Christopher Smith joins Molesworth in looking at the General Synod


A friend recently delighted me by throwing a quotation from Molesworth into our conversation.  Nigel Molesworth was the product of the imagination of Geoffrey Willans, who wrote the diary of this St Custard’s schoolboy for Punch, and later turned the column into a book called Down With Skool!  Ronald Searle did the illustrations, and in the introduction we see pictures (‘taken with my brownie’) of some of Molesworth’s fellow pupils: Gillibrand (‘His pater is a general so he is not very brany’), Grabber (‘head of the skool captane of everything and winer of the mrs joyful prize for raffia work’), Fotherington-Thomas (‘when i say he hav a face like a tomato he repli i forgive you molesworth for those uncouth words’) and Molesworth 2 (‘my bro he is uterly wet and a weed and it panes me to think i am of the same blud’).

There is also a gallery called ‘Masters at a Glance’, which provides a handy guide to categories of teacher.  One in sports kit is labelled, ‘I may not know much but I am jolly good at football.’  Another with his foot caught in a man-trap is captioned ‘A joke’s a joke chaps but don’t go too far.’  A third, with cobwebs hanging from his mortar board, says ‘I have been here thirty years.  I have always said that and do not intend to change now.’  The last, looking every inch the typical schoolmaster, says of someone else, ‘Of course the fellow doesn’t realize he’s a typical schoolmaster.’

And because the staff of St Custards were in my mind last month, I couldn’t help looking at the debaters at General Synod, and wondering whether there might be a few stereotypes there.  Certainly, ‘I’ve been here thirty years’ features, as does ‘I may not know much but I am jolly good at football.’  And I also sense that there may be the ecclesiastical equivalent of ‘I am hoping to get a job in the colonial service somewhere’, which might be ‘The more speeches I make, the more I think I might be made a bishop’.  There’s quite a lot of ‘This sub-clause is really important to me, so it ought to be really important to you too’, and more than a bit of ‘I may only be Bishop of X, but I’d make an ideal (Arch)bishop of Y’.

There is a very distinct category of Synod members who are called to speak again and again and again, whether they have anything in particular to add on a subject or not, leaving those of us whose faces are less familiar to the platform to bob up and down to no avail for hours on end, hoping that some benefit is to be had from the exercise.  Some like to get their contribution in early, and have taken to hijacking the business committee report.  Frequently, speakers make the speech they were always intending to make regardless of the progress of the debate, or whether they ought to be speaking on an amendment to a motion rather than the motion itself.  And there is a class of speech which annoys the pants off me that includes the attempt at emotional blackmail, ‘Synod: the world is watching.’  Really, y’know, it isn’t, although just very occasionally parts of the English media might be.

But I think my greatest frustration after nearly five years on Synod is how rarely any theology gets done in the debating chamber.  Perhaps it’s a tall order: it’s much easier to speak from the heart and from personal experience than to reflect on the relevant doctrine.  Yet I was struck during the February Synod that several sessions could have done with a bit of theological thinking on the question of what it means to be human in the light of the Incarnation, which might have helped set each debate in the context of the others.  Whether we are thinking about human sexuality, safeguarding or respect for the human dignity of all people both in life and in death, we would do well to remember our remarkable place in creation: we are not merely a superior sort of animal, but nor are we pure spirit, like the angels.  To be human is, as Eric Mascall once put it, to be ‘a dweller in both the great realms of creation, the realm of matter and the realm of spirit’.  Our bodies are neither a mere nuisance nor a simple plaything, but part of what we are, and part of what we shall continue to be.

And our human nature, including its physicality, has been taken on by the Second Person of the Trinity and thereby raised to a dignity that not even the angels have known.  To quote Mascall again, ‘There is certainly nothing that anyone need be ashamed of in being a human being, but it is a task that calls for diligence, humility and, in view of our fallen condition, for the grace of God.’  So each of us ‘must be ready to live… as the kind of being, composed of spirit and matter, that he actually is, in a right relationship to God, to his fellow men, and to the material earth which is the basis of his physical life’.  And in that context, we have the ability to take free and responsible decisions, and to abide by their consequences ‘as God’s vicegerent, bearing the seal of God’s image’, and participate, in a finite and relative way, in the creative activity of God.

Lowliness in relation to God, and dignity in relation to creation.  It is our task to live out those relationships in the knowledge that Jesus has taken human nature into the Godhead, and that He has it still.  It is not our playground, still less our laboratory; it is our privilege and our treasure.