I can’t say that I am particularly looking forward to next week’s General Synod.
For all the entirely necessary discussions, workshops, break-out sessions, and debates it feels as though one subject will cast a shadow over the entirety of synod: that pastoral communication or, as it is now being referred to, ‘statement.’
The archbishops and bishops are right to acknowledge that trust has been broken and that hurt has been caused. I hope, and believe, that trust can, over time, be restored, and that hurts can be, to some extent, healed. In fact it is necessary that they are if the phrase ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’ is to have any future currency. When trust has been broken what is left? When trust has been broken what can it mean to be episcopally led; for trust is the greatest of intangible assets. Without trust there can be no longer-term sustainable and effective leadership; no real authentic polity.
The bigger problem with the original statement and subsequent apology, alongside as the failure to withdraw the offending (and offensive) ‘statement’ is not so much the breakdown of trust, for this is concerned with inter-church relationships, but the significant collateral damage to the mission of the church.
It is a sobering thought that the actions of the bishops has damaged, significantly damaged, the mission of the church. Put simply many on the pews, on the edges of church, and in our civic communities think that, through the office of her bishops, the church has lost the plot.
People, ordinary people, don’t in reality spend much time listening to the bishops, but not this time. The words and actions of the bishops has caused much conversation both inside and outside the walls of my church buildings. Nobody that I have spoken to has been in any way supportive or sympathetic; quite the reverse in fact. The mission of the church has been significantly damaged by her most ‘senior’ leaders.
Part of the reason for the breakdown in trust and the damage to the mission of the church may well be the way that the bishops exercise governance. The affairs of the College and the House of Bishops seems to be clothed in darkness, undue secrecy and a desire to act and speak in concert as some form of C of E Magisterium. This has led to a cacophony of noise rather than a symphony of sound. We also know that various members of the orchestra are being drowned out. The subtle notes, the nuanced voices, are simply not being heard such is the desire to pursue a misguided theology of collegiality.
Rowan Williams has recently written that ‘the bureaucratic urge to homogenize is one which Christians have every reason to resist.’ This must surely apply to ‘in house discussions’ in the church and within the College and House of Bishops, for homogenization can only, ultimately, lead to lowest common denominator decisions.
The misguided desire to present a theology of collegiality and homogeneity also poses a risk to the entirety of the governance system. If the bishops are determined to speak with one voice, and to vote in one direction, on substantive issues then the notion of synodical governance ceases to exist with the Church of England becoming both episcopally led and episcopally governed. Is this what we want? Homogeneity deriving from a shallow theology of collegiality is the last thing that a missionally minded church needs.
I am never quite sure I understand why meetings of the bishops are so secretive. Nor do I understand why sensitive issues relating to sexuality (or even just sex) and gender are categorised as ‘deemed business.’ Deemed business is normally listed at the end of an agenda, when fatigue has set in and members want to go home (some will have gone home!) Sensitive, missionally important issues, should surely never be categorised as ‘deemed business?’
So where do we go from here? My hope that there is something good that can come out of the debacle of the last couple of weeks: a renewed commitment to engaging with the widest possible range of views and perspectives, the ending of the shroud of secrecy in all things bishopy (it really isn’t necessary) and a rejection of shallow theologies of (Episcopal) collegiality and homogeneity. The Church of England has tried such approaches and all they have led to is the erosion of trust, the diminution of mission and significant hurt and pain.
Let me finish with another quote from ++Rowan, one I wholeheartedly agree with:
‘Good governance and government is always about an engagement with the other, a developing relation that is neither static confrontation nor competition but an interaction producing some form of common language and vision that could not have been defined in advance of the encounter.’
If the Church of England is serious about leadership, mission, governance and the genuine possibility for a ‘radical new inclusion in the life of the church’ then it is imperative that our bishops take their governance responsibilities seriously. In fact it is the only way to restore trust and enhance mission.
Leadership, real and sustainable leadership, is forged not through strap lines, or the desire to control through the ‘careful’ management of an agenda, but through the sometimes painful, usually frustrating, but always deep and engaging processes of governance.