When the Church of England’s General Synod descends on York for its summer sessions the tempo is much different from London meetings. Synod uses York University accommodation and that creates much more time for conversation. After hours the bars do a roaring trade. Members can easily nip out for air or to talk business while communing with the ducks and geese patrolling the lake that abuts the university’s Assembly Hall.
Britain has experienced a perishingly cold spring and early summer, but a sudden heat wave left the Assembly Hall swelteringly hot. A surprising proportion of male members turned up wearing shorts, unconcerned at the display of their lilly-white legs.
Occasionally York Synod has experimented with small-group Bible studies, an activity not universally approved by members, it not being strictly business. This time round the business managers devoted an entire Saturday to small groups (closed to the media and visitors) as Synod sought consensus on women in the episcopate.
This was the first meeting since last November’s vote on women in the episcopate. Synod rules mean there can be no shortcuts to enable a repeat vote. With serious differences in the church about the meaning of ministry there was a broad recognition that the usual Parliamentary procedures were unlikely to help.
In his first speech to Synod as Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby addressed the thorny topic: “This is not about whether but about how.”
Since the beginning of the year various national bodies, including the House of Bishops, have used facilitated conversations, an approach to which Welby brings considerable experience and expertise. The small-group sessions included a drama in which all members played a part. Reports from the groups are being circulated to the House of Bishops but for now the documents remain under wraps.
Will it lead to Synod members changing their minds? Probably not. There are already signs that some opponents are digging in for a long battle. The conservative evangelical group Reform announced in June that it had appointed its first full-time officer with the job title of director. The new director is Mrs. Susie Leafe, who was a notable speaker against the Measure voted down in November.
The sticking point is not the principle of women in the episcopate but of safeguards for those opposed. The House of Bishops brought forward a set of options but failed to persuade Synod to support legally binding safeguards. Synod told the House of Bishops, which will draft the new legislation, that the church giving its assurance of safe space would be sufficient.
Reform and the Catholic Group say they will keep up the fight for adequate safeguards. The House of Bishops will bring reworked proposals to the next Synod sessions in November, but 2015 is the very earliest that a final decision will be possible. There remains the possibility that if Synod cannot deliver Parliament will step in, as MP Tony Baldry told Synod, repeating earlier warnings to that effect.
In other debates Synod approved a draft plan to amalgamate three dioceses in Yorkshire: Bradford, Ripon and Leeds, and Wakefield. The new diocese, to be known as West Yorkshire and the Dales, could be a reality by January 2014. Professor Michael Clarke, chairman of the dioceses commission that drafted the plan, said it was not a criticism of the existing dioceses. “However, they now face the major challenges of declining congregations, reduced numbers of clergy, weakened finances, pensions costs,” he said.
Synod managers headed off attempts to trigger a full-scale debate on homosexuality. Only two bishops were present on Monday in the House of Lords’ revision stage of same-sex marriage legislation. Archbishop Welby told the Synod that “the cultural and political ground is changing.”
A report into scandals involving ineffective safeguarding against child abuse in Chichester diocese came with a public apology. “We cannot do anything other than own up to our failures,” said the Rt. Rev. Paul Butler, Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham and chairman of the church’s national safeguarding committee. “We were wrong. Our failures were sin just as much as the perpetrators sinned.”
The Synod welcomed Bishop Angaelos, leader of Britain’s Coptic Church, most of whose members are originally from Egypt. He drew attention to the serious civil unrest there, appearing to endorse the army’s takeover: “There is a difference between democracy and majority rule.”
John Martin, London