George Austin reports from the shorter and less controversial session of General Synod in July and found it better than might have been expected

The weather is always by tradition hot for the York Synod, even sometimes with thunder rattling round the rafters. It is always assumed this is an indication of divine disapproval – like the Minster fire which happened just 25 years ago, on the Sunday night after the Synod had worshipped there in the morning. A first look at this year’s agenda suggested this would be an unlikely silver jubilee repetition; it appeared boring and mainly concerned with minor legislative changes. One staff member said it was ‘perhaps the most boring ever.’

Yet there were important issues for discussion – clergy pensions; stewardship, with an encouragement to greater giving; a report on ministry to people with learning disabilities; and one called intriguingly ‘being adult about childhood.’

Messy geese

I was an elected member from 1970 until 1995 and can recall a bald-headed bishop swimming in the lake beside the Conference Hall, now so polluted by the ducks and geese living on it that there are notices warning not even to touch the water, let alone swim. Even to sit on the grass must be a danger and one wonders for health reasons why the campus is allowed to become a cess-pit.

So, as to any old stager, it’s ‘not like it used to be in my day’ Nor of course is the Synod, for since the advent of the Archbishops’ Council, the whole debating process seems more controlled. Some of it is an improvement. The speech limit used to begin at 10 minutes maximum, gradually reducing as the debate progressed. Now it begins at 5 minutes, reducing to 2, with the result that those who tried to extend their speeches to the full 10 minutes are thankfully restricted, and more members can contribute to a debate.

But there can be pressure against the power of the Council, and this showed itself in the debate on the report of the Constitutions Review Group, which was introduced by Christina Baxter.

Central control defeated

No system is ever right, and all need to be considered for revision from time to time, not least Church committees and organizations, especially when, in the words of the Report, they are ‘too complex, cumbersome, costly and confused.’ In place of the present system of boards, councils and committees, it was proposed that there should be ‘a system of lead people, supported by small reference groups’ usually of only four people for each of the Council’s activity, and that groups of Synod members should be elected to review each of these areas of work annually.

To do so would, in the words of one critic, be there ‘just to rubber stamp the decisions of others’ After more speeches of this kind, often followed by loud and prolonged applause, it was clear that the tide was running strongly against the motion.

When this happens there is a long established Synod procedure: bring God into it. The Bishop of Gloucester (who is I think vice-chair of the Review Group), did just that; ‘what I hear is God saying…’ and ‘what Jesus intended.’ But it was to no avail: the Synod had flexed its muscles, was certainly not going to succumb to emotional pressure, and heavily defeated the proposals.

Fewer bishops

When the Synod turned to Diocesan Synod motions, the Revd Dr John Hartley spoke on behalf of the Bradford Synod, requesting the Archbishops’ Council ‘to formulate proposals for reductions in the numbers of episcopal and senior posts’, no doubt to the trepidation of those clergy whose efforts have been devoted to achieving such preferment.

Enter Christina Baxter again, this time with an amendment welcoming the establishment of the new Dioceses Commission and inviting the Archbishops’ Council to bring ‘a progress report to the new Synod in November 2010 on the delivery of changes to the present pattern of diocese and of episcopal deployment.’

It was in no sense a wrecking amendment, and was welcomed by Dr Hartley. Sadly the chair of the Dioceses Commission chose to make a speech which (so

it seemed to me) appeared to be putting him firmly in his place, rather as an old-fashioned headmistress might deal with a pupil whom she felt to be speaking above his lowly station.

Clergy Discipline problems

There was another Diocesan Synod motion at the end of the group of sessions expressing concern about the workings of the Clergy Discipline Measure. Fr David Houlding introduced it on behalf of the London Diocesan Synod, but it was clear that two other dioceses would have done so, suggesting that concern is more widespread.

Many clergy of long service can attest only too well that in every parish there are those who use any means to get rid of an incumbent. (When Robert Runcie was Bishop of St Albans he once called in a village butcher’s shop to buy the leg of pork his wife had wanted. The butcher recognized him, and offered to give him ‘the whole b***** pig for nothing if you can get rid of our vicar!’)

Fr Houlding made clear that he had no wish to attack the Measure itself, rather that he hoped that experience would be ‘fed into the process that will enhance its operation and bring about more confidence in the way the Church seeks to exercise the appropriate discipline over its ordained ministers.’

At the heart of the problem is the perception that the Measure ‘forbids the diocesan bishop any personal contact with the clergy who face discipline.’ Although we are told that this in not the case, ‘there is clearly a need already emerging for further clarification to iron out what might in the end be only misguided perceptions.’

The person chairing the debate had made clear he would not permit any member who had been charged under the Measure to refer to the details. One priest did so, but was rightly allowed to continue. Such was the value of his contribution that another also spoke. His bishop had brought in the bishop of a neighbouring diocese whose pastoral care helped the priest to come through the situation.

To end on such a clear and important pastoral matter made a worthy ending to this short four-day Synod.