Saturday, 11 July 2009

On being grumpy in Synod

This afternoon I was at home to Mr Grumpy for a while. What set it off was a couple of comments from someone talking about Church Pensions. That's a difficult topic anyway - we pay our priests almost nothing, and now we are told that we cannot allow them to retire on 2/3 of that because we can't raise the money - but something about the man's attitude touched a nerve. He told us how pleased he was to have decided that Synod should have this particular debate, and how delighted he was that we had debated so intelligently. This is an employee of the Church of England, don't forget. Sesame Street's word for the day is 'patronising'...

But usually, Mr Grumpy only appears as a result of a string of unfortunate events, and in thinking about what has happened so far at Synod, I think I'm starting to disentangle what they are. It started with the farce we had on Friday evening over appointees to Archbishops' Council. Now, the rules say that the Archbishops can co-opt people, but that General Synod has to approve the co-option. Seems a sensible enough check-and-balance approach you might think, and on the surface that's true. But in reality, what it means is that every so often Synod gets presented with a couple of names of people they don't know at all, and are invited to approve them. How can they do so in any meaningful way? Even if it wasn't the intention to use General Synod as a sort of democratic fig-leaf, that is the practical result of such a procedure. You might have guessed by now that I do not find this satisfactory.

It's a funny thing about the way in which politics, or at least the idea of political accountability, has changed over the last few years, and I fear that the same malaise that affects the country in general has also affected the institutions of the Church of England. There has been remarkable - and often unnoticed - centralisation of political power over the last few years. While the rhetoric is all about local decision making and devolvement of power, the reality is tight central control and the appearance of what is known as 'scrutiny' at local level to replace actual exercise of authority. It is beginning to feel to me - and I think to others on Synod too - that there is a difference between the rhetoric associated with Synodical government and the reality. What is rather more depressing is that the proposed constitutional changes look like even more of the same.

In the end, my real problem with all of this is not actually the democratic defecit. I don't necessarily mind if Synod becomes entirely or almost entirely a reactive body rather than a place where change is initiated, or indeed if Synod is not to have a say on various different Church appointments. What I can't stand is what seems to me the hypocricy of presenting reforms as something that they aren't.

End of rant. Now I'm going for a beer.

Friday, 10 July 2009


I have been thinking about labels, and the way in which they can tend to pigeonhole people. For example, this blog's title tells you quite a lot about where I stand on various issues, so in that sense 'liberal' is a useful label. However, it's not the only one I tend to apply to myself. I also describe myself as Catholic, and in many ways I am a traditionalist too. People see these labels as in some way incompatible, but I disagree - at least in terms of what I understand them to mean.

At its simplest, Catholic means 'universal'. That's what it means in the Creeds. In terms of church labels, to me, it means that I stand within the Western, Latin, Rome-centered tradition of the Church that stretches back many centuries. It's a shorthand way of saying that my faith and practice is sacramental: that I believe in the historic three-fold ministry; that I have a particular understanding of the relationship between deacons, presbyters, bishops and laity; that my pattern of worship is centered upon the Eucharist.

As to traditional - that's easier. I don't believe in innovation for the sake of it. In particular I am liturgically traditionalist - I don't like 'modern' language because it sounds dated as soon as it is off the press, and I have always believed that any attempt to be hip with the kids is bound to end in disaster... What I don't mean by traditional is that I think it's right if the Pope says it is, or that no change is possible or desirable within the body of the Church.

So what about Liberal? How can you be both a Liberal and a Traditionalist? It's an understandable question, but I think it is based on a misunderstanding of the words. The opposite of 'traditional' is 'progressive' or 'modern'. The opposite of 'liberal' is 'restrained' or 'narrow', or perhaps 'particular'. To be Liberal is to be tolerant or open-minded - to admit that one's own position on any issue might not be the only tenable one, or even that somebody else's position might actually be right.

The trouble is, that people get so used to particular labels that they forget what they might actually mean. At best they are convenient shorthand, but at worst they can be seriously misleading. So, this Liberal Catholic Traditionalist is hoping that as the campaign process for next year's Synod elections starts to kick off, voters will look carefully at those election addresses, and not just pick the candidates with what seems to be the right label.