Gerry O’Brien on an elusive commodity

General Synod turned out to be quite a gruelling three and a half days. If you are facing a long journey home, you don’t want to find yourself in Church House still voting on motions at ten to seven in the evening on the last day. Debates from nine in the morning until seven at night, with fringe meetings afterwards don’t leave you with much time to pause for breath.

Maybe, like me, you yearn for a bit of plain speaking. There was a fascinating debate on clergy terms of service. As you know, the church and the churchyard and the parsonage house are the property of the incumbent. However Professor McClean wanted to vest them in the Diocesan Board of Finance. He employed an ingenious argument by which he sought to persuade us that the incumbent didn’t really own any assets at all.

It seems that an incumbent can’t use the church as security against a loan, for instance, which is probably just as well. Nonetheless Synod was unimpressed with the idea of handing over all parish assets to the Diocese. As one member put it, “Parishioners aren’t going to work their socks off to raise money to repair diocesan property. They’ll say that if the diocese’s building is falling down, let the diocese put it right.”

In the end, Synod declined to commend the report but merely noted it “in general terms”. In addition we expressed “grave reservations” about four of the recommendations. It may be my suspicious mind, but I can’t help wondering if the newly elected Synod next year will be told that we “approved the recommendations” and that they are now expected to legislate for all of them.

Truth is an elusive commodity. You can tell people the facts. You can put your own spin on the facts and try and influence people to draw conclusions that the facts themselves may not warrant. You can be economical with the truth – that means telling some of the facts but avoiding stating all the facts of a situation. You can dissemble and cloak the facts (even though the BCP urges that we confess when we have done that.) Or you could simply lie and rely on keeping the eleventh commandment about not being found out.

Most of us are sufficiently conceited to believe that spinning the facts and economy with the truth lie in the domains of others while we ourselves are always truthful and honest. After all, we are all Christians aren’t we?

When we were debating the sources of funding for implementing the Hind Report’s proposals one bishop nearly let the cat out of the bag when he implied that the proposals were as good as dead in the water. An amendment asking the Archbishop’s Council to consider whether any major goal or goals could still be achieved by the implementation of the proposals divided the Synod fairly evenly but was lost by 98 – 102. However we closed ranks and carried on as usual. The story of the Emperor’s new clothes comes to mind.

When we were debating women bishops Sister Rosemary CHN delighted the feminists in our midst with the observation that, “We have never heard what the whole church thinks. We have only heard what the men who take the decisions think.” That would have been a good line for a serious theologian like the Vicar of Dibley, but I was left wondering who could be the author of the mailing from WATCH that I had in front of me as she spoke.

When the Windsor Report was before us there were several voices raised to lament that we needed to repent for not listening to gay people over the last twenty years. Somehow I seemed to hear the voices of my children who, as teenagers, regularly moaned that I never listened. What they really meant was that I did not readily accede to some of their requests. We were then treated to an intriguing speech from Stephen Coles, a clergyman from the London diocese. He claimed that he had tried to live a celibate life for several years but “found it was not his calling.” One got the impression that he felt the Lord was calling him to a life of sexual activity outside marriage – which left me somewhat puzzled. I wonder what his bishop made of it all.

And so it is Sunday and time to go to church. I wonder if truth matters there any more than it does in Synod. Most of us will be saying the Creed during the service, but will it be a joyful affirmation of heartfelt belief? Or will it be a carefully constructed charade when we indulge in sheer hypocrisy and say things we don’t believe for the sake of conformity with everyone else.

Most of us would feel uneasy to stand up in public and affirm our belief in something we didn’t believe in. But does your clergyman have such qualms? In the course of preparing a speech for Synod, I had occasion to turn to the Mind of Anglicans Survey published in 2003 by Christian Research on behalf of Cost of Conscience.

If the survey results are to be believed, of every hundred clergy who say “I believe in God the Father who created the world.” 18% do not claim a sure faith and a confidence to teach it.

For every hundred who say, “He rose again, according to the Scriptures.” 34% lack conviction.

For every hundred who say, “was incarnate by .. the Virgin Mary.” 44% have their doubts.

If you took one hundred members of Affirming Catholicism, an organisation which though numerically small includes a large number of Bishops amongst its supporters, those figures would rise to 30%, 65% and 76%

Frankly, I find it difficult to understand how anyone can lead their congregation in reciting the Creed every Sunday if they can’t give their wholehearted assent to it. The congregation, surely, have a right to expect the worship leader to believe every word that he says.

How would we react if we went to a school parents evening and found that the maths teacher couldn’t confidently assert that two and two made four or that the English teacher couldn’t spell? What would you say to your doctor if he opined that the drugs he was prescribing probably wouldn’t do you any good?

The situation would be funny if it were not so serious. The House of Laity may have called for a new Clergy Discipline (Doctrine) Measure, but who will be deciding whether any particular cleric’s doctrine falls outside the permissible limits? Perhaps members of Affirming Catholicism should do the honourable thing and not allow themselves to be cast as the pots that call kettles black.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod.

He represents the Diocese of Rochester.