So, from across England and Europe people are making their way to Westminster. Well, at least members of the General Synod are because today sees the beginning of the February Group of Sessions. There was a very short, initial, Group of Sessions in November which included the formal opening of this new quinquennium by Her Majesty The Queen with all the attendant pomp and circumstance that that involves. But November was mainly about Synod members finding their way around and trying to find out how this ‘thing’ functions. Synod watchers will remember that about a half of the Synod membership changed at the elections held in the autumn of last year and so there is still something of an unknown quality about the character of this new body. Perhaps in these three days we may get a better indication of the feeling of the Synod – I have great expectations that there is a willingness to really work together.
One exciting change for me is that between November and now I was invited to join the Panel of Chairs. There isn’t one chair of General Synod, instead it’s shared between a group of people, all Synod members. The two Archbishops play their major roles as Presidents of Synod but the majority of Sessions are chaired by members of the panel. When I received the invitation I was surprised and delighted to be honest, though at the same a bit nervous that it might not be something I would be very good at. But if I don’t give it a go I will never know – that’s basically the principle that I use in making decisions about most things – give it a go!
So far I’ve had some initial training and been to my first briefing meeting. I have sheaves of papers – Standing Orders, notes on chairing, that kind of thing – and whenever you are in the chair you have a lawyer to the left of you and an officer of the Synod to the right so that you can be kept on the straight and narrow. But you have the bell and ringing that bell is all important. But so is giving the right feel to a debate or whatever the particular Session is about and also having a mind to the mood of Synod and the feeling in the chamber. So I’ll have to rely on that thing that people talk about nowadays – emotional intelligence – to get that right.
So what does the Agenda hold?
This afternoon has one of the key moments of Sessions and that is the Presidential Address being given by the Archbishop of Canterbury. What we know is that he will be reflecting on the recent Primates’ Meeting. So I anticipate a huge amount of interest in what he says and what he doesn’t say. Then, later in the week, we have almost a whole day on the Renewal and Reform agenda. That is when I will get my first outing at the top table as I chair a Presentation. But the real interest will come in the debate that will follow on Resourcing Ministerial Education.
I suspect that will become in what the famous Mrs Merton used to describe as a ‘heated debate’. Some of us suspect that the loss of full time residential theological formation is what we are looking aspect and if that is the case it will be a serious loss to the church. Ok, there are other ways of learning and people have done part-time and non-residential courses for ages. The first one started in the Diocese of Southwark, the famous ‘Southwark Ordination Course’, and many good and faithful priests have come through that and its successor training courses. But I know that my formation at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield made me the priest I am and that without that intense shaping and teaching I would not have embraced priesthood in quite the way I have been enabled to do.
Priestly formation, in my view, is not principally about the acquiring of knowledge – though there has to be a strong element of that – but rather about acquiring the priestly character. For me that is done in community, with a strong rule of life, through common prayer and a deep exposure to priestly ministry as it is exercised. I was fortunate enough to have three years at the College, was able to listen to some amazing preaching, was involved in life changing liturgy, talked to some experienced and holy priests and learnt the disciplines of prayer and work and study and leisure that have sustained me every day of my 33 years of ministry.
Perhaps the CofE has decided it wants a different type of priest. If it has, then it should say so, because the proposals in my mind will have that effect. But I may be a lone voice, though I suspect not.
So there will be some getting to know each other in these Sessions – and Group Work tomorrow will enable some relationships to begin to be established – but alongside this will begin the real work of seeing where the Spirit is leading the Church and the Communion at this time. Pray for us – please.
Almighty God, you have given your Holy Spirit to the Church to lead us into all truth: bless with the Spirit’s grace and presence the members of the General Synod; keep them steadfast in faith and united in love, that they may manifest your glory and prepare the way of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.