A parliament of fools

David Nichol despairs of General Synod after listening to one of its minor debates and finding nothing but an obsession with supposed justice

Like those who are tennis fans only during Wimbledon fortnight, I find I am interested in the debates at General Synod only when they concern the women bishops legislation or ARCIC material. For the rest of the time I, like so many others, do no more than note what has been decided, without any desire to listen to what was said, nor concern myself with how the final form of legislation was reached.

It can easily happen, therefore, that we Wimbledon-style watchers of Synod can be horrified, shocked and dismayed by the apparent brutality of some of the key debates, the shamefully weak quality of many of the interventions, and the cavalier disregard for the authority of bishops (even when the debate is about the integrity of the bishops of the Church of England).

What is this bear pit? this failed copy of Westminster? this outrageous parliament of fools? And where do these grotesque debates come from? I now know – and it is knowledge that only saddens me further.

I thought the key debates were bad because of the great tension, the high stakes, the intense emotion involved, but that somehow ordinary bread and butter debate and legislation would be standardly dull, orderly and practical.

True, they may not show the same tension and emotion, but for sheer stupidity and ignorance, they yield nothing to their more dramatic elder brothers. If you want to hear how not to run a church, then listen to one of these. Let me share with you the example that has sickened me recently. By ‘recently’ I mean last July.

A ‘justice issue’

We have a married couple ministering in our parish – a priest and deacon – who share a single stipend, and share the work. We are not stupid, you know; we can tell the difference! And while a deacon cannot do everything that a priest can, she can do a great deal, and a great deal besides that benefits from a woman’s sympathy and experience.

With the other jobs they do on a diocesan level, we do not always feel they are well treated. So a debate on ‘Job Sharing in Ordained Parochial Ministry’ seemed worth listening to. You can find it on <http://audio. cofemedia.org.uk/synod/july2010/ Jul1020.mp3>.

It came from a diocesan synod motion, from Bath & Wells, and was introduced by a Mr Tim Hind. In a speech that seemed little more than a catena of non sequiturs, it became clear that this was about one couple (as if by coincidence in the Diocese of Bath & Wells) who are unable both to be ‘vicar’ of the parish in which they serve. This was, and your heart sinks when you hear it, a Justice Issue.

A steady stream of individuals rose to share their experiences and to outbid each other in their support and generosity, including a clergy husband only too happy to reminisce about the early days, when clergy couples were sufficiently exotic to be interviewed on GMTV, and how they had heroically struggled against suspicion and misunderstanding.

A clear explanation

Interspersed between these implicit and explicit references to Bob the Builder and Barak Obama’s ‘Yes we can’, were more measured, thought-out, argued and informative interventions, elucidating the constraints on this brave new world of justice and equality.

The Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, who chaired the group that produced the official CofE document ‘Clergy Couples Guidance’, explained clearly and carefully why the simple demand of justice was not as simple as supposed. Under current legislation, job-sharing cannot be advertised only to married couples, nor can it avoid the consequences of divorce for those who are.

Vicars are not employees; they are office-holders. It is not merely obduracy, he explained, that does not at present allow the freehold of a parsonage house to be held by one person for three and a half days each week and by another person, who need not be married to the first, for the other three and a half days. In the end, there is hierarchy in the Church and this is unavoidable. Being a priest is not like being a teacher; it is not merely a job, like any other.

Advice ignored

Did they listen? Of course not. Speakers continued to explain how job-sharing worked among teachers, and complained that ‘we still lag behind the secular world’. Why did the Deployment, Remuneration, and Conditions of Service Committee of the Archbishops’ Council ever bother to do its work?

Norman Russell, Archdeacon of Berkshire, offered his wisdom and advice, and was ignored. The Archbishop of York pleaded for sanity, and was ignored. A lay woman from Derby had the courage to question the Pollyanna vision of clergy couples – good for her – and was ignored.

In the end Justice, once stated and asserted, had to prevail, and a motion was passed, setting aside funds to ensure that a legal process be found, so that a single parish can have two vicars, in such a manner that (in the traditional language) none is afore or after other, none is greater or less than another, but co-equal together.

These are they whom we elect. One can only weep. ND

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