Emma Joy Gregory commends two General Synod Catholic Group figures as they step down from their roles


Mary Nagel has been a member of the General Synod since 1990. Back then, the experience of General Synod meetings was quite different to those of today. She recalls how the Synod was a third bigger as well. In spite of only narrowly being elected as a lay representative for Chichester (she was 11th out of 11 candidates) Mary has been a stalwart of the General Synod, undefeatable in elections ever since, and in in 1998 Mary was appointed Secretary of the Catholic Group.

In her 25 years she has been an unfailing support for four Chairmen: Andrew Burnham, David Houlding, Simon Killwick and Paul Benfield. In addition to the substantial archive of minutes of Catholic Group meetings and AGMs in her possession, Mary also holds its corporate memory. Her recall of detail is excellent, with a particular care for people. Ask Mary about any other Synod member and she can tell you their name, age, diocese, their home church and probably the rest of their life history. Even in the most divisive conflicts around the ordination of women debates, she offered friendship to all, would greet everyone by name, and would generally be found in the tea room having a heart-to-heart conversation with anyone sitting nearby.

Mary has given speeches in Synod at various points over the years, but most memorably she has spoken about the ordination of her daughter Lucy. They have learned to live with their different theological positions and, like the whole church, are a model of how to walk together in trust. The lighter moments and high points away from the Synod chamber for Mary are the famous Catholic Group parties, of which she is an essential part and usually one of the last to go to bed. Nevertheless, Mary will always be there on time for Mass, or breakfast, or Synod Business, first thing the following morning.

Mary will continue to be a General Synod representative for Chichester Diocese, and a loyal member of the Catholic Group for the next few years but won’t stand again in the 2025/6 elections. The Bishop of Chichester awarded her the Order of St Richard in 2019 for her contributions to General Synod.

Incoming secretary of the Catholic Group, Stephen Hogg, said: “It is with some trepidation that I take on the role of being the new Mary Nagel. Mary has been Secretary for 25, through the most challenging times. She has diligently kept minutes and helped the various Chairmen in their role, but much more than that, has been the friend to new members, the voice of reason to the older ones, and a solid link with our history. In awe of her commitment and dedication, I am hugely grateful to Mary for offering to support me as I take on the role.” 


Father Paul Benfield has been a member of General Synod since 2005, and Chairman of the Catholic Group from 2015. He was a key contributor to the process whereby a settlement was reached as part of the women bishops debate and his assured attention to detail was enormously valuable when it came to assessing voting figures and making judgements about how and where to utilise the legal structures of Synod. The 2008 debate on women bishops was a particularly testing period, but he kept a cool head and used his practical skills to explore solutions even when many Catholics felt that they had no future.

As Chairman, he saw us through the early days of the Five Guiding Principles and the unexpected challenge of the Covid years. He reiterated the importance of the General Synod as a law-making body and strongly encouraged Catholic Group members to fully engage with legislative items on the agenda and not to abandon the chamber when it gets technical, as many others do.

Fr Paul has made several incisive and enlightening speeches as part of Synod debates over the years; he can skilfully table amendments and is not afraid to take risks or offer critique of the prevailing opinion. In 2014, he gave a memorable speech about rescinding the Act of Synod in which he explained the merits of an Independent Reviewer as part of the proposed new solution.

In terms of his contribution to the wider Synod, Fr Paul is a well-trusted legal voice. He recalls the satisfaction of presenting the Miscellaneous Provisions Measure to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament in 2014, where he had to convince them that the Measure was expedient. Since 2017 he has been the Synodal Secretary of the Convocation of York, a post held for life.

In 2022 the General Synod voted Fr Paul to the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC): an excellent appointment, proving the high esteem in which he is held across various parties in the Synod and wider Church.

Bishop Glyn Webster, who worked closely with him on Synod, said: ‘Fr Paul has led the Catholic Group in Synod with great care for the members and much wisdom in helping us to think through the agenda items before they come to the floor of the Synod. Fr Paul’s contributions to debates are always made clearly, calmly and courteously, which we look forward to continuing to benefit from.’ 

His successor as Chairman of the Catholic Group, Fr Adam Gaunt, said ‘We are all very grateful to Fr Paul for his commitment to the Catholic Group in General Synod and we congratulate him on his retirement as Chairman. I am also personally very grateful to Fr Paul who encouraged me to stand as Chairman of the Catholic Group and for his many contributions to the work of General Synod.’


Emma Joy Gregory represents the Diocese of Bath & Wells, and previously represented the Diocese of Exeter.