Today, the final day of this Group of Sessions of the General Synod, fell on the Feast of the martyr Janani Luwum, the Archbishop of Uganda who died in 1977. So the Eucharist at the beginning of the day celebrated his faithfulness, even to death. However, in his homily Archbishop Justin reminded us that there are two kinds of martyrs – the red ones who shed their blood and give their life and the white ones who live a life so aligned to that of Christ that it is a total offering of themselves. As he spoke I was reminded of Mary, who is sometimes referred to a Queen of Martyrs, not because she suffered martyrdom in the way that Archbishop Luwum did but because she gave her life so fully to God that it was a life of willing sacrifice. The Archbishop’s point was to remind us that the church is full of lay people and deacons, priests and bishops who live this life so aligned to Christ – and we know them. It was a great call to holy living.
After the Eucharist we went into the first debate of the day, on a motion that had been brought to General Synod by the Diocese of Leeds (or is it West Yorkshire and the Dales, all very confusing), but on the important issue of benefit sanctions and the way that they are being applied. The issue was not about the application of sanctions per se (there was clear agreement that there had to be sanctions) but what has seemed to become a very inflexible and, at times, inhumane way of applying them. This was Synod at its best. Members from across England brought stories of real people who had fallen foul of the rules for reasons out of their control. But the implications of losing benefits, having no money to feed yourself, let alone your family, are frightening, dreadful and on occasions, life threatening. As someone said ‘can you imagine your employer stopping your wages for a week if you arrived late in the office on one occasion.’ That is what happens to benefit claimants if they miss or arrive late at the Job Centre for an appointment or are not thought to be applying for enough jobs.
An early speaker in the debate asked a question in which he quoted the words of Cain in Genesis 4.9 in which he responds to God’s question about where Abel is
‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
The speaker said to us ‘You bet your life you are.’ And that is why the church in the parishes is so involved with food banks and debt counselling and support in so many ways for people caught in the various traps that the policies of the Government – whether they be purposeful or just unforeseen consequences – create. The motion was passed and a call has been made to the Government to review how these sanctions are being applied. We await that with interest. But as Sir Tony Baldry reminded us from the position of a former MP, we can each, as individuals, parishes, deaneries, go and see our MPs in their constituency surgeries and ask them to push for this review. It’s an easy and very practical step.
The remainder of the day was concentrated on Renewal and Reform. It was a big moment personally as it was the first time I took my place on the platform as one of the Chairs of Synod. When a few weeks ago I received the invitation to join the Panel of Chairs I was delighted – though daunted. We all watch the chairs and have our opinions about them …. but to do it!
Thank goodness I was gently eased in by being asked to chair a presentation on R&R. It was only timetabled for an hour and promised not to be complicated by points of order and motions for closure. And that proved to be the case. The most challenging part however, apart from concentrating and not being distracted, is sorting out who to call when people stand up as they do to indicate they wish to be called. The one thing I learnt today is that if you are a small middle aged balding man in a dark suit it’s hard to see you from the chair. If, however, you are wearing something colourful, unusual or if you have hair and its bright and if you are tall then its easy to get spotted. Aah! So, that’s why I’m seldom called. You can’t see me. So what shall I do? High heels, a blond wig and a green clerical shirt under a yellow suit should do the trick – no one will miss me then – but will it all clash with my red SCP badge? The agony of being a catholic!
So the afternoon was taken up with two debates – both on different aspects of the funding of ministerial education. As I was reflecting in my first blog on Monday I would deeply regret and feel that the church was impoverished if fewer ordinands were able to access full time residential formation at a theological college as I was able to do. But the motion passed will, I fear, make it more difficult in some dioceses and for some age groups to be formed and trained in this way. We will have to see how it all shakes out in the end.
So we began the Synod standing to remember the Coptic Martyrs, we ended remembering a Ugandan martyr and in between we remembered people who were suffering profound deprivation in our country and places, such as on the estates, where the church needs to boost its presence and its message. I always enjoy Synod and it is good to see friends, old and new, and sometimes have the clear feeling that in some things, we can, maybe, perhaps, make a difference.
as your holy martyrs shed their blood and gave their life,
so may we not hold back in our service of you
and of your people,
for Jesus sake.