The Summer Session of General Synod takes place at the beautiful York University campus, with activities and meetings on either side of the central lake. It is a lovely environment.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a great deal of time to enjoy the lake…as members are mostly meeting together inside the rather hot and airless exhibition centre.
I hadn’t intended to write a blog on the Synod experience. But, reading accounts in the press which seem to introduce a fish-eye lens level of distortion, I felt impelled to give my own perspective.
The wider scene was introduced on the opening Friday afternoon when, after prayers and a report from the Business Committee, we were invited to debate a motion from the Archbishops entitled ‘After the General Election, a still small voice of calm.’ At one level, this motion seemed a rather predictable call from the Church’s leaders to pray for the UK’s politicians. But the context makes this more than usually important. The Archbishops referred to ‘a critical time in the nation’s history’ with people facing ‘unprecedented questions about the future’. The Brexit vote, and (in a very different way) the Grenfell Tower fire have laid bare sharp divisions in society. Government is weak, confidence in in public institutions is low, people are fearful. The nation is, frankly, not in a good place. And so the established church has a particular and important role in healing, unifying and praying….if it can rise to the task.
One of the things that would most effectively undermine the church’s mission would be a serious split over issues of human sexuality. Over the course of the long weekend, the Synod was bowled two difficult questions that would (again) test the church’s unity. Neither motion came from the bishops: one was a private member’s motion on ‘conversion therapy’, the other was a motion from Blackburn Diocese on ‘Welcoming Transgender People’. Both motions could be viewed as totemic of the relative influence of different groups or proxies for other issues. And, of course, both could be spun.
I have to say I found myself rather uncomfortable debating ‘conversion therapy’. The ethics of therapy offered to gay/lesbian people (and all the more transgender people) is something which challenges even those who are experts in their field. Only a very few members of synod have this kind of expertise. And I was nervous discussing a subject in the adversarial style of a full synod which bears upon issues affecting individuals and families so deeply and personally.
In the event, I think we managed to discuss the issue with openness and compassion. Two amendments had been proposed, both of which in my view significantly improved the original motion. One was defeated, the other was accepted. The final motion endorsed a Memorandum of Understanding signed up to by all the relevant professional bodies, including the Royal College of Psychiatrists. It can be found here. This MoU, describes ‘efforts that try to change or alter sexual orientation through psychological therapies as unethical and potentially harmful’. The motion was passed overwhelmingly.
The second issue in the sexuality area was a motion ‘recognising the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church’ and calling on the House of Bishops to ‘consider whether some nationally commended liturgical materials might be prepared to mark a person’s gender transition’. During this debate we heard several stories of people who had transitioned between gender identities, and of the mental anguish that gender variance can cause to an individual and their family/community. There was considerable debate as to how to best to respond. I felt the Bishop of Worcester expressed well the mind of the Synod when he said: ‘Our response needs to be loving and open and welcoming and the passing of this motion would be a very important factor in that.’ The motion was duly passed by a big majority.
I hope that gay, lesbian and transgender people feel reassured and encouraged by these votes. Neither vote changes the church’s doctrine – and those fearful that orthodox teaching is slipping should be reassured that the membership of the current House of Bishops makes the prospect of doctrinal change remote. But they do signify steps towards the ‘radical new Christian inclusion, founded in scripture, tradition, reason and theology’ that the archbishops have promised.
There were many good things during the Synod. A debate on ‘presence and engagement’ reminded us of the national church’s commitment to areas of the country where other faiths are in the majority. Workshops on ‘Renewal and Reform’ highlighted 5 different areas in which the national church is supporting evangelism: the workshop I attended on digital evangelism was outstanding. The annual reports of the Church Commissioners and the Archbishops Council – both of whom are doing excellent work – were welcomed and received. But the most effective debate for me – and the one on which I had opportunity to speak – concerned a motion on ‘the cost of applying for [UK] citizenship’.
This motion was initiated by the central Birmingham Deanery, was approved by Birmingham Diocesan Synod, and was duly debated by the General Synod. Synod was told that the cost of applying for citizenship application in the UK is 1,282 GBP for an adult and 973 GBP for a child. These fees are on top of the costs of applying for indefinite leave to remain. They include not just the administrative costs but a substantial element of ‘profit’ made by the Home Office. The costs are prohibitive and act as a bizarre discouragement to social integration.
In my speech, I drew attention to the vastly lower costs charged by other European countries – less than 200 Euros in Belgium. I described the stress of making these kinds of applications, even for people who have financial means and education. And I said I thought that the ratcheting up of costs by the Home Office in the last few years was simply disgraceful.
The motion was carried with 310 votes in favour, no votes against and no abstentions. This, for me, was the synodical system acting at its best: a local deanery spotting an area of deep injustice, giving it national profile and enabling it to be raised within government. Sir Tony Bawdry MP, former Second Church Estates Commissioner, helpfully offered to give a transcript of the debate to the relevant Parliamentary Select Committee.
On my way home, at the end of the Synod, and re-entering the public life of Britain, I bought a copy of the Times. One article spoke of the ‘collapse of business confidence’. Another article predicted significant falls in living standards as the country is now living above its means. Picking up a copy of the London Evening Standard, the front page carried a warning from the Royal College of Radiologists about the supply of cancer treating radioactive materials once Britain leaves the relevant EU authorising body. These are hugely challenging times for the United Kingdom. The Church of England in England has a particular vocation to bring the message and love of Christ to the nation, to challenge unjust structures and to help rebuild a sense of national destiny. I hope and pray that our internal disagreements about sexuality don’t hinder this task. The Synod brings together so much talent, lay and ordained. At its best, the General Synod models an open and respectful process of debate, raises the profile of the church and further its mission. I felt that at the York Synod we were indeed sensitive to the Spirit’s leading and Christian mission was carried forward.