That Time Of Year Again
William Davageattends the latest meeting of the General Synod
Anglo-Catholics have had an ambivalent relationship with the General Synod. John Henry Newman thought that the Oxford Movement began with the Assize Sermon of John Keble, in which Keble argued that the Church as a divine society could not be subject to the secular law: that the Church must have control of its own affairs. The Gorham Judgement in 1851 and the fallout of the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874 – where the secular courts purported to define the doctrine of the Church and regulate its rites and ceremonies – were milestones in that underlying conflict. Another was the rejection by the House of Commons of the proposed 1928 Prayer Book. Against that background the revival of the Church Assembly and the inauguration of the General Synod could have been seen as the answer to Anglo-Catholic prayers. However, once a legislative assembly was in existence, it acquired the inconvenient habit of developing a bureaucratic administrative structure that overwhelms the Church’s polity and a quasi-democratic legislature that has accrued powers over doctrine and practice which have seen it move from a body that proffers advice to the Bishops to one that, some believe, has power over the successors of the Apostles. Too often the bishops appear to be afraid to exercise their own legitimate power,
and to be in thrall to the more inflated
claims made for the Synod.
Maintenance of the Faith
The present Synod, inaugurated last
November, met in February. It was the first opportunity to see in operation the new Elizabethan Settlement over women in the episcopate. Had peace broken out? Not entirely. The preliminary discussion on the simplification exercise, introduced by the Bishop of Willesden, was politely savaged by several members with ‘shots across the bows’. Bishop ‘Pete’ discarded his faded denim jacket to introduce the Report. The sartorial cliché ditched, he employed instead a number of others from the lexicon: ‘reverse decline ... renew the Church ... grassroots mission and ministry ... fit for purpose ... subsidiarity ... diversity ... flexibility’, all in the name of simplification. He showed support for parish priests by advocating redundancy provisions because ‘we cannot allow priests a meal ticket for life.’ He also proposed another assault on private patronage by abolishing the provision where a vacancy lapses to the metropolitan if the patron fails to present within nine months. More power to the diocesan bishop, and an unwarranted abdication of the archbishop’s responsibilities, which are important if the parish and bishop disagree. When Fr Paul Benfield (following two contributions from members of the Church Pastoral Aid Society) signalled opposition from the Society for the Maintenance of the Faith, Bishop ‘Pete’ struck his forehead in mock horror. Simplicity may not be as simple as the powers that be would wish.
E pluribus unum?
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Presidential Address reported on the Primates’ gathering earlier in the year. Unprepossessing in appearance, he speaks fluently, scripted and ad-lib. He began
badly with two mis-timed and poorly delivered jokes eliciting only dutiful titters. He further undermined the seriousness of his report by complaining about the press coverage and its unwarranted spin. He would have been better advised to give his version (his own spin) without that preliminary. Nor do I ever find the defence ‘unity in diversity’ convincing. The formula masks irreconcilable difference; an institution that cannot speak with one voice, and which lacks any moral, political or persuasive authority. But then I have never understood the attraction of the Anglican Communion: an expensive talking shop. His section about the loan of a part of the crozier given by St Gregory the Great to St Augustine was placed in the context of ‘according to the Roman tradition’: an ill-judged aside. His characterisation of post Reformation history, order, and doctrine, raised more questions than it provided explanations of the outcome of the meeting.
Revenge of the Scots
The Columba Declaration with the Church of Scotland seems to have taken everyone by surprise, not least the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC). It may be a shadow of its former self (rather like the Church of England, based on its most recent attendance
statistics) but it seems to have been
discourtesy,stitched-up like a capon – at least that
t bureaucracyHowever, we were told yet again that
early and inaccurate reporting had resulted in ‘misunderstandings’. So numerous were the apologies to the SEC, and so painstaking the narrative, that an impartial observer might suspect that the press had not been far wrong. There was a palpable sense of scrabbling to cover or explain away a mixture of discourtesy, ignorance, forgetfulness, tunnel-vision, and inept bureaucracy (so much for a ‘sister church of the Anglican Communion’).
The SEC was smothered in honeyed words of apology and assurance. Yet the original motion to welcome the Declaration and Columba Agreement had to be amended (proposed by the Bishop of Truro) to add a clause recognising the ‘valued relationship with the SEC ... [and] request the Council for Christian Unity to ensure that the SEC is invited to appoint a representative to attend meetings of the Contact Group’. A wrecking amendment (the revenge of the Piskies) was ably moved by Mark Russell of the Church Army, and trenchantly supported by Andrew Foreshew-Cain in the best speech I heard over two days. He ‘outed’ himself as a ‘proud Episcopalian’ and, although he attributed the mess to ‘cock-up rather than conspiracy’, commented on the rudeness and discourtesy meted out to the SEC, and argued that it was disingenuous to say it was merely one State Church talking to another. His speech gained the loudest and most sustained applause but did not prevail. The Chairman declared the amendment ‘clearly’ lost. From my seat the vote looked close enough to warrant a ballot. The motion as amended was passed by 243 to 50 with 49 abstentions.ND
The Revd William Davage is a former Priest Librarian
of Pusey House.