In my last time on General Synod (from 2000 to 2005) it seemed to take some time to gather momentum and get its teeth into the substantial issues for debate. That is usually the case, since there is always a turnover of membership, and new members take time to get up to speed with both the content of debate and the mode of procedure in Synod itself.
I thought that might be the case this time round as well—not least because (with the legislation on women bishops now past) there has been a higher than usual turnover of membership. But the debate seems set to be joined in earnest sooner rather than later. The main items coming up this week, from Monday to Wednesday, are as follows.
1. Presentation on Shared Conversations on sexuality
Although this is clearly going to be a big issue this Synod, the first main business will come up in July, and this presentation is unlikely to be controversial.
2. Report from the Evangelism Task Group
This is a fascinating initiative, part of which I have already discussed. We will spend part of the time during this item sharing out stories in 20 mixed groups of around 25 people, facilitated by a bishop. Although the previous Synod did this (so it is repetitive for returning members), it is hard to object to this as an exercise in building trusting relationships and focussing on questions of how we, and others, actually come to faith, and how that affects the way we debate the business of the C of E.
3. The Columba Declaration between the C of E and the Church of Scotland
I confess to being slightly baffled by these kinds of ecumenical statements. There is an episcopal church in Scotland with which we are (in theory at least) in communion, so why we need to have an agreement with the Presbyterian established church in the same territory escapes me. I am not sure the Scottish Episcopal Church have received this warmly, and it raises some interesting questions about the necessity of episcopal leadership in ecumenical partners. Wikipedia notes that ‘The Church of Scotland faces many current difficulties. Between 1966 and 2006, numbers of communicants fell from over 1,230,000 to 504,000, reducing further to 446,000 in 2010 and 398,389 by yearend 2013.’ Is partnership here going to be of much help to either of us in our current challenges?
4. Worcester Diocesan motion on Parochial Fees
There is a proposal to include the costs of heating and of vergers in standard fees. I don’t think I have yet understood the issues here, and so will continue reading, thinking and listening on this one.
5. Proposed Enabling Measure
This is part of the Simplification agenda, led by Pete Broadbent who is Bishop of Willesden. As I understand it, the particular issue at stake here is that, if a bishop wants to engage in pastoral reorganisation, then there is at present no provision for making clergy redundant and putting in place appropriate compensation. Although the details look rather technical, this is a manifestation of one of the key principles current being debated in the wider church: to what extent should bishops have ‘management’ authority in order to effect necessary change, and to what extent should the Church eschew this style of leadership and retain a relational consensus in its approach to implementing change?
Those objecting to this measure are concerned about pushing the balance of power away from parish clergy and towards bishops, which in turn raises concerns about the boundaries of the legitimate exercise of power over unnecessary change. Others are concerned about the basis for calculating compensation even whilst recognising the need for this kind of process. These issues are not trivial; much of complexity of practical arrangements for appointment, movement and deployment of clergy have come about because of finely balanced settlements in relation to the balance of power between clergy and bishops over centuries.
6. Diocesan motion: the impact of sanctions on benefit claimants
This is part of Synod’s regular engagement with issues in the country, in this case arising from Leeds Diocesan Synod. They are an important part of the Church’s work, sometimes throw up interesting insights, and are rarely contentious in debate.
7. The Reform and Renewal Programme
Most of Tuesday afternoon and all of Wednesday morning will be focussed on this. This is the programme of change which some regard as essential in making the Church fit and flexible for delivering and supporting ministry in the 21st Century, and others regards as a poisonous acceleration of the ‘managerialist’ agenda first introduced by George Carey when he was Archbishop of Canterbury.
The most controversial part of the agenda this time round is the proposals for Resourcing Ministerial Education, led by Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield, on which I reported when it was in its first draft. The aim is (once again) to simplify what to some appear to be complex processes in finalising patterns of training, to make space for a growth of the numbers entering training, and to give greater ownership to bishops and dioceses of both decisions about and financing of ministerial training. Critics of the proposals as they stand argue that this looks like a return to a regionalisation of training first mooted in the Hind Report more than ten years ago, that it will lead to greater inconsistency in patterns of training, and that there will be an inevitable decline in the financing of residential training and a consequent reduction in both theological engagement and ministerial (priestly) formation in training. The principals of the residential colleges have issued a detailed analysis of the proposals, and written to the Church Times expressing their concern. In reply, Steven Croft has blogged about why the concerns are unfounded. It is bound to be a lively debate! I will offer my own views in a separate blog post, and will report on the debate itself when it happens.
For those who are members of Synod, please feel free to comment on or correct any of my judgements here. For those who are not, I hope this gives you a flavour of what will be happening, and enable you both to pray for us, and understand the extent to which Synod debates do and do not have an impact on your ministry and discipleship. There are going to be some significant moments when there will be a testing of relationships of trust as we introduce change in a Church facing significant challenges.
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