Simon Killwick, newly elected Chairman of the Catholic Group in General Synod reflects on the February debates at Westminster on pensions, homosexuality, civil partnerships and common tenure

General Synod sometimes reminds me of a gentlemanly game of cricket. Every speaker in a debate can expect to receive some applause, even from those who disagree with what the speaker has said; if you are bowled out, you lose your amendment, but you will still be applauded as you walk off the pitch. (Rather different from those walks of shame on reality television.) But, beware: as in my imagined old-fashioned game of cricket, the leisurely pace and general good humour of the game do not rule out the use of skilful and forceful tactics.

A typical debate

Let us take this Februarys debate on the Future of Clergy Pensions as an example. The good news for clergy is that the present pension scheme will remain substantially the same as it is now; the bad news is that it is proposed that the annual increase in pensions will no longer follow the annual increase in stipends as in the past, but will instead match increases in the Retail Price Index, and only up to a maximum of 3-5%.

Three amendments were proposed by members: (1) Canon John Ashe proposed an amendment to retain the link between pension and stipend increases; (2) the Bishop of Worcester proposed an amendment to keep the link for all past service; (3) I proposed an amendment for pension increases to match RPI up to 5%. All the amendments were heard and received warm applause, and support from other speakers – the tide seemed to be running in favour of Canon Ashes amendment. Then the big guns were wheeled out by the establishment (you always know that they are worried when this happens).

First, the Chairman of the Archbishops’ Council Finance Division, then the Chairman of Pensions Board, followed by the Archbishop of York warned in solemn tones of the financial Armageddon that would be unleashed on the church if the amendments were passed. The mood of the Synod changed dramatically, and the amendments which had looked like runners earlier in the debate were defeated. The movers of the amendments were congratulated afterwards by the others, even from the platform – we were all such good sports!

General Synod is not always so gentlemanly, and I have witnessed members being shouted at in the corridors for having the temerity to disagree with establishment policy, on the ownership of parsonage houses, for example. I have also witnessed the reception of a few speakers by a stony silence, instead of the customary applause; those few speakers received in silence are usually traditionalists of one kind or another.

Private members’ motions

After two years of Synod meetings which have been intensely stressful because something to do with women bishops has been on every agenda, I was looking forward to a more relaxing Synod this February, now that the women bishops issue has been referred to the legislative drafting group. How wrong I was! Almost the whole of the Wednesday was devoted to two private members’ motions to do with homosexuality.

The Synod’s standing orders allow individual members to put forward motions for consideration; the motions are published and other members sign them if they want to see them debated. Generally no private member’s motion (PMM) will be debated unless it attracts at least a hundred signatures.

Usually the PMM with the most signatures is the one that will be debated at each group of sessions of the Synod.

There is a kind of set format whereby the proposer of the motion is allowed to circulate a briefing paper to the whole Synod, and a synodical board or committee will circulate another ‘official’ briefing paper. When the motion comes to be debated, around one hour is allocated, and an ‘official’ amendment is proposed, often by a bishop or senior figure, which usually renders the original PMM almost unrecognizable, apart from being on the same subject. Supporters of the original motion may try to amend the official amendment to make the motion read more like the original; opponents of the original motion may then try to amend those amendments to make it less like the original. This is a well-established Synod sport!

Two PMMs were floated in February 2006, relating to homosexuality, but approaching it from opposing viewpoints. Both attracted over a hundred signatures, and the powers that be decided it would be only be fair for them both to be debated at the same sessions of Synod (good cricket, again), and on the same day; so we had ‘Lesbian and Gay Christians’ in the morning, and ‘Civil Partnerships’ in the afternoon, separated by some tedious legislative business, lunch and a report on electronic voting. Unusually, the debate on each of these PMMs was allowed to run for over two hours; otherwise they followed the set format for such motions.

Discussing homosexuality

The morning motion, proposed by the Revd Mary Gilbert, was ostensibly about agreeing that homosexual orientation was in itself no bar to a faithful Christian life, welcoming and affirming lesbian and gay Christians, and listening to their experience (as requested by the 1998 Lambeth Conference in its resolution 1.10).

Some of us were concerned that the introductory section of the motion referred to ‘divergent opinions coming from honest and legitimate attempts to read the Scriptures’, whereas the issue is really about what are legitimate readings of the Scriptures in this area. The ‘official’ amendment from the Bishop of Gloucester took the phrase out, together with most of the rest of the motion.

The bishop’s amendment was amended in turn to restore the aspect of listening to the experience of lesbian and gay Christians. The Synod listened sympathetically to the experience of some lesbian and gay Christians in the course of the debate. At an earlier stage, Synod also heard Professor Anthony Thiselton speaking about the consensus of current biblical scholarship, which is overwhelmingly in favour of the traditional reading of Scripture on homosexuality.

My own impression was that the Synod was more open to the experience of lesbian and gay Christians in this debate than it was to the traditional reading of Scripture. The final wording of the motion recognized the Church of England’s commitment to the Lambeth Conference resolutions on human sexuality, which maintain the traditional teaching of the Church and the Bible, while encouraging a process of listening to lesbian and gay Christians.

Civil partnerships

After lunch, and the report on electronic voting, we came to the second PMM, from the Revd Paul Perkin, a conservative evangelical, on ‘Civil Partnerships’. It was a strongly worded motion, stating that civil partnerships ‘would be inconsistent with Christian teaching’, and questioning the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement on civil partnerships. The debate was more tense than the morning, and members seemed tired of having much the same subject as the morning debate, with many of the same people speaking.

The ‘official’ amendment, proposed by the Bishop of Liverpool, rendered the original motion unrecognizable. Both sides tried to amend the official amendment, with the bizarre result that they united in not wishing to recognize the Bishops’ Pastoral Statement as a ‘balanced and faithful attempt faithfully to apply the Church’s teaching to civil partnerships’ – this apparent rejection of the Bishops’ Pastoral Statement was the headline in all the national newspapers that reported the debate.

Common Tenure

A major change to Clergy Terms and Conditions of Service was brought before the Synod in the form of draft legislation. Draft legislation is introduced in the Synod under a set procedure, whereby it is first considered for referral to a revision committee. No amendments can be proposed unless or until it reaches the revision committee stage, although concerns can be expressed in the initial debate.

The proposals started as a way of giving security of tenure to priests-in-charge, under pressure from the government; they then became a way of also abolishing the freehold of incumbents and putting all clergy under Common Tenure. However, Common Tenure will not be quite as common as it seems: some appointments would still be short-term or time-limited (a bit like present priests-in-charge), while others would be permanent (a bit like present freehold).

Apart from the issue of whether parsonage houses should be owned by the incumbent in trust, or by the diocesan parsonages board, there was concern expressed about clergy being micro-managed through regulations and a system of annual review. There was also concern about the proposed introduction of a capability procedure, whereby clergy can be removed from office for not fulfilling their duties to minimum acceptable standards, even if they have not committed any disciplinary offence.

The Synod agreed to refer the draft legislation to a revision committee, which means that everyone who has concerns can write in and suggest amendments; the draft legislation will then come back to the Synod, probably in a revised form for further consideration.

Range of issues

The Synod discussed a range of other subjects including Education, Trident and Media Standards. Members of the Catholic Group in General Synod played a part in all the debates, which is as it should be. The Catholic faith is about the whole of life, not just what happens in church; we are certainly not a single-issue group, only concerned about the ordination of women, vital though that issue is.

In a few years’ time, there will be elections to the General Synod, and we will need a good number of candidates to stand for election – perhaps this might include you!