Saturday, 6 February 2010

Guest Blogging Again

The Church Mouse has invited me to do another synod report for him, which is very flattering. It turned out to be so long that it needed two posts, but here it is in full for anyone who might be interested...

First of all, my thanks to the Mouse for his invitation to provide another guest post on General Synod. The brief for this one is a sort of a preview - and I should state the obvious at this point: all bias expressed herein is my own, and in no way reflects upon the objectivity of the Church Mouse or his Blog.

So, as everybody knows, General Synod only really debates two things these days - whether you need a Y chromosome to be a bishop, and what to to about those difficult gay people. The first of those topics will not, as it turns out, be on the agenda this Synod. The group revising the legislation to allow the consecration of women as bishops have not been able to complete their work in time, and there will be no new draft to debate until July. No doubt the howls that greeted that particular piece of news over the last couple of months will be repeated when the brave and long-suffering Bishop of Manchester makes his report, but essentially that's it for the issue of Women Bishops until July. Turning from gender to sexuality, though, there are tense times on the horizon.

The first concerns ACNA - The Anglican Church in North America. Despite its name, this is a very recent organisation that has swept up a number of groups who have, at various times, left The Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada. The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion - indeed it was the first Anglican Province outside the British Isles. The Anglican Church in Canada is also part of the Anglican Communion - indeed it only became fully separate from the Church of England in the 1890s. ACNA is not part of the Anglican Communion. Although about a quarter of ACNA is made up from a group that split from The Episcopal Church in the 1870s, most of the rest have split in the last couple of decades, either because of the ordination of women or the changing attitude of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in Canada to homosexuality, and its establishment has generated quite a lot of heat and noise.

The narratives of ACNA and the Episcopalian mainstream are predictable enough. ACNA members declare themselves to have been excluded from The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada because of innovations on the part of those churches - particularly to do with sexuality - that are contrary to scripture. The mainstream Episcopalian line is that these people chose to leave, are welcome back any time they want as long as they are prepared to declare obedience to the Canons. This sort of thing has been going on for more than a hundred years in North America - one of the constituent groups of ACNA split from The Episcopal Church in the 1870s - but the scale this time is a little different. Compared to most continuing churches in North America - such as the Anglican Catholic Church or the Anglican Province of America - ACNA is relatively large, boasting about 750 parishes in the US and Canada combined. That sounds a lot, but when you consider that the Diocese of Exeter has 506 parishes, and the Diocese of Oxford over 600, it's not really such a major player as it would wish to make out. Still, it has attracted public attention, and next Wednesday will see a Private Member's Motion asking Synod to declare itself "in communion with" ACNA.

The member moving the motion says she has done so as a result of her own convictions, and not at the instigation of any other person or organisation. I see no reason to disbelieve her, but her band-wagon has been well and truly jumped on, and I have no doubt that the debate will display once more a whole set of well and publicly aired dirty laundry. You see what underlies ACNA is not really sexuality, but a fundamental difference between two possible ways of dealing with the relationship between Church and Society. Does the Church itself need to change and adapt to continue to minister to the society in which it finds itself, or should the Church instead proclaim more firmly what it understands to be its historic orthodoxies and attempt to refute the errors it finds in society. Both alternatives have their problems: the former runs the risk of becoming post-Christian, of losing the uniqueness of the Christian message in a fog of moral relativism; the latter has to struggle with the question of what orthodoxy actually is in an institution like the Anglican Communion. Quite why the line got drawn in the sand over sexuality, as opposed to marriage after divorce or the ordination of women, for example, I have no idea, but this is the situation in which we find ourselves, and it is why we will inevitably end up talking about homosexuality on Wednesday...

The motion has attracted the inevitable amendment from the House of Bishops that manages to prevaricate its way out of most sorts of trouble, and I expect that there won't be any extreme results in the end, but it's going to be a difficult debate. If Synod doesn't pass the motion, then it's a kick in the teeth to ACNA and an implicit pat on the head for The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in Canada. If it passes it unamended then the same applies in reverse. The response that makes political sense is to pass the motion as amended by the bishops, but that is going to need some skilful playing in the Chamber if it is to come off. The Twitter stream on Wednesday might be interesting...

We are also going to end up talking about sexuality on Thursday, as a result of another Private Member's Motion, this time concerning parity of pension provision for surviving Civil Partners. This is difficult for a number of reasons. First, and most practical, is the fact that pension provision in the Church of England is currently shot to hell, and nobody can even work out what we need for a field dressing, let alone reconstructive surgery. There isn't any money. Secondly, the Church is currently abiding by the law of the land with respect to this sort of pension provision. Some defined benefit pension schemes have changed their rules so that surviving spouses and civil partners are treated equally, but none has been abliged to do so. Of course, the message that an organisation sends out by taking such a step is a very clear one - it is treating civil partners and spoused equally - and there's the rub for the Church of England.

At the moment, clergy are allowed to enter into a civil partnership. They are supposed to assure their bishop that the relationship is celibate, but in practice there is quite a lot of 'don't ask don't tell' - it depends very much upon the attitude of the diocesan bishop. However, there is a big jump from recognising that civil partnerships are part of the law of the land - and confer most of the same benefits and obligations as civil marriage - and considering them to be the equivalent of marriage in the eyes of the church. Whether or not this was the intention of the proposer of the motion, and I strongly suspect that it wasn't, this is the ground on which I think the battle will be fought. At some point, and some point soon, we have to have a sensible, grown up conversation as a church about how we view human sexuality and relationships. A major part of this has to be how we now view the institution of marriage in society as a whole, and what implications this has for the church's theology of marriage. Without intending to, this motion hits at the very heart of those tangled questions about relationships that we have not even yet begun to resolve, and that is why I am certain it will not be passed. I can only hope that in the process people do not say things that they are likely later to regret.

Looking back at what I have just written, it occurs to me that all I have covered is two Private Member's motions, and there is a whole other agenda there to be debated. Some of it is actually relevant and interesting, and deserves more publicity. So, what else is there on the agenda?

I have sometimes heard it said that in the Gospels, while Our Lord has very little to say on the subject of sex, he has a surprisingly large amount to say on the subject of money. Although you won't guess it from the media coverage, a similar thing could be said about Synod - especially this time around. The sexuality issues I have written about already are prompted by Private Member's Motions, but the money talk is mostly prompted by the Church secretariat. The Church of England has a hole in its pension fund, and it doesn't know how to fill it. Part of the trouble, though, is that the hole is currently not real, but projected.

The scheme that is causing all the problems has only been in operation since 1998 - all pensions earned prior to that date are paid by the Church Commissioners. Obviously, this new scheme at the moment is not paying out much money at all - it isn't having to pay many pensions yet - so its income greatly exceeds its expenditure and it is building up capital. The trouble is that the surplus it is currently generating is very much less than the surplus that the actuaries say it needs if it is to meet all its future obligations. Gone are the days when most people only drew their pensions for a few years and obligingly dropped dead - even retiring at 68 or 70, a large number of the scheme's current members will be expecting to draw pensions for twenty years or so after retirement. That puts a heavy burden on a scheme which has to guarantee a certain level of pay out, and the net result is that dioceses are currently being asked to make payments to the pension fund equivalent to almost half a priest's annual stipend. The Church is not alone in facing this sort of problem, which is why almost all similar defined benefit schemes - or final salary schemes - are closing.

(A short diversion about pension schemes at this point. Essentially they fall into two types. Either the amount you put into the pot is defined, the money is invested over time, and you get whatever you get at the end of it - defined contribution, uncertain level of pension at the end - or the amount you get at the end is defined, usually in terms of a fraction of your final salary, which means that the amount you have to pay in varies according to hugely complicated and rather pessimistic actuarial calculations - defined benefit, uncertain (and high) level of contributions. The Church's scheme is the second type.)

So why keep the Church of England's scheme open? And for that matter, how can we afford it? A number of debates in the coming week will touch on this subject. There is some tinkering at the edges to be done - some has already been decided upon, other changes may be made next week. None is particularly major, all will leave future pensioners slightly worse off or bearing more risk. It has been left to an ordinary member of synod to put in an amendment to encourage us to think the unthinkable and close the current scheme, replacing it with a defined contribution model.

This whole situation causes me personally a great deal of doubt and difficulty. We ask our priests to dedicate their lives to the Church, and in return we pay them virtually nothing. Nevertheless they do at least have the prospect of a guaranteed level of income - up to 2/3 of the virtually nothing we pay them - when they retire. What does it say about the way we value their sacrifice if we take away even that certainty? And yet some dioceses are currently having severe trouble meeting the bills for stipends and pension costs, and if the contributions increase as forecast they will have to reduce the numbers of priests they employ in order to meet the cost of the pensions of the remainder. Which is frankly mad. I don't have a solution to this one, but I do know that we badly need your prayers on this dilemma.

So what else are we going to be doing at Synod? Quite a lot of legislative business - none of it particularly earth-shattering, but necessary none the less. There does seem to be a lot of it, but in comparison to the obscene quantity of lawyer fodder generated by Parliament on a daily basis it is really quite restrained. However, there are also some more obviously religious items. There are some additions to the Lectionary to be debated, and one member has already submitted amendments to the effect that there is too much from the Apocrypha there and not enough from the canonical books of the Bible. A Diocesan Synod motion will invite us to consider the importance of the Bible in the light of the forthcoming 400th birthday of the Authorised Version, and there will be a debate about the compatibility of Science and Christian belief. I am rather looking forward to that last motion. Given the huge amount of free publicity for Christianity provided by Richard Dawkins recently, it seems a sensible time to be thinking about these issues. If the debate goes well, it should provide not only intellectual stimulation but also theological stimulation and questioning, and that can only be a good thing.

Without a doubt this is going to be a busy and diverse Synod. We are going to come head to head with a number of difficult issues, and there is the possibility that some of what we do could have considerable significance not only for the Church of England but for the Communion as a whole, so this rather long ramble ends with a simple plea. Please keep us in your prayers over the next few days, and pray particularly that all of us listen with an open mind to each other, and seek for God's direction in all that we do.

No comments: