Some thoughts on General Synod
I’ve finally hammered out my over-riding thoughts on Tuesday’s twist to the on-going saga of General Synod and its interminable debate on women bishops. My conclusion is that there’s plenty that ordinary lay people can do to keep things moving forwards.
Let us start by reflecting on what hasn’t happened. The Church of England hasn’t broken up or ground to a halt. Nor has General Synod, which passed incredibly timely Living Wage and Youth Unemployment motions the following day, during the NUS demonstration tackling very similar issues. Nor has this vote overturned the successive majority votes in favour of having a process that ends when we consecrate a woman as a Bishop in the Church of England.
But this has resulted in a crisis at a bad time. The Church of England is heading between two events in the year when it takes centre stage – Remembrance Sunday, when the church and its clergy are often highly visible during open-air ceremonies, followed by Christmas, when churches are usually full of people who have perhaps only passing affinity with it. Whether this will have an impact on seasonal attendance figures remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t underestimate the potential for this to have a knock-on effect.
As Anglicans, we need to ask ourselves whether we have, in fact, damaged our ability to carry out the mandate of the Church of England – to proclaim the gospel afresh in each and every generation. To carry that out requires at least a working relationship with society, and it is very clear that this is becoming an increasingly significant stumbling block. If St Paul says “I have become all things to all people so that some might receive God’s grace” then perhaps we need to follow his example.
I’ve seen a petition doing the rounds calling for the Bishops to be removed from the House of Lords until the matter is resolved. There is a real, though small, risk that this issue could sink the relationship that we have with society. But unlike the more preferably route out of establishment – the church becoming a thorn in the side of the state and therefore carrying a chunk of the population with it – disestablishment over this issue would utterly marginalise the church. The only people who would win are those who already refuse to acknowledge the centrality of the parish system to the life of the church.
But I think this also shows a very specific issue with the election of General Synod. Much as I’d like parish churches to open as polling stations for a Sunday and for all those registered on electoral rolls to be handed a ballot paper, the current system will remain in place long past the 2015 Election. The system, in short, works like this: those on individual parish church electoral rolls get to vote for lay representatives to Deanery Synod at their Annual Parish Church Meeting sometime between now and 2015. Members of Deanery Synod will be issued ballot papers during September 2015.
Whilst all active clergy are expected to attend their Deanery Synod (literally collection of ten parishes, though numbers now vary greatly), to the laity Deanery Synod is often an afterthought. Diocesan Synod makes some serious decisions, General Synod gets all the press attention, individual church’s councils make very local decisions. Deanery Synod gets stuck in the middle, and some churches struggle to fill their seats. Now would be a good time for under-40s to wake up to the importance of getting their voices heard at this level – often the one where they are most under-represented.
The actual problem appears to lie in the phrase “tyranny of the damned”. If hardly anyone can be bothered to make effort, those who can get disproportionate levels of power, and more often than not, its fairly marginal forces that win out. The Bishops are keen members of the House of Bishops – otherwise they wouldn’t have taken up the role. A good number of clergy are keen to be members of the House of Clergy because the decisions made are those of their employer. But the laity can easily be lulled into thinking General Synod has no effect on them – a view often perpetuated by the clergy.
This lack of interest with all levels of lay involvement above parochial church council, coupled with a tendency for candidates to gain votes by saying they will ‘listen to the arguments and then make up their minds’ when actually intending all along to vote against women bishops, may have been the ingredients of this situation.
What should we take away from this situation? That the Church of England still matters enough that people take an interest in our national decision making. That synod as a whole is still committed to finding a resolution that brings about the consecration of our first woman Bishop, That the system is under-explained to the laity and opportunities inadequately promoted. That there needs to be much more interest in the 2015 election than there was in the 2010 election.
I’ve inadequately covered several topics, from getting on electoral rolls to what I think the Church of England’s role in society should be, but I hope this sheds some light on some of the possibilities and offers something useful to the debate that must now ensue.