Getting below the surface

In the August issue of New Directions, George Austin was taking a swipe at Synod. I suppose he can afford to do so as he is no longer a member – and Synod did seem singularly unimpressed by the proposal that there should be a special constituency for retired clergy in future Synods.

George, in his turn, didn’t seem to think much of the proposals to drastically cut the number of Archdeacons on Synod. I know Archdeacons are very wise and that George has been one, but to have more Archdeacons (47) than diocesan bishops (44) does seem to suggest that they are very sparing with their words of wisdom and need to hunt in packs. It is hard to argue that it is remotely ‘democratic’ to have constituencies with only two or three voters returning one of their number – and it makes the Synod less representative of the church than it could be. The proposal that the numbers of archdeacons, deans and suffragan bishops should be the same (nine of each) seemed a very satisfactory outcome.

But we shouldn’t really have been debating the issue at all. Synod had voted on proposals from Archdeacon Judith Rose on the size of Synod last Summer. It was a bit of a shambolic debate, as described in Synod Insider in August 2001 and the only significant change Judith succeeded in making was to slash the number of archdeacons from forty-seven to nine. This was clearly not the outcome that the Establishment desired, so the question was brought back to Synod to vote again – in order that this time Synod should come up with the right answer.

The Archdeacon of Malmesbury, who would clearly be a candidate for Alistair Campbell’s job if it becomes vacant, made a blustering speech telling us that in view of the falling numbers of churchgoers people expected us to cut the size of Synod. He proposed a cut of between a quarter and a third. Fortunately, I was called to point out the disingenuousness of his proposal. The implication of his proposal was a reduction in the size of the House of Bishops of 0%. The number of Archbishops’ Council appointees would have been cut by 0%.

It becomes a matter of simple arithmetic that if you want a cut of say 30% in the size of the Synod and you leave some groups untouched, you have to make a cut of more than 30% in the size of what is left – the elected members of the House of Laity. The Archdeacon was more than happy to swing the axe, but too coy to explain that the likely effect of so doing would be to remove the less well known laity, the younger folk and the ethnic minorities – in short, the very people we particularly want to get elected. Synod saw through this devious ploy and whilst the House of Bishops voted in favour by a substantial majority, both the House of Clergy and the House of Laity voted against by a wide margin.

The powers that be won’t be pleased with Synod members – and as for Archdeacon Hawker, I believe he may be in line for a post in St Helena shortly.

There was quite a heavy programme at Synod, and it is strange how there never seems to be enough time to discuss the important things, but time can always be found for presentations on this and that. However there was a debate on the last morning on a subject that will be exercising the mind of clergy and PCCs throughout the land in the months to come – Marriage in Church after divorce.

As with any contentious subject there were a whole host of amendments and Synod had to navigate its way through them all. The basic proposal was to leave the decision as to which marriage services to conduct up to the incumbent. That does sound remarkably familiar, since that I believe is the present situation. Synod long ago voted that there are circumstances in which divorced people might be married in church during the lifetime of a former partner. However it has never defined what those circumstances might be. David Houlding managed to persuade Synod to add the adjective ‘exceptional’ to the noun ‘circumstances’ but I guess we knew that anyway.

Having returned home from York, I found myself thinking some surprisingly radical thoughts. At the risk of shocking everybody let me think aloud.

When two people get married, they make promises to each other and they make those promises before God (unless you think Registry offices, golf clubs, hotels and the like are off limits for the Almighty). The promises are about future intentions (to love, to cherish and so on). What matters is the sincerity of the two people making those promises and all members of society have a vested interest in maintaining a support structure to help them keep those promises, if at all possible.

The Church, however, seems always to focus on the past rather than the future – the circumstances of the break-up of the previous marriage rather than the hopes for the proposed one.

In modern times, the options for marriage services have become more diverse. The Church no longer has a monopoly on conducting marriage services and in fact only conducts about a third of them. In practice, the Church recognizes all marriages, however they are contracted.

Most clergy are enlightened enough to view marriage services as pastoral opportunities. Clergy generally offer some form of marriage preparation. Other people conducting marriage services generally do not. Couples who go through a church marriage preparation course will meet the incumbent and probably members of the congregation as well. Their experience of the church is likely to be positive and personal – leaving plenty of follow-up opportunities for later.

On the other hand, couples who have sought a church wedding and been refused generally have very negative feelings and are unlikely to darken our doors again. A culture of non-churchgoing can be powerfully reinforced.

The Church of England believes passionately in the parish system with every incumbent receiving the cure of souls within his parish – the cure of all souls, that is, not just those who come regularly to church. However, we do seem to have a blind spot for the growing number of our parishioners who have suffered the trauma of the breakdown of a marriage. Over the last year I have talked to a number of divorced people (mainly Christians) and I am distressed at the number of times I hear that they haven’t been to church since the breakdown of their marriage. They feel rejected, whether it is meant like that or not, and the rejection is so hurtful that it creates a near insurmountable barrier. If the Church systematically eliminates from its congregations those who have suffered relationship breakdowns, who will there be to empathize with those in our congregations who suffer such traumas in future?

Jesus wasn’t nearly as choosy about his company as some of us are about ours. He was equally comfortable with working men, tax collectors, rulers of the Synagogue, prostitutes and a Samaritan woman who had had five husbands (who he turned into an evangelist). Some parishes seem able to follow his example, but sadly they do appear to be in the minority.

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