General Synod: The Highs & Lows

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester


The General Synod of the Church of England, which I’ve been attending most of this last week, is a body that attracts its fair share of criticism. Its internal debates can seem far away from the reality of normal church life, let alone the lives we live in our neighbourhoods and communities. And when it turns its hand to commenting on matters of public concern, the queue of members lining up to repeat exactly the same points that several previous speakers have made, but simply with their own personal anecdotes, soon becomes woefully tedious. However, it can also be a place where decisions are made that provide both a moral underpinning and a structured framework for the mission and ministry to which we believe God has called us.

 In those respects, this Synod was like most synods.

The draft Cathedrals Measure may not sound the most exciting piece of business ever thought of, and the details of what we agreed at its Revision Stage need not detain us, rather it was an example of what a good legislative process looks like. A complex and interconnected series of recommendations, given a fair wind by Synod last year, had been subject to thorough scrutiny, involving all the major stakeholder groups, and only then brought back for us to revise. The care with which the work had been done outside the chamber, and not only in the formal meetings of the Revision Committee, made our task far more straightforward. Voices had clearly been heard, and there had been none of the preciousness that can lead to a proposed change being rejected simply because it stands at variance with the original proposals. Cathedrals are a vital part of our life, showcasing what the Church of England can do, and working closely with the cities in which they stand. A good legal framework will help then to flourish and serve us in the years ahead.

We also had a good and important debate about Safeguarding. Not only were we able to show the progress being made against the five specific recommendations put to us so far by IICSA, we also got to see the incoming lead bishop in action, presenting an overwhelmingly supported amendment that commits us to a deeper engagement with survivors, and to backing up our words with action. As with cathedrals, the key to doing well will be working together, with all parties fully involved both within and beyond formal meetings. I look forward to taking part in something that won’t be without pain and struggle but which can get us all to a better place. We will do the work before deciding the results.

And then the careful work, led and presented by the former Bishop of London, into where exactly the Channel Islands fitinto our structures, showed equal diligence in spending time and effort, over several years, in bringing all the interested parties to a common and agreed mind. What could have been a messy piece of legislation, with all its stages required over four consecutive days, passed smoothly on its way.

My hopes for the Living in Love and Faith process, for which we received a short update on progress and a slightly oddly structured Q&A session, lie chiefly in that unlike previous expeditions into the territory of relationships, identity and sexuality, there has been a deep involvement, both formally and informally, with the rich diversity of scholarship, science and human experience contained within our Church. However, the nature of the exercise has meant that whilst consultation has ranged very widely, draft texts have not been circulated for comment beyond the group itself and the bishops. That inevitably means that there are levels of both fear and suspicion among Synod members, lest the published document be judged slanted in either a conservative or liberal direction. Hence, I believe that the big challenge, for both the team writing the LLF document and those of us in the House of Bishops who will see the next draft in March, is to affirm our diversity in words that will allow all us in the Church to see that we are being offered space to live and flourish, alongside those with whom we disagree deeply, in one body. The book won’t mandate a particular change programme, but it must resource and support us in forming the change proposals we will need, within a fixed time frame. And that process will need to be open and transparent.

The less satisfactory aspects of Synod were where we departed from that methodology of doing careful and inclusive work beforehand, seeking to find and build the best consensus, before then presenting matters to Synod.

I’d hoped theEnvironment debatewould be a highlight, and in some ways it was. We heard passionate pleas for the Church to work to eliminate its carbon footprint. My one speech in the chamber this time was to support an amendment from the chair of the Finance Committee to set up the structures we will need to produce robust intermediate targets, identify specific solutions and oversee the work well. The crucial issue of selecting the year by which all this will be achieved was moved from a perhaps under-ambitious 2045 to a date of 2030. Whatever ones views on the urgency of the climate crisis, it felt unsatisfactory that this was achieved through an amendment which was decided after less than ten minutes debate, by a majority of 15, with a turnout that meant fewer than a third of Synod members voted in favour of it. Many, I suspect, were caught in the tea room, not having expected a close vote. 2030 maybe the right year, but the process felt flawed. Something that is too often the case with matters we decide at a single sitting.

Finally, to Question Time. At its best this is a highlight of Synod, and the move to having initial answers written has given space for more questions to be asked and more supplementaries to be put. It should be where chairs of committees and councils, who are often senior bishops, are held to account for the work the bodies they lead are doing. Sadly (indeed, I’d go further and say shamefully) it seems of late to be evolving into more of a blood sport. The aim of some questioners is at best to score partisan points and at worst to inflict maximum damage on the person put up to answer. We need accountability from our leaders, but we need to hold ourselves accountable for the way in which we exercise that accountability. Unless the minority who are presently abusing Question Time can curb their behaviour, it must be in doubt as to whether it can survive in its current form. That will be a pity, but better to have a pity than to let it degenerate into an unedifying and embarrassing circus.

I fear I’ve laboured the theme, but it matters.

What makes for a good Synod item is not simply the force of the arguments, the passion in the room, or the eloquence of the speakers on the day. It’s that whatever is brought to us has been properly discussed, and even better co-designed and co-produced, with all those who hold a significant stake in its outcome, so that everyone can fully own and exercise their part in the process.

This entry was posted in Bishop of Manchester, Climate Change, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Racism, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to General Synod: The Highs & Lows

  1. Susannah Clark says:

    ‘Unity in Diversity’ like in Scotland, then?

    And with a fixed time frame?


  2. Simon Friend says:

    I am not quite sure why I feel so irritated by some aspects of Bishop David’s reflection on synod – at which I was also present as a lay rep for Exeter. But as luck would have it – the chapter for my reading today from Anthony de Mello’s wonderful book, The Way to Love, advises that “….every time you find yourself irritated or angry with someone, the one to look at is not that person but yourself. The question to ask is not, ‘What’s wrong with this person?” but “What does this irritation tell me about myself?”….”. So here goes…..there is much I find irritating about Bishop David’s assessment and as tempting as it is to reply why its so irritating and how it makes me angry, I am going to attempt to explain what this irritation is perhaps saying about me and my reflections on synod.
    The words that sting the most from Bishops David’s assessment of General Synod are: “the queue of members lining up to repeat exactly the same points that several previous speakers have made, but simply with their own personal anecdotes, soon becomes woefully tedious.” I came to Synod with a heavy heart due to the un-pastoral pastoral statement on civil partnerships; the sense of probably not being able to talk or debate the real issues which are on most of our minds ie., the woefully inadequate concrete response to survivors of historic sexual abuse by clergy; and the continuous kicking of the can down the road of debate of whatever is to come out of the Living in Love and Faith project which, seems to have morphed from a “teaching document” to a “get out of gaol card” for the House of Bishops by now calling it a set of “learning resources”.
    So I am sorry that Bishop David believes this is all woefully tedious – but I and many other lay people like me take time from our work and businesses to come and represent the voice of those back in our parishes. And I am feeling deeply sad about the inability of synod and House of Bishops especially to admit that there is a lot of pain and disillusionment out there and that frankly no-one in the world I move and have my being from 9 to 5 gives a toss about Cathedrals Measures or term limits for Deanery Synod reps. They want to see the church stand up for the hurting and marginalised but when it comes down to it….it is easier to look the other way.
    This was no better illustrated than when at the start of the Safeguarding debate there was a respectful mini protest in the public gallery which amounted to a banner being unfurled highlighting that some £23m has been spent on restoration works to Lambeth Palace (and i don’t know if that is true or not) but that £0 has been given in redress from the CofE to survivors of clergy sexual abuse. For sometime the debate continued as if nothing had happened, the sign ignored and the awkward question unaddressed. That is until I and another lay member did get in the queue and repeated the same point – which was to acknowledge the protest, to publicly state we had seen their banner, and to express our regret and shame at the situation.
    So I for one will continue to queue and be woefully tedious as long as it takes in order to be a voice for the voiceless in our church. But I also recognise that I need to look inward and constantly ask- “what is this irritation telling me about myself?” I don’t really know the answer to that yet and I certainly didn’t find it at General Synod.


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