in Bath and Wells. I guess Irene Riding must have been adding some colour to the contest there. You can criticise the low turnout, but remember in a General Election you’re lucky to get 70%, so the level of interest in the Synod election was not that bad, but it wasn’t that good either.

Sometimes I do feel for the dutiful elector wading through reams of A4 from lacklustre candidates, especially those whose election address consists of not much more than an inventory of their children and the honorary positions they have held – none of which may be particularly relevant to their Synod candidature.

However there may be something in the theory that in an increasingly fragmented church, most parishes feel that the goings on in Synod are not going to impinge on them very much. They have the services they want, regardless of what it says in Common Worship. They fondly assume that no one is going to take their incumbent away and that they can muddle along in blissful ignorance of everything that General Synod or their Diocese may say.

It never ceases to surprise me what a good spin job the Dioceses have done. Time and again I hear of electors who blame General Synod for their extortionate quota demands, rather than the profligacy of their local diocesan administration. Since only about 10% of your quota goes to national rather than diocesan coffers, that really is a bit rich – and the lion’s share of the 10% is for training ordinands, which most parishes profess to want, and indeed that is what they pray for. It seems particularly perverse to complain when your prayers are answered in the affirmative.

Another theory says that electors are getting disillusioned by the Presidential style of Government which the Archbishops’ Council has ushered in. Archbishops’ nominees, rather than elected members hold many of the key positions, so it is assumed the voters are shrugging their shoulders and saying, “What the heck?” In reality I doubt that my electors have noticed the Archbishops’ Council. It hasn’t saved any money; in fact almost certainly the reverse is the case. It hasn’t done anything disastrous to affect individual parishes, and frankly people seem far more exercised by clumsy pastoral reorganisation schemes, where Archdeacons consult everybody – and then go ahead with their pet schemes regardless, with all the pastoral sensitivity of Genghis Khan.

What will be interesting in the new Synod though is that a lot of significant players have come on board. We’ve had all sorts of Synod people, like Archdeacon Pete for instance, claiming the mantle of leadership since many of the de facto leaders haven’t been there. But they are now. The new Synod will contain champions of Forward in Faith, the Chairman of the Church of England Evangelical Council, the Chairman of Reform, the Chairman of Fellowship of Word and Spirit and so on. These organisations will now have more of a voice within Synod and perhaps save Synod from its previous tendency to drift more and more from the grassroots.

I hope we shall all remember that 99% of the Church of England is laity. More than that, the laity pay 99% of the quota payments that keep the Church of England going. They will have the real power as diocese after diocese lurches into financial crisis and part of our job in Synod will be to make strategic and considered cuts, before we get forced into a corner and have no alternative than to make swingeing and ill-thought out economies which may not be conducive to the church’s long term health.

The long term answer is not too difficult to discern. It is to move the church from maintenance to mission, but that is a long term process. It can’t be done overnight because far too many clergy don’t accept that it is necessary, so I fear that we will have to wait for money (or rather the lack of it) to talk.

The next Synod quinquennium promises to be full of surprises. For me though, the key question is will we promote those things which will foster unity and move us steadily and inexorably from maintenance to mission? Or will we devote out energies to pushing controversial issues which will fracture our fragile unity still further?

I dare to hope that not only will Synod be able to exercise restraint on its mavericks but that it will succeed in awakening those whose sensibilities have been dulled by the siren voices of the spin doctors. During the Decade of Evangelism, we have succeeded in losing 20% of our congregations. Will we address the looming crisis before it engulfs us?

Gerry O’Brien has been re-elected to the General Synod. He continues to represent the laity of the Diocese of Rochester.