The General Synod of the Church of England met at the University of York (as it does every July) last weekend. ‘This was the worst Synod I have experienced in all my time attending since 2005’ commented a Synod friend on Facebook. He was primarily referring to what he perceived as poor organisation, an inability to run the proceedings smoothly, and wrong allocation of time in a far too pressured programme—even though we had little to talk about in relation to the Prayers of Love and Faith and other following elements of the LLF process.
There were some excellent moments to be encouraged about. Kate Wharton, who is Prolocutor (elected chair and spokesperson) for the York Province clergy, led an excellent debate about revitalising the parish for mission. And Tom Woolford gave what I think was the best speech in the whole Synod arguing that we ditch fees for weddings, which the Synod agreed to (in a phased way). You can listen to his speech here; it is a masterpiece of persuasive oratory.
But there were plenty of low moments, and I want to focus on four.
First, was the two times set aside for answering Questions. When I was first on Synod, questions were answered orally in the Synod, with the option of supplementary questions asked on the spot. Some time ago this system was changed, so that the initial answer was provided in written form—which saved time, allowed a more informed follow-up question, and offered an immediate written record. The great thing about Questions is that it is (potentially) the one place where you can ask about things that would otherwise be passed over or brushed under the carpet—the one place where you might be able to get a straight answer to a straight question.
But two things have been happening recently. First, the number of questions being asked has ballooned. I remember being surprised when 80 questions were tabled; then we reached 120; last February, with a whole tranche asked about the LLF process, we reached a new high of 206, or which 64 related to LLF—despite having just asked 71 in November when Synod did not meet. This time, 260 questions were posed, of which 23 were related to the Coronation and so ruled out of order (since Synod has no jurisdiction there), leaving 237. In our two questions sessions, we only had the chance to ask supplementaries of 95 of them, a mere 40%—which is problematic, since it is in the supplementary questions that the real issues can be teased out.
The second trend is that, increasingly it seems, the answers given to questions are less than honest or less than complete. I offer two brief examples.
In Question 4, bishop of Durham Paul Butler was asked about what research has been done to assess the impact of the Church’s work in schools on young people coming to faith. His answer referred to ‘the only recent longitudinal study’ by Cardus which showed a positive impact—but related to Canada, America, and Australia, and not the C of E. He failed to make reference to the study undertaken by Leslie Francis and David Lankshear in Southwark Diocese, which showed zero impact—but when asked about this in the supplementary question, responded ‘Yes, of course I know about this’. So the answer to the initial question failed to mention research which was well known—presumably because its findings were uncomfortable.
In Question 96, bishop of London Sarah Mullaly was asked when the decision to terminate the three working groups set up in February following LLF was communicated to the groups, to the Archbishops’ Council, and to the House of Bishops. The written answer address the first part, but simply ignored the second two parts of the question, and Sarah gave no further information in her answer to supplementaries.
The spiralling growth of Questions is indicative of a loss of trust—and the failure to give clear and honest answers to questions simply confirms the suspicion that is driving this.
The second low point for me was the Presidential Address to Synod by Stephen Cottrell, which you can read here. What sounded like a throw-away comment was the one that caught all the headlines:
For if this God to whom we pray is ‘Father’ – and, yes, I know the word ‘father’ is problematic for those whose experience of earthly fathers has been destructive and abusive, and for all of us who have laboured rather too much from an oppressively, patriarchal grip on life…
There followed the predictable flurry of newspaper articles—mostly misrepresenting precisely what Stephen had said (he did not say we shouldn’t address God as Father, just that he was aware it created problems for some)—and the debate rumbles on. I am offering a comment, one amongst many, for Radio 4’s Sunday programme. So the question is, why did Stephen make this casual comment? It was not on the spur of the moment, since it was clearly part of his script. Anyone with an ounce of pastoral or theological awareness would know that this is controversial. When I posted on Facebook my 90-seconds worth of comment for Radio 4, it quickly garnered 200 comments—people feel strongly about this.
God is not sexed—God is neither male nor female, because God does not have a body. That is a central belief of Christian faith. In Scripture, God acts in ways that we would think of as both male and female, caring, protecting, nurturing and defending his people. But the metaphors for God’s activity are mostly male, in particular Jesus teaching is that God is our Father.
The reason for this is that fathers and mothers love their children in different ways. Children have been part of their mother’s body, and so a mother’s love comes naturally, so to speak. But fathers have to make the decision to commit to love their children—which is one reason why we have so many fatherless children today.
God’s love is, in that sense, like a father. He does not have to love us, but he chooses to. And for those of us who have had a poor experience of human fathers, the solution is not to avoid addressing God as Father, but to discover the good Father that God is.
(You can find a fuller discussion in an earlier article here.)
But this leads to a second issue: why is an archbishop highlighting the problem, rather than offering a solution? The best response I came across was a wonderful letter in the Daily Telegraph:
The Archbishop of York is right to be concerned for those whose less than perfect relationship with their earthly father has damaged their view and understanding of God as Father (report, July 8). My own relationship with my father was almost non-existent, through no one’s fault – but when it came to loving my Heavenly Father, I found this hard to do.
However, through reading the Bible, discovering there who God is and how much He loves me, my understanding of Him as a Father has grown. In other words, I didn’t expect God to change in order for me to understand Him; I recognised that I needed to find out about Him, as shown so clearly through the Old and New Testaments.
We don’t adjust Scripture to accept and reflect the harms within society; rather we look to a loving, Heavenly Father who gave His Son, Jesus, to restore our broken relationship with Him. We need to encourage those of us who are damaged and hurt to find restoration and healing through finding God. Vanessa Bentley Tadcaster, North Yorkshire
Why aren’t we hearing this good news from the platform of Synod?
But there was an even worse problem with Stephen’s address than this. His main point was that we call God ‘our Father’, which implies a unity that transcends our differences.
In and through Jesus Christ, this God has taken on our flesh, lived and died, and been raised to glory, so that the barriers of separation that did exist between us, and that still persist if we persist in our wayward selfishness (what the Church calls sin) are broken down.
It is all there in the very first word. God is ‘our God.’ And therefore, we who say this prayer belong to each other…
“The unity of the Church” wrote William Temple, “is a perpetual fact; our task is to not to create it but exhibit it.”
In the context of our divisions over sexuality, I am afraid this is a naked power play. ‘If you call for differentiation because of our differences, then you are disobeying Jesus’. This completely ignores the question about whether our differences are things we can agree to disagree on, and therefore, from a theological point of view, ‘things indifferent’ (in Greek, adiaphora)—but it also ignores Stephen’s own failure to exhibit this unity. The answer to Question 74 made it clear that there has simply been no work done at all to justify such an assumption.
Q74 At a recent meeting of the House of Bishops, the House agreed that, while the Bishops’ views differ on matters of sexuality and marriage, they wish to create a generous theological, ecclesial and pastoral space holding the Church together in one body, thus suggesting that there is freedom for bishops and other clergy to either accept or reject the Church’s doctrine of marriage. This being so, what revisions are planned for the ordinal and the ordination vows, and what supporting theological work has been done to demonstrate that the doctrine of marriage is one of the ‘things indifferent’ (adiaphora)?
A There are currently no plans to amend either the ordinal or ordination vows in the light of this subject and the decision has been made to continue to uphold the doctrine of marriage. The Faith and Order Commission are supporting the bishops’ theological reflections.
Following the February Synod, Stephen announced on Radio 4 that the Church believes sexual intimacy belongs in ‘permanent, faithful, stable relationships’ regardless of the sex of the two partners, a direct contradiction of the Doctrine of the Church (as expressed in Canon B30) which, during the questions in November, in February, and in this session was confirmed again and again. And Justin Welby, in his comment at the recent Religion Media Festival, that ‘sexual activity should be within permanent, stable, and faithful relationships of marriage, as that is understood in each society’, also contradicted the doctrine of the Church.
How can we have reached the situation where neither archbishop actually believes the doctrine of the Church—which in their ordination vows they committed to believe, expound, and model for others? And how is that not utterly divisive? Stephen is, in his actions and speech, contradicting the very thing that he is presenting to us as obligation. One rule for us, it seems, but another for him.
The third low moment came in the presentation about LLF progress and a panel answering questions. Despite the graphics, there was little evidence of the three groups set up following February Synod having made any progress in resolving the questions they were set. In fact, the questions keep on multiplying, with no progress on answering them. Question 142 asked how many questions were raised in relation to LLF by a recent House of Clergy online meeting. The answer? 169! Even though some will overlap and repeat themselves, that is one heck of a lot of further questions to be resolved.
Sarah Mullaly kept repeating that, from now on, the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC), chaired by bishop of Europe Dr Robert Innes, would be assisting the House of Bishops in addressing these questions. But FAOC comprises theologians who all have full-time jobs elsewhere; it has less time to meet, less availability, than the three groups did—so how is it going to be able to resolve these questions before November?
And can they in fact be resolved? At the heart of the issue sits paragraph 20 in the supporting paper, GS2303:
The bishops are upholding the Doctrine of Marriage and their intention remains that the final version of the Prayers of Love and Faith should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England. There was also a commitment to provide a generous pastoral response which is loving and celebratory to those who are in life-long monogamous same-sex committed relationships.
How is it possible to offer liturgy which is ‘celebratory’ of something which is contrary to the doctrine of marriage of the Church, whilst not being at all indicative of a change to that doctrine? This is the heart of the question—to which not even the beginnings of a resolution have seriously been offered.
The lack of progress combined with the lack of honest admission of where we are is another major factor contributing to the loss of trust. The video of the session is now available online, and at 1 hour 8 mins you can hear me asking:
How do we rebuild trust? How do we rebuild trust when the House of Bishops continues to meet in secret, unlike the other houses of Synod? How do we rebuild trust when we are told that formal prayers that are being commended are not liturgy—then there is a slip of the tongue saying ‘this is liturgy—ooh, I shouldn’t say that!’? How do we rebuild trust when we are told ‘Pay attention to power’, and then we are told that this is all going to bypass Synod and be commended by the archbishops, the greatest possible concentration of power? How can we rebuild trust when we are told, on the screen, we want to approach something in a celebratory way, which is clearly contrary to the doctrine of the Church, all the while upholding the doctrine of the Church at the same time? There is a massive trust deficit both within and outside the Church, from every side of this discussion, so my question is: how and when are we going to rebuild that trust? Are we going to get to a point when we say ‘This is irreconcilable difference’ and be honest about it?
I was surprised that this was followed by applause—and it was not coming from just one group in Synod. The panel offering answers treated the microphone like it was a hot potato—and not a single person even noted my question, let alone offered an answer to it.
It is hard to imagine sitting and listening for three hours as almost nothing is said. And it was very interesting to note that a number of the most vocal bishops calling for change to the Church’s teaching were absent—due to unfortunate diary clashes.
The final low point was, of course, the presentation by members of Archbishops’ Council about the situation with safeguarding and ending of the interim ISB. From the platform a clear, undefended, and factual account of the Council’s decision was offered. There was an admission that mistakes had been made, but the commitment to establish legally independent scrutiny of the Church’s safeguarding work remained. Angry members of Synod appear to have forgotten that the Council made this clear decision two-and-a-half years ago, and it was presented to and signed off by Synod. And offering an open account, answering all questions from the floor, was not enough—it was insisted that we needed to hear from the two remaining members of the interim ISB whose contracts had been terminated, Steve Reeves and Jasvinder Sanghera.
There was some kerfuffle by the lawyers in finding the right way to hear from them—since the Synod’s own standing orders prohibit non-members from Synod from addressing us without a prior invitation—and for good reason, as we discovered. Steve claimed that the decision was a cover-up, and that ‘when the Council use the word ‘independent’ they don’t mean what other people mean by it.’ This is simply untrue, but of course the angry section of Synod was in no mood to hear any contrary evidence, and the members of the Council on the platform wisely decided not to contest these claims.
Meg Munn criticises the Council, not for pulling the plug on the ISB, but for not doing it soon enough. She singles out Justin Welby as the one who has undermined her role and not been robust enough with the other two members—something confirmed by Justin’s extraordinary distancing himself from the Council’s decision during Questions, giving the clear impression that he was throwing the rest of the Council under the bus in the face of negative publicity. Her comments about Steve and Jas are damning:
Although they initially welcomed my appointment, the two existing Board members routinely ignored emails, failed to respond to reasonable requests and declined to have meetings. I was staggered at this unprofessional behaviour, particularly when concerned with such an important issue as safeguarding in the Church. Their stated reason was that being Chair of the ISB was a conflict of interest with my chairing of the NSP, a role they knew I was due to finish in the summer. As a paper, endorsed by last year’s Synod, set out that the NSP and ISB would work closely together on phase 2, there never was a conflict of interest.
The comments from Maggie Atkinson are even more scathing:
This document refutes persistent misrepresentation bordering on defamation, threats to my professional reputation & personal wellbeing, through the publication and promotion of false or partial accounts by Jasvinder Sanghera (JS) and Steve Reeves (SR.)…
The July 9th suspension of a vital session of Synod to permit speeches by JS and SR, accompanied by s good deal of ridiculous behaviour and noise as witnessed on the TV coverage, turned a serious and vital session of the C of E’s legislative body into a farce resembling a political Party or Trade Union rally. Quite who it satisfied, and given Synod was not in session but suspended for an “informal” short period quite what it could seek to achieve, remain mysteries. Good theatre, but to what end? The un-Christian treatment of Meg Munn that afternoon, had it been meted out to me, would have made me do as she did: walk out. That she has now walked not only out, but away, sad as it is and dismaying as it will be to many, is richly deserved.
The Council has committed to initiating an independent review of all that has happened—and I have no doubt that, when all the facts are on the table, it will vindicate the perspectives of Meg and Maggie.
Where does that all leave us? It seems to me that the Church of England, in its leadership, is suffering from a lack of credibility and competence, and that there is a severe deficit of trust on all sides—not because people simply choose not to trust, but because, at so many levels, there appears to be little reason to trust. This is not only damaging credibility and undermining ministry, it is creating serious fractures across the Church at every level.
And it is becoming increasingly clear that these problems of leadership go all the way to the top.
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