Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Reflections on General Synod July 2017 York

This Synod was in many ways a Worcester Synod. Bishop John spoke ( and might have made a decisive contribution to the debate on the welcoming of transgender people), and Sue Adney and Sarah Brush made their maiden speeches - and good they both were too! Robin Lunn and I spoke in debates as well. So with Archdeacon’s Nikki’s game changing contribution to the February debate Worcester is certainly making its voice heard!
Synod “hit the ground running” from the word go with a robust debate about the state of the nation after the inconclusive general election.
Whilst many contributors had passionate feelings about the political situation it is the business of the Church of England to rise above party and try to provide a prophetic voice.
The motion by the Archbishops has been well reported in the press and many considered it to be thin and innocuous. And perhaps it was. But it clearly gave the government the message that the CofE was not fooled by the government’s spin and that it was patently obvious that the nation is confused and uncertain.
The afternoon had started with a very important speech from the Bishop of Tampere in Finland. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, together with those in Norway and Sweden and other Baltic/Scandinavian nations are in communion with the Anglican Communion thanks to the Porvoo Agreement. I believe that there should always, not just occasionally, be a member of the Porvoo Communion present with speaking rights. In fact I feel a Private Members Motion coming on! Bishop Matti Reppo spoke of the fact that “the Church does the Work of God through Liturgy”. As an Anglican I rejoiced and cheered (to myself of course… decorum, please!)
I had met Bishop Matti (when he Executive Secretary for Theology) way back in my first Sabbatical leave in August 2002. It was odd that I should be him again when I am on my second Sabbatical! He is a theological “heavyweight” and, since Finland is more socially conservative than Sweden or Norway, has much to share with England over issues of Christian anthropology. I think he should be invited to be part of the Episcopal Teaching Document on Human Sexuality process. The links with Finland go deep. And we have no theologians of weight on General Synod, much to our disadvantage.
It was also appropriate that we had a Scottish Bishop - John Armes of Edinburgh. The Scottish Episcopal Church - our sister Church - has just agreed that same sex marriages can be performed. It was this Bishop who had proposed the motion. Considering our agenda this was timely.
So the truly momentous votes to ban conversion therapy and to actively and positively welcome those who have undergone gender transition are set against slow return of the Anglican voice long shouted down by anger/fear-led theologies from catholic, evangelical and liberal (oh yes!)  wings of the CofE. These are exciting times!
So what did we achieve?
  • agreed that Conversion Therapy (using counselling techniques to try and change someone’s sexual orientation) should be banned as wrong and, indeed, potentially abusing.
  • those who had changed gender should be unambiguously welcomed and the House of Bishops was asked to give consideration to providing appropriate liturgical material to mark and celebrate transition.
  • Took time to explore by a presentation and in group work how the national church institutions can help local churches in parish, chaplaincies, schools, workplaces etc. This is a very important piece of work and looked at
    • a) Thy Kingdom Come b) Life Events c) Digital Evangelism d) National events as opportunities for community witness e) Inclusion and Outreach to the marginalised f) Crossing the Generations.
    • Noted the importance of the Presence and Engagement interfaith programme for the many parishes who has significant numbers of folk of other religions making up their populations. This was a very positive and heartening discussion as much good work is going on.
    • We provided a sensible canon to allow clergy - after due consultation and agreement - to dispense with traditional vestments at services if this furthers the mission of the Church. It is NOT permission for clergy to wear what they like and I shall be glad to continue wearing vestments!
    • We also regularised two situations that have been fact for many decades. It is a very long time indeed that the CofE refused the burial of the unbaptised or of those who commit suicide. The rules have now been amended to reflect the pastoral reality. Please do not think that this is some change … it’s been the case for probably 2 if not 3 generations!
  • There was a report on the progress of the House of Clergy Covenant for Clergy Wellbeing. This is something we will be returning to over the next Synods
  • We heard about appointments to the Crown Nominations Commission which recommends the new Bishop when a diocese is vacant. After the Sheffield debacle this was important. There is a real desire to see a wide range of views represented whilst acknowledging that there are always limits to how that might be successful
  • We also looked at how General Synod reps are elected and after a presentation of the options we filled in a survey of possibilities. We shall see what emerges. The introduction of online voting is now well advanced and will be the methods used for the next Synod. Alternative arrangements will be in place for those without internet access.
  • We passed a Private Members Motion asking government to give those who live in tied accommodation like clergy and farm workers the ability to get a place in the queue for school places for their children before they have taken up residence because they cannot choose where they live in order to fulfill their work. This was not giving an unfair advantage - simply an even playing field across the country.
  • Synod approved without any votes against or abstentions to urge the government to reduce the charges on those eligible to live in the UK who want to become British citizens. In can cost thousands of pounds. In Belgium it’s less than £200. The poorest are hit worst, as always and causes real harm to vulnerable people.
  • We were given an explanation of the Archbishops’ Council Budget for 2018. Here are the headline figures:
Table 2: Gross Expenditure 2017-2020
Budget     Forecast
Illustrative Forecast
2019              2020
Training for Ministry
14.7                     14.3
Clergy Retirement Housing
4.6                      4.6
National Church Responsibilities
18.4                   19.2
Grand Total
37.7                    38
Increase on previous year


This was a good tempered but robust General Synod which achieved a lot and I came home with renewed hope and enthusiasm!  It  appears from the media  that the very conservative minority are very unhappy with the output of this Synod but my experience was of a positive, faith affirming Synod that wants to move forward on as broad a front as possible. Whether those of the various pressure groups of the  ‘Reform’, ‘Mainstream’ ‘Forward in Faith’ and ‘Gafcon’ flavours will be happy remains to be seen. Outputs are clear. Outcomes take longer!

Wyn Beynon   

July 2017