It’s February 1; one week until General Synod meets again. I’m writing this for those who have been asking me when it is and what’s on the agenda. The theme (there isn’t usually such a clear theme) this time is racial justice: we have an update on how things have been going since various targets were set (answer: not as well as one would hope, shortage of funds taking some of the blame) and a diocesan synod motion on slavery and human trafficking. GS is of course a legislative body, and so we have some legislation to consider; there’s also an update on safeguarding, a preliminary look at plans to change how the Archbishop of Canterbury is appointed, a review of clergy remuneration, a further stage of the governance review, and an update on the ‘Setting God’s People Free‘ report, a 2017 aspect of the ‘Renewal and Reform’ programme which was a big thing at the time and which aimed to create ‘whole-life discipling dioceses’ and a national portal to inspire your average lay person. That portal is here, but I’ve tried to register on it several times in the last few days to no effect (and yes, I have sent a message about that), so maybe we’re not there yet. The ‘SGPF’ report contains a huge range of suggestions, including that clergy should have two days a week off so that they could ‘sustain friendships with lay friends’; but the laity are supposed to be the focus, with lay development supported and some sort of strategy developed for encouraging lay people to explore their gifts and their vocations. As someone in a diocese-based authorised lay ministry, I have many views on this, not least that exploring one’s gifts and vocation doesn’t have to take place within the church.
There’s plenty of interesting material on the agenda, but I am not sure how any of this is going to make a difference to the average parish. We shall see. It’s also quite a range of topics for one meeting. When they tell you the likely workload, people tend to present it in terms of three weeks of work a year, and they usually add something about how, recently, GS hasn’t used every one of the three weeks which are in your diary. Of course, they add, if you serve on any committees or working groups, there’ll be more. What they don’t say, though, is how much there is to do between meetings. Nor do they mention the length of a synodical day.
Let’s start with that synodical day. Thank God, unlike when I was on GS for Guildford in the late 1980s, there’s an allowance for accommodation, so I don’t have to commute; facing the rush hour was never pleasant. I can stay in a simple hotel five minutes away from Church House. Getting refunded for this can, however, take a while; months rather than weeks, and I know I am not alone in this experience. So much for any idea that being on GS is easy for those without some money in the bank. For this session, we are only (only!) meeting from lunchtime on the Tuesday until the evening of the Thursday; so, much like November 2021, except that some of the time there was spent on the Westminster Abbey service and the inauguration, plus the initial sessions on how it all worked. Because of this relatively short session for November, the various fringe meetings are squashed into two lunch breaks and two evenings. This means that, for anyone whose interests go beyond a single issue – and I would hope that means all of us – it’s very difficult to sort out the diary. In the interests of sanity, I am prioritising the Affirming Catholics in Synod evening event (Mass + meal) because it sustained me so well last time around. On Wednesday lunchtime, I’m prioritising the General Synod Gender & Sexuality Group, and on Thursday lunchtime it’s Inclusive Church’s event on disability and church. But because I am going to GSGSG, I can’t be at the Conversion Therapy event scheduled for the same slot, or the panel discussion on the reform of clergy discipline, both of which sound interesting, although the Conversion Therapy meeting appears to be promoting the claim that prayer for people to change their sexuality is fine, whereas I would say that this can be just as coercive and damaging as other forms.
However, I could still attend the one breakfast event. Breakfast event! I didn’t realise these existed! The newly-formed RIGGS, the Rural Interest Group, sounds interesting, and although I live in a market town my diocese has many rural areas. But… breakfast event. Starts at 7.45 a.m. I just can’t. It is fun talking to other members at the hotel’s breakfast and I think the connections made there are essential, otherwise we could just stay in little bubbles of like-minded individuals.
Self-care at GS is essential. This requires thought and planning. There are no breaks other than the lunch hour, so cups of tea, loo trips and so on have to be fitted in while debates are in progress. Last time around, I managed to combine loo trips with high speed walks down the road to Pret to have a cup of soup to sustain me, but it’s a risk; what are you missing in the debating chamber? My back tends to seize up with long periods of sitting, even with my trusty lumbar cushion, and I don’t want to risk returning to pre-diabetes (my experiences of which are discussed here), so both exercise and healthy eating are important. One can spend much of the time in the tea room, in which there’s a screen showing what’s happening, but there’s nothing I am able to eat there; sitting down isn’t really what’s needed; and that room can get crowded, with it feeling wrong to hog the limited number of chairs.
As for the between-GS meeting activities… Well, first there’s reading the papers. They come out in a batch, in this case issued on 21 January for a meeting starting on 8 February. That isn’t long for reading. I wonder why they can’t be made available as and when they are ready, and I know someone is asking a question about that in the formal Questions sessions. Then, in the weeks before we meet, many of the different groups have Zoom sessions of an hour or so to brief members on items of relevance to the group; others send a digest around to serve this purpose. Dioceses, many of which would normally have a meal for the bishop to brief her or his diocese’s reps on the local dimensions of the topics on the agenda, may meet in person or on Zoom. This time around, the House of Laity also had its own Zoom meeting to consider the suggestion of coopting more people from UKME/GMH backgrounds to the House. And then there are the between-sessions elections; meaning election addresses to read, votes to cast.
If there are issues about which you are concerned, you may want to send in a formal question, and that involves researching the background, drafting the question, maybe sharing it with someone else you know on GS for feedback, and making sure you submit it by the deadline. The question may then come back to you with suggestions to improve it, as not everything can be asked. This time around, because the meeting will be a hybrid one (hooray – so much more inclusive) we also have to give notice of any supplementary questions we would like to ask, although we don’t need to say which questions they refer to – and as the list of questions comes out a few days before GS meets, I need to factor in that reading time as well, to discover the answers to the two questions I’ve posed, and to decide whether a supplementary is needed.
And then there’s the rest of life to fit in. If you take your role as an elected member at all seriously, General Synod isn’t easy, even for someone like me who is not working a 9-5 job. Be warned!