It was a fascinating final day in General Synod and I’m delighted about that, especially for all those who are new to Synod (43% I heard, which is amazing). Often people get very frustrated that we seem to spend all of our time talking about internal politics – about women and sex and money – those kinds of things. Well, the good news was that on the third day the focus was beyond the church.
We began with Archbishop Sentamu and his wife Margaret telling us about their recent visit to the Pacific islands including Fiji and Samoa and the way in which communities there are being threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change. The whole presentation was fascinating and especially in the light of the Climate Change Conference that is about to take place and the fact that, as we listened in the Chamber, pilgrims were walking from the UK to arrive in Paris as a witness to our concern for the planet.
What was especially moving was a visual and spoken prayer delivered on a video by one of the Archbishops in the Pacific. The images were staggeringly beautiful and a celebration of the richness of the oceans. This was contrasted with images of the environmental effects of mankind’s greed and the effects of worshipping at the false God of profit.
When I worked for a time in the USA I loved a phrase in one of their Eucharistic prayers, Prayer C
At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.
The fragility of this island home is really being made real to us.
The first real debate of this Group of Sessions highlighted another fragility and that is with regard to refugees. The debate was on our response to the Migrant Crisis. It was timely and much welcomed by the whole of Synod. It was, in fact, a very good debate and there were some really good speeches made. My own amendment was not in fact accepted by the Synod – but that was ok. Getting to make a speech on the importance of the subject and our disappointment with regard to the response of the Government, specifically in terms of the number of refugees we will be welcoming over the next five years, was a welcome chance to make what I believe is an important point. But, of course, I am pleased that even 20,000 refugees will be given a new and safe home with us and an on-going commitment to 0.7% of GDP for overseas aid is exemplary. But we can and, I believe, should do more.
The final vote on the motion, amended with a new clause proposed by Canon Giles Goddard at the prompting of the Bishop of Croydon and giving added strength to its final form, resulted in a fantastic 333 in favour, 0 against and only 3 abstentions. This was a clear message to the nation that we are committed to the ministry of hospitality that we see in Jesus whose extended arms always draw us in.
There was for me, to be honest, something of a Trojan Horse moment when the Archbishop of Canterbury made a speech during the debate which seemed to suggest that in voting for this Motion we were in effect saying that there was no option other than military intervention in Syria. Now, I may be wrong and it was one of those moments when I was so surprised that I couldn’t quite get the words down. He may well be right and he is politically astute but I wasn’t quite sure what I was voting for when I voted in favour!
There was then some legislative business at which moment the tea room became packed before we filled the Chamber again for a presentation on Public Perceptions of Jesus. This was an unpacking of the research that was behind the report ‘Talking Jesus’. Now, it was Mark Twain who famously said ‘There are lies, damned lies and statistics.’ We certainly met with some statistics and some scenarios – it was mind-boggling. The basic idea behind the research was ‘If you are a Christian and you talk to someone not a Christian about Jesus what effect does it have?’
The basic answer seems to be very little or a negative effect in that they are put off and don’t want to hear any more. So perhaps we shouldn’t talk about Jesus at all and let God get on with setting people’s hearts on fire as on the road to Emmaus. Jesus seemed to do a much better job when he appeared as the stranger on the road and broke open the word and broke the bread which revealed his presence, a much better job than we manage to do when we talk about him. ‘Gogglebox’ vicar, the Revd Kate Bottley, Tweeted later on yesterday an image which said
‘Sometimes the best evangelism is simply telling people you’re a Christian and then not being a complete jerk.’
As it would say on exam papers – ‘Discuss’! But the stats are of course are useful and open up a conversation about how we do evangelism and they revealed the real gap that lies at the heart of the congregations – the younger middle aged – or was that just revealing something about their sample group?
The final debate was on the report of the Church Buildings Review Group. The debate had been anticipated by those who picked up the recommendation about ‘Festival Churches’ – churches which wouldn’t be closed but where the regular round of worship required of parish churches wouldn’t happen but festivals would be celebrated (well, that’s how I understand it). But there was much more besides in this very good report with some excellent theology on sacred place by the Bishop of Worcester who started from the writings of George McLeod, the founder of the Iona Community, who talked of ‘thin places’. That is really what T S Eliot picks up on in ‘Little Gidding’ one of his ‘Four Quartets’.
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
Our 16,000 churches are places in our communities made ‘valid’ by prayer. But how do they become a true asset and not a burden is the question we have to ask – and at heart it is a mission question. In Luke 9 Jesus ‘sends out’ his apostles and they then ‘return’. This is all about place – they went out on mission, they returned to the place of sending. Church has to be the missionary base as well as the place of festival, where the table is set and the bread is broken, where the people gather and heaven touches earth and earth touches heaven. It will be exciting to see how this report in its outworking will enable our theology of place to enable our life of worship and mission.
At the end of almost all the Groups of Sessions there is a farewell and on this occasion it was the Secretary General, William Fittall, who was leaving. He has served the church in this capacity for 13 years but has also served the church within the Diocese of Southwark (before his more recent move) as a Reader. His skills in administration, negotiation and diplomacy are grounded in a real faith in Jesus Christ.
Archbishop Justin began this Group of Sessions with a fantastically clever and amusing address in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen and he ended this Synod with an equally polished performance in tribute to William who, in turn, gave a great response.
So we left Westminster after retrieving bags and coats (all black of course so much confusion in the cloakroom!) and I left feeling very positive about the next five years. If it continues in this spirit maybe God can work through us.
bless the members of the Synod,
bless the work that continues,
bless the church we serve,
bless the people of this nation,
bless the world, your creation,
that we may be one in your service.