Stepping into the boat

It is great that the 11th General Synod of the Church of England is now inaugurated and we are underway. Yesterday began with a great deal of sitting around but in the splendid setting of the north transept at Westminster Abbey. Waiting for the Opening Eucharist in the presence of HRH The Earl of Wessex gave ample opportunity to look at the huge monuments to lots of white men that surround you. At the same time they are illuminated with startling modern stained glass, the work of David Hockney, who would have scandalised the marble gentlemen around us but now sheds rainbow light upon them.

The sermon was preached by Archbishop Angaelos, the leader of the Coptic Church in the UK and an Ecumenical Canon of Southwark Cathedral. He preached on the gospel, the story of Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree in Jericho. Notice who is around, even in unlikely places, he said to us.

Then we made our way to the Synod Chamber where Prince Edward joined us. He was standing in for HM The Queen who was unable to be with us as a consequence of ill health. It was very moving as he read the message to the Synod the Queen would have delivered herself if she had been with us. Both the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York spoke so well about the unfailing Christian witness given by Her Majesty. After various speeches and much warm applause we were fully inaugurated and were able to begin our business.

As long as the whole business takes, all the security, having to wear Convocation Robes, listening to long speeches, there is something about it all that brings home the importance and strangeness of what it is we are doing. We are a legislative body, working on behalf of the people of England, under our Supreme Governor. We are very definitely part of the establishment – like it or not – and the robes and the wigs and the royal presence and the marble gentlemen in the transept all add up to remind us of all of this. But Hockney’s new take on stained glass also reminds us that we are doing all this old stuff in a very modern and changed and changing world.

The first real thing we did was to welcome Alan Smith, the new First Estates Commissioner, the successor of the great Loretta Minghella. He made a brilliant speech pointing out that he was not the Bishop of St Albans, but people expecting them to be one and the same person had certainly eased his way into the post. But he ended by saying that he was bearded, bald and black but above all our brother. I really look forward to hearing from him again.

Fishers in the tea room

The Archbishops then, one after the other delivered the Presidential Address. The Archbishop of Canterbury speaking first, directed us to the encounter of the fishermen with Jesus on the beach. They had been fishing but had caught nothing. Jesus tells them to fish from ‘the right side of the boat’. At our height in the 19th century 20% of the population of England were members of the Church of England. The figure is now 2% of the population. It kept being said by both Archbishops that we are the Church of England, the church for England and we needed to live that out. With his usual passion the Archbishop of York took the baton and encouraged us in the ministry that we have and especially challenged the ‘Save the Parish’ movement.

‘We must fish in every way we can. Listen to the stranger on the shore cast your nets on the right side’ he said to us. He also spoke about the importance of place, that we are ordained to a place and not ordained in some general sense. That is so true. Each of us is ordained to a Title, to a parish or a chaplaincy or an institution. That means that place is central to how we conceive ministry in this country. And so he said towards the end of the address ‘We are working and praying for more church not less’. I admit to finding that very reassuring. We just need to see how that is played out when, in reality, the number of places is being drastically reduced in so many of the dioceses.

The discrepancy in funding and the consequent challenges to ministry was something that came up later but only after the debate on the Report of the Business Committee. This is the opportunity for members of Synod to discuss the agenda and often to suggest what should have been on it. There was a lot of talk amongst some members about the two statements made by the Archbishop of Canterbury in relation to the decision in Ghana to criminalise homosexual behaviour and the apparent support of that by the Anglican Church there. The second of the Archbishop’s statements suggested that we needed to understand the cultural background, that there was nothing we could do and so, as a consequence, LGBT people were just collateral damage. In order to prevent further damage at home ++Justin was quick on his feet to be called to explain as far as he could the background to all of this. The Prolocutor responded and then introduced an extraordinary moment of response. LGBT members from across the Synod stood in their places as a witness to who was being talked about. It was a powerful moment at the beginning of a new Synod.

The day continued with a good debate on generous sharing of resources between the wealthier and the poorer dioceses and then the day ended with Questions. We were faced with a huge number. I was in the chair and knew that there was no way that we could get through them all. But important issues were aired – more on Ghana, questions around the chalice and whether individual communion cups would be allowed, the closure of churches at the beginning of the lockdown and, of course, much about safeguarding. I have to say it was fun – the new members quickly got into the swing of it and the institution and its leaders were put on the spot, which is the point of the thing I suppose. We ended with a Point of Order, we needed more time for Questions in future Groups of Sessions. That is well beyond my pay grade. After all I am just a simple fisher of people.

Lord Jesus, stranger on the shore, point us to the right side of the boat, on the waters we sail, in the places where are. Amen.

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