The final Session of this meeting of the General Synod began, as usual, with Morning Prayer. That was immediately followed by a change in the order of business as His Grace Bishop Angaelos, one of the Ecumenical Representatives to the Synod and a bishop in the Coptic Church, addressed the Synod about the situation in Egypt.
He set the present situation in a longer context reminding us that Egypt after the Pharaohs was established as a Christian country. It was the place where the Holy Family found refuge and the church there has always held Jesus in their hearts. He said it was the land of monasticism and martyrs and it is this background that we must bear in mind in thinking of Egypt. He then spelt out the collapse in society over the last two years, denying the way in which the recent events had been reported, as a military coup. Instead it was a response to the reaction of the people in what had become a deeply polarised society. He pointed out that western models of democracy are not the answer in all situations and that it is a different concept to majority rule. The bishop ended by announcing to the Synod three days of prayer, beginning today and ending on Thursday, and he asked us to pray particularly for strength and reconciliation for the people. ‘We must remember’, he said, ‘that darkness is always dissipated by the light of God.’
He was thanked with a standing ovation, led by ++Justin. It was exactly right that he had been invited to speak to us and good to hear his perspective on things.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you found safety amongst the people of Egypt.
Grant to those same people
the strength they need to face today
and the courage to be reconciled for the future.
Through the prayers of St Antony, St Catherine
and of your Holy Mother and St Joseph
shed the light of your presence
into present darkness.
For your love’s sake.
Margaret Swinson was then able to tell the Synod that, following the debate the previous day on the ordination of women to the episcopate, the Appointments Committee had met to put in place the Steering Committee to progress the work. This was good news as it is important that we keep to the timetable agreed, particularly in preparation for November. Keep an eye open for the membership to be announced.
The first report of the Business Committee on the work of the Elections Review Group was then presented. This deals with a number of issues relating to the membership of the Synod and especially the balance between members from the southern and northern provinces, representation by black and minority ethnic people and the representatives from the universities constituency.
What had looked potentially uninteresting turned out to be very interesting and important. The northern province is smaller than the southern, but how do we hear the northern voice powerfully rather than things being dominated by the south? So far the numbers of representatives on Synod for the northern dioceses have been weighted to give them more members of Synod than their numbers under the present form of calculations would deliver? Should this continue?
How do we have real representation by BAME members of our churches? Do we co-opt people to give a proper balance?
Should universities be a separate electoral college? Why should this ‘rotten borough’ persist?
You can imagine the debate was lively, especially with regard to the universities. There was a following motion which Professor Richard Burridge of King’s London presented. It called for accurate information and reform of this constituency and not abolition. Synod accepted this.
With regard to BAME members, the Revd Rosemarie Mallett from Southwark and a member of the Cathedral Chapter, pointed out that the responsibility for encouraging BAME people to stand for Synod is the responsibility of all of us, for the presence of BAME people on the Synod is not primarily for their benefit but to the benefit of the whole church.
The report was noted but it is clear that the steering committee, chaired by Canon Simon Butler of Southwark Diocese, has a great deal of work to do to get this right. It seems vital to me that we have theologians in the Synod – we lack that theological voice to a very large extent and, as I will say later, we lost one of those voices from the Synod today. There are theologians of course amongst the members but the university root is one way in which we can clearly gain this expertise – and if we do not make our decisions in the light of theology then we are not really doing the job as it should be done.
There were then a series of Draft Amending Canons relating to this that were proposed and accepted. This will progress the work on all of this.
The final debate was again extremely important, and so important that at the end, as we were running out of time, the debate was adjourned until a future Group of Sessions. The issue was the work of the Elections Review Group and notably the electorate for the House of Laity and online elections.
There is a clear feeling that the House of Laity is unrepresentative of the church as a whole. This came to a head in November when it was the House of Laity who voted in such a way that the women bishops’ legislation was defeated. The electoral college for electing lay representatives is made up of the members of the Deanery Synods. The proposal was that a new Electoral College be formed by electing people from each church at each APCM to this task, or adopting uniniversal suffrage so that every member of the Electoral Roll had a vote.
Coupled with this was a proposal that voting moves to online from 2020 and that nominations be allowed by email from 2015.
A great many people had requested to speak. It was clear that there was a great deal of unhappiness with elements of what was proposed. No one was arguing against things needing to change, or the election process being modernised – but were the solutions proposed the right ones? The Ven Christine Hardman came up with a fantastic suggestion – make the electoral college the lay members of each PCC – not just the elected members, but all lay members. In this way Churchwardens and some Readers would be part of the electoral college. It gained huge support in the form of applause.
As I have said, we ran out of time – but we will come back to it. This is critical for the future of the Church and the effectiveness and reputation of the General Synod.
The reason we ran out of time was that Farewells were scheduled for 12.30pm before the Synod was prorogued at 1.00pm.
The first bishop to whom farewell was said was the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones. Bishop James is a great communicator and proved himself a skilled chair and reconciler when he looked after the recent Hillsborough Enquiry. ++Sentamu quoted him speaking on ‘Thought for the Day’, when he said that he had been asked ‘Is Christianity relevant?’ and replied ‘It is, but only for those who die!’
The second bishop to be thanked was the Bishop of Hereford, Anthony Priddis. We learnt a great deal about the bishop from ++Justin, who led the tribute. His wife is an accomplished painter and he must be the only bishop whose portrait was painted by his wife, and he is fly fisherman. But beyond this, testimony was paid to his tremendous work in the diocese and the rural community. The Archbishop said that when he says grace before a meal ‘he gives thanks for those who grew the food before those who cooked it!.
The final bishop we said goodbye and thank you to was the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Dr Geoffrey Rowell. Bishop Geoffrey has had a glittering academic career as well as serving since 2001 as the diocesan bishop in Europe. He has brought huge energy and commitment to the task. His vocation was formed early, we were told. He was the first altar server at his school, Winchester College, since the Reformation and knew that he was called to be a bishop at the age of 12! I have personal reason to be grateful to Bishop Geoffrey as, when he was Chaplain at Keble College, Oxford he acted on behalf of the Patrons in appointing me to my first living in the Parish of Richmond Hill in Leeds. He has always been a thoughtful, wise and caring person and it is his theological input into debates that we will particularly miss.
The Archbishop of York then prorogued the Synod and we dispersed.
It was a good Synod – I need to think more about what happened and on the train heading back to London is perhaps not the time to do it. I hope though that the time spent on Saturday will bear fruit in a different way of doing things. If that proves to be true then the Lord is calling us out into a new land. But now, keep praying for Egypt.