So here we are in York on day one of the Synod and the question that we have to ask ourself is, what mood are we in? February was not so long ago and it all felt very positive then, as far as women in the episcopate was concerned. But what is the mood today?
Organisations, institutions have moods as much as individuals do of course. Well, the first test was when Convocation met before Synod opened. Each Province has a separate Convocation in which the bishops and other clergy meet together. It is formal and indeed, there are convocation robes. Fortunately the Archbishop always dispenses with them otherwise we would be sitting in choir dress as we do when Her Majesty attends for the opening of a new Synod.
This meeting of Convocation looked at the Draft Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy. All professions should have guidelines for conduct and this was a stage in the process of revising ours. What other professions will not have is a theological reflection at the end by Francis Bridger, which is well worth reading. In it he concludes
‘We have noted that to develop a culture of professional ethics will require not just a set of ethics that govern good practice but also virtuous character based on theology and spirituality.’
I love that phrase, ‘virtuous character’. Of course it should be a real hallmark of who we are. But as the day ended with Questions and so many were about clergy and equal marriage and clergy in same-sex relationships and whether ministry and active homosexuality are compatible or just a flouting of the discipline of the church the whole notion of the virtuous character was lurking as an elephant in the room.
The debate in Convocation was very much about the seal of the confessional and implications for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. The Guidelines are not right on this yet but we have to be careful to guard the tradition that is part of a dominical injunction about the priestly ministry of absolution and retention of sin. If we allow departure from that we lose so much of the tradition of the church that is simply apostolic. At the same time we have to make that work with the vital demands of safeguarding.
Synod began with welcomes and particularly to our ecumenical guests. We then received the report of the Business Committee and comments were received about the bright, clean new look for the Chamber. Professor Burridge, Dean of King’s, asked the most important question however when he asked, ‘Where is theology?’. That question must be uppermost in our minds because it is sadly missing in so many of the debates we have.
We then went into legislative business and the two ‘take note’ debates on the legislation for women in the episcipate. The first referred to the return from the Article 8 reference to the dioceses. Of course the difference this time is that all that did vote (Europe doesn’t on this) voted in favour and some unanimously. The second debate was on the Draft Amending Canon. The mood was ok and the votes overwhelmingly in favour – so I hope that combined with the purple tinge to the setting of the Synod this is a good and positive sign for what will follow.
Before dinner there was an important debate on Safeguarding. It is a vital topic and we can no longer make mistakes. How do we create a safe church in an unsafe world? How do we minster to the vulnerable, to survivors, to abusers and remain a church open and welcoming to all? There are no easy answers and so robust processes have to be put in place. Our friend April Alexander asked the pertinent question as to whether ‘We get it’. I suspect that many of us don’t because, as she said, most of us have little experience of survivors or abuse. So learning and vigilance and diligence have to be watchwords for us.
The first day ended with Questions and as I have said it was a rather disturbing evening. It was clear that the battle-lines are now being drawn on the next issue that the church will fight over and that is the place of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the life of the church. A recent document from the Board of Education ‘Valuing All God’s Children’ which is excellent in that it seeks to resource schools to challenge homophobic bullying nevertheless still uses the phrase to describe gay people that this sexuality ‘falls short of the ideal’. We were told this was the last definition of homosexuality by the church back in 1987! It may be that but it is nevertheless deeply offensive and shows, I’m afraid, that the church simply doesn’t get it.
It was good to leave the Chamber and see a fantastic summer evening sky and realise how good God is.
Lighten our darkness,
Lord, we pray,
and in your great mercy
defend us from all perils and dangers of this night,
for the love of your only Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.