This is the Report I’ve done for the York Diocese. The simplest way to find out the ‘bare bones’ of what General Synod did is to look at the summaries of business done on the Church of England website: www.churchofengland.org – look for ‘News’ and ‘Top News Releases’, and each day’s decisions are there.
The great feature of this group of sessions was the way we prepared for the Women Bishops debate by working in small groups. We had recognised that different groupings in the Church of England, and different views on women in ministry, were unlikely to agree on a way forward based on legislation and ‘parliamentary’ debating alone. So a ‘reconciliation’ process was set up, and ‘facilitated conversations’ took place earlier this year among the different groups and organisations, and reported to the House of Bishops. Synod did the same kind of thing. Small groups, each with an external facilitator, were helped to speak openly about the issues and their impact, and to comment on the possible ways forward the House of Bishops had proposed. The whole process (including a drama which we could all join in) was unlike anything I’ve experienced at Synod before. Reports from the groups were varied, but the general feel was that it had been hugely valuable.
That prepared us for Monday’s debate. The House of Bishops had offered us a way forward based on minimum legislation and maximum trust. It was clear in the debate that a significant minority still wanted security through legal provisions, but we voted to set up a Steering Committee with a steer on the side of a small amount of law and a large amount of agreed processes and codes. What was fascinating was the proposal that the Steering Committee should be larger than normal, and that it should use the ‘facilitated conversation’ process to come up with a unanimous proposal which would be revised not by a further committee but by the whole Synod. The committee, of 15, is being appointed as I type. The next Synod in November will take the process on.
What else did we do? Synod gets going with Questions, some of which flagged up people’s problems with a report issued by the Faith and Order Commission about Marriage. On Saturday evening the Archbishops’ Council reported on the state of play on its three themes for the period 2010 – 2015: contributing to the common good; growing the church; transforning ministry. Synod affirmed the progress made, but added a call to the House of Bishops to report in 2 years with a strategy for evangelism as well.
On Sunday afternoon we went into serious legislative detail. We approved changed to the way the Faculty system will work (the church’s ‘planning permission’) – essentially making the process less administratively complex and speeding it up where possible. And we tweaked a number of bits of law which will help the church and PCC’s do their work. Some of that was legal housekeeping, but that’s what Synod does, and good laws help us all.
Later in the afternoon we considered Safeguarding, in the light of a recent investigation into the Diocese of Chichester. It was a sombre session, preceded by a statement from survivors of abuse. We agreed to redouble our efforts, systems and processes to ensure that churches were safe for all, and to review those processes and laws to enable dioceses and parishes to act openly, pastorally and justly for all. We’ll hear more about specific changes nationally to safeguarding requirements.
In the evening we considered what the church’s response should be to the huge changes made to welfare reform in this nation. Our final motion was strengthened in the debate to include a ‘bias to the poor’ and a reference to the difficulties in a system of universal benefit. We agreed to strengthen both the work of the grass roots and those working with politicians and the state to ensure fair treatment of the vulnerable. Our debate was not party political, and seemed to me to be an excellent example of how to reflect and act in a complex world.
After Women Bishops, on Monday afternoon we created a new Diocese. The Diocese of Leeds – West Yorkshire and the Dales will replace the dioceses of Bradford, Wakefield, and Ripon and Leeds. There was overwhelming support for the work of the Dioceses Commission, reshaping structures to relate to the contemporary world. This was despite the opposition of the Diocese of Wakefield. The legalities of all this will be complex, but in February the old dioceses will disappear, and a new diocese, with a Bishop of Leeds and area bishops of Bradford, Huddersfield, Ripon and Wakefield will be formed, with three cathedrals and possibly a pro-Cathedral.
Later on Monday we approved the Archbishop’s Council’s Budget, and received the Church Commissioners Annual Report. On Tuesday we were addressed by Bishop Angaelos, who is an ecumenical observer at the Synod and a Bishop in this country for the Coptic Church in Egypt. He talked of the difficulties in his nation, and his hope in the Gospel for the country which was blessed by the presence of the Holy Family. That rather put into context our ‘internal’ discussions arising from the Elections Review Group about who can vote for Synod members and how they do it.
Having discussed matters around the representation of university staff, the imbalance of representation from the Province of York and the Province of Canterbury, the number of Bishops on the Synod and how we enable more young people and more people from Black and Minority Ethnic communities to be on Synod, more work will be done and brought back to us. The debate about how the House of Laity is elected (by Deanery Synod reps? By a special ‘Electoral College’? By all lay members of PCCs?), and how electronic methods can be used … was adjourned.
We said farewell to the Bishops of Exeter, Liverpool, Hereford and Gibraltar in Europe, noting that Bishop James Jones is not retiring to the York Diocese so much as being re-tired. We rejoiced in the vitality of the Archbishop of York, and welcomed the active presence of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, who always seemed to be smiling, occasionally tweeted, and seemed to be everywhere.
It was a hot weekend! The use of facilitated discussions was a great feature, and may well affect the way we do our work in future. York was welcoming as ever, despite the sad incident at the Minster. After the gloom of November 2012, there were seeds of hope in July 2013.