HAVE YOU EVER stopped to consider who runs the General Synod? Some think it is the Standing Committee. Indeed some members of the Standing Committee think it is the Standing Committee; but if they were to stand accused of running the Synod, the evidence might be hard to come by. Anyway if the Turnbull proposals go through, there won't be a Standing Committee, so it is unlikely that they would be rushing like the Gaderene swine to oblivion.
There are those who think the House of Bishops run the Synod. You could certainly be forgiven for believing that after their performance last July at York. But their power is only negative. Though they can thwart initiatives from the clergy and the laity, they lack the voting strength to force through motions of their own. Lord Bridge tried to correct that in his recent report which recommended tipping the balance of voting members in favour of the Bishops, but he is unlikely to succeed.
Some would say the Archbishops run the Synod. Their powers of patronage are widely credited with securing compliance from middle aged clergy who have abandoned the principled radicalism of youth and fallen under the allure of becoming venerable or very reverend or even right reverend. If Synod gives final approval to the National Institutions Measure, the Archbishops probably will run the Synod (down), but it hasn't happened yet.
The Establishment might say that the Laity run the Synod. They have developed a disturbing habit in recent years of giving the heave-ho to proposals they think their electorate won't wear - and provoked an orchestrated campaign to persuade the Church at large that the Synod is quite unrepresentative. The House of Laity may not be truly representative of the 99% of the church which its members represent, but since the House of Clergy represents the other 1% and the House of Bishops (80% of whom sit ex-officio) represent only themselves, that really is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Friends who are in the know, or think they are, tell me that the Secretary General and his staff run the Synod. After all, who prepares the Committee agendas? Who writes the minutes? Who drafts the reports?
Perhaps it is the Chairmen of the House of Clergy and the House of Laity who run the Synod; if so, we may soon find out. When we resume the debate on extended communion on Tuesday afternoon, the Chairman of the House of Laity, Dr Christina Baxter, is expected to continue her defence of an authentic eucharist. Four years ago, when the issue was last before Synod, the Provost of Portsmouth, speaking on behalf of the Liturgical Commission, made a distinction between the eucharist ("a complete celebration") and extended communion (merely "sacramental communion with the risen Lord"). Will Synod follow the Chairman's urging, or will extended communion get the green light?
The Bishop of Woolwich probably thinks the Prime Minister runs the Synod .- and given time, that view could well be proved correct. We were recently reminded of his role in the process of appointing diocesan bishops and one wonders in whom he might confide when he ponders the names offered to him by the Crown Appointments Commission. Names like Peter Mandelson and Peter Tatchell come to mind, and whilst their New Labour credentials are not in doubt, what quality of spiritual perception and advice might they offer? If the House of Bishops is to be stuffed with Peter clones over the next few years, I think the Lord might have another Peter in mind.
So the February Synod looms. It is a far shorter agenda than we had to plough through in November - only two days' worth in fact. It's a funny thing, but I seem to recall that some years ago Synod voted to cut out the February sessions. There were some folk who, having got themselves elected obviously found it a bit of a drag to come. There were some clergy who presumably suffered withdrawal symptoms when they were away from the parish more than twice a year, and there were some Chairmen of Boards and Councils who clearly disliked the scrutiny of Question Time more often than was absolutely necessary.
There was also a point of view that cutting out a meeting of Synod saved a few pennies, which must be a good thing, even if the Synod wouldn't be able to do its job properly as a result.
In practice February sessions were not held in 1990, 1995 and 1997. In 1990 and 1995 it was the fag end of a quinquennium and so I suppose everyone was tired. But Synod did meet in February in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996 and will meet in 1998.
One gets the distinct impression that when the weight of business in November proves too much to fit into one week or the Establishment simply doesn't want to wait until July to get its legislation through, then February sessions can be arranged. Most members would probably find three groups of sessions a year, each of three or possibly four days, would be much easier to manage than the marathon five day sessions we have had to endure of late. Members might manage to read a higher proportion of the paperwork before they arrive.
But how could Synod streamline its procedures? It would probably help if Synod was allowed to get on with the business it is there for - debating issues, rather than be constantly suspending Standing Orders for "presentations". This time we are to be treated to the Bishop of Ripon giving a presentation on the Government's Education legislation. One really has to ask why.
Nobody would dispute that serious issues are at stake here, but Synod members are not ignorant country bumpkins who come to a delegate conference to be spoon-fed words of wisdom from the Establishment. Are we to assume that in the normal course of events members are incapable of informing themselves of the issues, but that magically ignorance can be dispelled by suspending standing orders at lunchtime and having a presentation? Surely we should come to Synod well appraised of the issues and spend our precious time in the Assembly Hall debating the subject and expressing the mind of the Church. That is after all the job we have been elected to do.
Gerry O'Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents
the diocese of Rochester.
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