Time’s up!

As I write the clock is ticking on this extended quinquennium and this final Group of Sessions of the General Synod. It has been quite a few days. I wrote at the beginning about gathering up the crumbs, the fragments. To be honest there have been some chunkier leftovers to be dealt with.

It has been a huge privilege to be asked to chair items before the Synod. I want to pay particular tribute to the Synod staff. As you look at the screen and the Platform Party, as we are called, you see three of us, the chair in the centre seat, a be-wigged lawyer on their left hand and an administrator on their right. The chair relies on both of these for advice and in these circumstances, for company. It is weird looking out into a chamber that should be full of members and instead is mostly populated with cameras and screens and, at the most, four of the backroom team. From those first Zoom meetings of the Synod we have come a long way. For the most part it is a slick operation and that is all down to the skill of the Synod team. Things will always go wrong but it has been an incredible achievement to do business and to pass legislation and keep the church moving forwards in these circumstances.

A number of the debates over the past few days have involved us in thinking about terms of office. Those of us who act as trustees on other bodies are used now to the moment when we fall off the perch. However much skill, knowledge and expertise you have built up, your tenure comes to an end. The question that has been brought to us a number of times is whether this should apply across the board. There is obviously the huge anomaly of people like me, which doesn’t make things easy. We might have fixed terms for most Chapter members, but the clergy will be there whilst they are in office. Membership of General Synod isn’t for a maximum of two quinquennia, for instance. I have been a member for three quinquennia – in fact, 16 years now because of the pandemic – and I am considering standing again. But service on something like the CNC, or even the Panel of Chairs does come to an end. ‘Time’s up’ is something that is called in the church, but how far should that go?

The final item I chaired on Monday afternoon was a subject that also involved the sound of a ticking clock. in 2014 when we approved the opening up of all three orders of ordained ministry to all people, regardless of gender, we did so because of the acceptance of the Five Guiding Principles. Seven years on and with a growing and welcome number of women in episcopal orders and many women and men having been ordained by a bishop who is a woman, the issues are beginning to be sharpened.

When the prophet Isaiah is called upon by God to do a task he asks the reasonable question

‘How long, O Lord?’ (Isaiah 6.11)

He didn’t want to agree to something open-ended. But God requires of him commitment to the task. There were a great many people who wanted to speak in this debate, some modern day Isaiah’s amongst them who wanted to know ‘how long’, more than we could hear from in the hour we had. As one speaker said ‘We are a church which ordains women’, and as the Bishop of Newcastle pointed out Synod has agreed that all such persons ordained are legally and truly bishops. So how long will the arrangements need to be in place. Is the clock ticking, or has it stopped?

It was a tough debate to have at the end of this extended quinquennium. Members were clearly conflicted – vote to take note, vote not to; vote to move to next business and so not deal with it at the moment, or not. As people pointed out, taking note does not imply agreement with what was being said, but it can feel as though it is tacit agreement.

In the end we did take note, but this is much more than a crumb, much more than a loose end. This is about who we are as a church. The Archbishop of York earlier in the day had returned to his theme of ‘simpler, humbler, bolder’. Those principles must apply across our life. Even something like the long debate on the Crown Nominations Commission and how it works, has in the background issues relating directly to the settlement agreed back in 2014 and how in fact it has been working out, how transparent we are, and the extent to which we trust people to behave honourably and openly.

Just as at the end of a football match the whistle is blown and that is that (Synod fortunately does not have penalties, well, not in that sense) the whole thing finishes with Prorogation and Dissolution. Time’s up. The Synod and its Convocations are no more – but there is a great deal of work for the next Synod when it arrives, we hope, face-to-face, in-person, in Westminster in November.

I’ll end with that favourite prayer of mine, by Dag Hammarskjold

For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes. Amen.

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