This month’s meeting of the General Synod is not so much about whether women will be allowed to become bishops in the immediate future, as whether the Synod in its current form has any credibility. In November 2012, the same basic question was before it. Prior to those sessions, all forty-four dioceses making up the Church of England had been consulted. All, bar three, had supported the measure, most by very large majorities; yet, still, the legislation failed to pass the House of Laity. At the time, I suggested that the current Synod was clearly “broken” in that it failed to act in a way which reflected the “mind of the Church”. This was why I proposed that Diocesan Synods pass motions of no confidence, in the wake of the vote. Bristol Diocesan Synod went ahead and passed a modified form of my proposals, but the news was soon out that a bid to return the legislation in the life of the present Synod was afoot, so the idea stopped there.
Of course, if the legislation fails again on Monday, Synod will probably be in a worse place in terms of both Church and public opinion. Parliament may choose to introduce legislation – as it still has the powers to govern the Church by Act should it wish to do so; and I think were Synod to fail to reflect the view of the Church of England so unanimously reflected at diocesan level, then there would be few Church voices raised in protest by such a move by the State. So if the vote goes “no”, it will be beyond dispute that the Church’s current system of synodical government has broken down. However, even if the legislation is voted through, I would suggest that the current system is irredeemably discredited in Church circles and beyond.
The current problems
The most obvious problem is with the House of Laity. The members are elected by Deanery Synod members, who themselves are elected by PCCs at the annual church meeting. Most parishes struggle to get people to sit on Deanery Synod, partly because it means several extra evening meetings per year, and partly because everyone knows that most Deanery Synod meetings are like watching paint dry (whilst doing so in a cold church or a damp church hall). As a result, the electorate of the General Synod House of Laity is made up of a combination of the pressganged, the crusading and the accidental, as cartoonist Dave Walker’s picture of a PCC illustrates. Nevertheless, one doesn’t need to be a Deanery Synod member to stand for General Synod. The second, compounding problem is that General Synod meets on weekdays. This inevitably means that the House of Laity contains an unrepresentative and large number of the retired, the elderly and those whose professions allow them to attend during working hours (lawyers and doctors are over-represented professions, for example). There are some House of Laity members (God bless them) who take paid or unpaid leave to attend, but one has to concede that this sacrifice is a huge political disincentive. The third problem is the turnover of members: many among the House of Laity have been members for decades, and to this is added the phenomenon of the “senior figure”, ie. a person who has the time and some motivation to get on lots of committees and to exert considerable influence over process and other members, simply because they are known well and know the system. Of course, among the House of Laity are many outstanding members, many whose professional stature gives them valuable insight into the affairs of the Church and its mission. But representative of the rank and file of the Church, the House of Laity is not. As the debate over women bishops has proved, this is affecting the Church’s reputation and its responsiveness to the challenges of contemporary mission.
Things could be somewhat improved by minor changes in the Church Representation Rules, which govern who can stand and who can vote for General Synod members. It would be entirely possible to synchronise a General Synod election with the season of annual parochial church meetings (APCMs), so that ballots can be held in the local church with all electoral roll members eligible. It is possible for the process to be divided up among parishes, with each parish having a local ballot to determine which candidates get its electoral vote or votes. The pros and cons of various systems are familiar ground to political scientists. But one thing is clear: the electorate needs to change. The current system reflects a pre-internet state of affairs, and dates back, in the main, to systems which were set up with the Church Assembly as long ago as 1919. This is what I mean by “General Synod 1.0” – we’ve been stuck at various minor versions of that model for nearly a century. Society and Church have both moved on, especially in the past twenty years with the digital revolution.
The reason for meeting during the week seems to be the need to keep the total number of meetings (and, hence, travel expenses) down, which pushes up the number of days a single meeting requires to complete the business. The July meeting takes place over a weekend (with a grand communion at York Minster taking half a day), but still spills over as far as the following Tuesday. The answer is obvious: to have a smaller, more representative General Synod meeting more frequently at weekends. The current size of the General Synod is nearly 500 people, and, since any reduction requires the consent of the Synod, rather unsurprisingly it has resisted cutting its own size down to something more cost effective (let us say 300 members). A much smaller synod could then afford, say, five rather than three meetings per year, held at weekends. At a stroke, this would open membership of the House of Laity up to a far wider range of adults. But the deeper problem is that General Synod, as presently constituted, is unlikely to agree anything radical about its nature. Turkeys don’t usually vote for Christmas. If it is capable of bringing the Church into public derision and disrepute by its acts in November 2012, I don’t hold out much hope of its ability to self-reform. Again, we’re stuck by the functionality of “General Synod 1.0”. Perhaps State intervention may be the only way, although as a theologian, I’d rather hope not.
A total rethink?
But are the above proposals merely tweaking with something that needs a more radical change? General Synod is a democratic machine, designed in the twentieth century, in the era of High Modernity. It came into being during a government headed by David Lloyd George that had shown it was quite willing to step in to govern when the Church seemed resistant to the wider political will (as, in part, it had already done with the disestablishment of the Welsh dioceses in an Act of 1911). Above all, the Church needed to prove the relevance and integrity of its own systems of decision-making if it was to continue to command respect (and a subsequent lack of tampering) by the secular state. The mood-music of 1919 shaped a model which has been with us since. That same mood-music is around us once again.
Although the above proposals could make things somewhat better than they presently are, a much better step would be to commission a widespread review of the present system, Synod 1.0, especially in the context of recent problems and the need to engage a wider sense of commitment by very people the House of Laity are meant to represent. This would be a task for theologians (for the task of Synod is to gather together to discern the mind of the Holy Spirit in considering matters of governance and legislature), political scientists (for the method of discerning the mind of the Spirit remains a human task for a human system), representatives of the present Synod, and, especially, those who are presently most disenfranchised: the younger laity and those who have contractual or immoveable Monday-Friday job commitments.
A rethink about General Synod also needs to address a wider set of questions about how the whole nature of democracy is changing in the digital age. Although there is still no consensus about what secular systems of government can or ought to do to address this, the same issue affects younger lay people within the Church of England. If the Church wants to stem the exodus of young people, which has been seriously affecting it for the past thirty years, then proposing models where young voices can be seen to shape directly its teaching, worship, operations and beliefs would be a step in the right direction.
So let us have that review. And then, if General Synod cannot put its own “House” in order, it may be appropriate for the State to do something about it and bring in Synod 2.0 whether Synod 1.0 likes it or not.
Today is a bit of a “nothing to report” day, partly, I suspect because I did today’s run with John last July – so there were few surprises. The route ran from South Leicestershire (just north of the A5 for you motorists out there) through Ashby de la Zouch (great name, plus castle) through Repton in South Derbyshire. Repton advertises itself as the ancient capital of Mercia, but its main claim to fame is its large, rather top-notch public school, which now dominates the northern part of this small town. One of its headmasters, Geoffrey Fisher, went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury (1945-1961). It also gives its name to Hubert Parry’s hymn tune, which is commonly used to accompany the words of ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, the later verses of a poem by the Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier. The story of how this came about was the subject of a delightful BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast last year. The hymn tune was given the name of the school, because the idea of putting the two together was that of George Gilbert Stocks, who was director of music at the school in the 1920s. Parry had died of the Spanish ‘Flu in 1918. Repton and Jerusalem remain Parry’s most famous works.
At some point, when you’re cycling north through England, you have to reckon with the River Trent. I crossed it just north of Repton. There followed a gradual climb up from the Trent valley into the southern peaks, which I found surprisingly tiring. I also had my first mechanical snag, which entailed stopping to tighten a few loose spokes on my old front wheel. It now doesn’t make any irritating clunking noises and I also fancy it’s a bit more efficient – maybe just me. A brief stop in Ashbourne, then I was off on the final leg of the journey, via the Tissington Trail (the old Buxton to Ashbourne LNWR railway line) then a brief detour to Hartington youth hostel where I am staying the night. Miles travelled today: 54. Total so far: 146. Tomorrow is going to be a big ride…
In the light of the recent failure of the General Synod to pass the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) measure at its sessions of November 2012, despite overwhelming support for this legislation by this and other diocesan synods of the Church of England, Bristol Diocesan Synod:
1. Reaffirms our strong conviction that it is God’s will that women be ordained as bishops in the Church of England.
2. Has no confidence in the General Synod’s ability to transact the clear will of the majority of the Church with the urgency required to further the mission and witness of the Church.
3. Calls on the House of Bishops to explore, as a matter of great urgency, every possible avenue to effect the will of the Church on this issue.
This motion is not aimed at the removal of this current Synod (which mine is) but does go part of the way along that route by making the points that:
- As one of the 42 out of 44 diocesan synods which affirmed the move to ordain women as bishops, its steer was effectively ignored by the action of the November synod
- It does not believe that this present synod is capable of passing a form of women bishops legislation which assigns the same authority to operate to women bishops as is held by men
However, if other diocesan synods pass similar motions, where does that leave us? Essentially, the message given to Synod is, ‘we don’t think you lot are capable of passing satisfactory legislation and we’re upset about this.’ But, it doesn’t take any further action which would amend this situation. Essentially, this will not do anything other than register a protest.
The stronger, original version of the motion goes further – by expressing a total lack of confidence in the Synod to act as the present General Synod of the Church of England, it’s essentially saying it needs to go, and go as soon as possible. So why is this necessary? I think it’s so, for the following reasons:
- Those who voted against the motion in the House of Laity have indicated that the main reason is that the present proposals give inadequate provision for traditionalist parishes. The only form of legislation that they are more likely to pass would have to give greater provision for independence of authority to traditionalist parishes to choose an alternative (male) bishop.
- This amended form of the current draft legislation will never get the support of the key proponents of women bishops, since it would lead to a situation of male bishops and female ‘bishops’, within the CofE. The female ‘bishops’ would find that their authority could be overturned by individual parishes, simply because they were women.
- Therefore, the Synod would find that any strengthening of the provision for traditionalists would lead to a collapse in support by the proponents of women bishops. Yet I fear that such strengthening of provision is exactly what is being contemplated by the Archbishops Council and the House of Bishop for the July 2013 Synod.
In short, this Synod is broken as regards women bishops legislation.
Some are looking to 2015 and a new synod with the hope that this will pass a ‘single-clause measure’. This amounts to ordaining women bishops with no ‘alternative provision’ for traditionalist parishes. It’s a high-stakes gamble, since my guess is that this, in turn, will not get a 2/3rds majority across the houses, because, in the last resort, Anglicans are mostly ‘nice’ and don’t want to pass something which would force anyone to leave. It would be entirely possible in future hustings for the House of Laity for a candidate to stand up and say something like the following:
I fully support the ordination of women to the episcopate and long for the day when that will be possible. I will support any form of legislation which will allow this, whilst giving fair provision to those whose consciences cannot accept women bishops.
The result will be a person who, if elected, will vote against a single-clause measure. Plenty others, who aren’t this clear about their intentions, will wobble in the last resort. The result would be a process which will take just as long as the present one has (nearly twelve years) and will result in exactly the kind of legislation which was rejected this month.
The real way forward is to cut out the time-wasting and get a Synod which accepts what was before us this month. That is the quickest route forward, but for it to happen will require another Synod. The quicker this happens, the better. Hence, the need for stronger motions than this one.
Since last Tuesday’s vote in the General Synod, I have been dropping heavy hints that this is the best way of getting the matter straightened-out for the Church of England. Most of what follows is self-explanatory, but the basic approach would be to get sufficient numbers of Diocesan Synods to pass this or similar votes of No Confidence in the current General Synod, in order to get a dissolution and an early election. As it is presently constituted, the only form of legislation the current Synod would pass would be so compromising of future women bishops’ authority that it would not command the support of those who are in favour. What follows is my rough draft of a Motion which might be put before Diocesan Synods. It would need checking through with a specialist in Church Law (a Diocesan Registrar or similar), before being put up for a vote…
In the light of the recent failure of the General Synod to pass the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) measure at its sittings of November 2012, despite overwhelming support for this legislation by this and other diocesan synods of the Church of England, this Diocesan Synod:
- Has no confidence in the General Synod to govern the Church by Measure, as it is currently constituted;
- Calls on the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to ask Her Majesty to dissolve this General Synod at the earliest opportunity, in order that new elections may be held without unreasonable delay.
The present makeup of the General Synod makes it unable to pass any form of legislation enabling the consecration of women which would not, at the same time, so compromise their future authority as bishops to a degree that it would not command the necessary support in either the General Synod itself, or in the wider Church of England.
The only option for any way out of the impasse is, therefore, either to wait for new elections due to be held in 2015, or to
petition for an early dissolution of the Synod on the grounds of no confidence. Although the existing General Synod legislation does not make it clear whether such a situation and process was ever envisaged, the precedent of the process operating in Parliament, and hence within the British constitution, make such a course of action constitutional, as Her Majesty is Sovereign over both bodies.
There is also a possibility that such a motion, if passed by Parliament, might also be constitutional – however, it would be better for the Church if dioceses to urge for the action in the first place, rather than Parliament itself.
Were this General Synod be so dissolved, early elections would follow and the existing legislation – which is likely to be the most generous compromise on offer to traditionalist churches and people within the Church of England – could then be put before a new Synod without much delay.
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Phyllis Tickle has written an intriguing post on the Emergent Village Blog. Here’s a sample:
Within the next eighteen to twenty-four months, denominations and established communions and the Christians who constitute them will decide, consciously or simply by default, whether “church” is first and foremost an experience of communal bonding, spiritual and religious expression, growth in concert with the ages, radical obedience, adoration, and transport or whether it is first and foremost an institution—one that does business and has structure and also structures which are to be supported, and one that is a means for organized interface with, and shaping of, the world external to it as the best means of effecting the Gospel’s principles upon and within culture.
She points out that these aren’t an either/or option, but a question of where the spiritual emphasis will lie – institutional survival or, if I summarize correctly, ‘pragmatic spiritual community’. She then points out the significance of those Emerging Christians who have opted to stay in their denominations as a context for doing Emerging Church. (Sorry to be so passé using that phrase. If you’re offended, just pretend it’s 2005 and you’ll feel OK…). Phyllis Tickle continues:
Whether one calls this third body of folk the hyphenateds or by their sect-specific names of Methomergents, Luthermergents, Presbymergents, etc. matters not. What matters is that they are the “X” factor at the moment, What matter is that they are peeling off in increasing numbers from the institutionalized bodies out of which they have come. As they withdraw, they leave those inherited bodies more and more stripped of their resources and energy, certainly. More importantly, however, they also leave those established, inherited communions devoid of disparate voices and arguably more temporally relevant points of view.
America is always changing, so although it’s only just under a year since I last visited, there seems to be a changing of the waters in regard to the place of Emerging Christians in the established denominations. I would be interested to find out from some of my contacts within such circles whether they agree with Phyllis Tickle’s analysis.
The British situation seems considerably distant from these developments. For several reasons:
- Although we have had new, non-denominational churches for decades, they have not really eclipsed the continued significance of denominational Churches; the Church of England in particular.
- The denominational Churches in Britain seem to have been far better at admitting and welcoming Emergent and Fresh Expression forms of Church; again, the Church of England in particular.
- For those who are interested in Emerging Church, the denominational route (and, boringly again, the Church of England in particular) is at least as viable as an independent option, if not more so
Among Emerging (oops, there I go again! Think ‘2005’ people…) pioneers in Britain, the more pressing question pertains to what Phyllis Tickle describes as the ‘adolescence’ of Emergent Christianity (in the sense that it has left behind its ‘childhood’ and stands on the brink of adult public engagement). This particularly focusses on the question of whether, in Britain, Fresh Expressions/Emerging forms of Church run the risk of losing some of their cutting edge by being absorbed into the life of larger expressions of Church by the welcome and support they have received. A key commentator on this question has been Ben Edson. (See his recent piece on ShareTheGuide.org.)
A key factor in responding to this sort of questioning must surely be whether Fresh Expressions / Emerging Churches are becoming more or less effective missional communities by their continued engagement with denominational (or established non-denominational) churches. That’s a very difficult issue to judge, because, in contrast to the picture being painted by Phyllis Tickle of Emerging Churches in the USA, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of any other game in town in this country.
So I’m intrigued: how many CofE communicants received communion in both kinds today?
Readers in the Church of England may be surprised to learn that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written to all clergy recommending the withdrawal of the common cup (ie. the chalice) at Holy Communion, commencing this Sunday. You can get the official word on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s website. This is potentially controversial, as one of the hallmarks of the Reformation was the restoration of communion in both kinds (bread and wine) to all participants. In this, the Archbishops seem to be following government advice.
As I’m not a parish priest anymore, with the responsibility of implementing this policy, I feel somewhat free to give my opinion. That opinion is from someone who has no medical training whatsoever, so take it on that basis…
The last significant ‘flu pandemic was in 1968 – so-called Hong Kong ‘Flu. During that time, weekly consultation rates rose to a peak of over 1200 per 100,000 (ie. over 1 in 100 visited the doctor each week with symptoms). At the moment (25 July 2009), with Swine ‘Flu, weekly consultation rates are at just under 200 per 100,000. Quite how many people currently have swine ‘flu is probably impossible to know.
However, the point is this: in 1968, the common cup was not withdrawn in Holy Communion. So what’s changed? After all, this is a bad ‘flu, not bubonic plague or cholera.
Simon thinks the difference in the response is to do with there being a potential breakdown in confidence in taking Holy Communion in church – which, given our media-saturated age, may be true. A big factor, for me, is that people (and therefore governments) seem to be far more risk-averse than they were in 1968, a year which I somehow managed to survive (along with the vast majority of the Church of England).
Perhaps somewhere there are lawyers breathing the phrase “duty of care” into some ecclesiastical ears. But I can’t help feeling that this is massive overreaction. The people most at risk from this ‘flu are already ill – and they already know that they will need to take extra precautions to avoid infection. But I doubt whether withdrawing the cup from the Church of England communion services is going to make any significant difference to the spread of the disease, and hence the risk to those who are already immuno-suppressed or who have chronic illness.
Other changes apparently coming in are:
- Communion wafers will be placed in the hands, not (as in some churches) directly in the mouth or on the tongue
- In some places, Holy Water stoups are being drained
- Priests and distributors of the Communion are being urged to avoid touching people’s hands while giving them the bread/wafers
- Communion by intincting bread/wafers in the wine is being stopped – apparently, it’s more likely to spread disease than drinking directly from the cup, since we have nastier and higher-numbers of bugs on our fingers than in our mouths
Then of course, there’s shaking hands (or in some places, hugging and kissing) at the Peace… Maybe that’s why the Church of England managed to survive the 1968 ‘flu outbreak. It was before the arrival of Holy Communion – Series 3 and ‘The Peace’. People kept in their pews and didn’t try to snog each other.
We need more of this kind of stuff in the Anglican Church … BOH!
The underlying problem of the mainline churches … is the weakening of the spiritual conviction required to generate the enthusiasm and energy needed to sustain a vigorous communal life. Somehow, in the course of the past century, these churches lost the will or the ability to teach the Christian faith and what it requires to a succession of younger cohorts in such a way as to command their allegience … In respose to the currents of modernity, denominational leaders … did not devise or promote compelling new versions of a distinctively Christian faith. They did not fashion or preach a vigorous apologetics …
…Many of them have reduced the Christian faith to belief in God and respect for Jesus and the Golden Rule, and among this group a growing proportion have little need for the church.
Perhaps some now unforeseen cultural shift will one day bring millions of baby boom dropouts back to the mainline churches. But nothing we discovered in our study suggests the likelihood of such a shift. If the mainline churches want to regain their vitality, their first step must be to address theological issues head on. They must … provide compelling answers to the question, “what is so special about Christianity?”
(Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge and Donald A. Luidens, ‘Mainline Churches: the real reason for decline’, First Things 31 (March 1993) 18. Quoted in Marva Dawn, Reaching out without dumbing down (Eerdmans, 1995) 46.)
The first thing to say is that I think the whole shift of culture in the Church of England after the report Mission-shaped Church has been wonderful for anyone who wants to risk trying to plant Fresh Expressions of Church. When I think back just seven years, the Church of England was comparatively in the “dark ages” as far as church-planting is concerned. At this month’s General Synod, we discussed the final stage of the process which makes it culturally and legally possible for a group of Anglican Christians to plant a church outside of a single parish boundary, and not necessarily wedded to a Parish structure. This becomes possible through a mechanism called a “Bishop’s Mission Order”. It will mean many Fresh Expressions, Alternative Worship communities and Emerging Church groups have a vehicle, within Anglican structures, to exist, flourish and enjoy full legitimation. All great so far …
However, the “Code of Practice” which has been drawn up by the House of Bishops, and which governs how Bishop’s Mission Orders can work runs to 83 pages, six chapters and five appendices. Although essentially an enabling document, it speaks volumes about a large Church which is shackled to structures inherited from a past rooted in Christendom, and for whom the call to become truly missionary (or missional, if you prefer) has come late, perhaps too late, in its history.
Here is a quick look at a simplified “Procedure Flowchart” which explains the process of how a mission initiative (actual or planned) would go about getting legitimation through a Bishop’s mission order. Pretty, isn’t it? Pretty complicated… (If you click on the image, it will download it in PDF).
Having read the document, I found myself thinking, again and again, “what are we afraid of?” The overwhelming fear seems to be that certain territorial or ecumenical feathers may be ruffled by the appearance in an area of a new, young, fast-changing form of church which people are attracted to, but which cannot be controlled by more established Christian power structures. A lesser fear also lurks, based on the assumption that spontaneity, innovation and rapid development will always end in tears, and the fear that this might besmirch the “good name” of the reliable product of the Church of England. Of course, once in a blue moon, this can actually happen (as it did in the case of Nine O’Clock Service).
I have to shrug my shoulders reluctantly and accept that megaliths such as the Church of England do have a low fear threshold when it comes to legitimating anything which is fast-moving, subject to change, hard to understand and therefore hard to control. But at the same time, I wish more people would recognize that we (ie. the CofE) have to be far more afraid of the haemorrhaging of attendance from so many parish churches who stick to the established script, for at the moment it looks like a slow and irreversible death from a thousand cuts. Although I do not believe the parish model to be completely broken from a missional point of view, I do think that it is holed below the waterline as a “default” mode of being church. My guess is that for every one example which works (from a mission point of view) there are probably about forty which are not working and have very little likelihood of ever working again. So the need for the Church to have a “mixed economy” of modes of being church is far more urgent than most people realize. The very kind of communities which we need are those which are fast-moving, subject to change, hard to understand outside their context and therefore hard to control. We need to trust the Holy Spirit a bit more when it comes to mission, and legal or quasi-legal structures a good bit less, because law – however useful it is – does not drive mission, but is there to cater for the odd occasion when things go wrong. So the document (which delights in the catchy title Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure 2007: Part V: Mission Initiatives Code of Practice) had me with my head in my hands on occasion. I’m grateful that it makes possible what it makes possible, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easy, nor does it necessarily make it possible in a short space of time – especially when it’s not operating in sympathetic or confident hands. I couldn’t help wondering what St Paul would have done in Asia Minor if he needed to go through this kind of rigamarole. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the whole Church of England (and, sadly, it would appear, the House of Bishops) also need to rediscover that generous Catholic missional spirit we see between people like St Paul, Apollos and others, which worried less about territory and ownership, and far more about the message getting out and transforming the world.
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor 3:5-9)
It’s not difficult to redraw the version of the “Procedure Flowchart” which led to the planting of the Church of God amongst the Gentile communities in Asia Minor. Even with the co-existence of Judaizing opposition groups who were seeking to undo (or “correct”) their work, it still took off and became the womb of Eastern Christianity.