Weaving the threads

The Archbishops had decided that before the Synod was Prorogued we should have an opportunity to debate ‘The State of the Nation’.  Synod members often complain that we can never have a timely debate, that the agenda is set so far in advance that there is no space to respond to the events that are happening as we are meeting.  There were no complaints on this occasion!

Threads

We weave the threads

For those unfamiliar with the layout of Westminster, the Abbey alongside which Dean’s Yard is located in which stands Church House, is on the opposite side of the road to the Palace of Westminster where the Houses of Parliament are.  On the other side of the road in Parliament Square is the Supreme Court.  Downing Street is just a short walk away and along Birdcage Walk and through St James’ Park is Buckingham Palace.  The Synod meets at the heart of national life and so it was the perfect location to have this debate.

What was so interesting though was that this debate on the nation was a weaving together of the strands of the whole of this Group of Sessions.  Forget the legislative business that we had to plough through; the rest of the Synod was about some of the elements that would make up any debate about the state that we find ourselves in as a nation.  We talked about the environment; we talked about racism and how it affects travellers, gypsies and the Roma people.  We talked about children and young people.  We talked about life on our hard pressed and maginalised estates.  We talked about the pernicious effect of advertising and gambling.  All these threads could have been left hanging, like at the back of a badly finished piece of tapestry.  But they weren’t.

This really measured and thoughtful and intelligent debate brought all of these strands together because they are all symptomatic of the challenges that our nation faces.  One speaker talked of the demons of liberal democracy and the dark side of something which in many ways has delivered so much.  The Bishop of Bristol spoke passionately and movingly about Swindon, part of her diocese, and the effect of the proposed closure of the Honda factory on so many ordinary people.  Others spoke about the need for hospitality.  Someone talked of creating a ‘counter-narrative of hope’ which could be spoken into our communities. The Bishop of Coventry spoke movingly of the effect our decision to Brexit will have on the ordinary people of Europe with whom we have unbreakable bonds.

But it was the Bishop of Chelmsford who really captured the mood, speaking of the Beatitudes in St Matthew’s Gospel and homing in on one in particular

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ (Matthew 5.3)

He said that what Jesus was pointing to here were those who realised that they didn’t have all the answers, those who weren’t self reliant, those who knew their need of God and their neighbour and he called on us to have a new humility, as a church and as a nation, and to see beyond our opinion of our own riches.  It was a powerful point and I fear I haven’t done him justice in reporting it.  But this is a debate to read when the Report of Synod is published.

The call was of course to pray, every day, all the time for our elected representatives, for the Government and Parliament and to commit ourselves to doing this.  But the whole Synod was a real encouragement to re-engage with those communities from which we have become seperated, it was a call back to ‘our first love’ to the mission of God, in the world, for the world, in this nation for this nation.

The threads were joined, tied off and neatened.  Then like the artist we turn the work around at look at the ‘good side’, the image that has been created.  When we join these threads we see the face of Christ and we see the kingdom of God.  The Archbishop of Canterbury began the Synod reminding us that ‘We can’t talk about Jesus without looking like Jesus’.  The tapestry reveals the face and we have been sent out to speak ‘the language of love more fluently’.  The work begins, revealing Jesus and kingdom values to the nation and to the communities in which the church is set, as the pearl in the field.

This was the Brexit Prayer that I wrote for all the cathedrals to use.  Please continue to pray it with us.

God of reconciling hope,
as you guided your people in the past
guide us through the turmoil of the present time
and bring us to that place of flourishing
where our unity can be restored,
the common good served
and all shall be made well.
In the name of Jesus we pray.
Amen.

Seizing the moment

A Group of Sessions (a meeting of the General Synod) would normally begin, after some formal introductions, with a debate on the Report of the Business Committee.  Often the questions following the presentation of that report will involve members standing up and asking why such and such, which was in the news, was not included in the agenda.  The Chair of the Business Committee normally then explains that there wasn’t time and that the Business Committee would give the request consideration for a later meeting.  So this gathering in York was unusual for two reasons – the Business Committee Report came long after Synod had begun and time had been made for an emergency debate.

I was absolutely delighted when we were told that the Presidents of the Synod (the two archbishops) had come to the decision that we should debate the EU Referendum.  My big fear was that we would go through the same debate again – ‘Why isn’t the Referendum on the agenda?’, ‘Because there isn’t time’.  What would make it worse is that this would then be reported alongside the fact that we are spending two days, in purdah, talking about human (which in church speak means ‘homo’) sexuality.  ‘Church of England talks about sex (again) whilst nation is in turmoil’ could have been the headline.

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The fact of the matter is that we are the Established Church and whatever else that means it means, in my book, that we have a care for every person in England and that extends far beyond their spiritual needs.  It means that we have a priest living in every community in this country, that we know what it is like on the ground, in the streets and we have people who can reflect that back to us.  We are in a privileged position and so we have a duty to respond to the political, economic and social situation that we now find ourselves in – we have to seize the moment.

The risk was, of course, that the debate could have been just a bunch of ‘pinko liberals’ standing up and whinging about the result because they weren’t on the winning side!  I’m glad to say it wasn’t like that at all.  The Archbishop of Canterbury introduced the debate and set the tone, saying very clearly that we are where we are and that, whilst we are  leaving the EU we will never leave Europe.

One great speech came from the Bishop in Europe.  That diocese, part of the Church of England, extends across the continent and covers countries not in the EU but all those that do.  The Bishop spoke powerfully of congregations in Belgium where he lives and members of those congregations, ex-pats, who have given their professional careers to working to help create all that is good in the EU, being reduced to tears as they worshipped.  He also spoke about the millions of our fellow countrymen and women who have moved overseas for their retirement to enjoy the weather and lifestyle that so many countries offer and are now in fear and confusion.

Those who spoke in the debate raised powerful issues and it was good to hear from one priest from Hartlepool who explained why the people he works and lives with voted as they did, to leave, because they felt that over the last 40 years they have lost so much and gained so little.

I was proud to be a member of such a Synod that could speak so well and so carefully on an issue that is dividing us and to speak of the work of reconciliation that we can help with.  ++Justin warned the Synod that the church will have a great deal of work to do as we help the nation with vision and values as we build the kind of outward looking, generous, hospitable, inclusive, welcoming community that we believe God calls us to be.

So after an hour and a half of that debate the timed agenda was now something of a fiction.  As you know, I’m now a member of the Panel of Chairs and so behind the scenes there was constant conversation about how we were to manage the timings for the rest of the day.  But we did it and the day ended with me chairing ‘Questions’ for the first time.  I was initially nervous and at the end exhausted – but it was great fun and that bell, to bring people to order, is a powerful weapon (maybe something I should have at Chapter meetings!).

It’s now Day Two and we are shortly due back in the Chamber.  Today is basically about legislation – certainly in the morning.  Interesting among that is the Draft Amending Canon No. 36 which makes its first appearance.  This is the one that addresses the ‘vesture of ordained and authorized ministers during the time of divine service’. We know that many people break Canon Law every Sunday when they don’t wear customary vesture.  But the church lives with that because we are a broad church and we come from a variety of tradition backgrounds. But at the moment there is a norm and the proposal is that this should go.  Instead it will be for the discretion of the minister who will make the judgment about what to wear to ‘benefit the mission of the Church in the parish.’

Vest

‘Will these benefit our mission?’

 

Now I know that I’m never knowingly underdressed in church, but then I am in a Cathedral and I am catholic in tradition and I do believe that liturgy is missional in its awe inspiring majesty and its life changing mystery so you would expect me to say this.  But at the moment I don’t think I can support this proposal.  Apart from the idea of abandoning the norm I think we create a hostage to fortune when in the legislation it says of what people should wear that it ‘must be seemly’.  The dictionary says that this means

Conforming to accepted notions of propriety or good taste.

I don’t know what that means in contemporary society.  And what does it mean at All Age Worship, Messy Church or Evening Worship? Who says what’s seemly? And I see huge gender discrimination looming because St Paul does mention what is seemly for women to wear in 1 Timothy 2 but not the men! Will the same standards be applied to ordained or licensed women and men?

There are more reasons as well – about what it means to be Anglican, a member and minister of the Church of England as well as the tradition that we are in.  But it will be interesting to see what is raised in this debate.

As ever, I turn to George Herbert for some wisdom on all of this.  In his poem ‘Aaron’ he begins with these words

HOLINESS on the head,
Light and perfection on the breast,
Harmonious bells below raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest.
Thus are true Aarons drest.

As the holy, priestly people of God St Paul has a good word for us

‘Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Romans 13.14)

The clothes that we wore in the EU debate where of justice, mercy and peace, we were clothed with Christ, perhaps this is the true vesture of the whole people of God.

Lord,
grace us
that we may truly be your church in this land,
clothed in justice, mercy and peace.
Amen.

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