Unprecedented

You sometimes find people who use your name at every verse end and you end up thinking – well, I do – ‘please stop it, you’ll wear it out’!  But maybe they’ve been on a training course and this was a top tip for how to deal with people effectively.

In Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ monologue ‘Her big chance’, Lesley, an actor, has read a book on interviews hoping to get another acting part.  She meet’s a potential director.

‘Said his name was Simon, which I instantly committed to memory. (That’s one of the points in the book: purpose and use of name.)

Anyway, it’s not a name but a word that is in danger of being worn out, ‘unprecedented’.  It has been the word of the pandemic and was the word being bandied about at yesterday’s ‘unprecedented’ meeting of the members of the General Synod.  It was unprecedented because we had never met like this before, never had to, never met in such an informal way, never had so many questions, and so on and so on.

But these times are unprecedented and it was was really important that this meeting of the Synod was held.  The fact that by the end of a long day staring at a screen there were still almost 300 people participating says it all.  Apart from worship which, quite rightly. book-ended the day, we had three things – a Presidential Address which was shared between the new Archbishop of York and the Archbishop of Canterbury; a presentation on the churches response to Covid-19 and Questions, which is what I was responsible for looking after.  In many ways the whole day was about Covid – our response to it and where we go from here.  There’s clearly a great deal of thinking going on and I am delighted that Archbishop Stephen will be leading some of that thinking.

Synod can act as a valve on a pressure cooker.  It gives people the opportunity to let off steam.  I think that was what was going on yesterday.  There has been a great deal of frustration and anger about, not least among the clergy, about the way in which our churches became inaccessible places just when we needed them the most – we being the nation they were built for, to the glory of God.  There was anger about all the guidance which looked like instruction rather than advice, there was anger about an apparent flouting of Canon Law and what could appear easily as a deliberate sidelining of legal opinion and advice.  

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There are plenty of unprecedented Rubicons which may have been crossed during these last three months – a huge shift in our understanding of worship and how to conduct it, and how online can be more accessible for some than physical place is.  But I fear that a Rubicon has been crossed in relation to how we, how I, sit in relation to Canon Law.  We spend hours in General Synod looking at Canons and Amending Canons, as though they were something that came down on stone tablets from the mountain.  But has this episode in our life been like that described in the Book of Exodus

Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. (Exodus 32.19)

It was a dramatic moment – and fortunately God had a second copy – but law is fragile; it can be shattered.  Appealing to the unprecedented nature of the times in relation to ignoring Canon Law, which is how it can appear some of the leadership is justifying their actions, surely gives space for others to do the same in other unprecedented, unanticipated, unprepared for situations that they face in their parishes, communities, in their ministries.  And those of us who are ordained and those who share in leadership and governance in our communities know that there is a lot that is unprecedented, that falls into these categories where we need to be responsive rather than strategic.

So it was good to let the steam out and have that opportunity to hold various levels of leadership to account – and that, after all, is one of the functions of General Synod.  I have seen enough ‘blue hands’ on a screen for a long long time.  Apologies to those whose blue hands I missed – it is even more difficult at times than spotting raised hands in a chamber – and I missed Mr Freeman’s call for a vote on closing this item of business.  But we will get back to that I am sure.

One thing that was announced at the beginning of the meeting was that there will be a physical meeting of the General Synod in Westminster on 24 September to debate and approve a Measure which would allow us to meet virtually in November (if that is still required by the pandemic) to do some vital pieces of work which at the moment the ‘law’ relating to Synod would not permit.  We cannot pass anything virtually.  In November we need to do some of the things we would have been doing this weekend in York – the budget, setting Fees, that kind of thing.  So we have more ‘unprecedented’ events for the Synod on the horizon!

But the God who knows us by name and calls us by name and never wears it out, is the God of every time, unprecedented or not, the God who sees us through with the law of love, a law which not even the cross could break.

God of time, God of love,
see us through this present time,
to whatever the future may hold.
Amen.

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