Anthony Saville continues his consideration of where we went wrong during the earlier years of the traditionalist enterprise

We rightly object to the General Synod’s pseudo-parliamentary structures.

It was always absurd to suppose that a system for full-time, paid professionals could be used for occasional, unpaid amateurs. It was a yet greater nonsense to suggest that this amateur, elected body should be able to vote upon matters of doctrine and ecclesiology.

For all that, synodical government, properly constrained, is a valuable part of the life of the Church militant. Bishops may be the guardians of the Faith, but they share that ministry with the rest of the Church in general and with their clergy in particular.

Forward in Faith came up with a number of brilliant ideas, followed by superb organization. One of its most powerful initiatives was the Sacred Synod in Westminster.

Prayer, worship and discussion

It is funny how quickly one can forget the details of one’s own history, but as I remember it, the bishops and clergy met twice, at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, in each case for two full days of prayer, worship and discussion, in 1999 and 2002. The invitation from the PEVs was to all traditionalist priests and deacons: it was wide, open and inclusive.

Those who came, therefore, were self-selecting. It was not based on membership (there were many who were not FiF members), nor on election. None of those who came, around 800 men and two women, were representing anyone but themselves. They were (and I am sure I do not speak only for myself) simply offering their time and commitment to a common enterprise, of maintaining and sustaining the tradition received.

An extraordinary moment

It was in 1999, on the second of the two days of the first Sacred Synod, that the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, came to speak to us, and to plead that we stay in the Church of England. It was an extraordinary moment. This after all was the man who in the Reader’s Digest debacle had called us heretics and asked us to leave.

Obviously he did not actually apologize for his earlier actions when in power, but with surprising grace he acknowledged that our position had been misunderstood, and with startling conviction expressed the Church’s need for our tradition. If others could only have shared his conversion experience, a Code of Practice would now be history and some form of provision would be in the draft Measure. Even at the time, we realized there was little cash value in his words, but it was still a powerful moment.

That first Synod was an exciting occasion, a mix of working retreat, London get-together, and embryonic free province. The second, clearly, had to do some solid work, if the Sacred Synod was to become another productive institution within the traditionalist panoply, along with FiF, SSC, and so on.

A lost opportunity

It took the question of marriage discipline, then the current hot topic of debate and legislation in and around General Synod. I shall return to this particular topic another time. Its presentation at that second Sacred Synod perhaps showed why the institution was doomed. It was Bishop Andrew Burnham who presented the Document; he allowed questions after his speech, but no discussion.

As clergy we were given the Document; we were not allowed to debate it and own it. Of course, there would have been risk if we had. It is not certain that it would have been fully accepted. But the (erudite) lecture we were given by a Roman Catholic scholar was – not his fault – a patronizing substitute. There was risk, but I am still convinced that an opportunity was lost.

As it happened, that was the last Sacred Synod. The killer blow came when Bishop Burnham vetoed the establishment of an unpaid secretariate, that was intended to help turn the Sacred Synod into a permanent working institution. He may well have had his reasons – there were other, and therefore potentially conflicting, institutions – but I still feel it marked a lost opportunity.

Common enterprise

We all know clergy are not as bright as they should be, not as hard-working as they should be, not as imaginative, and so on. But what the Sacred Synod offered, to those with the commitment, was the opportunity to share in the responsibility of our constituency. We were being asked, not to rubberstamp episcopal initiatives, but to share in the development of our common enterprise.

How does an individual parish priest, or deacon, take a share in the framing, maturing and owning of the wider work of what was then going to be a free province or what is now going to be The Society? We are not asking for a vote, but we do want to take part: we want to share the responsibility.

What the Sacred Synod offered the clergy was this raising of expectation and the increase of responsibility. The day-long Sacred Synods of last year were too political and hijacked by the launch of The Society, but at least they kept the framework alive. I miss the real thing.

Next month:

the Marriage Document ND