Who ever said life in Synod is boring? Where else could you be on a Saturday in July that would take you from bats to sentinels in just a few hours? I said that this Group of Sessions was about tying up loose ends and, metaphorically speaking, putting the cat out. But it’s proving to be much more than that.
One of the joys of the day was being able to see Bishop Michael Perham again. Michael’s departure from Gloucester was overshadowed by events and his formal farewell from Synod delayed. But now we had the opportunity to thank him for all that he gave to the church, in the places where he ministered and on the bigger stage. I was always struck by his ability to see the big picture and to be able to galvanise support from his (then) brother bishops in support of the ordination of his (to be) sister bishops. I had the privilege to be involved in some late night tactical meetings during the debates on the ordination of women to the episcopate in which Michael brought together a range of us who were concerned to see this happen and who, in some way, represented a constituency. I was there because of my role in the Society of Catholic Priests and, I have to say, brought little to the meetings (I’m not a tactician). So I gained more from sitting there than I gave and what I gained, amongst other things, was a deep respect for Michael. We will miss him. The warmth of the applause as Synod rose to its collective feet to bid farewell to him was no more than he deserved.
The day began however with a draft Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline Measure. Creating a safe church is one of the most important tasks that faces the church at the moment. It is all about the core values that we have and the core values in the ministry of Jesus and the core values in the Good News that we bring. But the behaviour of individuals and the institution as a whole has not just let down people and the nation but betrayed Christ. Safeguarding takes up a huge amount of time, emotional energy and resources at the moment – and that is as it should be. We owe it to survivors and we owe it to those who come to us in trust and bring their children to us in trust and think that we can be trusted and that the church is a safe place, is a sanctuary for them in their vulnerability, to do better and to do what is right. Too often we have not been a safe place.
Getting it right at the moment seems to be all about policies and procedures. Of course, at the moment it is and this was what the debate centred on. But we mustn’t forget that what is even more important is a change of culture, a change of mind-set, a change of behaviour. If Southwark Cathedral, for instance, is to be a truly inclusive church then it must be a safe church and that means that everyone of us who worships or works there has to believe that to be our first responsibility, our first priority and live and learn and be, so that that is true and so that the parent of a child or a vulnerable person can trust that it is true.
It was fantastic that in the voting the whole Synod gave its full support to this Measure and the Amending Canon that accompanied it. But the work continues – in fact it has only begun.
The bats appeared in a debate that followed on the new Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015. These have come out of the ‘simplification’ process. As one person commented, it can only be in the church that a 126 page document could be described as simple. But through the revisions the processes whereby a PCC applies for a Faculty to do work in church, and the work of the DAC and the Archdeacon and Registrar as well as the Chancellor of the Diocese are clarified and in many cases streamlined (in fact Archdeacons come out of it with more work and responsibilities but they seem to welcome that).
One great comment though that has been well Tweeted was by one member who said that there were three things in his view that stood in the way of mission in rural churches ‘blocked gutters, bats and the Victorian Society’. The gutters create damp and decaying church buildings; the bats create a stinking environment that keeps people away and the Victorian Society, with its devotion to poor examples of Victorian pitch-pine pews, stands in the way of the flexible use of space by church and wider community.
Before I’m attacked for being anti-bats or anti the Victorian Society no one was saying either of those things and neither am I. But it was a plea to work together on issues that face churches and can hamper the purpose of our great buildings. No one spoke in defence of blocked gutters!
It was good to see the work of the ‘Simplification Group’ coming through in such a helpful way.
In between these debates there was another example of simplification and that was in relation to the creation of ‘interim posts’. These will be appointments for up to three years, renewable for a further three, of a priest whose specific job is to look after a parish or group that needs particular skills and care in the interim. It works well in other parts of the Anglican Communion, not least the Episcopal Church in the USA, and gives dioceses real flexibility in the future.
After lunch and the farewell to Bishop Michael we moved into a take note debate on the report of the Faith and Order Commission on Senior Church Leadership. In what could easily have been seen as a bit of a ‘graveyard slot’ after lunch it was a really excellent debate. There is a huge amount of talk at the moment in the Church of England about leadership. I have been involved, as a Dean, in the mini-MBA that has been organised for us in Cambridge. It was excellent but I was very concerned at the lack of space in that course to reflect theologically on what we understand as leadership in the church.
The Green Report was also heavily criticised – and I think justifiably so – for too much emphasis and us of language drawn from business models of leadership especially when those models have led the world into financial crisis, Greece to the edge of the abyss and the poorest and most vulnerable picking up the bill. Has that model anything valid to say to us?
This, by contrast, is a very good report and has much to say and much to teach and from a deeply biblical and theological basis. The quality of the debate reflected that. After all, what does it mean to be a leader in the church when you are principally a follower; as one speaker said ‘Before you were a leader you were a Christian’ and it is that prior calling and vocation out of which all else flows. What does it mean to be a successful leader when Jesus looked like a failure in the world’s eyes and when those he ‘led’ fled from him? What does it mean to hitch your life and ministry to one who says in Matthew and Mark
‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve’ (Matthew 20.28)
who in John’s Gospel washes his disciples feet and assumes the role of the servant, who as Paul says in Philippians 2.7
taking the form of a slave,’
This is a challenge to all of us in leadership positions. At the moment the church seems obsessed with bishops and the number of old Sees being revived and filled is a testimony to that. What happened to the NHS when it was seen to be failing – create more top level leaders!
So I was pleased that the Bishop of Chelmsford reminded us of something in the Ordinal for Bishops, that a bishop is called and set apart to be, amongst other things, a sentinel. He admitted it could be boring, just watching, but having that oversight, the long view, to see what is coming, to celebrate and to warn, to look to the horizon – it was a great reminder. From the top of the tower you might even see the bats coming!
you call us to be followers,
servants of others,
May that be our vocation.