From Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate to The Shambles
Do you remember the poster with the little girl asking her father, ‘What did you do in the war, Daddy?’ Perhaps, like me, you’re not old enough to remember it, but there is something of the same genre when you come home from a marathon five days of General Synod at York.
When you get to church on Sunday, it is as though you have stepped into another world. People are incredulous that we went to York to receive a greeting from the Reformed Church of France, to debate the Agenda and to note a report from the Ethical Investment Advisory Group. ‘Are we really paying all this money,’ they ask, ‘for you to sit through presentations from Christian Aid and the Council for Christian Unity and then sit through an attempt to resurrect the Liturgical Commission to produce additional collects. It’s not as though we haven’t got more than enough already and we never use the ones we’ve got. How much did you say this Liturgical Commission costs?’
It is not that hard to lampoon the General Synod, is it? But the serious question is, what is the alternative? We talk about the Church being episcopally led but synodically governed. That implies a significant role for laity and clergy, as well as input from the Bishops – and the Synod is the mechanism we employ to provide this lay and clerical input. Cut it down, or take it away and you are left with rule by decree from the House of Bishops. If you wonder what that might be like, just take a look at the Muslims or the Roman Catholics. There the faithful, like children of old, are to be seen but not heard.
A bridge too far
This helps to explain why Synod spent Tuesday morning debating proposals from the Bridge Follow Up Group. The Bridge Report was the one that recommended abolishing Deanery Synods and having Synodical Electors in parishes to form the electorate for General Synod. It was one of those ill-conceived disasters that incurred displeasure in all quarters and narrowly escaped being strangled at birth. However the Follow Up Group had sought to salvage some supposedly ‘non-controversial’ proposals, including the restructuring of the General Synod.
The debate degenerated into a total shambles, but amazingly came up with a reasonably satisfactory outcome (more by serendipity than planning). The Chairman, Anthony Archer, structured the debate in a most bizarre way. We normally have a general debate, during which the movers of amendments speak to their amendments but do not move them. When we have heard all the arguments, we take the amendments in fairly quick succession at the end.
In this case Mr Archer decided we should take each amendment in turn, debate it and vote on it. This meant that it was impossible to consider any of the amendments in the context of the debate on the others. We were immediately bounced into retaining all the Suffragan Bishops on the strength of an entertaining speech from the Bishop of Wonderland (sorry, Woolwich), without hearing any of the arguments about whether we should change the numbers of Deans or Archdeacons. In the event most of the amendments were passed, so the size of Synod will basically be unchanged except for a dramatic reduction in the number of Archdeacons who will be reduced from over 50 to single figures. Archdeacon Judith Rose, who was proposing the main motion, succeeded in ensuring that she would have little chance of being re-elected to Synod, even if she were not planning to retire. A classic own-goal if ever there was.
As the debate progressed the Chairman seemed increasingly to lose his grip on the situation. In the end I was called to speak on an amendment from Brian McHenry, the vice-Chairman of the House of Laity, about the size of the future House of Laity. I was given not ten minutes, not five minutes, not even three minutes, but two. How can you possibly have a sensible discussion in soundbites?
I suppose you could describe the total disorganization as something akin to prizegiving at St Trinians, with the Chairman in the role of the Headteacher and the mover of the motion as the guest speaker. It never ceases to amaze me how in the secular world we always demand competence and efficiency but seem quite ready to accept shambolic amateurism in the Church.
There were some serious issues to address. First of all, the reductions proposed in the size of the Synod would not have saved much money (about the cost of one suffragan bishop). They were proposed on the specious grounds that a size of under 500 seemed about right, without any regard to how Synod is supposed to function. You can’t simply reduce the size of the legislature, but leave all the Committees, Boards, Councils and Working Parties intact – unless, of course, you want to staff them with appointees rather than elected Synod members.
I was concerned that if a diocese was to elect say four lay members rather than six, we need to look before we leap and ask which two of the six we currently have might not have secured election with the proposed reduced representation. We could easily have rerun the 2000 Elections through the computer again, but that hadn’t been done. It seems likely to me that the ‘big noises’ would probably be elected anyway, and that the people who would lose out would be the young, the less well known, the ethnic minorities – in short the very people who we most want to encourage to be there. In fact, it is the larger dioceses which tend to elect most of the ethnic minority members. It is far easier to achieve a quota of 12.5% in a seven member constituency than to achieve one of 25% in a three member constituency.
I’m gratified that Synod agreed with me, even without hearing the full argument.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.
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