Nick Harding’s Diary: General Synod February 2016

Nick Harding, Children’s Ministry Adviser, is one of Southwell & Nottingham’s representatives on General Synod. Here he reflects on the three-day Synod that took place in London earlier this month


Nick One Bread book launch 2 [Desktop Resolution]As is now the case for most of us, the papers arrived in two batches by email ready for us to save paper by downloading onto iPads and the like. This is a short synod,
so after reading the papers I submitted one question for answer on the first day regarding the proposal for children’s and youth work to register with OFSTED.

Most of the reps from our Diocese met with Bishop Paul and Nigel Spraggins, the Chief Exec, ten days before the start of synod to go through the agenda and look at issues from the Diocese point of view. The agenda included more information on the discussions next July on human sexuality, evangelism, benefits sanctions, more on renewal and reform, funding of ministerial education, and blood and organ donation – varied stuff!

Monday 15th February 2016

Synod started after lunch in the chamber in Church House. The main business began in the usual way with welcomes, new appointments to roles serving synod, reports of deaths, report of progress of legislation previously passed. Debate on the business ahead of us was short this time, although I think most of us recognised that this group of sessions was not thrilling but mostly necessary! The dates of forthcoming February synods takes place during half term, perhaps illustrating the age profile of synod.

The Archbishop of Canterbury delivered a carefully-worded Presidential Address, where he reflected on the recent meeting of Archbishops and key leaders from across the Anglican Communion, and shared his hopes for the future.

The main legislative business of the day was to give final approval for amending Canon 34 relating to safeguarding issues and clergy, and the first look at freeing up the process for pastoral area changes. This was followed, unusually, by worship (rather than worship being at the end of the day) and then to questions. This was followed by an explanation of the following morning’s discussions.

75 minutes was set aside for questions, and the time proved nearly adequate due to a more speedy system for questions being answered and fewer ‘supplementary questions’ than usual. Questions are always a good way for individuals to seek more information from the national church institutions, and can sometimes raise issues that would otherwise go unnoticed. A short time of worship ended the session, with the afternoon closing with a prayer at just past 7pm.

Tuesday 16th February

Unusually, the day began with members of synod scattered around the many meeting rooms of Church House and over at Lambeth Palace for discussions in smaller groups around evangelism and discipleship. This was very similar to activities synod did three years ago, but with a new synod it was a ‘soft’ way for us to get to know the groups of people we will be in intensive discussions with in July. My group was in the State Drawing Room in Lambeth Palace. After that we all had a brisk walk over the river to be back in the chamber for the start of business.

The morning was taken up with a presentation and debate on the current interim report from the Archbishop’s Task Group on Evangelism. This is a generally good report, and a very positive move for the church to be using the E word again rather than the woolly ‘Mission’! I, along with some speakers, was worried about how thin the section on children and youth is, and how a task group of 12 people had been formed with 11 being clergy, or nearly so. We must start taking the laity of the church seriously!

Lunch, in the middle of this full day, was a really interesting session of the Penal Affairs Group where we discussed the future of the group and the issues we would like to look at in the future. As a magistrate I was very interested in what this group does and how the church can and does play a key role in the justice system by helping offenders and changing lives.

The afternoon business, lasting from 2.30-7pm, began with a slightly controversial debate on a report about discussions the church has been having with the Church of Scotland. I was not aware of the complexities and differences between the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church, and that there would be such strong feelings on what was, in effect, an attempt for churches to work together a little more. The motion was passed with a slight amendment to ensure that the Episcopal Church has more representation in future discussions. After that came a Diocesan Synod motion from Worcester seeking that fees for weddings and funerals should include the cost of vergers and heating. There was some strong feeling on both sides of this, but it was clearly rejected, and fairly quickly so.

Then came Bishop Pete (Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden), who continues to be a strong voice for reform and simplification of church processes. He led synod through a rather complicated paper that in some senses moves the processes on, and in other senses reveals that the church is a complicated thing and it isn’t easy to make massive changes quickly. This finished early leaving 35 minutes for a short and easily-carried debate and a motion on blood and organ donation as an expression of Christian giving. This was one of those moments when synod calls on parishes to do things, but there is no check as to whether they will or not.

A short time of worship followed the end of the business, and then I quickly headed to meet my wife and younger son for a little light relief at a theatre.

Wednesday 17th February

Breakfast quick and early in order to be at Church House in good time for morning worship and business in the chamber. The Archbishop of Canterbury then started the day presiding at Holy Communion, which is always a special time for synod as we worship and break bread together.

The business of the morning began with a helpful and revealing debate on benefits sanctions, calling on both the Church and the Government to consider research on the reality of the impact of benefits sanctions when wrongly, harshly or unjustly applied. This was in some ways synod behaving well, with a number of stories from parishes around the country, and a genuine heart to help those in most need.

The remainder of the day was taken up looking in some detail at the continuing Renewal and Reform programme, led by the very impressive Canon John Spence and others deeply involved in bringing significant change. After presentations and questions, which were generally well-answered, we broke for lunch.

For lunch I went to a meeting held by Christian Concern, the pressure group that also runs the Christian Legal Centre. The aim of the meeting was to hear speakers who suggested that Christianity is becoming marginalised in the UK, and the Government’s radicalisation strategy is damaging the free speech that Christians should have. I didn’t agree with all of the points made, but it was interesting to hear what is felt strongly by some.

Afternoon work included a long and contentious debate on Resourcing Ministerial Education, and in particular some very complex changes to the current formula for spending on training clergy. I confess to getting a little frustrated at the lack of laity who were called to speak, and the general assumption that ministry is something reserved only for clergy. One of our reps, Ian Paul, tried to bring in an amendment calling on the church to further discuss what the changes would mean to the understanding of clerical ministry, but it was defeated. In the end the motion to continue with this work was carried with amendments calling for more reporting back on progress, and more consideration of the training for ministry that laity should receive.

That over, we finished the afternoon with more of the same from Canon John Spence about Resourcing the Future, and how money would be apportioned from central funds to dioceses in future. The paper and the current system is complicated, but as a ‘take note’ debate there was not a great deal synod could do but raise concerns and then nod it through. I suspect that when the proposals turn into legislation, things will not go through so easily!  Then we were prorogued – still not sure what that means, and prayer followed, before we all headed away back to the real world.

So as always, a varied synod with much done, some unnecessary complications, and much to think about. With nearly 50% on General Synod members being new it is going to take a while for us to settle down and move through business quickly and efficiently.

Nick Harding