What are they saying?

IN THE PLACE across the road there is a lot of talk about the hours of sittings. MPs have grown used to the idea of kicking off in the afternoon and letting sittings extend through the evenings, the night, the wee small hours – even to breakfast time if the business is heavy. There is a school of thought that says such family-unfriendly hours don’t do much for an MP’s social life or family life and a number of the 1997 intake are said to be ready to leave the Commons when the General Election comes round. Many of the hundred or so Blair’s babes have found the working hours long and arduous and have little appetite to persevere in what they perceive as such an uncongenial set up.

In their Lordships’ House there is a rather more relaxed attitude. They don ’t often have to suffer the indignities of hanging around all night. The whips’ regime is nowhere near as draconian as in the Commons. Indeed there are an awful lot of Crossbenchers who seem to turn up if and when the fancy takes them. Take our bishops, for instance. There are twenty six of them, and they had a good opportunity to show their mettle on the Monday of Synod week – the day before Her Majesty came to inaugurate the new Synod.

One must assume that all twenty six of the Lords Spiritual would have been in London that evening. After all they had to appear at Westminster Abbey at 9.15 am the following morning with their newly elected Diocesan representatives, and the trains weren’t up to getting many of us to London without lengthy delays.

There was a significant debate in the House that evening – about whether it should be made legal for young men under the age of 18 to be buggered. Please excuse the use of the word, but I’m assuming readers of New Directions can cope with good old Anglo-Saxon words. Well you might suppose that the Episcopate would have felt there was a Christian point of view to be articulated – and that they ought to be there to give voice to it, and vote for it.

In the event you may be surprised to learn, or there again you may not, that of the twenty six bishops in the Lords, four voted in favour, four voted against and eighteen failed to vote at all. Its not as though they had to come specially from the ends of the country – most of them must have been within a mile of the House of Lords. The alarming thing about this is the message it gives to the country at large.

The issue at stake was regarded as important by protagonists on both sides of the argument. And what have our bishops said to the nation? They seem to have said something along the lines of, “We find this a difficult and complex issue. We look to Scripture, Reason and Tradition for our guidance, but it really isn’t very clear. Some of us think one thing and some of us think the opposite. Perhaps the best thing is for us to abstain (which is what four votes in favour and four votes against amounts to) and then we can leave the decision to other members of the House, who by and large are pleasant non-religious people, unencumbered by the obfuscations of theology.”

Well, what sort of moral or spiritual leadership is that? The man on the Clapham omnibus may well be confused when the Church of England speaks with a very uncertain collective voice on a major moral issue, but has little difficulty in producing an overwhelming vote on political issues like sanctions against Iraq.

If the Commons have hours that are far too long and the Lords seem to regard participation as optional, what of the General Synod, which is after all the third house of the Legislature?

Synod is sometimes described as the Church’s parliament and it is capable of staging serious debates in which a Christian viewpoint can be conveyed to the nation. Its strength is that, unlike the House of Bishops, most of its members are elected by churchpeople and therefore can claim some mandate for what they say. There are also a lot of internal church issues which need to be sorted out and, of course, the important task of holding the Archbishops’ Council to account.

Most of the members of the new Synod have been elected to do a job and we expect to do it. Having said that there are always some laid back so-and-sos who will vote not to extend the Tuesday night session when many questions remain unanswered. What is the point of having a Question time, if you let the Chairmen of Boards and Councils off the hook by denying members the chance to probe with supplementary questions? David Webster, from my own diocese, wrote in the Church Times this week about the widening gulf between the Archbishops’ Council and ordinary Synod members. That will inevitably get worse without dialogue and accountability. And that is exactly what we are not going to get.

Members were shocked by a surprise announcement that the February group of sessions had been cancelled. The power to do this is apparently vested in the Archbishops themselves. Even the Archbishops’? Council is powerless to intervene. So why was this snub delivered to Synod? Their Graces were rather coy and no reasons were given, so I’m forced to rely on my moles who offer the following suggestions.

First the Archbishop of York is known to dislike Synod. When you are an Archbishop, it must be really annoying if a load of oiks in the Convocations or the House of Laity vote against your cherished schemes. Far better to draw down the shutters and deny them the opportunity. Never mind about this democracy business. The kind of democracy Archbishops like is where the ruling elite always achieve a 99.9% yes vote.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is believed to have another engagement in Synod week in February. If true, it is hard to believe this could be accidental, since Synod dates are published several years in advance. It is also hard to believe that Synod would be unable to function with only one Archbishop present. We were working virtually in this mode in November since the Archbishop of Canterbury had lost his voice and was therefore inhibited from taking much part in the proceedings.

The third suggestion is that the Council for Christian Unity had planned a major presentation at the February Synod, but in the aftermath of Mr Ratzinger’s pronouncements about the C of E not being a proper church, this might have proved embarrassing. Well so it might be for the CCU, an organisation which engages in dialogue with all manner of Christian denominations, usually in pleasant surroundings and at the long suffering quota payer’s expense. But Synod has been waiting for years to get its teeth into the ARCIC documents like Clarifications and Ut unum sint.

The suggestion that the February Synod was cancelled “for lack of business” is as implausible as it is unacceptable. What message does it give to new Synod members? Something along the lines of, “We hope you enjoyed seeing our Supreme Governor and the taster debates on Wednesday and Thursday. Thank you for passing the Clergy Discipline Measure, which you couldn’t have amended anyway. We don’t really need to meet again for another twelve months, except for a long weekend in York next July – and we’ll spend a fair chunk of our time there going to York Minster for a service and having presentations from various worthy bodies. The Archbishops’ Council, being benignly omniscient will do all things well. Don’t ask any questions. Don’ t rock the boat.”

Our electorate may be unimpressed if we acquiesce.

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