White martyrs

Today, the final day of this Group of Sessions of the General Synod, fell on the Feast of the martyr Janani Luwum, the Archbishop of Uganda who died in 1977.  So the Eucharist at the beginning of the day celebrated his faithfulness, even to death.  However, in his homily Archbishop Justin reminded us that there are two kinds of martyrs – the red ones who shed their blood and give their life and the white ones who live a life so aligned to that of Christ that it is a total offering of themselves. As he spoke I was reminded of Mary, who is sometimes referred to a Queen of Martyrs, not because she suffered martyrdom in the way that Archbishop Luwum did but because she gave her life so fully to God that it was a life of willing sacrifice. The Archbishop’s point was to remind us that the church is full of lay people and deacons, priests and bishops who live this life so aligned to Christ – and we know them. It was a great call to holy living.

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The Holy Martyr, Janani Luwum

After the Eucharist we went into the first debate of the day, on a motion that had been brought to General Synod by the Diocese of Leeds (or is it West Yorkshire and the Dales, all very confusing), but on the important issue of benefit sanctions and the way that they are being applied.  The issue was not about the application of sanctions per se (there was clear agreement that there had to be sanctions) but what has seemed to become a very inflexible and, at times, inhumane way of applying them.  This was Synod at its best.  Members from across England brought stories of real people who had fallen foul of the rules for reasons out of their control.  But the implications of losing benefits, having no money to feed yourself, let alone your family, are frightening, dreadful and on occasions, life threatening.  As someone said ‘can you imagine your employer stopping your wages for a week if you arrived late in the office on one occasion.’ That is what happens to benefit claimants if they miss or arrive late at the Job Centre for an appointment or are not thought to be applying for enough jobs.

 

An early speaker in the debate asked a question in which he quoted the words of Cain in Genesis 4.9 in which he responds to God’s question about where Abel is

‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

The speaker said to us ‘You bet your life you are.’ And that is why the church in the parishes is so involved with food banks and debt counselling and support in so many ways for people caught in the various traps that the policies of the Government – whether they be purposeful or just unforeseen consequences – create.  The motion was passed and a call has been made to the Government to review how these sanctions are being applied.  We await that with interest.  But as Sir Tony Baldry reminded us from the position of a former MP, we can each, as individuals, parishes, deaneries, go and see our MPs in their constituency surgeries and ask them to push for this review. It’s an easy and very practical step.

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‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

 

The remainder of the day was concentrated on Renewal and Reform. It was a big moment personally as it was the first time I took my place on the platform as one of the Chairs of Synod.  When a few weeks ago I received the invitation to join the Panel of Chairs I was delighted – though daunted.  We all watch the chairs and have our opinions about them …. but to do it!

Thank goodness I was gently eased in by being asked to chair a presentation on R&R.  It was only timetabled for an hour and promised not to be complicated by points of order and motions for closure.  And that proved to be the case. The most challenging part however, apart from concentrating and not being distracted, is sorting out who to call when people stand up as they do to indicate they wish to be called.  The one thing I learnt today is that if you are a small middle aged balding man in a dark suit it’s hard to see you from the chair.  If, however, you are wearing something colourful, unusual or if you have hair and its bright and if you are tall then its easy to get spotted.  Aah! So, that’s why I’m seldom called.  You can’t see me.  So what shall I do? High heels, a blond wig and a green clerical shirt under a yellow suit should do the trick – no one will miss me then – but will it all clash with my red SCP badge? The agony of being a catholic!

So the afternoon was taken up with two debates – both on different aspects of the funding of ministerial education.  As I was reflecting in my first blog on Monday I would deeply regret and feel that the church was impoverished if fewer ordinands were able to access full time residential formation at a theological college as I was able to do.  But the motion passed will, I fear, make it more difficult in some dioceses and for some age groups to be formed and trained in this way.  We will have to see how it all shakes out in the end.

So we began the Synod standing to remember the Coptic Martyrs, we ended remembering a Ugandan martyr and in between we remembered people who were suffering profound deprivation in our country and places, such as on the estates, where the church needs to boost its presence and its message.  I always enjoy Synod and it is good to see friends, old and new, and sometimes have the clear feeling that in some things, we can, maybe, perhaps, make a difference.

Loving God,
as your holy martyrs shed their blood and gave their life,
so may we not hold back in our service of you
and of your people,
for Jesus sake.
Amen.

Faith and friends

This morning began in our small group conversations, talking and listening.  As I suggested in an earlier blog the subject we were talking about was not contentious but it was nevertheless very helpful.  The task we had was a simple one – to talk about how we came to faith and specifically what age we were when we made a commitment to Christ; what have been the fruitful and energising experiences we’ve had of evangelism and what have been the challenges to that. As is important in these conversations we were operating in a framework which created a safe space to speak openly about our own story.  So I can’t attribute anything to anyone in the group but what was fascinating, and especially around the subject of coming to faith, how similar many of the stories were.

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All Saints’ Wigston Magna where I came to faith

 

The common factor for many of us was the importance of family, Sunday School and day school in sowing the seeds of faith.  It was in childhood that many of us first experienced faith, whatever then happened later on.  I was taken to church from being quite young, my mother taught us to pray and prayed with us every evening and we went to Sunday School.  The latter didn’t do much for me but church did. It was the liturgy that set my heart on fire.  How old was I? About 5.  I joined the choir when I was 7 and by then my faith was as alive as I think it is now.  I say this with no sense of pride but it is just as it was.  The smoke, the ritual, the music it was all transporting, a glimpse of heaven.  It set my heart on fire then and the embers still glow and I thank God for that.

But given that this was such a formative time for so many of us, what does that say about what we do now with children and young people? In the debate that followed after the Group Work on the report of the Evangelism Task Force we were being encouraged to get excited about the possibilities of evangelism and made aware of the challenges – not least with young people and not least in the inner-urban and outer-urban estates.  It was an excellent morning and there was a lot of passion in the Chamber that I hope, and pray, converts into real action.  After all perhaps we, as it says of Queen Esther in the book that bears he name

‘have come … for just such a time as this.’ (Esther 4.14)

The afternoon began with a debate on the proposed agreement – the Columba Declaration – between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England.  Though they are Presbyterian and we are episcopal we have things in common, not least that we are both national, established churches on the one island. But the factor which caused all the heat in the Chamber and which had caused something of a ‘Twitter-storm’ when news of the agreement first broke is the presence in Scotland of the Scottish Episcopal Church.  What did it say about our relationship with SEC to be going into this relationship with CoS? The need to work for Christian unity is a dominical command, the disunity of the church is a visible scandal and a barrier to mission.  But achieving that whilst respecting the relationships that we are already in is not just necessary but vital.

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Friendships across the border are vital

 

I felt distinctly uncomfortable.  As the debate progressed I felt I knew less and less about the truth of who knew what and when they knew it and who had participated and who was happy and who was unhappy.  The two amendments sought to make a better way – one more radically and I think better than the other – but it was the latter that received support.  In the end I did what I seldom do and that was to record an abstention.  I hate doing that but I felt unable to do anything else and I left the Chamber dissatisfied.

The close bonds of friendship with the churches in Scotland need to be deepened and where rifts have occurred they need to be healed – and not new ones opened. The amended motion was passed.  I just hope that what happens now is more sensitively handled than was the case so recently.

For bonds of friendship,
for the faith we share,
Lord, we give you thanks and praise.
Amen.

Get talking

I was a very good lad at school – never really got into trouble.  The only time that I was told off was in a General Studies lesson when I was in the VIth form.  We were meant to be working quietly on something but I was on the back row, talking. So I was hauled out and made to stand in the middle of the room for the rest of the lesson – and I was 17! The same fate befell my mother who, in less enlightened days, was still receiving the cane at 15 for talking in class.  Those were the days.

So all this emphasis on talking, on conversation nowadays in the church should be music to my ears and give joy to my heart and it’s in conversation that we will begin this second day of this February Group of Sessions of the General Synod. What we’ll be talking about on this occasion will not be sex (I’d use the ‘A’ word if it wasn’t Lent) but our discipleship, faith and spirituality.  Being as those are generally not areas for contention this must be a getting to know each other exercise which I suspect will warm us up for the real conversations that will take place in the York Synod in July.

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Of course, talking and conversation are not the same thing and I am hoping for good and careful listening – perhaps that was what I was not doing on the back row in the classroom – not listening, just talking.

God,
as I speak today
may I also listen.
Amen.

A new trinity

As I suspected, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Presidential Address contained a great deal for Synod to think about.  It came, however, after a very powerful and sobering moment at the very beginning of the Group of Sessions.  Synod is always held in the context of prayer – the ongoing praying presence which is maintained principally by members of the Community of St Anselm based at Lambeth Palace – and the prayer in which Synod shares every day. So we began with a short service and as part of that we were reminded that today is the first anniversary of the martyrdom of a group of Coptic Christians by members of ISIS.  We stood in silence to witness to their sacrifice and I found that very moving.  It brings everything else and all our internal divisions into sharp relief.  As someone once commented to me, as far as ISIS are concerned there are no denominations, we are just Christians and they treat us as such.  So whatever the divisions of the past they are gone in the face of such persecution and my Coptic brothers are my brothers and their blood my blood and their witness my challenge.

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The Coptic Martyrs

 

The business of Synod was varied to allow more time for the Archbishop to speak to us about the meeting of the Primates which happened at Canterbury just a few weeks ago.  Two things stood out for me.

The first was his mention of the head of the crozier that Pope St Gregory gave to Augustine for his mission to England.  It was lent for the occasion and brought over from Rome.  There are relics and there are relics and this is one of the most powerful.  Its presence with the Book of the Gospels from that same mission were powerful symbols of the nature of the church and the power of the shepherd and the power of the Word. I use the word ‘power’ deliberately.  These aren’t just nice things, museum exhibits, but in themselves are full of the history and faithfulness of the church.  Having them there was so deeply significant.

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A page from Augustine’s Gospels

 

The second powerful element in what the Archbishop said was about a new trio, a new trinity of words that can be applied to Anglicanism.  Hooker’s great legacy to our self understanding and ecclesiology is that we stand on ‘scripture, reason and tradition’. But ++Justin suggested another three, ‘Freedom, order and human flourishing.’ To have the creative freedom that we desire we have to have order, he said, and out both of those human flourishing flows.  They are a great trio of words to think about. He also said that in all the communiques that flowed from the meeting the word ‘sanction’ is never used, and never used of TEC (the American Episcopal Church) but instead the word used is ‘consequences’. ‘All actions have consequences’ he told Synod and we all needed to remember that.  The order that allows freedom and flourishing is one that we must have a mind to.

It was is at the beginning of this meeting of the General Synod and before we moved on to other matters.  But it was the memory of my martyr brothers, the lamb in the crozier head and the call to be a church in which we flourish that inspired me to engage with the more prosaic business of Synod.

Lord,
build us into your church in which
freedom is exercised with care
where order liberates and doesn’t bind
in which lives and communities flourish
and you, our Good Shepherd
and Living Word
are worshipped and served.
Amen.

Great expectations

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.

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Church House Westminster – our home for the next three days

 

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.

Mrs Merton

‘Let’s have a heated debate!’

 

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.

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Being formed as a priest at Mirfield

 

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.

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