Thomas Hatton says farewell to Synod
I joined General Synod in November 2015 and represented Southwark Diocese. My principal motivation for standing was that it had no traditional catholic lay representation, which considering the number of Society parishes needed to change. At 23 I was one of the youngest members of synod too and wanted to allow an opportunity for to vote for a young candidate.
The first meeting of the any quinquennium is the inaugural service at Westminster Abbey attended by HM the Queen but I sadly missed it because of illness. Fortunately, some of the Southwark lay members helped me immensely with an induction in addition to the standard briefings. I found people to be very supportive in helping a new member through the protocols and rules, including how to participate in debates and navigate some of the legalese! My first meeting in Church House made an impression because of the ‘ayes’ ‘noes’ signs on the wall of the chamber, pointing back to when Synod used to vote by walking through the lobbies (as they still do in the House of Commons). Now, of course, it’s all electronic.
This Synod was important for the Church of England because of the newly established Five Guiding Principles and Mutual Flourishing; there was a genuine sense of optimism. The women bishops issue had clearly taken up a lot of time and energy in previous Synod, and things had become extremely partisan, so the commitment to ‘disagree well’ and move forward together was very evident. Collegiality and fellowship are important aspects of synod culture so living and breathing these fully and honestly became even more crucial.
Synod has interesting debates on current social issues such as Brexit and racism. These, are touchstone issues in wider society and people on Synod can often think their debate is better there but that’s rarely the case. It can become running commentary on current social issues, and in reality does not add anything new. The information and analysis is already there through things like the Today Programme, Newsnight and so on. More often than not Synod simply rehashes the larger debate and it ultimately adds very little. It can be particularly tiresome when it tries to be the moral conscience of the nation.
Synod’s principal duty is to act as the legislative organ of the Church of England. Doctrine belongs to the Bishops who have a veto over such matters and Synod can forget that, leading to confusion in the media when news reports appear, especially given the low understanding of generalist journalists. That’s when Synod members can appear fragmented, disconnected, and out of touch with reality.
I will not miss some of the protracted and bad-tempered discussions around human sexuality. There appeared to be a lot of bad faith there with caricatures, such as an orthodox view on marriage being described as homophobic. Nonetheless, the next Synod will need to embrace Living in Love and Faith project openly and honestly. I really hope that this debate develops in a compassionate and respectful way over the next Synod.
It is good at legislation. History and context are often given in background notes to explain and fill in some of the elements which are not otherwise obvious. This gives a lot of instruction and insight into how the church operates, particularly as an Established church. The changes to marriage legislation were an example of that. Proper scrutiny both on the floor and in committee shows Synod at its best. Synod members with a particular interest or expertise in an area will often find themselves on Revision Committees – and that’s really valuable and allows members to engage in a meaningful way.
Fringe events are a part of Synod life, involving discussions on themes like the environment, climate change, or nuclear disarmament; just like a party political conference! These are often as important as being in the chamber because of what they entail. That knowledge is helpful for diocesan synod, deanery synod and also your own PCC. We do represent the diocese, after all, and being together with fellow members from your own patch is part of what it means to be an elected member. You have to take time off work – at least two weeks; there’s lots of travel and reading. Bundles of paper keep appearing and you have to be disciplined about your interests and where you can add value. Thankfully, no one expects you to be completely on top of everything.
Socialising and fellowship are extensive and I spent a lot of time with other members of the Catholic Group – about 50 people and very diverse. Getting to know them as fellow members of Synod and Christians was very rewarding and they became friends too. We would say Compline together each night so were praying together as well as legislating together. We would similarly meet as a larger group with the catholic bishops and clergy. We would usually eat together, and there’s some unwinding over a drink or two.
A big issue recently concerns the status of the parish and to what extent the Church of England is committed to that system. The recent media debates around this have sent out a powerful message There is a sense that the church has become too managerial. I suspect this will be a large focus of the next Synod, and one which will cut across different traditions.
Following developments in Wales and the Methodist Church, Living in Love & Faith will continue to take up time and energy. I think we will also see a focus on clergy well-being, quite rightly. And of course the wider societal issues such as climate change, and poverty will continue to be debated.
This last Synod became a six-year term because of Covid. The Church House team deserves a huge vote of thanks for switching it safely, efficiently and legally into a virtual system which worked well and maintained our legislative function. It’s easy to be pessimistic about Synod because of the mood music and its overall impression, but the next one will truly undergo a test of what it is there for and what it needs to do. If Synod fails on this then it doesn’t have a future. So much about the future needs deciding in this quinquennium we need to be in the best possible place for that. I wish them all well.