WHY YOU SHOULD (AND SHOULDN’T) STAND FOR GENERAL SYNOD

On childcare duty in London while Nicola is off on retreat with her college cell group, I find myself once more gripped with the proceedings of the General Synod. It starts between putting child #2 and child#1 to bed with a  quick read of the questions @synod on my twitter feed, and then builds up to watching the live streaming (i know) of the evening session of question time after my oldest is tucked up in bed.

The London chamber at Church House

I served on Synod for the quinquennial (5 year period) from 2005-2010, starting as curate just a few months after my ordination to the priesthood, before standing down because we had three kids under four and I needed to focus there. Clergy in their twenties (or thirties – possibly even early forties) were in fairly short supply, and so we stood out a fair bit and probably had an resultantly unfair amount of opportunity as the positive discrimination mechanisms of synod kicked in – perennially designed to counterweight the tendencies of the electorate to return a fairly homogenous group of seasoned committee types to this office.

Getting direct  feedback from your Archbishop  is an unusual experience
Getting direct feedback from your Archbishop – an unnerving experience

So one of the first communions I ever presided at was attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury (who quite graciously pointed out my various errors afterwards). I was asked to lead prayers in the main chamber, and to head up a Diocesan Motion – which successfully navigated through synod and (as it was about media exploitation) led to me getting to meet and debate with George Galloway, Matthew Wright and Jade Goody (before her conversion/confirmation). I even managed to rally up the most signatures for a Private Members Motion, which was debated at the end of the quinquennial, and summarily passed with few objections, calling for the Synod to :

‘… request the Archbishops’ Council to identify sources of funding for the production of an on-line library of visual and video resources for worship, so that hard-pressed local worship leaders may access and use them in both mission and congregational contexts.’

At other times I was able to ‘speak from the floor’, and perhaps was looked at as one of the ‘go-to people’ for a bit of light relief in a turgid debate. I remember speaking on young vocations, pioneer ministry, experience of seeing people from other religious backgrounds come to faith in Jesus – in the debate on the uniqueness of Christ, and on theological education.

But it doesn’t take more than a few days at Synod to realise that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than there is in the public eye. Some of the members were consumate networkers, with Mark Russell (before becoming Mr Church Army the stand out of the lot). About half of the Bishops seemed fairly comfortable in their surroundings, 10% revelled in it and the remainder did their best to disappear from their synodical ordeal as often as possible.  Large interest groups, not unlike lobby groups, held considerable sway – particularly the Open, Catholic and Evangelical groups on Synod that would gather their members for tactical discussions on contentious issues. But even in these groups it was clear that there were a few puppet masters trying at least to pull the strings to varying success, and there are inner sanctums, closed meetings and tactical negotiations. These groups are socially helpful in enabling members to mix and mingle. Popular consensus is that the more liberal groups are the more fun to hang out with, but whichever tribe you identify with (or whether you try and straddle the lot), you’ll often find it is the breakfast conversations, corridor meetings and invitation only fringe events where whatever limited power synod may have is actually exercised.

The limits of synod’s power were amusingly noted in the Question time last night. In Question 41 Patrick Richmond wanted to know what effect a synod motion had actually had on the wider church (Dioceses, parishes etc). The answer, that he partly supplied in the long question, was basically none at all! When synod calls on other bodies to act there’s every chance they won’t even pick up the phone let alone do what they are asked. Given that the cost of Synod is just under 1% of the total cost of the Church of England (Synodical Government in Church of England: A Review 1997 p.84) it’s hard to see this sort of business as value for money.

Indeed Synod even has limited impact when it asks one of its own bodies to do something. My resoundingly passed Private Members Motion to create an easily accessible online library of usable video resources was effectively kicked into the long grass after being almost unanimously passed and nothing has been done about it in five years.* It may of course be that neither Synod nor the Church Institutions are capable of delivering a useful visual discipleship and evangelistic online resource, but I am not sure that this means that it was the motion that was not fit for purpose.

[*although it you read this and fancy having a go the synod approved up to £70k spending on this – from as yet unsourced funding – so it may still be worth it. Get in touch].
would sentamu have been able to steal Big Brother... endermol productions certainly wanted him...
When do you take a risk? Could Sentamu beat Big Brother?… Endermol wanted him…

I also found that when I had something I felt worth saying (that if the extraordinary and charismatic Archbishop of York would go on Celebrity Big Brother he would have engaged more young adults in the UK than all the other Bishops put together – this in 2007 just after the racist/Jade Goody incident) that I was swiftly gagged by the press office before I could repeat it in front of the assembled tabloid press in my subsequent debate with Jade Goody/George Galloway! Of course these risk averse officials were probably wiser than me, and it could have gallowaycome crashing down Galloway style, but 8 years on how many of the millions who were then watching BB have been influenced directly by one of our bishops? Surely at some point we have to take a risk… Kate Bottley has shown how effective a parish priest in popular media can be.

Nevertheless despite its institutional and constitutional shortcomings synod remains as an important legislative body, scrutiniser, and place where regular clergy, lay people and bishops rub shoulders easily. Some of the members are very high quality indeed. It is usual to shout about how we need younger people involved, and that has merit, but some of the better contributions came from elder statemen/stateswomen speaking from experiences outside the church context.

Synod is most easily persuaded by those who can tell heart-tugging emotional stories, but those who have clear logical minds (like a Paula Gooder/ Anthony Thisleton) were highly prized as well. If you happen to not be a male priest candidate aged 52-65 you will stand out, as will lay people of either gender who are not 58-70 years old.

So why should or shouldn’t you stand!

In my experience synod is a fascinating, if less than spiritually healthy, place to function from. The prayer:politics ratio is probably about 1:100 and the prayer:posturing ratio not much different. Synod needs people who will keep an eye on the Big Prize of Christ and not get caught up in their own speeches, self-interest and partisan politicking.  If you think you can do that then by all means stand.

It also desperately needs a good combination of big picture vs detail people. So often its those who gain real expertise, and understand the legal nuances who are able to steer the ship. Yet at other times, when something is being dissected ad nauseum there is a need for someone to bring us back to the big picture – our mission in the world today.

Above all it needs people who are good at listening – there’s a lot of that to be done anyway in debates, and it’s a lot easier to discern the mind of Christ together if people are willing to listen, learn and love.

If you happen to be a young, black, female priest with something to say you are likely to find that you get called to speak more often (if you want to) and that your voice carries a disproportionate weight. It is worth seizing the opportunities that affords…

Similarly, if you have time and a skill set to offer to the wider church Synod is a great jumping off point.  I ended up serving on two committees (not concurrently) and then afterwards a trustee of a missionary agency.   It still seems to open doors and opportunities today

I met some amazing people at Synod who quietly governed and prayed for the church. The Church of England has an extraordinary pool of talented people to draw from. Perhaps you are one of them? 

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