Gerry O’Brien on domestic violence and smacking the clergy

York was cold and cloudy, more like March than July, but I consoled myself with the thought that I live two hundred miles further from the Arctic Circle than the inhabitants of York.

Synod solemnly ploughed through four days of debate, which were not without their lively moments. The House of Bishops was caught inquorate at the start of a debate on domestic violence and Synod enjoyed the Bishop of Salisbury’s discomfiture when he was pressed during question time about the bowdlerization of a number of passages in the lectionary. Somehow every reference to God’s judgement seemed to have been deftly edited out.

This year’s sideshow was staged in York Minster rather than the main debating hall. I mentioned this disturbance of public worship to a taxi driver who remarked perceptively, ‘You should take comfort from the fact that they obviously think your Synod is important enough to disrupt.’

At question time we learnt that over £22 million has already been paid out under the Ordination of Women (Financial Provisions) Measure 1993. It does seem passing strange that a church which is strapped for cash should spend such a large sum of money paying clergy, who were presumably called by God to exercise a ministry, not to exercise their ministry.

Saturday afternoon saw two big debates on clergy discipline and marriage. The Clergy Discipline (Doctrine) Measure is something that we promised Parliament we would enact alongside the previously agreed Clergy Discipline Measure. A measure is necessary if secular courts are not to be given jurisdiction over such matters.

There are various points of view. On the one hand, some would say that it is unreasonable that a clergyman who loses his faith should be able to remain in post and continue to draw a stipend. ‘How’, they ask, ‘can he commend to others a faith which he does not share himself?’ Furthermore, how do we justify to quota payers why they should continue to contribute to his stipend?

On the other hand others fear witch hunts seizing on minor doctrinal variations or eccentric laity making vexatious allegations. The kind of legislation proposed to replace the unworkable Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 would have required a trigger of 10% of the laity and 10% of the clergy in a Diocesan Synod making a complaint.

Paul Brett (Chelmsford), with his tongue firmly in his cheek, moved an amendment to increase the requirement to two thirds of the members of a diocesan synod. To describe that as a wrecking amendment would be something of an understatement. The effect of such a change would have been to ensure that any legislation would have been completely neutered.

Benny Hazlehurst (Southwark) proposed a more reasonable compromise amendment which would have required just 40% of the members of a diocesan synod to initiate proceedings. It sounds quite reasonable and plausible, doesn’t it? But it took the Bishop of Chester, the mover of the main motion, to expose the sheer cynicism of the amendments by pointing out that the trigger for the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure was around 8% and that the legislation had never been invoked in its forty year lifetime.

Synod was clearly of a mood to ask for detailed legislation to be prepared which would set parameters to the permissible variations in Anglican doctrine, and provide some remedy when these were breached. And then came the vote. There was a two thirds majority in the House of Bishops (27–12), though that does beg the question of why this House of Bishops report was brought to the Synod when the bishops were clearly far from unanimous. One is alarmed that nearly one third of the bishops seem to think that having no effective way of reining in clergy who don’t believe in God is acceptable, notwithstanding our commitment to Parliament that we will devise such a mechanism.

In the House of Laity there was a three quarters majority (164–51), but the House of Clergy rejected the proposals by four votes (99–103). That will clearly give the Archbishops’ Council and the Business Committee something to think about.

It does, however, raise the question of why the House of Clergy were voting on this issue at all. After all, they are the ones who might be subject to whatever legislation emerged, so they do have a strong vested interest. When our Rector’s expenses are being discussed at PCC, the Rector usually withdraws and that item of business is chaired by one of the Churchwardens.

I know of no company where staff disciplinary measures are subject to veto by the staff. The only parallel I can think of is MPs voting themselves a pay rise – and they don’t usually do that when there is an election in the offing!

The Marriage Law Review report stimulated a lively discussion about where couples should be allowed to get married. At present, unless they obtain a special licence, couples are restricted to churches where one of them is resident or on the electoral roll. Some wanted to widen this permission to parishes with which the couple had a demonstrable connection. Others proposed that couples should be allowed to select any church of their choice.

The lawyers advised that this could only be done by extending the existing right of couples to marry in their parish church to other churches. This meant that the operation of the procedure would be non-selective and clergy would be obliged to marry all who were qualified. This caused some concern but it seemed that there was little option if Synod wanted a liberalized regime.

There was a degree of ribaldry in the proceedings with one wit noting that elsewhere on the agenda we had proposals from the Liturgical Commission for services for what seemed to be any and every occasion. ‘Would we have a special service to celebrate a demonstrable connection?’ he asked.

In the end Synod passed an amendment giving couples the right to be married in any parish church or other parochial place of worship of their choice. The motion was put to the vote and narrowly passed by 200–185. But nothing in life is ever simple. Some smart alec called for a vote by houses and when we had all trooped through the doors we found the motion had been lost in all three houses. Twenty three missing members had mysteriously appeared from the coffee room to vote against. More headaches for the Business Committee since once again it is Government legislation which is driving the need for changes in the Church’s regulations.

Finally, we said goodbye to Colin Buchanan – one of Synod’s founder members in 1970 and one of its characters ever since. As the Archbishop of Canterbury observed, ‘Colin was the kind of bull who brought his own china shop with him!’

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