Saturday, 2 January 2010

An almost forgotten post...

It was very flattering to be asked to write a guest post for the Church Mouse Blog about the July Synod. Seeing the link to it on my own Facebook page earlier this evening reminded me about it, so I thought I would stick it up here too - not least as a prelude for any further thoughts about the forthcoming February Synod...

Many thanks to the Church Mouse for inviting me to write this post. Hopefully, he won't be bored from his whiskers to his tail by the time he has finished reading it!

I wonder what, if anything, people out in the real world (who weren't in York from Friday until yesterday) have heard about General Synod this week. The two things most associated with Synod - namely the issues of who ought to go to bed with whom and whether you need a Y chromosome to be a bishop - have been strangely absent, despite some effort to get them on the agenda. Instead, the main news seems to have been about Synod wanting to cut the number of bishops. Or at least, before the debate on the motion from the Diocese of Bradford, that was the main news. Then in the debate itself many interesting things were said about episcopal numbers - in particular the fact that perhaps we ought to have more bishops not less, but that they should be pastors and evangelists rather than managers at the head of a bureaucracy - and all of a sudden the headline became all about the Church of England wanting more bishops, not fewer.

Actually, if this Synod is going to fix itself in my mind in any way, I think it will be as the 'stroppy synod'. A few things have happened to make the ordinary members of synod more than a little unhappy. There has been a fair amount posted elsewhere about the various constitutional stuff that happened - or failed to happen - during this session. From my own viewpoint, however, I think that the stroppiness is a symptom of tensions that are not peculiar to Synod. The reality of Synod's place within the structure of the C. of E. is that despite its notional authority - it is the only body that can change the way the Church is governed - much of the business of the Church happens around it and even on occasion despite it.You could try to involve Synod more, but the more 'democratic' you try to make the Church's institutions, the more unwieldy you make them - it is much more efficient to have a smaller number of people making the decisions. The alternatives to concentrate executive power into a few hands and then have your elected body as a sort of watchdog. This is the model that Local Government now follows, and it is the model that people feared was being offered to Synod. One problem with it is that it is almost entirely reactive - you can't use it to initiate policy.

There is a second problem with it too, which is that most decisions come to a scrutiny body as more or less a done deal, and it is very difficult to undo them, even supposing that you are properly briefed as to how and why those decisions have been reached. This is what went wrong in the debate about appointments to Archbishops' Council. Some of the Church bureaucracy were convinced that they faced a sort of Peasants' Revolt, but it wasn't really that - it was frustration. The executive and scrutiny model that we have to some extent already with Archbishops' Council can throw up some peculiar situations - especially, and ironically, if you put in structures to make it accountable. So it was that Synod were invited to confirm the appointments of two people to Archbishops' Council whom nobody knew, on the basis of virtually no information. Because they were in a bad mood already, a variety of people got up to point out how silly this was - either Synod ought to be able to do the scrutiny properly, or there was no point in doing it at all.

I don't think we have heard the last of this. There is pressure to change the way the Church does much of its business, and few people would deny that it is currently slow and bureaucratic. The question really is what to do to make the system work efficiently for the Church, while at the same time ensuring accountability and - just as importantly - input from those who are not insiders, but elected by the two or three people we have left in the pews...

Finally, there has of course been rather a large elephant in the room throughout the proceedings, namely the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans - the group that launched itself in Methodist Central Hall just before the start of General Synod. There was quite a lot of conversation around York about what the reactions would be to those bishops who attended, but in the end nothing happened at all. The views of Michael Nazir-Ali and John Hind that led them to attend the FCA meeting are well known, and John Broadhurst, the Bishop who managed to make a complete ass of himself from the platform, is not a member of Synod. Of more interest, however, is the Private Member's Motion from Lorna Ashworth, one of the lay members from Chichester, which requests that the Church of England declares itself in communion with the FCA. I left York on Monday morning, but by that time it looked as though it may well have reached the 100 signatures required for the Business Committee to consider it for inclusion on the agenda. [Edit: the motion received 126 signatures, and will now be considered by the business committee] Given that there are at least two motions ahead of it, this probably will not happen in February, but it is a real possibility for next July. On the present timetable, that means we will probably have Women Bishops back in February, and then Sexuality back next June, possibly with more Women Bishops. I can't wait, can you?

First posted on Church Mouse Publishing, 15th July 2009.