by Anne Foreman, former member of General Synod, former member of the Business Committee and Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation
So, by the time this goes to press, Deanery Synod members will have just a few hours left to cast their votes and the new General Synod will soon be elected. As someone who has served for two very different dioceses since 1995 (!) I chose not to stand again, but instead to nominate, second and support two exceptional inclusive candidates – I pray they got on, God knows Synod needs people like them.
It proved an unappetising campaign, sadly characterised by obfuscation and misinformation rather than transparency and straightforwardness, and confrontationally tribal, far more so than when I was first elected.
And where has obfuscation and misinformation manifested itself? In my view in the oh so ‘Motherhood and Apple Pie” Save the Parish Campaign (STP)!
Who is going to say ‘No’ to saving their parish? Rooted in a nostalgic and unrealistic perception of the current position of the Church, STP has anticipated the outcome of the consultative paper GS 2222 (a review of the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011) to suggest to people in the pews that the closure of their church and the ability and desire to get rid of their vicar, is inevitable.
Where is the evidence to show that Diocesan Officers are hell bent on abandoning the Parish System? Most are serving members of a parish themselves and support the Parish system, which at its heart is the practical expression of the identity of the Church of England. But they are facing and dealing with a financial situation which is unsustainable.
Of more concern, and more serious, is why aren’t the Archbishops believed when they absolutely refute the notion that the Parish is under threat? In part because there is an enormous divide between their words and what it looks and feels like on the ground. A whole host of issues have contributed to a lack of trust that needs to be restored. It will need lots of prayer, humility and attentive listening, but it is I believe achievable!
Underlying the STP campaign is a lack of support for projects supported by Strategic Development Funding (SDF) which some dioceses, like mine in Exeter, have benefitted from. SDF has many critics and I have concerns about some aspects of it, but there are more constructive ways of addressing this. There is nothing to be feared from SDF funded projects! Indeed, there is mutual learning to be gained from experiencing different approaches to sacramental worship and biblical teaching.
But GS 2222 is a Green Paper and as such, after the consultation closes, proposals will be developed and brought to the February 2022 synod …if there is sufficient consensus about a way forward (para 136). Note the ‘if’. The place to challenge the potential changes is on the floor of the General Synod, after reading the outcome of the consultation. Despite the popular view of the Synod as a massively bureaucratic, unwieldy, juggernaut it is an essentially democratic place! (yes, honestly!) A review of the Mission and Pastoral Measure is intended to improve and streamline governance; improved governance does not undermine democracy.
Whist Parishes might not need saving, they do have to respond to the need to address the practicality of how to continue to serve, disciple and love their communities given the current reality of declining congregations, reduced income and fewer priests. This can change! The proposed mixed ecology outlined in the envisaged simpler, bolder, humbler church is not an alternative to ‘traditional’ parish life, but a recognition of the changing social context in order for us all to play our part in proclaiming the Gospel afresh to each generation.
Of course the world is a very different place since General Synod evolved in 1969 from what was the Church Assembly. We have moved from where Christianity was “the culture” to where Christianity is now “a choice”, and but one choice amongst many at that. What hasn’t changed is that as disciples of Jesus Christ we are called to witness not only amongst other Christians, or those on the margins of church life, but to a society where the name of Jesus is largely unknown and unspoken.
As a church we need to face the fact that people outside the church do not feel themselves to have “a Church of England shaped hole” waiting to be filled. As the established church we do still have influence, (though some would say it is diminishing fast), and we must use it to stand alongside the marginalised and demonstrate Gospel values.
As to my own service on Synod, well, although there were difficulties, heartbreak even at times, at the risk of displaying Pollyanna syndrome I had the best time! I met loads of amazing people, worked hard, read loads, laughed lots, learned to speak in debates and was invited to contribute to worship.
If you are reading this as a newly elected member, there is always someone to help and encourage if synodical government is unfamiliar. If you are curious, interested and up for a challenge you’ll love it.
My prayers go with the new General Synod as it begins to fulfil its purpose – to understand God’s will for the church and to engage representatives of all God’s people in the task.