New Directions congratulates all those who have been elected to serve on the General Synod in the recent elections. It will not surprise readers, however, that we offer our loudest cheers for those who will constitute the Catholic Group when the new Synod is inaugurated on 24th November. We can be greatly encouraged by the election results. The new Synod will have a larger Catholic Group than the last one, and, with many members of the previous Synod having decided not to offer themselves for re-election, there is a significant infusion of new blood, including young priests and, in the House of Laity, young women and men. (There are also elected suffragan bishops in both Provinces.)
The new General Synod has a hefty programme of policy and (presumably) legislation across the landscape of the Church of England to address. No-one (of course) can object to the aspirations suggested by the terms ‘Reform and Renewal,’ but simply declaring that something is about reforming or renewing the Church does not of itself guarantee either outcome. Members of the Catholic Group will not want to be, as Teresa May might have said, the Grumpy Party, seeing the problems and never the opportunities in any proposal or initiative. But they will expect to recall the Synod to a proper sense of the Church as fundamentally a Eucharistic community, and of the Church of England as rooted in a tradition which is liturgical, sacramental and which understands itself to be part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. As to the specifics: while a commitment to deeper discipleship seems wholly to be welcomed, and while the search for better ways to use the historic assets of the Church of England in the service of mission and growth would appear to be both desirable and overdue, big question marks remain around the direction of travel in the matter of resourcing ministerial education. The Church of England cannot afford to reduce its commitment to high-quality, residential training, alongside nonresidential, part-time and mixed-mode models. Turning to the ‘simplification agenda,’ members of the Catholic Group will no doubt be on the lookout for the dangers of excessive centralisation, or the erosion of the Church of England’s historic pattern of checks and balances, while welcoming genuine reforms which serve the spread of the Gospel and the proclamation of the Kingdom.
The other ‘great matter’ which will come to Synod in the next quinquennium is that of human sexuality, as the facilitated conversations draw to a close. Here, we are a long way from even knowing what the question will be, if indeed there is to be a question put to Synod. Many – probably most – members of the newly elected Catholic Group put something in their election address to indicate that they uphold the understanding of marriage enshrined in the Church of England’s formularies, that marriage as Christians propose it exists between one man and one woman. And many, too, urged the need for good listening and the exercise of charity in the deepest sense, as this process, and this discussion, unfolds.
One subject which ought not to be on the new Synod’s agenda is that of women in the episcopate. The next five years should be a time for the Five Guiding Principles to ‘bed down’ in the life of the Church of England, and for that mutual flourishing of which they speak to become a reality. We at New Directions are concerned, therefore, by the open letter to Sir Philip Mawer (the Independent Examiner appointed to assist the church with the fair application of the Five Principles and the House of Bishops Declaration) published by WATCH and available on their website. WATCH advises Sir Philip that he has ‘the added disadvantage of being male,’ and will therefore be ‘less aware of the more deep-seated gender bias in [his] environment;’ and further that ‘all [his] decisions should be approached with a bias towards women.’ It is disappointing that, once again, a difference of theological conviction as to whether women can be ordained as bishops and priests is reduced to a straightforward gender issue, male against female. Forward in Faith never tires of pointing out that its lay members include more women than men; and to suggest that all women are only on one side of this debate is both inaccurate and disobliging. Perhaps the Catholic Group will still have this issue to keep its eye on after all. ND