Gerry O’Brien on Inconsequentialities

Synod spent the week before Valentine’s Day ploughing through a mega-agenda. Five days of debates is the price of meeting only twice in a year and we were of course treated to the familiar urgings to vote contentious propositions through because if we didn’t there wouldn’t be enough time to do whatever it was. A case in point was the new Common Worship Ordinal.

As usual, under the guise of introducing modern language (the 1980 ASB is so terribly passé), some interesting novelties were slipped in. The Bishop of Salisbury recently lamented the poor standard of worship in many parish churches (which were using the Common Worship liturgy for which he himself was largely responsible). Now, here he was administering a large spoonful of syrup to a sceptical Synod and making a plausible attempt to sell the latest product of the Liturgical Commission. Such fare always masquerades as Fortnum and Mason stuff, but they really ought to wrap these offerings in a decent Sainsbury’s Economy label.

We tried to tease out the significance of having services to make bishops, priests and deacons (as opposed to the BCP/ASB order of deacons, priests and bishops). We noted that it was proposed that all kinds were to be ordained, whereas in the past bishops have been consecrated, priests ordained and deacons made.

It was also noted by one speaker that whereas in the BCP bishops, priests and deacons alike are all told to ‘take authority’ for their new office, in the new services the Archbishop prays that the new bishop may be filled with grace and power; the Bishop prays merely that the new priest may receive grace and as for the new deacon – well, simply that he may be made faithful to serve. Some are clearly more equal than others!

We were intrigued by some of the phraseology employed. For instance, imagine yourself at a service for the ordination of priests. The ordinands stand before the Bishop, who addresses the congregation. Speaking of the ordinands he says, ‘They are to proclaim the Word of the Lord…’

Now what do you suppose the Bishop says next? He might say ‘they are to proclaim the Word of the Lord in season and out of season.’ That would be scriptural, but he does not say that. He might say, ‘They are to proclaim the Word of the Lord and teach it faithfully.’ That would doubtless accord with the hopes of the congregation, but he does not say that either. He might say, ‘They are to proclaim the Word of the Lord rather than their own opinions.’ That would not only be true – it would be very good advice, but that is not what the Bishop is to say.

What he actually says is, ‘they are to proclaim the Word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s kingdom in the world.’ What that is supposed to mean completely baffles me.

Could it be something to do with astrology? If so, the ordinands are being told to watch in the wrong place. Could it be to ask the world rather than our Lord to write their agenda – as some of my colleagues on Synod seem to think they should? Could it be that the ordinands are to look for non-biblical inspiration? If so, I suspect that Cranmer must be turning in his grave. Perhaps the ordinands are supposed to learn from the trees and the animal kingdom?

Frankly, whatever these words are supposed to mean, I doubt that they will be meaningful or illuminating to the congregation. The Revision Committee clearly has a job on its hands, and I wish them well since not being a member of the Sarum fan club, I am unlikely to be among their number.

Next we came to Draft Amending Canon No 27. The idea was to make some changes to the Canons so that the new Ordinal could be used legally. The Bishop of Wonderland (sorry, Woolwich) had obviously been granted a week’s parole by the Queen of Hearts. He raised the very obvious point that since the Ordinal had just been referred to a Revision Committee, it might possibly come back to Synod in a changed form. Therefore would it not make sense to have a Canon to make the revised Ordinal legal, rather than one to legitimize the draft? The Bishop of Salisbury pooh-poohed the idea saying that timescales were so tight that the Canon couldn’t possibly come into force by the desired 2006 date unless Synod approved it now.

Synod doesn’t like a gun being held to its head. The changes proposed were hardly of the magnitude and gravitas that the Bishop of Salisbury implied. The first was to allow candidates for ordination to be presented by someone other that an archdeacon (since Archdeacons apparently have no idea of who the candidates for OLM may be). The prospect of each candidate having to provide the Archdeacon with proof of identity such as a photo ID card produced some wry smiles.

The second change was to allow a new Bishop not to have to make the Declaration of Assent during the consecration service. Synod was not sure that a private declaration to the Archbishop beforehand was quite the same thing, but the Bishop of Salisbury was quite adamant that the Declaration should be made at some time other than during the service.

The third change was to delete reference to provosts, since they have now become extinct.

The final change was to allow suffragan bishops to make their declaration to their Diocesan Bishop rather than Archbishop.

Synod was surprised that the Bishop of Salisbury had taken up their time with matters of such monumental importance – and given that many were minded to make changes to the ordinal through the Revision Committee, they agreed with the Bishop of Woolwich and rejected the amending Canon. That will cause the Bishop of Salisbury a few headaches, but I am sure he will find a way to amend the Canons in due time, always assuming of course that his new Ordinal survives the Revision stage!

As for the serious business of Synod, it is important to understand that if your only source of information about the goings-on is one of the broadsheets you are likely to be seriously misinformed. The press are always on the lookout for stories to sell newspapers. It probably helps if they bear a passing resemblance to reality, but there is nothing like the zany or a good punch-up to grab their readers’ attention.

The reports on the debate about additional collects seemed to be about the debate we didn’t have – and had probably been written the night before. The real spin though was reserved for the debate on the report Some Issues in Human Sexuality. This was a remarkably conservative report, which did not go down well with the dozen or so gay members of Synod – most of whom spoke in the debate. Having agreed that the report was a useful contribution to discussion, we found the press telling the world that the Church of England would now inevitably change its teaching on the issue soon. A press release denying this speculation was promptly put out by Church House but to little avail. So when you go to Deanery Synod, believe the report from your General Synod representative. Unlike some of the press reporters, he or she was probably in the chamber during the debate.

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