‘Wearing thin’

Whatever else this particular Group of Sessions of the General Synod will be remembered for, it should be the debate on the IICSA report which happened on the final day. Yes, the Cathedrals Measure will make a big difference, yes, the shape of our Diocesan Boards of Education is important, yes, nothing can happen without sound budgeting but how we treat one another now and how we have ill-treated people in the past, the systemic, institutional failures, have to be faced up to.

Three survivors joined the debate and spoke to Synod. We have heard from people before, of course, but this felt different. Partly I think it was because if you had selected Speaker View on Zoom rather than Gallery View then the person was in your room with you, more immediate, strangely more present than when they are on the platform in Westminster or York, or if they are pre-recorded and on the screen in either of those places. This was an encounter at another level.

The other difference was that they were speaking to us after we had read the report of an independent group of people. Those who had in some way, for some reason, not really taken seriously the voice of survivors – and they are around – had to now listen.

I felt challenged to an extent that I hadn’t felt before, particularly challenged as a member of the governing body of an institution that I love and have given my life to serving. This was tough stuff but then it needed to be because those speaking to us had gone through the toughest stuff and it was out of that that they were speaking.

The third speaker held nothing back. The apologies that we had yet again made were, in his words, ‘wearing thin’. If we were sincere in these apologies then there needed to be ‘lasting change’. Having spent many years thinking about the issues around Sacramental Confession and safeguarding these words struck a chord with me.

As we all know that word ‘repentance’, metanoia μετάνοια in Greek, is all about a change of heart, a change of direction. It has been said by one commentator that ‘The elements of repentance, regret, reflection, and transformation are always present in the concept of metanoia to some degree.’ It is that to which the church is being called; it is to that that the penitent before the priest is called.

After the penitent has confessed their sins they then say, if a more traditional form of words is being used

For these and all my other sins that I cannot now remember, I am very sorry, firmly resolve not to sin again, and humbly ask pardon of God, and of you, father/mother, advice, penance and absolution.

There has to be this commitment to change, to not sin again, to turn your life around. It isn’t sufficient just to say sorry, and the priest needs to look for the genuine signs of true and deep repentance if they are doing their job in that situation. And if that is the ministry of the church to individuals the church must show the same signs in relation to its own acts of contrition, otherwise the ‘sorry’ wears very thin.

I think that this Synod was a Rubicon for the Church – or at least it should be. Rather than packing our bags and heading to the station or the car to get home we clicked on Leave at the bottom of the screen and put the Zoom password into trash. The Crystal maze was behind us, Synod was done. But it can’t be as simple as that this time.

There is of course a challenge in the Gospel for us.

Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ (Matthew 18.21-22)

There is a boundless generosity in the love of God, God’s love does not ‘wear thin’ but instead in the thin places and the thin moments of our lives is felt even more intensely. But we need to hold on to the words that have been said to us, because for some it feels as though they have been hearing the ‘seventy-seven times’ and it IS wearing thin.

One member of Synod summed the whole thing up, however, with another piece of scripture. For me it made sense of everything – of our vision, of our budgeting, of our life as institutions, of the questions that we ask of each other, of the mazes that we can find ourselves in. It was those words of the prophet Micah, and these were the words and this was the prayer with which I left the Zoom screen and the Synod on this occasion, and with a desire to do different, to be different and to do better.

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6.8)

Simpler, Humbler, Bolder

There’s no excuse for it I know, but as you get older it’s very easy to turn into a ‘grumpy old man’ – I’m sure women are immune from this progression! So you think, ‘I’ve heard it all before’, ‘we’ve tried all this before’, ‘same old same old’ or any variation on those reactions. So I had low expectations yesterday morning as Synod began it’s second day on Zoom.

I had reflected on the first day that the whole thing was slow and clunky. Well, as I had hoped, things did get a lot better. Ok, those breakout rooms didn’t work again (thank God) but in general everything seemed smoother and with a better pace. It wasn’t just the hard work back at HQ but I think that those of us on a screen were beginning to have a lot more confidence about what it was we were doing and how we were doing it.

The Vision

My colleagues know that I’m not naturally a strategically minded person, that I have to have forward planning carefully explained to me, that I am much happier in reactive rather than proactive mode. So on the face of it the first item on the agenda ‘Vision and Strategy’ was not something that would normally send my pulse racing. But this was different; the grumpy old man did not appear, instead something a bit more like youthful enthusiasm stirred within me.

The Archbishop of York was leading on this presentation and I have to say he was fantastic. Archbishop Stephen, as we all know, manages to combine evangelical zeal with catholic spirituality. He speaks in a way that you can understand what he’s on about wherever you sit on the spectrum of the Church of England. He quotes scripture as one who knows his Bible and he speaks of the sacramental life as one who is immersed in it.

The graphic he used was brilliant and it became more and more engaging, culminating, climaxing in those three words – Simpler; Humbler; Bolder – as descriptors of the vision of the church ‘Christ centred – Jesus shaped’ that he had described. The vision needs a great deal of unpacking and working on – but this feels like something that we can really engage in. To be simpler – and we are not here talking about that simplification process that we’ve been engaged in – but something more gospel like, more Jesus shaped, more focused on what matters. To be humbler – knowing that we are part of the church, that there are other partners, that we have got things wrong, that we can do so much better, that we rely on grace. To be bolder – to have confidence in God, the Gospel, the Church, to be able to act and speak and engage in a way that makes others bolder with us, to be risk takers. These are my responses to those three words. And it was good to think about the ‘Five Marks of Mission’ in a positive way and not as simply an add on in a conversation. I left the debate, encouraged and empowered.

As happens so often that opening debate of the day set the tone for the rest of what we did. Vision and Strategy was neatly followed by the Final Drafting and Final Approval stages of the Cathedrals Measure. Having been involved in this piece of work, first as a critic and then as Chair of the Revision Committee and latterly a member of the Steering Committee I have become huge convert to what it offers the church and our cathedrals. The Measure is now fit for purpose to help cathedrals be fit for purpose in the 21st century. That ‘Simpler Humbler Bolder’ vision could though equally apply to our cathedrals. We need to be each of those things and I think that this Measure, which was finally approved with not a single vote against it – incredible – will help in that.

The Budget debate in the afternoon also had echoes of the Archbishop of York’s vision in the morning. Canon John Spence, who is always an impressive Synod performer, led us with skill through what can be very boring. The finances are challenging but Synod members were up for the challenge, ready to make the money follow the vision.

Then we gave First Consideration to an amendment to our Safeguarding legislation and practice. It is all centres on what ‘due regard’ means, something that the IICSA report had highlighted. This was my moment in the chair and attempting to manage the technology and the blue hands that were being raised. It is good, however, to see the church responding immediately to where others have identified that in the area of safeguarding we can and must do better – and the language that we use is central to the actions that we then see in our life.

Simpler, humbler, bolder, Christ-centred, Jesus-shaped – it felt as though we saw something of this in Synod yesterday. Archbishop Stephen began with a powerful image of the Emmaus story, of the God who walks with us, the God who breaks bread for us, the God who sends us back with a message to share, the Jesus on the road and at the table. You know what, I feel excited!

Jesus, may we reflect your simplicity, share your humility, live your boldness, have you at our centre and your cross at our heart; may we be shaped by you. Amen.

Crystal Maze

You may be a fan of the game show, ‘The Crystal Maze’. Well, fantasy can sometimes find echoes in reality. As General Synod began this Group of Sessions on Monday afternoon we had to get to grips with two ways of voting. To be honest we always have two ways. Most often we have a show of hands, especially on procedural matters, ending a debate, agreeing to debate an amendment, that kind of thing. In addition, we used to do something akin to what they still do across the road in Westminster and that is to troop through doors marked ‘Ayes’ and ‘Noes’ in order to register our votes. Then electronic voting was introduced and so we all have what looks like a Blackberry (other phones are available) into which we put a voting card. In that way we can take formal votes, as a Synod or in our Houses. But now we are online we are voting differently.

The Simple Vote is by a Zoom poll but I learnt today at the Panel of Chairs meeting that you can only have 25 such polls in a day – so we need to be careful how we use them. The more formal votes will be taken on the Crystal Platform. It is this maze that we got caught in initially. But we will learn how to do it efficiently, or at least, we have to.

But we began the Synod by putting into effect the legislation we passed at the last meeting in September when we agreed that we could function in this remote way. So after the initial welcomes to new members and Ecumenical representatives, this new way of working gained final approval.

The Presidents then addressed Synod. The Presidents are the two archbishops and what they said began with the pandemic and the huge inequalities in our society that it has exposed, then they moved on to the other challenges that we are facing talking about safeguarding, racism and the issue of immigration and the people who make the dangerous journey across the Channel. Mention was also made of the challenge to democracy by populism in politics and the huge challenge of climate change. The pictured painted was of a frightening and challenging maze.

The Archbishop of York had a really encouraging quote from Othello up his sleeve which was new to me. Othello is saying of Desdemona as she is walking away

“But I do love thee! And when I love thee not, Chaos is come again” (Othello III. iii.).

It is the supreme love of God on which we rely and that we know in Jesus that saves us, ultimately, from this chaos that always threatens humanity. It was love that they then moved on to. The Bishop of Coventry spoke about the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ (LLF) project which had recently produced its much awaited material. He was joined by Eva John in encouraging us to engage with it positively and openly and this was reinforced by Archbishop Justin who reminded us of one of the things that he said when the proposals on sexuality from the House of Bishops were rejected by Synod in 2017. He then used a phrase which he reiterated, a phrase which some of us were encouraged by then and remain encouraged by now

‘We need a new radical Christian inclusion in the church.’

Of course, it being the Church of England, not everyone is encouraged by this and as the video released last week by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) revealed, there are those who are not prepared to be involved in the debate that LLF is encouraging the church to have. But you may have read my blog about that already. If not here is a link to it.

There was a glitch in the timing and it was decided that we wouldn’t have time for breakout rooms (as one wag later described them ‘breakdown rooms’) and thank God for that. I’m not sure very many of us were ready for that. So we were spared by what became the slow progress of the Synod. This was no ones fault. We were all getting used to the technology and navigating the screens and the blue hands and the Points of Order and the maze of the voting systems. I am confident that we will get better and it will become easier and flow better. But it also shows what many of us know after these last eight months – nothing beats actually being together. Just as the sacramental life of the church depends, by its very nature, on proximity, on being there, so in a way do gatherings of this nature.

The Report of the Business Committee which normally is relatively uncontentious was met with some harsh and I thought undeserved criticism. The Agenda we were told was too much like any Synod agenda and hadn’t taken into account the special nature of this Synod. But there is stuff that we do need to do, to enact and to debate and whilst the whole thing can become a seemingly inescapable maze we have a task to do and we need to do it for the good of the church.

One important debate was about our response to the Covid Pandemic. The final Motion was much improved by Canon Tim Goode’s amendments which took into account the needs of the many people with disability and others who had suffered disproportionality from what has happened. But as so often in this period, events were overtaking the debate and as we heard whilst we were talking the Prime Minister announced that we will be able to resume public worship after this lockdown. Deo gratias.

The Session ended with Questions. Even though there were far fewer than is usual we didn’t get far with them. It was just one of those days and today, Tuesday, I am sure will be slicker and better and the maze will seem less formidable.

But I am left with the powerful words of Othello and the supreme and chaos defeating love of God that sees us through every maze that life can confront us with.

I do love thee! And when I love thee not, Chaos is come again”

Loving God, love us through the present challenges and the chaos that threatens, into your peace which passes understanding. Amen.

Here we go again!

There should have been a new Quinquennium of the General Synod beginning this week. We should have been gathering in the Abbey cloisters, being marshaled into our diocesan groups like competitors parading at the beginning of the Olympic Games. There would have been a splendid Eucharist in the Abbey and then Her Majesty would have joined us in the Synod Chamber to address us at the beginning of our work (it’s a bit like the Opening of Parliament with less ermine). We would have been sat there in our Sunday best, the clergy in convocation dress, the laity, in the main, dressed up, with a smattering of hats (how we miss Christina Baxter’s array of millinery).

Not quite like our opening procession!

Instead the elections to Synod were delayed, we have all been kept on for another year as this pandemic disrupts every aspect of life, and we are meeting online rather than in person.

So today begins a Group of Sessions the agenda of which is made up of items of business that have to be dealt with – the budget, IICSA, cathedrals, LLF – to name but a few.

So I will do my best to keep you up todate with what goes on. Join us online if you can, if not pray for us plaese.

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 our Lord. Amen.

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