Weaving the threads

The Archbishops had decided that before the Synod was Prorogued we should have an opportunity to debate ‘The State of the Nation’.  Synod members often complain that we can never have a timely debate, that the agenda is set so far in advance that there is no space to respond to the events that are happening as we are meeting.  There were no complaints on this occasion!

Threads

We weave the threads

For those unfamiliar with the layout of Westminster, the Abbey alongside which Dean’s Yard is located in which stands Church House, is on the opposite side of the road to the Palace of Westminster where the Houses of Parliament are.  On the other side of the road in Parliament Square is the Supreme Court.  Downing Street is just a short walk away and along Birdcage Walk and through St James’ Park is Buckingham Palace.  The Synod meets at the heart of national life and so it was the perfect location to have this debate.

What was so interesting though was that this debate on the nation was a weaving together of the strands of the whole of this Group of Sessions.  Forget the legislative business that we had to plough through; the rest of the Synod was about some of the elements that would make up any debate about the state that we find ourselves in as a nation.  We talked about the environment; we talked about racism and how it affects travellers, gypsies and the Roma people.  We talked about children and young people.  We talked about life on our hard pressed and maginalised estates.  We talked about the pernicious effect of advertising and gambling.  All these threads could have been left hanging, like at the back of a badly finished piece of tapestry.  But they weren’t.

This really measured and thoughtful and intelligent debate brought all of these strands together because they are all symptomatic of the challenges that our nation faces.  One speaker talked of the demons of liberal democracy and the dark side of something which in many ways has delivered so much.  The Bishop of Bristol spoke passionately and movingly about Swindon, part of her diocese, and the effect of the proposed closure of the Honda factory on so many ordinary people.  Others spoke about the need for hospitality.  Someone talked of creating a ‘counter-narrative of hope’ which could be spoken into our communities. The Bishop of Coventry spoke movingly of the effect our decision to Brexit will have on the ordinary people of Europe with whom we have unbreakable bonds.

But it was the Bishop of Chelmsford who really captured the mood, speaking of the Beatitudes in St Matthew’s Gospel and homing in on one in particular

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ (Matthew 5.3)

He said that what Jesus was pointing to here were those who realised that they didn’t have all the answers, those who weren’t self reliant, those who knew their need of God and their neighbour and he called on us to have a new humility, as a church and as a nation, and to see beyond our opinion of our own riches.  It was a powerful point and I fear I haven’t done him justice in reporting it.  But this is a debate to read when the Report of Synod is published.

The call was of course to pray, every day, all the time for our elected representatives, for the Government and Parliament and to commit ourselves to doing this.  But the whole Synod was a real encouragement to re-engage with those communities from which we have become seperated, it was a call back to ‘our first love’ to the mission of God, in the world, for the world, in this nation for this nation.

The threads were joined, tied off and neatened.  Then like the artist we turn the work around at look at the ‘good side’, the image that has been created.  When we join these threads we see the face of Christ and we see the kingdom of God.  The Archbishop of Canterbury began the Synod reminding us that ‘We can’t talk about Jesus without looking like Jesus’.  The tapestry reveals the face and we have been sent out to speak ‘the language of love more fluently’.  The work begins, revealing Jesus and kingdom values to the nation and to the communities in which the church is set, as the pearl in the field.

This was the Brexit Prayer that I wrote for all the cathedrals to use.  Please continue to pray it with us.

God of reconciling hope,
as you guided your people in the past
guide us through the turmoil of the present time
and bring us to that place of flourishing
where our unity can be restored,
the common good served
and all shall be made well.
In the name of Jesus we pray.
Amen.

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On the estates

One of the wonders of the English language is that the same word can mean such different things.  Sunday evening used to hold the treat for me of watching ‘Downton Abbey’, what Lady Mary was getting up to, the wonderful Dowager Duchess of Grantham and all the rest of them.  But every so often they would leave the comfort of the dining or the drawing rooms and visit the estate.  Kind words, jars of jam, a caring look would be shared with the tenant farmers living in their beautiful tied cottages.  Idyllic.  But when Synod debated Estate Evangelism yesterday we were not thinking of Lady Mary out on the estate but the other use of that word – those big areas of social housing that dominate may of our industrial and post-industrial cities and towns.  When they were built they were often given names that suggested a more bucolic image than their reality – Blackbird Leys on the edge of Oxford comes to mind – but life on our estates can be desperately difficult yet have a deep beauty as well.

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There are lives behind the windows

The Bishop of Burnley, with his usual enthusiasm, introduced a debate that was aimed at encouraging the church to reengage with these estates.  Many still have church buildings but with few priests or other ministers and often small and struggling groups of people trying to keep things going.  The thing is – and we have to be honest here – we have let down the people who live on our estates.  When I was ordained people wanted to go to a parish in the north, people looked forward to being in an estate church.  It was where the really gritty work could be done. ‘Faith in the City’, published back in 1985 much to the annoyance of then then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, encouraged the church to put resources into the inner cities.  The Church Urban Fund was created, things happened.  And then the fire went out and it was no longer sexy or attractive.  Priests do not in general apply for jobs on the tough estates, they want to live and work in nicer places where more people may go to church and its easier to produce those good metrics that show growth that the Church of England demand of us.  So we have added to the marginalisation of those communities that are on our estates, the marginalisation which has been reinforced and made worse through years of austerity, the diminishment of Local Government and the disgraceful way in which the benefits system has been changed. It all adds up to a very sad story of abuse.

Yet in the debate we heard really good stories of places where work is going on and communities are being supported and encouraged.  We heard about places where congregations are growing through the committed ministry of lay and ordained people together – but often struggling to find the resources that they need.

We were reminded that it was with the poor and the marginalised that Jesus began his ministry.  His ministry was with those who had nothing. The ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ which Luke gives us in his gospel says it all

[Jesus] unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4.17-19)

Working on estates in east Leeds taught me what treasures there in those places, treasures of faith and commitment, treasures of skills and imagination but also a need of encouragement where often confidence is lacking or has been beaten out of people by the system.  What we committed ourselves to yesterday when we voted for the motion before us was to put our resources, of every kind and at every level, back into this area of our mission to and for and with these communities.  But that will be a challenge to all of us and not least to priests to hear the call to minister in such places and have the courage to respond.  Their courage will not go unrewarded.

Lord Jesus,
you embraced the poor
and made them rich.
May we do as you did.
Amen.

How long, O Lord, how long?

Yesterday was basically a day taken up by legislation. The Archdeacon of Southwark saw through a major piece of work amending various rules and practices. But what gained the attention of Synod was the clause which reduced the time lay people could be a member of their Deanery Synod from forever to two terms of three years. Anyone who has been to a Deanery Synod meeting (and here I’m generalising wildly) might think that once was enough. But there are some people who are deeply committed to this level of Synodical government. And they let their views be heard.

In the Diocese of Southwark an extensive piece of work is being done in breathing new life into deaneries. So it was ironic that this attempt to ensure that new life and new voices and perhaps new and younger people could get into Synod and past the present ‘bed-blockers’, was being resisted. But, unlike with Brexit, a way forward was found and the legislation gained final approval.

With typical Synod serendipity that business was followed by a debate on an Amending Canon which, for the first time in the history of the Church of England, is recognising the place of religious communities and religious life in the life of the church. As my formation for priesthood took place in the shadow of the house of the Community of the Resurrection I had a real interest in this but as I was in the chair I couldn’t express that. The difference with the Deanery Synod debate was that in this part of the church you are looking for stabilitas the commitment to community and place which is not limited by any other consideration. Whether it be for a defined period of time in a form of new monasticism or life-long in a more established order there is always this commitment. In itself that is a great witness to the church and to the world where short-termism can be the name of the game.

So this may all seem contradictory and maybe on the face of it it is.

In Psalm 13 the psalmist calls out four times the refrain ‘How long’. Sometimes we just don’t know and have to wait on the Lord’s time, and sometimes legislation will answer us!

Lord of time and eternity, teach us to value every moment and to use it well in your service. Amen.

Looking like Jesus

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night in a hot sweat realising what you have done? ‘Why did I do that?’ ‘Why did I say that?’ ‘What possessed me?’ It seemed that for some in the Synod chamber yesterday they had been having that very feeling!  Back in July 2017 in the Synod meeting in York there were two memorable debates that really encouraged me.  One was on banning Conversion Therapy in churches – the practice believed in by some that you can ‘convert’ someone from one sexual orientation to another – and the other was welcoming members of the transgender community into our churches.  Both of these motions were passed by Synod.

Fluent in the language of love

Truth revealed on the South Bank

But the one on trans people was about even more than simply welcoming.  There was a call to provide some liturgical way to help people mark the transition into their new identity and to enable the congregation to recognise and welcome them.  The Synod asked the House of Bishops to consider all of this.

So the House of Bishops have considered it and have issued some Pastoral Guidance which suggest that clergy can use the provisions already in existence in Common Worship around the ‘Renewal of Baptismal Promises’ to mark a persons transition and new identity.  Some people were sad that no new liturgy was created but, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting the bishops to do that.  But the guidance provided does say

It is important that the occasion should have a celebratory character

and opens with the statement

The Church of England welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation
of trans people, equally with all people, within the body of Christ, and rejoices in
the diversity of that body into which all Christians have been baptized by one
Spirit.

So, I mentioned yesterday that there were a record number of Questions submitted and that over 30 of them were about trans people and the churches response.  What we witnessed in Synod during Questions I found disturbing.  It felt like a bullying, abusive onslaught from a group of Synod members who were infuriated with what had happened after that decision in all three Houses back in 2017 and who were determined to catch out the bishops responding to Questions. This was not Synod at its best.

In many ways those of us sitting there witnessing all of this have seen the opponents play all their cards at once and so we know what it is that we are still facing on the complex issues of gender and sexuality.  This will all feed into whatever finally emerges from the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ process. We must never be complacent about what we face on these issues.

Ironically the Archbishop in his Presidential Address in the afternoon had said two powerful things.  One was that we should ‘speak the language of love more fluently’ and the other that ‘We can’t talk about Jesus without looking like Jesus.’ I saw neither of those things as we listened to those aggressive questions, neither the fluency of love nor a Jesus-like resemblance.

Looking like Jesus means picking up those old wristbands again, you know the ones with ‘WWJD’ – ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ The answer for me is in the gospels and all around that fluent articulation of love that we find there and that amazing verse so loved by evangelicals

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3.16)

As Jesus says these words to Nicodemus we realise the full impact of salvation, for every person, whoever they are, however they identify, however they describe themselves, wherever they are on their journey.  Jesus celebrates that, that is what Jesus is like, that is what Jesus looks like and that is what the church needs to look like, speaking fluently the language of love, if we are to be the church of Jesus.

Loving God
forgive us when we disfigure the face of Jesus,
when we speak more fluently
the language of hate
than the language of love.
Amen.

Back in Westminster

The eyes of the nation are on Westminster, sadly not because General Synod begins the February Group of Sessions in Church House just the other side of the road from Parliament, but because of what is going on amongst our elected representatives. Unlike across the road, there is no way in which you can slip easily from one house to another in Synod – it takes a long time to move from the House of Laity to the House of Bishops and wearing a purple shirt just wouldn’t achieve it. And in many ways we all sit as independents, there are no formal ‘parties’ but there is a collection of groupings, some more formal than others. They can of course be very influential – we’ve seen that at times and I suspect will continue to do so.

Church and State

But don’t expect that Synod will be a ‘Brexit-free’ zone. The Presidents of the Synod, who are the two Archbishops, added an extra item to be debated into the agenda after the draft of it was published. This Synod will close on Saturday with a debate on ‘The State of the Nation’. That will be our opportunity to say clearly (I hope) to the people of England (The Church of England deals with England) and to the Government and Parliament as well as the Prime Minister (a committed and regular member of the CofE) just what we are feeling at this moment, out there, in the parishes, at the grass roots, where people are in danger of losing their jobs, and where communities are fractured and unsettled. The CofE is in every part of this country and its clergy, mostly, live where we minister. We know what it is like. There’s are 12600 parishes in the Church of England and 533 parliamentary constituencies in. England! So we have a good feel for things. Inevitably we will be told to keep our nose out of politics and to stick to God, but as we know God is not contained by the church and the disciples were forced out by the Holy Spirit from the closed room into the rich diversity and challenge of the world.

So it promises to be an interesting Synod. There is a strong theme – often the theme is accidental but this time it is deliberate – evangelism. So we will be debating that area of our life as it affects various groups, especially young people, and various situations and especially our estates. It is in both of those areas of national life that the ‘State of the Nation’ really hits home. It is the young who will be denied the benefits of European integration and all that that will mean; it is on the estates that the inevitable deprivation from a downturn of the economy will be felt with consequent cuts to public services. How do we speak Good News into both of these situations? That is a real and important question at this time.

There are the largest number of Questions tabled since 2003 – 120 of them! At least 33 questions are around the response of the church to the needs of members of the transgender community. That has become a huge issue that we need to deal well with and this number of questions shows just how important the needs of our transitioning sisters and brothers are.

There will be an update on the work of the group looking at the more wider issues of sexuality. It is called ‘Living in Love and Faith’ and it will be good to hear where we are. Bolting horses come to mind really!

It will be interesting to see whether issues around Lambeth 2020 are raised. I saw on Twitter the beginnings of anger being expressed at the exclusion of the spouses of bishops who are married to a same-sex partner. This affects only a few bishops but the question has to be, why? All other spouses are invited and unlike in previous Lambeth Conferences will not have separate meetings. I think I could guess what the official answer to why these particular people are not welcome would be, but is that good enough?

There is the resumption of a debate on the environment and there’s a lot of legislation – but there has to be, we are a legislative body after all. But it is to the debates on evangelism that I am looking for inspiration and energy. Let’s hope we find it!

Lord of the church, bless our Synod and inspire us to witness to your love in the world. Amen.

Safe and risky

This Group of Sessions of the General Synod has been prorogued. We have all headed off, back to the vineyard. But that was only after a couple of significant items of business in the final Session.

A safe or risky place?

The first of these was a Report by the Church Commissioners given by the First Estates Commissioner, Loretta Minghella. This could be a dreadfully dry affair but she is simply a star. Her report was realistic and encouraging and filled with what she described as ‘prudent joy’. It was followed by the reappointment of two other great servants of the church including John Spence who Chairs the Finance Committee of the church. He is truly inspirational.

At the end of Synod we said farewell to a number of people but particularly Alastair Redfern, the Bishop of Derby. A quiet man, he has entered into confronting a risky world, that of the modern day slave. With dogged persistence he has been opening our eyes to where slaves exist in our modern communities. It’s not just the fruit pickers or the sex workers but also the car washers who we can find in all our towns and cities. Hidden modern slavery needs confronting just as Wilberforce confronted the slavery in his time. We will miss this courageous witness.

But the main item on the order paper was of course the Report of the Cathedrals Working Group. The disasters in Peterborough and Exeter were the catalyst for this piece of work. But the need for some kind of review of our work, accountability and governance was long overdue. Having said that and being honest, and as I said this in the debate, the community at Southwark Cathedral said no to the draft report and I half-heartedly voted in favour of the motion today. Why? Well, one of the things I believe is vitally important to the whole church is the space that is given to cathedrals to do risky things in the service of God and his people. In this we are able to protect our bishops – they are not part of our decision making structures – whilst serving them by stepping into that risky place. Liverpool Cathedral expresses this so well. They describe themselves as ‘a safe place to do risky things in Christ service.’ That is exactly it. Anything that compromises this – and I believe that there is the potential in the recommendations made in this report to do that – will lessen the ability of the cathedrals to do the risky yet prophetic thing.

So, for instance, on Saturday members of the Cathedral community marched in London Pride. We had committed ourselves in Chapter to doing this because we have said that we are ‘inclusive .. orthodox .. radical’ and that needs living out otherwise it is just words on paper. The Diocesan Bishop wasn’t involved in the decision because of that useful creative gap.

Marching with pride

The Motion before Synod was amended to give us more time to do what will be a complex piece of implementation. But the main issues have been flagged up – the Vice-Chair, residentiary canons, the Charity Commission, etc – and so whatever process lies ahead we can take regard of these concerns.

So all in all a good Synod. We did a lot of work. Sadly evangelism got squeezed out because of all the legislative business. But the stuff we did on climate change and nuclear weapons was fantastic and we go forward praying that God’s kingdom come.

As the Archbishop of York got us all spontaneously singing this morning

To God be the glory, great things he hath done. Amen.

Making law

One of the things that is often forgotten is that outside of Parliament and the other assemblies in this United Kingdom, the General Synod of the Church of England is a legislative body.  Canon Law is the law of the land and the Measures that we pass affect the life of the church and of parishes.  Members of Synod take this very seriously and if any member of Synod had forgotten this role we were reminded of it today.

All eyes were on what was happening in another legislative chamber, of course, but I didn’t know what had been happening until I emerged from the Synod Chamber after chairing an almost three hour long debate.  What was before us was the ‘Draft Church Representation and Ministers Measure and the Draft Amending Canon No. 39’. That sounds very dry but it was all about the membership of our synods and councils, how PCCs function, who can be its members, how the Electoral Roll is formed and maintained and how we utilise the possibilities of the digital age whilst keeping to the rules of GDPR – and much, much more.

As far as the Chair is concerned you are given a very full brief which you can follow word by word.  But it does mean that you have to concentrate and not let your mind wander! But I enjoyed it thoroughly (perhaps I’m a bit odd).

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The frustration is that as chair you can’t, of course, join in the debate and there are certain points when I was straining because I wanted to say something.  This was particularly true right towards the end of the debate on the Draft Amending Canon.  Mention had been made of the importance of saying Morning and Evening Prayer in at least one church in each benefice (remember that there are many multi-church benefices nowadays) on a daily basis. There was an amendment to this particular clause which proposed that a diocesan bishop could dispense of this if they ‘made such alternative provision for daily prayer as may best serve to sustain the corporate spiritual life of the benefices in the diocese’.

The point was made, and I paraphrase, that clergy are nowadays too busy, especially around the time of Evening Prayer, to fulfil the requirement.  The Archdeacon of Southwark, the Ven Dr Jane Steen, in responding on behalf of the Steering Committee, suggested that ‘it is not prayer that is the problem, it is the timetable’ by which she meant that creating a diary that precluded regular prayer missed the point of what we are about.

Prayer and ordered prayer is a fundamental part of the life of every Christian and especially part of the life of those who are ordained, in fact it is a canonical duty and is part of the expectation laid on us in the Book of Common Prayer.  Part of the charism of the Church of England, part of the gift we offer to the whole nation, is this regularity of public worship.  Roman Catholic priests may be committed to saying the Breviary but that is seen much more as the personal office, the private devotions of the ordained person and not an offering that is public.  But we offer public prayer in the morning and in the evening and the minister rings the bell so that the people of the parish, hurrying to work, or school, or stuck in their house, know that prayer is being offered for them, on their behalf.  It may sound romantic, the stuff of Herbert’s ‘Country Parson’ but this is foundational stuff of what it means to be the church, certainly what it means to be the Church of England.

The point was made, of course, that praying is not the preserve of the priest and if they are unable to be at church then the laity can fulfil this canonical duty – and I have seen that happening, and powerful and empowering it was too.

I think the amendment was intended as being genuinely helpful but it was defeated and I was delighted.

We are people led by grace not by law but the desire to pray and the act of praying, constantly, formally in an Office, informally in whatever way we wish is part of the process of being grace filled. George Herbert in his poem ‘Praise’, familiar to us as a hymn says this

Sev’n whole dayes, not one in seven,
I will praise thee.
In my heart, though not in heaven,
I can raise thee.

The worship of God is life-giving, grace-filling law; not one day in seven but every day; not once a day but twice or thrice, as the day progresses, as life goes on.  It is the air we breathe, the life we live, the heart beat of the church, the hymn of the people of God, into which we add our voice and our heart and our thoughts.  I was glad to be reminded of it.

We have one more Session to go on Tuesday morning and a lot of business to see through, including the debate on cathedrals, the praying heart of every diocese – should be interesting!

Living God,
may my life be in conversation with you,
may my heart beat in time with you,
may my thoughts be centred on you,
may my prayer rise before you,
may your grace fill and sustain me.
Amen.

Turning up the heat to turn it down

I was away from Synod yesterday.  I wanted to be present at the ordination to the priesthood of our curate, Fr David Adamson. It was great to be there in St Mary’s Lewisham, celebrating 1100 years of ministry from that spot this year.  Since 918 priests have been celebrating the sacraments of the new covenant and so it was a special place in which eight women and men had hands laid on them and in the power of the Spirit and with Christ’s authority were sent out as the latest generation of those who would do this – bread breakers and word breakers.

Then in the afternoon I was present with a group from the Cathedral on the Pride march through central London.  I’d never even been to Pride let alone walk in it.  But the Chapter decided in 2016 that this was the right thing to do, to be honest about our stance on the rights of LGBTQI+ people and to make that clear by witnessing to it, on the streets.  I know not everyone thinks that we should be doing this, and I respect their views and am glad to name many of them as friends, but I don’t agree.  We need to tell people that God loves us all, whoever we are. So there I was with 30,000 other people marching with pride in Pride and having pride in the God who created each one of us.

So I missed the important debate on Safeguarding in the church and also the seminars on where we are in relation to the work being done on human sexuality.  But the trains this morning served me well and I got back to York in time to chair the first item of business in the afternoon (remember that the Synod goes en masse to Mass at York Minster in the morning).

Climate change

The Session in the afternoon was all around global issues.  The first two debates were about the response we make to climate change.  I was asked to chair the presentation and then the debate on how we use the influence we have through the investments that we have as a church in fossil fuel companies and it was a real privilege to be able to do so.  What was so encouraging was hearing about the tremendous lead that the Church of England is giving. Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement, was quoted as praising this work in which we have brought together a coalition of investors who carry real weight in the debates with the companies in which we are invested.

There were two amendments to the main Motion before Synod which were about how long we should give before we divest ourselves of our investments in such companies. It was an excellent debate and in many ways one in which everyone was right – it is urgent, already almost too late, but do we, frankly, have more clout if we remain an investor than if we take our money away and leave ‘them’ to get on with what they are doing without the pressure we can bring to create change?

The Oxford amendment which talked of 2020 as the deadline was rejected and the second amendment that kept us to the date of 2023 was passed.  The resulting vote on the motion was almost unanimous and we really have turned up the heat.

This was followed by a debate that came from London and Truro dioceses wanting us to develop a programme for calculating the usage of fossil fuels in all cathedrals, churches and church halls.  Whilst there is clearly support for that piece of work the debate was finally adjourned so that we can get a bit more information about what this might mean and what it will cost.  But we have only adjourned it until the next Group of Sessions in February 2019 – so you will hear more about this.

And then it was on to Nuclear Weapons. As I said before we haven’t really debated this for many many years and as many speakers commented in what was a very good debate, does this mean that over that time we have grown complacent.  In ‘My Fair Lady’ Professor Higgins sings of Eliza Doolittle

‘I’ve grown accustomed to her face’

We have grown accustomed to there being weapons of mass destruction waiting ready to be used that will destroy everything the lives and the very earth the health of which we had just been debating. This debate was a wake-up call to us all that this is just not acceptable.  The Bishop of Liverpool told us not to worry if people thought we were being unrealistic, or naive or ‘young’ i.e. lacking that wisdom of years that makes people think that such weapons are justifiable.  The Bishop of Chelmsford, summing up the debate, referred to words of St Francis of Assisi

‘Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.’

And Synod took that to heart and voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Motion. So we are committed to working for the elimination of nuclear weapons! We’ve done what was necessary, now we will see what is possible and maybe what seems impossible will come about.

Creator God,
who formed the beauty of the earth
may we cherish it
and all who share it with us
and all who will come after us
that the best days of our planet
may still await us.
Amen.

The beautiful game

So, Synod begins. The good news is that there is ‘heat reduction’ equipment in the Synod Chamber. This is different to air conditioning so I’m told. All I know is that it is cooler than usual. But then we have been known to produce a lot of hot air!

It was great to chair the first debate which, after welcomes and some addresses by visiting Primates from the Communion and one from an ecumenical guest from Germany, was on the Report of the Business Committee. It’s a game. The chair of the Committee introduces the report and then people get up to moan that their particular top topic isn’t getting an airing.

But there was a game changer! Sue Boyes, the chair, announced that the timings for the seminars on Saturday afternoon were being amended to allow people to watch THE match. General rejoicing ensued. But then we got back into the real game.

The political football is of course human sexuality and where we are going on this. There is no debate on the floor of Synod in this Group of Sessions on this topic. But the seminars that bookend THE match will bring people up to speed.

Sadly, I’m not in York tomorrow as I have the double joy of being at the ordination to the priesthood of our curate in the morning and then walking with members of our Southwark Cathedral community in London Pride. I was being sent photos in the afternoon of the rainbow flag flying from our tower – a flag of pride for LGBTQI+ people and all their supporters. So I will have to wait until Sunday to discover how Saturday in Synod went.

The first day of General Synod always concludes with Questions. It’s a bit of a game to be honest. Supplementaries are asked to really hold feet to the flame. But this is Synod members’ only chance to really find out what is going on. There were 85 questions to be answered and many were around safeguarding. It is great to see people, to see the church, really holding itself to account and members asking, frankly, uncomfortable questions. It may look like a game but it isn’t.

Whether the subject is safeguarding or gay rights the lives of our sisters and brothers, their, our, safety and mental health and sense of self worth is what is being discussed. This is not a game. As Bill Shankley said of football ‘ Some people think that football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more important than that.’

Jesus didn’t treat life as a game and humanity as a can to be kicked down the road as someone in Synod accused the church of treating sexuality. Instead he said

I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.’ (John 10.10)

Abundant life – something we should have pride in for the whole of humanity.

God of life, may we rejoice and live in the abundant life which is your gift. Amen.

Getting your ducks in a row

The campus of York University is a fantastic place if you are a fan of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Tweet of the Day’, or are a ‘twitcher’ or simply love wildfowl.  The place is full of geese and moorhens and ducks.  This morning as I walked to breakfast (I have had to arrive early because of meetings I have to attend this morning, pre-Synod) the ducks were all taking a break, getting their strength together before performing for the members of the Synod – skimming the water, eating the biscuit crumbs and generally pooing where you need to walk.

Synod 1

Ducks in repose – the Chamber awaits our arrival

Yes, it’s July and we are back for the latest Group of Sessions. As I have said before, the York Synod is more relaxed than the febrile atmosphere of the Westminster ones.  Bishops dress down in shorts, Bahama shirt and pectoral cross, sandals and socks (m bête noire) can be spotted. Ladies are in tie-die and there is a lot of linen around. Sartorial elegance is not a feature of a gathering of the Church of England because we have much more important things to think about.

The accusation is often made that we spend too much time on ‘church’ issues. Well, not this time.  The agenda is varied and a great deal of it is outward looking.  Of course we do need to continue to address the issue of safeguarding in the life of the church, creating a safe church for all people and especially our children, young people and vulnerable adults.  So the first real debate on Saturday is about the latest report to emerge from the church.  Saturday afternoon is taken up by seminars on a variety of subjects.  But then on Sunday, after joining the bereft congregation at York Minster (Dean Viv is now Bishop Viv), a series of fascinating debates will take place.

Watch out for the debate on our investments in companies dealing in fossil fuels. The main arguments of the debate have already been rehearsed  on the radio between the Bishop of Manchester and the Bishop of Oxford – do we dis-invest now as we have agreed to do or do we have more effective levers by retaining those investments for the time being? That debate is followed by an associated one brought to Synod by the Diocese of London on climate change and the urgency of the church’s response.

Back in the heady days of 1982 when the Church of England dared challenge the Thatcher Government with ‘Faith in the City’ there was another report that emerged called ‘The Church and the Bomb’. At this Synod we return to the subject when we debate ‘The Ethics of Nuclear Weapons’.  It was ‘The Church and the Bomb’ that convinced me to become a member of CND.  I have to admit – and given the other debates on the environment and the need to escape the effect of fossil fuels I feel a bit conflicted – I still have deep misgivings about the rush into nuclear power given that, as far as I know, the problem of waste fuel still exists.  But this debate will be about weapons and the evil they represent (there I’ve given away my opinion!).

There is a great deal of legislation on the agenda and the budget but then we are a legislative and a governance body, before we then get to another timely debate.  Having celebrated yesterday the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service we will be debating ‘The Long Term Sustainability of the National Health Service’.  From its foundation the CofE has been deeply involved in the NHS, not just through clergy being regular visitors to bedsides of parishioners but because there are Anglican chaplains in most hospitals.  This has been a huge area of ministry that we remain committed to.

There are reports on evangelism, pensions, finance and Standing Orders and then something that sounds very internal, the Report of the Cathedrals Working Group.  This report came out of the experiences at Peterborough and Exeter Cathedrals.  It was suggested by the Bishop of Peterborough in his Visitation Report on his own cathedral that the Church needed to give a thorough look at the governance of cathedrals.  Some people didn’t need to be invited twice!  There is a great deal of envy and suspicion out there at what St Paul describes as ‘the freedom we have in Christ’ (Galatians 2.4) and so a power-grab is proposed.  Well, that’s how I see it.  My big fear is that the radical engagement with the world that makes cathedrals so ‘successful’ will be reigned in by a controlling group of bishops and laity.  Cathedrals deal on a daily basis with the big issues of the day which so many parishes and so many parts of the hierarchy simply cannot or will not.

Synod 2

Flying with Pride outside the Synod Chamber

It is ironic that the Pride flag is flying outside the chamber in which the Synod will gather.  This is one area where Southwark Cathedral has given a lead and a witness – but not without some cost. Would we be able to do that if the report came into force?  We will see.

So, an interesting Synod, potentially.  Pray for us as we pray for you – and lets hope all the ducks behave!

O God, without you we are not able to please you;
mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
may in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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