This isn’t a summary of decisions made at the February 2022 General Synod. You can find that elsewhere. Instead, I want to offer my overall reflections on the meeting and how it felt.
To summarize: it felt not just tiring, but pretty bizarre. Before General Synod met, there was considerable discussion about the plan to change how the Archbishop of Canterbury is chosen. After debate, the consultation period on this continues, so I am saying no more about this now.
The other main concern we had as rank and file members was around how we would be doing Questions – this may sound really petty in the great scheme of things, but it’s the one chance we have to ask for data and to hold those in authority to account, as well as to bring topics to the attention of other members. This time, we had two and a half hours allocated for this, but we still didn’t make it through the 150 Questions submitted. The system is that a written answer is supplied in advance, so the meeting only involves asking supplementaries on these written answers. I was lucky in that both of my Questions were reached – one on John Smyth’s African victims, the other on how the House of Bishops’ blanket rejection of FGM manages to coexist with a lack of interest in Ghana’s draft Family Values Bill which would involve non-consensual surgery on girls and women with variant sex characteristics. However, due to the hybrid nature of this meeting, we were all restricted to a maximum of two supplementary questions. Almost everyone obeyed this request and we are too polite to object when someone doesn’t. I obeyed, which meant I couldn’t follow up on several questions around how and why the 30-year-old document ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ came to be binding not only on those going for ordination but even for lay ministers in some (not all) dioceses. There’s so much to ask here, but I had to let it go. Questions felt more than usually constrained.
More of the bizarreness, though, was down to the Standing Orders being summonsed out of the dark places where they usually lurk. ‘Is there a quorum in the House of Bishops?’ (because if there isn’t, then we stop, but it can be hard to count as they don’t all wear purple) ‘Chair, would you accept a motion for a count of the whole Synod/count by Houses?’ (because sometimes the voting is too close to call just by looking at a show of hands/sometimes it’s significant to know that one House – Bishops/Clergy/Laity – disagrees with the others) Moves like this can require at least 25 members to stand up to support them, which at least gives us some exercise.
Most tricky of all proved the Standing Order allowing Synod to ‘adjourn’ debate on one motion. That took place in the case of a multi-paragraph ‘following motion’ tabled against the simple ‘take note’ motion on the most recent update on safeguarding (if I’ve lost you there, sorry, but just let it go and keep reading, although I’m not sure things will necessarily improve). This following motion was important because it was clear that there was unease with how the National Safeguarding Team is working; for example, the following motion was asking for more checks on how effective the NST are, and pointing out apparent inconsistencies between what the Independent Safeguarding Board has asked for, and what is really happening. There was also concern expressed that bullying is not being addressed. According to the official statement of what we did, Synod actually voted to ‘pass to the Next Business‘, not to ‘adjourn debate’. That’s important because – if I’ve got this right – when you agree to pass to next business, not only does the following motion fall, but its various paragraphs can’t be discussed again in the life of this General Synod. That’s tricky because the proposer also has two Private Member’s Motions in the system, with similar wording. I’ve been back to the Standing Orders and I don’t know what happens next – I’m actually more confused now than I was when it happened – but apparently there’s always the discretion of the Business Committee to invoke, in terms of deciding whether the intention of Synod was indeed this dramatic.
For the 60% of so new members, this was all either traumatic or a revelation, or possibly both at once.
Another revelation lay in the value of proposing an amendment. I’ve heard people saying that, if only they’d realized how it all worked, they’d have tried amending the motion to extend the special arrangements for having meetings on Zoom beyond 7 August 2022. But no such amendment was tabled. Members now have more sense of how the system works and of what they need to do to make it work for them.
For me, the most bizarre aspect of this session came in the meeting of the House of Laity, at the end of the final day. In an earlier Zoom meeting of the House we’d discussed co-opting 5 members from global majority heritage people to improve our diversity. I thought this was done and dusted – the way it would work, with invitations for nominations and then a vote, had all been aired in advance. Yet we ended up with a surprisingly long debate about whether or not to proceed. Those opposed seemed to think that they’d stood in the main elections, and been elected, so nobody else should be allowed in. Yet it was also clear that, with the voters being deanery synod members, there was often little chance of anyone who didn’t look like them getting on to Synod. One Black member said he’d recently been to his first deanery synod meeting (if you get on to General Synod you are ex officio on the deanery synod) and he was the only black or brown person in a room of 50 or so members. Earlier in the week, Paul Boateng had made an inspiring speech to us in his role on the church’s Archbishops’ Commission for Racial Justice. He had pointed out that the government’s front bench are far more diverse than the people on the platform with him when he addressed Synod. The proposed co-option was a very simple way of improving diversity. Yet it proved contentious. Eventually, we agreed to go ahead. I was very pleased that we did, but not happy about how the debate had played out.
Finally, back to the point this was the first hybrid Synod. It worked pretty well, I think. Being hybrid made it much more inclusive. There seem to have been around 50 members on Zoom and they were able to vote and to speak in debates, thanks to the hard work of the excellent admin and tech people who support us all so well. There was also steady improvement over the course of the three days in terms of putting up motions-as-amended on the screens in the debating chamber, so we could see exactly what we were voting on, and also in terms of Chairs of debates spelling out ever more carefully just what each vote was about and what the implications of accepting or rejecting it would be.
One of my friends asked me why I’d bothered to go to London when I could have just zoomed in. Well, that’s easy; being there in person makes it so much easier to meet new people, forge relationships, hear what others are thinking… and that was, as in November, very valuable indeed.