General Synod: Over and Out!

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation

Jayne very kindly invited me to reflect on my 11 years on General Synod, as the new Synod is about to begin. So please excuse it being a bit more personal than usual.

My father’s first journey outside the UK was to Switzerland to meet the family of the beautiful young woman he had fallen in love with. Round a massive wooden table he was introduced to her parents and the six brothers and one sister. Later that evening they went for a walk and my mother (yes reader, she married him) asked him how he felt. He told her he’d been horrified. ‘Why were they all shouting at one another all the time? Why were they so cross?’

Turns out he had mistaken passion for anger. Many British people do.

I have often thought of this story as I have tried to make sense of my relationship with General Synod and indeed with the Church of England. Having retired from Parish ministry earlier this year and called it a day with General Synod, am I now heading for a divorce”?

In order to fit in, to belong, to be a fitting wife for my pastor Dad, my mother interiorised her passion.  Coming over here just after the war and speaking with a Germanic accent I can only imagine how necessary that felt. I caught glimpses of a deep thinking, unconventional woman who was very concerned that I wouldn’t spoil my life chances by being perceived as too ‘over the top’.

Somehow my drive to ask difficult questions, to challenge, to speak for people without a voice – yes, to be passionate – never got moderated to a fully British tone. It took me quite a while to understand that this was a problem in the Church of England.

I first went to an Anglican church at university and that was because Ivor Keys was the organist and he was magic! While I was at the Royal Academy of Music I went to All Souls Langham Place and again, playing the violin in their orchestra more than compensated for the oppressive theology that I found there.

Walking through the years I learnt Anglican ways and there was so much to enjoy. I found God in the hearts of good and loving people. Much as I loved my parish, and I really did, in due course I tried to get some new and very interesting jobs. I failed, not, I was told  because of my ability but because I was too outspoken. I belonged but I didn’t belong. General Synod was much the same. I remember being told ‘we need people like you’. Ha!

Well – we all probably have a tale like that to tell. We all bring both spiritual and cultural baggage and encounter many layers of unwritten rules, disability, class, gender and race divisions, intellectual snobbery, power structures and old school networks, reputational lawyers and NDAs. It’s an Institution. What do you expect?

Only this is a church that is meant to preach something rather different. That we are all equal before God and equally loved. That the first shall be last. That we should not judge.

Sadly it seems that we just can’t get it right.

I sat on the Synod that was trying to make women equal and become bishops and we managed to embed inequality into its very laws. I voted for a ban on conversion therapy and yet Christians are lobbying the Government for an exemption. We are still at the point where gay people are deemed to have been created less equal than others and denied both the joy of marriage and a place at the high table. We fail to see how even discussing this as an option is abhorrently abusive. There are just so many ways in which, by the sheer essence of who you are, it is so difficult to truly belong.

For most of these years the discomfort was perfectly bearable. Daniel Finkelstein wrote a pre-obituary of terminally ill Frank Field in The Times on 2nd November. He described Field’s position in a way that resonated: ‘Field saw political allegiance as being a little like supporting a football team. Not something to which, once you had adopted it, you gave much further thought to or could easily change.’… ‘What Field meant by his analogy was that he realised his continued membership of the Labour party was tribal and he wasn’t going to let it constrain his thinking or actions.’

Yep! That was how it was with me and the CofE.  It had become my home, yet I was fine about being a critical friend.

It stayed like that for many years. It’s why I stood for election to General Synod. I was looking for reform and even rebirth and wanted to do my small part from within. The time I felt most lonely was when I articulated a Christian and compassionate argument for Assisted Dying, but even then I found kind and encouraging folk to talk to.

What changed things for me was safeguarding. Working as chaplain to Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, we found ourselves listening to a growing number of people whose experience of abuse within the Church was made unspeakably worse by the way the institution treated them. I gained a far deeper understanding of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was walking by on the other side writ large. Somehow with each new person’s experience I made a shift from feeling that the CofE was basically a good but flawed outfit, to wondering if there was something irredeemably rotten at its core.

Over many years decent men and women promised to put survivors at the heart of all they did, but no-one could make it happen. Apology followed tear-stained apology.

We began to drown under an avalanche of new policy, training and procedure, but the actual survivors remained an afterthought. Good grief – we still don’t even have a date for the Makin report into the Smyth abuse and Smyth died in 2017. The actual abuse has been known about for far longer and it seems the survivors matter so little that their story has not even been logged.

I don’t know how this will end. It’s never great to divorce, and I’m not quite at that point yet, but it‘s hard to see the way forward once the trust has gone. I sincerely hope that the next generation of Synod members will find cause to be less cynical and I will watch with interest and encourage where I can.

This entry was posted in Conversion Therapy, General Synod, Human Sexuality, Mental Health, Rosie Harper, Safeguarding, Spiritual Abuse. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to General Synod: Over and Out!

  1. preacherwoman says:

    A good many of us, particularly women, have experienced the ‘you’re too outspoken’ attempts to silence us, and are in the same love/hate relationship with the C of E,

  2. Una says:

    The CofE is not the only ‘Christian establishment’ to deal with matters and people in this way. I have frequently been told that the church in which I minister need people like me and yet am shouted down or shushed or even shunned because I am too loud and too critical. On the personal side I am still looking for support from”the top” for an incident that happened some 20 years ago and the support I was promised would come when my husband and I separated over 4 years ago. I shall not hold my breath on either score! I remain committed to God but am looking at retirement as an initital 2 years ‘off’ from any form of church institution while I lick my wounds, reflect and recover a little. Then, and only when I am ready, I may return .. still outspoken, still sore, still with difficult memories to bear but still trying to see people first and problems afterwards as I have always done. Thank you for writing as you did … it resonates strongly.

  3. Martin Sewell says:

    A serious point. I am outspoken, and some disagree, yet as a man, I have not been told that
    I am “ too outspoken”.

  4. MariHoward says:

    It’s fairly clear that women who speak up are ‘too outspoken’ whereas men are encouraged & allowed… I’ve consistently noticed my husband is listened to, and sometimes addressed (as in, e-mailed to include both of us, or as in, listened and replied to or encouraged, in a discussion, to partake. Am I? In a situation when we are both present? Hardly ever – probably, never. This the Church, not an elegant dinner party… ‘strong’ women are not encouraged, listened to, or taken seriously, except to be coffee-makers, and possibly if they are single…

  5. Pain in the Neck says:

    Thank you for this piece. I hope that you will not part with the Church, as you have a great deal of value to say.

    In my experience (and I know that I am a thoroughgoing pain in the neck), what the Church tends to do is ‘blank’ people, and pretend that they don’t exist. This is, perhaps, even more frustrating that being told to shut up and sit down, as it reduces the person who makes ‘trouble’ to the level of a non-person and it amounts to a de facto invitation/demand for them to quit the Church. I find that this talk-to-the-hand syndrome can tend to apply at every level of the Church – from the highest to the lowest – and it includes some clergy who ‘pride’ themselves on their ‘pastoral skills’. Whilst the TTTH syndrome might apply in different ways depending upon the nature of the perceived troublemaker, the tendency to blank is fairly common/uniform.

    What seems evident to me is that the Church is simply a blanket term for a collection of in-groups and coteries who demand and reward loyalty. The mafia operates on a not dissimilar basis (though perhaps with added ’emphasis’…). Many of these in-groups are in a state of high tension or undeclared war with each other (as with the mafia), and they sometimes tend to prioritise their toxic inter-relations rather than the welfare of the ‘Church’ as a whole. Attempts to intrude upon this delicate political balance, by proposing change for the Church as a whole, are therefore often highly unwelcome, not only because they risk disrupting that balance, but are a form of ecclesiastical lèse-majesté. However, since it would be ‘beneath’ these in-groups to tell the disruptors what they think of them, silence prevails, and it is a silence which speaks volumes.

    Within the Church the ‘agent’ (i.e., certain clergy, officials and hangers-on) is everything, whilst the ‘principal’ (the people whom the Church purports to serve) are often mere statistics or pew fodder, and are of little or no account, unless they ‘prove’ their ‘value’ as hangers-on.

    I have concluded that the Church, as a confederation of self-interested political and economic interests, is utterly incapable of reform save by dint of an external agency – the State – as with the opportunistic Synodical havering over women bishops in 2012 (‘get with the programme’). The Church tends to lick up and kick down, but will jump if the State intrudes. It is for this reason that the edge of my own long-held Erastianism has sharpened over time.

    Please stay and press for the Church to be held to account!

  6. kiwianglo says: the C of E? YES, some are still allowed to deny the priestly ministry of women! A situation ens once in Constitution. How absurd!

  7. KEN SNEATH says:

    Great name for an organist Ivor Keys

  8. Simon Young says:

    If you are criticised for being outspoken it is likely to be because people don’t like what you are saying. This in turn could be because what you are saying is a necessary criticism, or it could be that it is a point of view that is not shared for valid reasons. Or it could just be that people have different views and you are polarising the debate. Only in the first case is it good to be outspoken. Unfortunately it is difficult to judge which is the case when one is personally involved. But I would avoid the claims of sexism if possible. Many people do not have their voice heard.

Any thoughts?