Donner und blitzen

George Austin attended last month's session of General Synod in York and listened to the debates on the future reductions in clergy pensions the Anglican Covenant and the Pilling Report on senior appointments

It is more than twenty years ago that Synods York meeting was marred by the news that on Sunday evening lightning had struck York Minster, destroying the roof of the south transept. Having been consecrated bishop there a couple of days before, poor David Jenkins had to bear the blame for possible divine intervention. Or could it have been the fact that Synod members worshipped there that very morning?

Now as thunder rumbled above the Conference Hall at the opening of the Sunday afternoon debate at the York Synod, sounding like the battle of the Somme, were members to face that same judgement from above? Not that there was much reason for it in the rather tame debates I sat through.

One old Synod hand had warned me that the cutback in numbers of Synod members had damaged the quality of debate. Whether numbers are the reason for decline is questionable, for it could be (and some say is) because Synod is now much more in the hands of the Archbishops' Council in its process of decision-making.

Pensions debate

The Saturday debate on Clergy Pensions was of concern to all clergy, serving and retired, and it was clear from the start that it was going through regardless of any doubts expressed either in speeches or in amendments, and despite concerns about the differentials which will be created in amounts of pension received by present recipients and new ones and about the amount provided for equity-sharing mortgages in the CHARM scheme.

This had been held at a maximum of 125,000 and, in acknowledgement of the problem, it has been raised to 150,000. As one speaker from the diocese of Blackburn pointed out, this would be enough to help buy a small house in Burnley, so there is some hope for those in need. Though perhaps not much.

As with other institutions, the Church is facing great problems meeting its pensions responsibilities and no one doubts that the present proposals are an attempt to deal with this. But the manner in which they appeared to be steam-rollered through the Synod with some questions unanswered made me uneasy.

Will current pensioners really find the basis of their pension provisions unchanged? Is it, as one speaker asked, right to take away from pensioners to pay for other demands in the Church such as 'mission initiatives'? Clearly not, but no reply was forthcoming. And would such an action be allowed in non-charitable bodies, either legally or against union pressure?

And is it really the case that the majority of pensioners support the changes?

It was far from so at the recent AGM of the Retired Clergy Association, where the criticism was vigorous and almost unanimous. Yet it was obvious from the start that the motion would go through as it stood.

The Anglican Covenant

Sunday tends to be reserved for debates on matters of theology and mission, and this year it was for the report on The Anglican Covenant. Its importance was underlined by the fact that Archbishop Drexel Gomez was invited to give the introduction. It was during his speech that thunder reverberated around the hall for several minutes to the delight of those in the Press Gallery with memories of 1984.

The archbishop pointed out that the Covenant came before Synod at what he described as 'a time of great tension in the Anglican Communion' and no one could dispute that. Even in the last three years since the Windsor Report 'there is less trust now between different parties and different provinces' 'The language,' he went on, 'has become more strident, and, quite frankly, scare-mongering is commonplace.'

The Report, introduced by the Bishop of Chichester, is full and well argued, ending with a draft of the proposed Covenant. The affirmation at its beginning is identical to the Declaration of Assent made by the clergy and the commitment to confession of the faith is one to which no orthodox Anglican, Catholic or Evangelical, could dissent. It would not surprise anyone that annexed to the Report was a 24-page document of dissent from the Modern Churchpersons Union.

There were amendments proposed that were certain to be defeated, but with one exception: a request for a response from the Covenant Design Group to be drawn up and brought back to the Synod at the next group of sessions. But the Archbishops' Council now have a little cupboard containing suitable synodical emetics -in this case setting out the 50,000 cost of such an exercise - to be produced so that motions may be passed smoothly and without strain.

Appointments

The best debate of the three was undoubtedly that of Monday afternoon, Talent and Calling, reviewing 'the law and practice regarding appointments to the offices of suffragan bishop, dean, archdeacon and residentiary canon.'

For clergy in their dotage (like me), it was a little difficult to tune into the new age of advertisements, applications and the rest - forty years ago, to apply for a job would have meant immediate exclusion from consideration, and vocation meant not just a calling to the priesthood but a readiness to wait for an invitation to consider any particular vacancy. However, times have changed and techniques need to be produced or adapted to meet those changes.

It was a fortunate coincidence that on his first day in office Gordon Brown had listed a number of intentions, of which the first was to end the Prime Minister's involvement in Church appointments, but without disestablishing the Church. From now on, the PM will simply recommend to the Queen the person nominated by the Crown Nominations Committee, rather than demanding two names from which the choice (or not) would be his.

It was in 1215 that King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, whose first clause granted freedom to the Church in England. Centuries later, in 1974 at a York meeting of the Synod, a motion was passed 'affirming the principle that the appointment of diocesan bishops should be that of the Church, and as a result of this the Crown Appointment Committee was established. In 2001, a review group chaired by Baroness Perry presented its findings, in a report that was one of the most scathing ever to come to the Synod.

Those of us who had served on the Commission were astonished and delighted at its frankness and accuracy, and its effect is said to have produced a more accountable and acceptable method of working. One result was that the name has been changed to Crown Nominations Commission, thus avoiding the necessity (common in the time of my membership in the early Nineties) of giving headmas-terly reminders to the members that they do not appoint but rather nominate.

However, even as a former member of the Commission, I was surprised to learn from this report that no priest can be included in any preferment list without his bishops support. Members of the Commission can of course put in names for consideration when a particular diocese is under consideration, but if the candidate is rejected - even if he was first or second choice - he does not remain on the list.

Under-representation

Now clergy who read New Directions are unlikely ever to be considered for bishop, archdeacon or dean, but there was one section of the report which is as fierce as anything in the Perry Report - that detailing the under-representation among such appointments of conservative evangelicals and traditional Catholics.

It is nothing new: ten years ago in the Crockford Preface, Canon Gareth Bennett drew attention to the preponderance of liberals with an Oxbridge and Westcott/ Cuddesdon background in such appointments during the Runcie primacy. Since the ordination of women, the situation is much worse - worse because the 1993 Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod, passed unanimously by the House of Bishops and by overwhelming majorities in the other two houses, declared that 'no person or body shall discriminate against candidates for ordination or for senior office' on the grounds of their views on the ordination of women.

The Report points out that since 1994 only two - yes, two! - diocesan bishops who themselves are prepared to ordain women have nominated suffragans who do not: Exeter and Manchester (when at Wakefield). Of the 43 deans, 121 archdeacons and 140 residentiary canons, perhaps as few as 10 out of 304 have been appointed from our constituency. Even some who have become residentiary canons are mainly among those appointed by the Crown, now perceived as being fairer than the majority of diocesan bishops.

As an aid to changing this discriminatory practice, the Report suggests that the preferment list should indicate which of those on it are traditional Catholics, and that bishops should act positively to end the present unfairness.

Trust

It was this that produced the most unpleasant moment of the debate. The Revd Paul Collier of Southwark (where else?) supported by Christina Rees (who else?) of St Albans proposed an amendment to omit clauses from the recommendations that enshrined these suggestions. In other debates at this July group of sessions, Synod supported motions in favour of ethnic minorities and the disabled, but it is clear that for liberal fundamentalists, non-discrimination does not extend to the orthodox. Much as I love the Church of England, there are times when I am ashamed to be a member. It is little wonder that the Anglican Communion needs the Covenant.

So what stands out from the York 2007 Synod? Probably the word 'trust'. In the matter of pensions, can we trust the Archbishops' Council or will money be taken from pensioners and used for other purposes? On the Covenant, can we trust provinces dominated by the liberal extreme to keep to its provisions? And on appointments, can bishops now ever be trusted to end that kind of discrimination? The trouble is that when trust has once been broken, it can be forgiven. But it can never be restored.

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