There’s a wonderful chandelier in Southwark Cathedral suspended from a chain on which are displayed the symbols of power – a crown, a mitre and the dove. It is a constant reminder to us at Southwark Cathedral of this ‘power game’ and it has been since Mrs Appleby gave it in memory of her husband back in 1680. It was brought to life for us today as this Tenth General Synod was inaugurated.
It’s always a good morning this first morning of a new General Synod, all getting dressed up, then going across in dribs-and-drabs to stand in the cold cloisters of Westminster Abbey waiting to be formed into a procession, then sitting for another three quarters of an hour in the church waiting for the service to begin. But as the fanfare sounds and we know that Her Majesty has entered the Abbey it all becomes worth it.
The preacher on this occasion was the Preacher to the Papal Household, Fr Raniero Cantalmessa OFM Cap. Stood in the pulpit facing Her Majesty and The Duke of Edinburgh wearing his simple habit he seemed an incongruous figure, so simple, so understated. His sermon, I thought, was fantastic, anticipating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 and pondering what Luther and Cranmer would be saying to us today. But one part of the sermon struck a chord as he talked about the unity of the church for which Christ prayed.
Fr Raniero spoke about our Christian brothers and sisters suffering for their faith in places like Syria. He said that it is not important whether they are Catholics, Anglicans or Pentecostalists. To their oppressors, to those murdering them, they are Christians, ‘to them we are already one’ he said. I hadn’t thought of it like that before. The action of our persecutors has highlighted our oneness in Christ.
Her Majesty then joined us in the Assembly Hall for the formal inauguration of the Synod. As I’ve said it is the Tenth General Synod and The Queen has inaugurated each of them in her long reign. But what a difference. There in the front row of the bishops sat the Bishop of Gloucester, Bishop Rachel Treweek; the Bishop of Stockport, Bishop Libby Lane had read the Gospel; and there was the Bishop of Newcastle, to be consecrated on Monday, Christine Hardman. But Her Majesty spoke of the timelessness of Christ and brought us back to the one we worship and serve.
In the afternoon we then began the real business of the Synod – a much shorter Synod then usual. Archbishop Justin gave a Presidential Address in which he talked about the purpose of being in synod, about how we must disagree well and how everything we said and did was now in ‘the shadow of Paris.’
We then moved on to the debate on the Report of the Business Committee and then, after an introduction to worship in the Synod by the new Chaplain, we moved on to a presentation on ‘Reform & Renewal’.
This R&R will certainly frame a great deal of what we will be thinking and talking about over these next five years – simplification, the use of our resources, ministry and training, and more besides. There is a feeling around that people are ready for it but also some unease about what lies behind it and what kind of church we will be left with. If it is leaner and more agile, if it is more responsive to society, if it is shaped for mission but also retains all that is rich and good and catholic about the church then I will be happy.
But ‘simplification’ can be used as a bit of a Trojan Horse. Questions followed and as this was a new Synod there will only 42 as opposed to the usual 90+. Questions give you a good idea about what is rattling around. No surprise that equal marriage was there, no surprise that there was a question about disciplining clergy who are married to a same sex partner. It’s no surprise that money features, the effect of tax credits on hard-pressed clergy families, climate change and ethical investments. But there is always the surprise and that was a question about the use of mitres and whether the House of Bishops provides guidance on the wearing of them. Perhaps it would be simpler if we didn’t have them was, I thought, the underlying message.
This, like all the questions, was carefully and expertly batted away. The answer is of course ‘no’ – the House of Bishops doesn’t issue guidance. Bishops respond to where they are as to what they wear. Bishop Pete Broadbent, in giving the answer, said that in many black congregations you were expected to wear one. Not just black congregations!
Long before I was Dean I was Chaplain to the Bishop of Southwark. He had been invited to visit a Primary School in the Diocese which was attached to a very conservative evangelical church. When I rang the Vicar to talk through the visit he was insistent the Bishop wear a suit. When I spoke to the Headteacher she was insistent that he wore cope and mitre. Why? The children, it transpired, had been preparing for the bishop’s visit and had drawn lots of lovely pictures of him and in every one he was wearing a mitre. ‘The children want to see a bishop not a man in a suit’ she told me. So he went with his mitre. And he told the children about his crozier – a simple shepherd’s crook – and his mitre – and he told them how the Holy Spirit descended on the head of each of the apostles like a tongue of flame and how we shared in that apostolic life.
I’m grateful that in Southwark Cathedral there is the crown and the mitre and the descending dove. The Holy Spirit crowns each one of us and the fire of the Spirit warms the heart of the church so that as we sang in the Abbey our love is changed ‘from spark to a flame’.
may your Holy Spirit rest upon us
and upon your church.