Monday, 19 July 2010

What The Papers Didn't Say

This is a republication of a two part guest post for the Church Mouse's excellent blog.

What the papers didn't say - Part 1

Perhaps after five years at Synod I should no longer be surprised at the extent to which the media misreport what they see and hear. Some of it is simple ignorance, but some of it is also the desire to make headlines at any cost - be that accuracy or depth of reporting. Nevertheless, as you can guess, I am cross. Three generic headlines have annoyed me over the last few days. The first is the variation on "Church of England to appoint women bishops". Get it right, please. Yes, we are a step closer to that position, but we haven't got there yet. The legislation is about to go out to the dioceses for consultation. That process will take at least a year, and may result in some changes being made by the House of Bishops, following which it may have to go the rounds of the dioceses again. My best guess for when it comes back to Synod for final approval is February 2012, and presuming it secures the necessary majorities it then has to go to Parliament. Only at the stage of final approval will that first headline be true.

The second one is the variation on "Church of England to split over women bishops". I hate to upset the doom-mongerers, but despite their best efforts the coming split has not happened quite yet. There are a variety of reasons for this, but the most important one is that those opposed to the ordination of woment are still part of the Church of England because it is their home and they care deeply for it. That - somewhat ironically - is the reason why they are fighting so hard for what they regard as proper provision. Plenty of people have been feeling hurt and dismayed over the last few days - on both sides of the issue - but the exodus has not happened yet, nor is there any reason for it to happen at the moment. We have until the first woman is ordained bishop (if the legislation goes through) to come up with provision that will make those opposed feel secure while upholding the desire of the majority to see women ordained on equal terms. We may not have got it right yet, but there are still plenty on either side willing to try.

The final headline is the variation on the theme of 'Archbishop suffers defeat in Synod' or 'Archbishop's authority challenged'. The two Archbishops put forward an amendment to the Measure on Saturday which was defeated by the narrowest of margins. Both put their case during the debate, but neither made any attempt to pull rank. In fact they did quite the opposite - ++Rowan saying explicitly that this was not to be seen as a loyalty test. This was not a Prime Minister facing a backbench rebellion. At the very worst it was a Prime Minister seeing a free vote go contrary to the way he had voted himself. In fact, ++Rowan's authority remains strong - when he addressed Synod before the debate on Monday he made two things quite clear. The first was that he wanted to see the legislation committed to the Dioceses with Clause 2 (which had caused the trouble on Saturday) intact. This duly happened - by a large majority. The second was that he did not expect to see attempts to delay the legislation through procedural motions. There was one such attempt at the end of the debate by the leader of the Catholic Group on Synod, but it resulted - ironically - an a strong endorsement of the legislation as it stood, with more than 3/4 of Synod voting not to delay it. This was not the action of a leader without authority, nor the reaction of a Synod without respect.

Of course, that's all the newspapers had time for, but there were some other things done at Synod that seem to have slipped below the media radar, and it is these that I will focus upon in the second part of this post.


What the papers didn't say Part 2

The General Synod Blog (completely unofficial, written by my friend Alastair and occasionally by me) has a useful post giving a list of what else happened at Synod apart from the big news item. There are a couple of things from it that warrant a little more detail, and which might be of interest to generally Church-minded people. The first concerns pensions. Don't get me started on the iniquity of most of what we've done about that, but... One positive thing about February's Synod was the vote to extend full survivor's benefits to surviving Civil Partners of clergy. That rule change was among those that needed to be ratified this time round, and despite some opposition from people standing up and saying that this meant that we were equating marriage and civil partnership, it went through in the end almost unopposed. For those of us with more liberal attitudes to sexuality, that is an encouraging development.

The next thing involves donning the political anorak for a short while. A year ago we were presented at York with a report about recommended reorganisation of church structures that would have removed many of the old committees and replaced them by much smaller groups and set up scrutiny groups of Synod members that would have met once a year. Unsurprisingly, Synod was not terribly happy about this, and told people to go away and come back with something that allowed for more Synod members to have a direct part in the decision making process rather than simply reacting after the fact. Sure enough, a new report turned up this time round and we duly passed it. It reduced the numbers on Boards and Councils by approximately 1/3, while keeping the same proprtional mix of Synod members and others. One of the things that has been bubbling under the surface for the whole of this Synod has been the feeling of a pressure for change within the structures of the Church. A considerable part of this - the introduction of the Archbishops' Council - pre-dates my time on Synod. Over this last five years, however, there has been considerable pressure to ensure that things are done in a more 'streamlined' fashion, and a worry for many people - myself included - that 'streamlined' means decided by the same small number of largely unaccountable people and presented for subsequent scrutiny as a done deal.

My third point of interest is at least tangentially related. We had several Diocesan Synod motions to debate this time round, one of which was about the legal status (or not) of Deanery Synods, and the other of which was about job sharing. Both concerned issues that had come up in individual Dioceses and which frankly needed sorting out. In the case of deaneries, there has been quite a lot of noise made over the last few years about how Deaneries are frightfully important and should be doing lost of interesting stuff. Unfortunately, they have no legal identity, which means that they have trouble doing things like registering for Gift Aid, and any legal responsibility is shared between the members of the Deanery Synod as individuals. The motion from Coventry Diocese was very clear about what it wanted, but was passed only in an amended form. As proposed it would have involved writing new legislation, as it is we will simply have another report. The secretariat are good at reports. The motion on job sharing was passed unamended, despite attempts to do a similar amendment job on it, and so new legislation will be required. The major objection to this - reading between the lines - seemed to be that it would be difficult. I am not sympathetic!

There is a sort of bureaucratic inertia which tends to respond to requests almost automatically with responses such as, "We don't do it like that" or "That's not really what you want" or "Let's write a report on that" or "We've always done it this way". It is easy to characterise such responses as laziness, but that's too simple an explanation. It has seemed increasingly to me that what we see is a sort of complacency - a presumption that the centre always knows best. It is not difficult to see the link between my two points above - the same presumption that 'we know best' will see no problem in restricting policy development to a chosen few (on the grounds that they know best), will also see nothing wrong in attempting to re-write requests from the wider church on the grounds that those making them don't really understand the problems. It is inevitable that one particular issue will dominate the General Synod elections this time around, but I do hope that people will pay attention to this question as well. Does the central bureaucracy exist to serve the Church or not? And if it does, why does there sometimes seem to be the impression that it's the other way round... If anybody out there manages to make it to general Synod hustings, I would encourage them to raise these issues with the prospective candidates.

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