Speaking of synod

On Thursday General Synod met, with one purpose, to debate a motion and a series of amendments to allow General Synod to meet virtually during these strange, Covid Times.

The meeting was in many ways surreal. It was well organised but, obviously, very different. We were all masked up, a one way system was in place but what was missing was the opportunity to engage in coffee room chats, or for the various sub groups within synod to gather and strategize. In some, perhaps many, ways, this felt healthy (even though the social aspect of synod is important). It felt as though, even though we were few in number, we were ‘one body,’ simply trying to focus on doing the right thing, seeking to reach a consensus for the ongoing good of all.

The way the room was arranged was also very different. We all had allocated seats, and were asked to enter the chamber through a designated door. What struck me about the physical geography of the chamber was that the absence of block seats reserved for the bishops. This struck me as a healthy development.

I hope that when synod is once again able to meet physically attention will continue to be paid to how the chamber is arranged and where people sit. It felt more equal, less cliquey, perhaps more authentically synodical; perhaps less rarefied, and intimidating. Yesterday’s meeting was characterised by a marked lack of pomposity. Due reverence was shown to all, on equal terms. Indeed one speaker (who spoke twice and, who hadn’t spoken from the floor during the previous five years) commented on how she found the ‘old fashioned synod’ to be intimidating; a place where voices could easily be suppressed.

I also enjoyed the joint presidential address, which appears to be becoming something of a synodical norm; a norm which reinforces a desire for unity and collaborative ministry. Again, this is something that I hope continues. Both archbishops spoke with passion, and both were reflective, talking of lessons learned. Their joint address was also confessional and conciliatory in nature. Archbishops Steven and Justin accepted that mistakes had been made over the last six months; thank you.

They were also keen to stress two other important points:

First, that the church is changing and that it is highly probable that a return to previous norms can’t, and won’t, happen. I think they are right. There are aspects of church life that we may all have to grieve for, but let go. What the future will look like is, of course, unknown.

One of the phrases that I have been using lately is that ‘we are all Franciscans now.’ This doesn’t mean that we all now need to become Franciscan Tertiaries, adopting an intentionally focused Franciscan Spirituality (although for some it might), but simply that we all need to hear and recognise a voice asking us to ‘rebuild my church.’ What this rebuilding will look like will, of course, be dependent on context (which strikes me as a thoroughly Franciscan insight).

I think that I would also add that such rebuilding needs to take place at the institutional and not just the local, or parochial, level. Do we need a smaller, more flexible, and to use one of the words used in several speeches more ‘nimble’ centre? Do our diocesan structures also need to be rebuilt? In my own view the whole church, at every level, needs rebuilding. This will be a huge challenge, and a challenge which will require the letting go of cherished ways of thinking, doing, and above all else relating. Perhaps this is also the time to reappraise a preference for some of the generic strategies that have been prized and favoured over the last few years?

The Archbishops, both at synod and in other places, have reflected on the parish and have concluded that ‘the local church is the centre.’ For me this statement carries deep significance and represents a return to a, perhaps forgotten, truth.

But, it is also a statement which, if true, begets a challenge: if the local church really is the centre what does this mean in organisational, strategic, relational, and yes, financial terms? In many ways the financial implications of COVID on the ‘local church’ which is ‘the centre’ is my biggest fear. Working out the implications of the archepiscopal observation in relation to national and diocesan strategies is surely now an urgent task? Indeed, I think it is even worth reflecting on whether national and diocesan strategies, in the times we find ourselves in, can even be real things! I genuinely have my doubts.

Yesterday our discussions were characterised by gentleness. The decision that synod can meet online means that the Church of England can discuss important issues. For me the most important issue as we seek to rebuild the church is working out the implications of the statement that ‘the local church is the centre.’

As we continue to reflect, synodically, on this statement may we do so with broad minds, compassionate hearts and gentle tongues so that together, we can play our part in ‘rebuilding my church.’

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