General Synod: feeling the weight of the Church of England

(‘Questions’ section corrected 22 November 2021)

I’m back on General Synod: for the second time in my life. What’s it like? I published a short piece just over a month ago, after my election as a representative of the Oxford Diocese to the House of Laity of General Synod; and now I’ve had my first meeting. It was very full-on, information-heavy (by necessity) but my overall reaction was strongly that it was right for me to be there. ‘Coming home’ would be far too strong, but I was absolutely certain that I was right to stand. 

I represented Guildford Diocese in 1985-1993, in my late twenties, as one of the five youngest members. There are still very few in their twenties, but those I’ve already met clearly have a lot of experience and thinking to offer. Synod also looks more ethnically diverse than it did then, and of course – big difference – when I went on in 1985 women were only in the House of Laity. Things can, and do, change. So it was odd to meet people who, when told I’d been a member a long time ago, said “Oh yes, I thought I recognised you!” 

This blog is subtitled Reflecting on sexuality and gender identity in the Church of England, and although I am far from being a single-issue member of General Synod it’s not going to become a general blog on everything that happens at every meeting. Nor will it become a blow-by-blow, day-by-day summary. Other people do those and, quite honestly, I need time to decompress every evening rather than rushing back to my computer. So, sparing you all my thoughts about Synod in general (and I’m sorry that, even so, this is a longer blog post than usual), here goes, mostly on those themes.

Living with Living in Love and Faith?

I put in a request to speak in the debate on the Agenda, when members can ask the Chair of the Business Committee about the reasons why topics are included; or not included. I wanted to ask why the Leeds Diocesan Synod motion (on the wealth gap) was ‘in’ the agenda when the Hereford Diocesan Synod motion (on blessings for same-sex couples after a civil partnership of marriage) was ‘out’. This meant I could flag up to new members the way that the current policy, of not allowing debate on such themes until after the ‘Living in Love and Faith process’ is complete, will mean at least six years of silence on topics which are very important indeed to many of us. I spoke to the Chair of the Business Committee before and let him know what I was going to say, or at least roughly what, as it rather depended on what he said in his intro to the debate, and what other speakers raised. 

In fact, I was called to speak first. But before the debate could start, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke to Synod. Following a lot of concern about the widely-reported statement from the Anglican Church in Ghana apparently endorsing a bill proposing the criminalisation of LGBTQ+ people, he denied that this is their church’s policy, supporting this with reference to private conversations he is having. This was a surprise, bearing in mind the bishops in Ghana, for example, offering to “open our counselling and support centres for the needed transformation services required by these persons or groups”, which sounds a lot like conversion therapy. The beginning of the debate on the Agenda was further delayed a little by a silent protest by LGBT members of Synod holding up placards pointing out that if the proposed bill in Ghana goes forward, they would be imprisoned there; of course, if the bill becomes law, it will also affect those of us who are allies, as we too would be liable to be imprisoned. This was a powerful reminder that, in debates about sexuality and gender identity, it’s not ‘us’ talking about ‘them’. ‘We’ are all the Church.

Then we moved to the debate on the agenda. After pointing out that the Hereford Diocesan Synod motion had been bumped down the list, I asked whether there is a ‘forbidden list of words’ which evoke the ‘Not to be discussed while the LLF process continues’ response: I named sex, sexuality, gender, friendship – because LLF talks about friendship – and marriage, asking whether a Diocesan Synod motion from Blackburn will also fall foul of the ‘not yet’ rule because it includes the word ‘marriage’. The answer was that there is no ‘forbidden list’, but everything is considered on its merits: a clever answer, but I think I know what it means.

Questions

I also decided to submit two questions (every member is allowed up to two) for the Questions session which is traditionally on the first day of a Synod meeting, and to think about possible supplementaries after the written responses to my questions came out a few days before Synod met; the deal is that the original questioner can ask a supplementary, and it’s possible to ask these on other people’s questions too. While there are not always helpful answers, the Questions session offers an opportunity to hold our leaders to account. 

At a late stage, I decided to ask one supplementary on someone else’s question: I asked the Archbishop of Canterbury about the Ghana bill’s Clause 23, which would mean non-consensual surgery on people whose bodies do not fit the binary; he obviously wasn’t expecting this and gave an answer on the lines of Ghana not being the business of the House of Bishops. But at least members of Synod who didn’t previously realise this group of people is also affected now know about it. 

One of my own questions concerned how the Reference Group is being used by the Next Steps Group taking the Living in Love and Faith process forwards: the answer made it clear that it is only being used now, which seems odd, but it’s an answer and I appreciated the Bishop of London introducing her answer with “Thank you for this question which appropriately calls the work of the Next Steps Group to account”. So, no supplementary.

The other question I asked was on safeguarding: I was at a meeting shortly before Synod at which a church member challenged the amount of money being spent on safeguarding training and on support for survivors, and this made me pretty angry. There are no excuses for rejecting the training, and I am delighted that at last the Church is helping survivors. My question was simple: when is the Makin review into the abuses carried out by the late John Smyth going to be published? (useful video here) The Scripture Union Independent Case Review has now been issued but had a very narrow remit; Smyth was a trustee from 1971-1979. Survivors have been kept waiting for over two years already for the Makin review, apparently because of new evidence being brought, but what we’d been told most recently – publication “in 2022” – is still vague. The response I was given from the Lead Bishop for Safeguarding started with the usual “deep regret” but could not give any date. So I asked a supplementary about whether the review is including Smyth’s actions in Africa, since it seems to me that these have never been taken sufficiently seriously, and that the whole idea of sending someone with such a history to Africa is not just horrendous, but deeply racist. Smyth moved to Zimbabwe in 1984 (he continued to visit family in the UK) but then moved again in 2001, to South Africa, after nearly being brought to trial for offences against boys at his camps in Zimbabwe, including the death of 14-year-old Guide Nyachuru. The Bishop’s reply was that “If and when evidence comes forward of abuse which has taken place outside of its [the Makin review’s] specific remit, then that evidence is taken seriously, and further investigation into what comes to light will be, and must be, undertaken.” The terms of reference for Makin suggest a time frame up to August 2019, covering C of E bodies and office holders who had knowledge of what Smyth was alleged to have done; so, does that cover their knowledge of Africa? By 2013, the C of E authorities most definitely knew about what Smyth had done (the ‘Ruston report’ of 1982 was originally kept within the circle of Iwerne Trust leaders) and had informed the Anglican church in South Africa. But previously we had been told that Africa was not included in the Makin review.

Pomp and circumstance

There is just one other aspect of this first Synod of the quinquennium on which I’ll comment here: the Westminster Abbey Eucharist. It was very traditional, with of course the Abbey choristers, the organ, the robes and all the pomp. In contrast to the services I remember in 1985 and 1990, the Abbey didn’t want us all processing in, so we were seated with other diocesan members. This spared me what I recall as the most emotional part of the whole thing, that feeling of walking down the aisle to my fate, like a chosen victim in an animal sacrifice. But the service was still highly emotional, and not just because the hymns included one my parents had at their wedding and two we had at ours (‘Be still for the presence of the Lord and ‘For all the years’) which are already on my emotional high-octane list. 

Alongside the emotion, though, this time around I felt something else, alongside the feeling of being entrusted with an important responsibility. 

What you see speaks more powerfully even than what you sing and say. Over and over in the following two days, we heard the current C of E mantra of “simpler, humbler, bolder”. But did any of that apply to the service? Simple? Humble?? We also heard a lot about “Setting God’s people free” – one of Synod’s ongoing programmes, about valuing the laity. However, for the service, clergy were instructed that they must wear Convocation robes. Lay members of Synod were not to wear robes or uniforms, and that included laity who are Licensed Lay Ministers/Readers, who often wear robes when performing their roles in church. Why no robes for lay members of Synod? Because they ‘represent’ the laity. No, I don’t see the logic there either – clergy on Synod ‘represent’ the clergy who voted for them – and my preference would be for no members of Synod to wear robes or uniforms; just be there as Christians. 

At the same time as the service emphasised that we have been entrusted with a role which needs to be taken very seriously, there was another message: that this is the established Church. How can we possibly say anything that will change its course? The feeling of weightiness here is huge, and not always positive: and I was very aware that the weight of the Church is still crushing people. 

… UPDATE: Further reflections, focused on the Archbishops’ address, on the Via Media blog.

About fluff35

I blog on a range of subjects arising from various aspects of my life. On https://theretiringacademic.wordpress.com, I focus on my reactions to early retirement and think about aspects of teaching and research which I hope will be stimulating to those still working in higher education. On https://shared-conversations.com, I blog as an authorized lay preacher in a pretty standard parish church of the Church of England, who needs to write in order to find out what she thinks. I took part in the Oxford/St Albans/Armed Forces C of E 'Shared Conversations' in March 2016, worked on the Living in Love and Faith resources from 2017 and was elected to General Synod in October 2021, and continue to try to reflect on some of the issues. On https://mistakinghistories.wordpress.com I share my thoughts on various aspects of the history of medicine and the body. I also write for The Conversation UK on https://theconversation.com/profiles/helen-king-94923/articles
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6 Responses to General Synod: feeling the weight of the Church of England

  1. Pingback: Opinion – 20 November 2021 | Thinking Anglicans

  2. Rosalind Rutherford says:

    Thank you for taking on the weight of this responsibiity and already using all the means possible to you, to hold those with responsibilities and power in the C of E to account.

    Like

  3. Clare Amos says:

    Dear Helen

    I found your blog very interesting – thank you. Two points – I think you have the date wrong re when John Smyth left England (it was decades before 2013). Interested in your comments re ‘Setting God’s People Free’ and glad that there is still interest in that – and under that name. I am very suspicious of the efforts there have been in some circles over the last year to rename Setting God’s People Free as ‘Everyday Faith’ – which to me means something rather different – as well as verging on the banal. I think that these re-naming efforts are part of a pattern, exemplified also by the fact that there hasn’t been that much discussion of collaborative working between laity and clergy (which was part of the initial vision of SGPF), to make sure that laity are not set ‘too free’ – or otherwise they might get ‘uppity’ and want to do daring things like wearing robes in Westminster Abbey as well.

    Like

  4. Pingback: General Synod: “Gone Fishing!” | ViaMedia.News

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