by the Ven Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley and part of convening group for the Evangelical Forum on General Synod
As I arranged to borrow a colleague’s academic gown, and rescued my crumpled white preaching bands from the depths of my cassock pocket, where they have been since the inauguration service of the last General Synod, (strange attire we clergy have to wear on this one-off occasion!), I reflected how different it feels this time to be heading off to London. Different because I am not a synod-newbie, and have a clearer idea of what to expect and how it all works. Different too because the experience of being a member of this body has changed me. My understanding of the workings of the Church of England has deepened, I have been enriched through new friendships, and my views on some key issues under discussion have been modified, as I have engaged in dialogue, debate and process, both formal and structured, and informal in the bars and coffee areas around the edges.
I am by nature an optimist, so I look forward to this group of sessions with faith and hope, honoured that the clergy of my diocese have entrusted me to serve in this way, and intending to do so diligently and prayerfully. It is, however, hope tinged with sadness and frustration, that there are some amongst our elected colleagues, and from the ranks of synod groupies on social media, who would seek to divide and polarise us before we have even started.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul begs his hearers to lead a life worthy of their calling and make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Unity in the body of Christ is not something we have to work to create, it is there to be maintained. Indeed we are equipped through the Spirit to be built up in unity as we mature, as we know Jesus more fully and become like him. Each of us has been given grace for this, Paul claims. How I long to see that grace in evidence over these next five years.
Society as a whole is becoming increasingly polarised. Perhaps it’s the stress and isolation of a global pandemic, but it feels that extremists are ever more extreme, that any view held needs to be voiced with ever louder decibels, that anyone who does something disagreeable should resign instantly. There is little room for careful conversation in any arena, and those who are hurting all too easily become casualties of word wars.
As Christians we have been given grace to engage with differing positions more healthily. Synod is not, as some have described it, a house of two main parties to which all must reveal their allegiance and swear their loyalty, but an elected body of Christ followers called to engage with maturity, humility and trust. It’s easy to make assumptions about where people stand on certain issues, to categorise, judge, and pit us against ‘the other’. But some of us don’t fit those boxes into which we are being pushed.
I didn’t anticipate at the beginning of the last synod that I would deliver the opening speech in a key debate on sexuality and become associated with the ‘silent middle’. I have no regrets, but what’s changed from that moment, when I stuck my head above the parapet, is that I am no longer silent, and somehow my willingness to be vulnerable seems to have enabled the middle to have a voice.
It can take courage to hold the middle ground, and it’s not a comfortable place to be. Neither is it newsworthy or popular. But standing in the middle often places you close enough to listen to ‘the other’. In the middle you perhaps hear more than those who shout from the extremes, where they have sometimes been driven by pain as well as passion. From the middle you can engage in conversation and learning. You can grow. You can change. On the issue I spoke on then, I have moved a little further away from the centre. I hope that many of us will change our stance on different things over the coming years. That’s not weakness. It’s openness to learn and grow and change.
So I will speak confidently from the middle during this synod whenever it feels appropriate, refusing to be categorised into a binary extremity.
I am both an evangelical and inclusive and affirming of LGBT relationships. I am both passionate about saving the parish and believe we need to make changes at local church level, radically rethinking patterns of ministry to enable all churches to flourish. I am convinced we need both local and central strategies for growth – most archdeacons are not out to close small churches, rather to enable them to flourish, and our diocesan appointment of a Dean of Smaller Churches is one way to do that, providing practical solutions in complex parishes. We are in this together.
The middle way will often be messy, compromise is rarely tidy – we’ve seen that in the way we have navigated other challenges within the church, such as the ordination of women. But I would much rather have a win/win, both/and way forward with messiness and muddle, than remain stuck forever on issues where we will always differ.
From the middle I will aim to navigate the decisions before us with principled pragmatism rather than pressured polarisation. From the middle I will encourage other evangelicals to meet together as part of the Evangelical Forum in a safe space to reflect on synod issues, operating with a different model of being together than that of other evangelical gatherings on offer. I will occasionally attend meetings of those groups described as the other ‘main party’, because I consider myself to be both orthodox and revisionist.
And I will remind myself from time to time, that though the decisions taken at General Synod are hugely important, and we carry a weighty responsibility when we vote to make changes, or not, to the church we all love, we must not delude ourselves that we are representative of those who worship in our local churches week by week. We are a quirky subset of the church, with time and inclination to participate in a highly structured, middle class, outdated governance structure which excludes some who would otherwise be involved, and does not even enter the consciousness of the majority.
Many who are active in our churches only vaguely know that General Synod exists, they play no part in the election process, they only know we’ve made a controversial decision when it appears in the press. The alleged ‘substantial orthodox presence’ populating our churches is simply getting on with being church, trying their hardest to worship God in ways that are accessible to their neighbours and those they love. They are serving their communities as best they can. Some only start to care about same-sex blessings when their grandson introduces his male fiancé, others have gradually found the freedom to be themselves within the context of their congregation and openly identify as gay. They want to save their parish, because they always have, not because it’s become a sexy slogan. They are principled and pragmatic, and have been given grace to muddle through, mostly finding a middle way, compromising when they must to keep going, and living in the unity that is theirs to maintain.
Let’s remember them, for it is they who will keep the Church of England alive and strong, not those of us debating its future in a stuffy chamber, or on social media.