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.

Lumi

Followers of this blog may remember that at the last Synod we were using ‘the Crystal platform’ for all our voting. I think I wrote a blog then called ‘The Crystal Maze’ because sometimes it felt a bit like that as we manoeuvred our way through its complexities. Anyway, if you have been listening in on Synod this time you will have heard the Chair constantly referring to ‘Lumi’. This in fact is the voting platform that we are now using.

What it means I do not know – the word I mean. Maybe it’s from the Latin for light, in the sense that it sends a ray of light into debates and voting. However, much more fun might be what the Urban Dictionary tells me, that “lumi” is an acronym for “love u mean it.​” What a difference that would make to the workings of the General Synod and, indeed, the whole of the life of the Church of England – “Lumi”, “Love u mean it” – if that were true.

Whatever the company means by the name they chose for their voting platform product, we have used it well today. So many of the debates have involved multiple votes, such as the long debate on Amendments to Standing Orders. Those debates, though they are the joy of people who obviously love Standing Orders and live and breathe them, are in fact vital to the good working of the Synod and so to the benefit of every member.

Other items today have been around such things as the annual reports of the Church Commissioners and the Archbishops’ Council, around progress on safeguarding, on housing, on the budget. In addition we have also had an update on ‘Living in Love and Faith’ (LLF). LLF, as you will know is the latest part of the agonising and long drawn out process whereby the Church of England struggles through the issues of human sexuality. We have just gone through Pride month. I was delighted that Southwark Cathedral’s social media presence was all branded with the rainbow version of our logo. This was not intended to provoke people, to wind them up, nor to suggest that this above all other issues is what Southwark Cathedral is about. We did it to show that we stand in solidarity with our LGBT+ sisters and brothers, that we have pride in one another, that we aren’t still agonising, that we are celebrating. The message really is LUMI – Love you, mean it. Whatever comes out of LLF I hope that simple message can ring out loud and, yes, proud. We love you, whoever you are, and we mean it, and God loves you and means it.

We always have to return to John 3.16, it is a foundation stone of our life and is so clear and unequivocal.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3.16)

It’s the LUMI message writ large and written on the palms of divine hands nailed to the cross. As the body of Christ surely that has to be our message too.

God of love, we know you mean it. When I speak of love may I mean it too. Amen.

Crumbs

My auntie always reminds me about when I was a little boy – I can’t remember it at all, so I’m trusting her memory – that I would tell the same joke over and over again. ‘Two biscuits were crossing the road. One got run over; the other shouted’ ‘Crumbs!’ She said I laughed every time and that really amused them, even if the joke didn’t.

Well, here we are again; the last Group of Sessions for this extended quinquennium of the General Synod has begun. We thought we would be in-person in York and then York University decided otherwise. Then we thought we’d be in-person in Westminster and then Boris decided otherwise. So we are back with another virtual meeting with just the platform party in the strangely empty chamber and everyone else on Zoom. This is the sixth gathering of Synod in a year – can you believe it? I think the Synod staff can if this morning’s Panel of Chairs meeting is anything to go by. But it is what it is.

However, I am very sad that all the atmosphere of the final Group of Sessions has been lost, all the opportunities to say farewell to those who are retiring or who have decided enough is enough and they are not standing for election again. And, of course, there’s all the out of the chamber conversations, the sitting by the lakes watching the wildfowl and the time in the bars that we miss out on.

This final Group of Sessions is always about tying loose ends, trying to get the final pieces of legislation through, so that when the Synod is dissolved at the end, it is neat and clean. So the agenda that is before us is a rather bitty, stuff around ministry, the work of the CNC, thoughts on CDM, the shape of the church, where mission is, annual reports that need to be made, and of course, safeguarding.

It’s important that this final sweep, this gathering of the crumbs is done. But it does mean there isn’t a theme that you can pick up on.

Jesus was so keen that nothing be lost. I love the account in St John’s Gospel of the feeding of the multitude (John 6.1-14).

When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. (John 6.12-13)

The fragments, the crumbs were so important – ‘that nothing may be lost’. It applies to our lives, it applies to the church and it even applies to the Synod. And the gathered fragments in their twelve baskets became a symbol of the kingdom, the new Israel, the twelve tribes.

My prayer is that we can do a good job at gathering and completing and revealing, by the grace of God, something of the kingdom as we do it.

Lord, bless our work, our gathering, that nothing may be lost. Amen.

Responsible representation

Trust, transparency and diversity were important words that came through a debate that opened the afternoon. The title of the Report was ‘Responsible representation’ and was around the election process to the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC). This is the body which nominates candidates to the Crown for appointment as diocesan bishops. I had the privilege – and I mean that – of serving on that body for eight years. It was an incredible experience. I felt that it was a huge responsibility, listening closely to the representatives from the diocese, the ‘Diocesan Six’ as they are known, so that the ‘Central Members’ can assist in discerning the right person for the next stage of life in that diocese.

There have been a number of issues over the past few years which have resulted in an inquiry into the work of the CNC and now some recommendations were being brought forward to amend the way in which people are elected to serve on that body. We are a broad church and that needs to be represented. ‘From Lament to Action’ has reminded us this week that we need to see UKME representation at every level, not just in the candidates coming forwards for appointment but in those making those appointments, or nominating people for particular office in the church.

The debate exposed some of the issues which are always there under the polite surface of Synod. One of the downsides of Zoom Synods is that it is very hard to judge the mood. When we are in a chamber together, whether that is here in Westminster or in York, you can easily work out what Synod is feeling and some of that veneer of politeness can be broken. Here the constraints of the remote gathering means that we don’t get proper engagement.

One of the problems we face has been institutionalised in the Five Guiding Principles., I voted for them when we were working out how we might bring forth legislation which would be agreeable to the church in general to enable the ordination of women to the episcopate. It was the positive and only way forward. And I do support those principles and the concept of mutual flourishing. St Paul writes this truth in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. (1 Corinthians 12.26)

But the important word is ‘mutual’. The church and all in ministry need to flourish and not just some – and too often it can feel as though the demands of mutual flourishing do not fall equally across the church.

The Central Members of the CNC should be representative of the church and that does mean those who are not in favour of the ordained ministry of women as priests or bishops should be represented. But so do other aspects of diversity both of person and opinion. Whether the proposals before us will achieve this I am not sure and those who check voting in Synod closely will see how I voted. I remain to be convinced but I am open to convincing.

The sun has been beating down outside of Church House. The members of the Panel of Chairs who are here, those who act as Registrars and Administrators in the debates, the staff of the Synod have all been stuck inside. But it has been good to meet, to do the business we have done, to achieve what we have achieved and to seek the real flourishing of the church through the exercise of responsible representation in every place, at every level.

I hope that we can meet in person in July, that we can be in York for the last Group of Sessions of this extended quinquennium. But for all that has been done, even in strange circumstances, thanks be to God.

I want to sign off with a prayer which I often use, by Dag Hammarskjold

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

A moving beginning

Before Synod got down to the business that was before it we gave time to both remember His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh and to listen to the Presidential Address. It was good for Synod to be able to record our thanks for the support of Prince Philip over the years and also to assure Her Majesty The Queen of our prayers. What came across however from what was said by the few members I had the time to call to speak was appreciation for what the Duke had achieved in people’s lives, not least through the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. Dr Rachel Jepson, a member of the Archbishops’ Council spoke in particular about the way in which she wouldn’t be the person she is without the opportunities for personal development that the scheme afforded. Synod gave almost unanimous support to the Motion proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury

‘That this Synod request that the Presidents convey to Her Majesty the heartfelt sympathy of the Archbishops, Bishops, Clergy and Laity of the General Synod of the Church of England on the death of His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, assuring Her Majesty of the honour in which his memory will be held by them and of their prayers for Her Majesty and all the Royal Family.’

We then moved straight on to the Presidential Address. Archbishop Stephen spoke to us from his home in York. As I had rightly assumed he addressed us in response to the Panorama exposé on racism in the Church of England. As ever he spoke powerfully and the story with which he concluded, his experience as a Ward Orderly in St Christopher’s Hospice in south London in the early eighties at the time of the Brixton riots was deeply moving. His call for action, to be the change we need to be, was powerful.

This is the prayer I wrote for the Diocese of Southwark for use yesterday, Stephen Lawrence Day. I offer it to you.

‘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.

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.

All done and dusted

This special Session of General Synod is all over. The deed is done and the legislation that was before us for consideration has passed through all its stages. It is really amazing what can be achieved when people focus on the task. But this meeting proved to be much more powerful than appeared when you were simply looking at the agenda.

All done and dusted

We began with Presidential Addresses. The Archbishop of York began and then was followed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Both spoke so powerfully and with honesty. Apologies were made for what had not gone well, there was a commitment to do better. What has gone well was celebrated and the reality was addressed. We will emerge a different church serving a different nation. Nothing will be quite the same. It was that sense of realism, held in the context of belief in the God who is always faithful, that set the tone for all that followed.

There were four stages to the legislative process that would see the elegantly named ‘General Synod (Remote Meetings) (Temporary Standing Orders) Measure achieve final approval and be passed on to Parliament. There was a general debate, then the Revision Stage with all the amendments. Then in the light of that a debate on the hastily written Report from the Steering Committee (written over lunch) and then the Final Approval debate.

So what did we talk about? Well a great many people talked about those who were not in the room. That is often seen as impolite but there was real consciousness of those who had given up their right to be at this meeting of Synod. I was conscious that I was the only Dean present, my fellow Deans had stood aside to allow me to attend so that I was also available to chair. There was an underlying generosity apparent and a graciousness.

Then there was a recognition that passing this Measure did not mean that we did not acknowledge that there is such a thing as digital poverty and inequality in this country. Some members may not own the equipment that they will need, some won’t have superfast broadband (we don’t even have it where I live alongside the Thames in central London!), others are not tech savvy or tech happy. Yet there was also a recognition that meeting electronically will provide better access for those who normally have to leave family to come, or take excessive amounts of unpaid leave in order to be at the Synod.

There was debate in the Revision Stage on two particular issues. The first was around whether or not Article 7 business should be included in the purview of the Measure. Article 7 deals with matters of doctrine, the Canons, our liturgy, those kinds of things. The Measure excluded such business from being able to be considered remotely. There were a lot of people who wanted to amend this to include it. There was suspicion around on all sides that either people were wanting to pull a fast one hoping to get some changes through – such as around the Canons governing the Administration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion – or that if matters of doctrine were dealt with in this way they wouldn’t get the thorough consideration they demand. In the end the amendment was not supported.

The second area of debate was around a ‘sunset clause’. It says in the title that this is ‘Temporary’ but there is no ‘sell by date’ in the Measure itself. So weren’t we in danger of creating something temporary that might become permanent (a bit like the tower space platform in Southwark Cathedral)? Again, it was well debated and then Synod decided to stay with the Measure as it was and reject the amendment, trusting Synodical processes rather than writing everything into the Measure.

The final vote was unanimous in all three Houses (just two abstentions in the House of Laity) and that was a resounding endorsement for what will be a new way of working and decision making.

But one of the final speakers made a sobering point that I hadn’t thought about. We are due to have delayed elections to General Synod next year. We are unlikely to meet in person in February and, if we are being honest and realistic, not in July either. For those of us who might not be reelected next time and those who might not stand again, this may have been the last time we sat in the Synod Chamber. It is a beautiful space and if I don’t get the chance to sit there again I will miss it. And I will particularly miss the text around the dome., I sang it as a young chorister and I read it every time I am there.

Holy is the True Light, and passing wonderful, lending radiance to them that endured in the heat of the conflict, from Christ they inherit a home of unfading splendour, wherein they rejoice with gladness evermore. Alleluia!

There is no other prayer to offer.

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.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015

LIVING GOD

Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark