by Professor Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University, elected member of General Synod and member of Living in Love and Faith project
I returned from General Synod last week reflecting on the contrast between the message from our management – the senior leadership – and the realities of life for the majority of members not just of Synod, but of the Church of England in general.
I met many people at tea-breaks and at fringe events and in the hotel over breakfast and drinks: laity, clergy and bishops. These were certainly not all from any progressive ‘bubble’; even if you wanted to hang out with your own tribe, with a Synod of nearly two-thirds new members, you wouldn’t be able to spot who’s who. What struck me most here was how we are not some special group of super-keen super-Christians. I heard many stories of pain, pain suffered in the church in the very recent or more distant past, whether this was from central policies or from particular congregations. I met people who had dropped out of church but had come back. And I found respect, and the beginnings of the trust we will need as we move towards more controversial topics than the Leeds Diocesan Synod motion on the ‘wealth gap’ which kicked off a Synod otherwise more concerned with bringing us all up to speed on the current buzz-phrases.
Rather like the staple question of university freshers’ week conversations, ‘What A-levels did you do?’, ‘What’s your church like?’ comes up regularly in conversations with other Synod members. Mine is a standard parish church in a market town – electoral roll around 160, attendance at main Sunday service maybe 90 before the pandemic – but one person hearing this was very excited: ‘Ah, an ordinary church – excellent!’ That made the point to me that our experiences of church life can be very different. I wonder how many people on Synod come from parishes which are really struggling? In debates, we naturally tend to hear about success stories, but they don’t reflect many people’s reality.
In my ordinary church, the level of interest in last week’s meeting of Synod has been pretty much zero. I wasn’t expecting anything else, to be honest; nobody talks about the national church there. Of course, a few friends were curious, as was my vicar. My guest for the Westminster Abbey service which was held last week before Synod was formally ‘inaugurated’, a friend in her first year of ordination training, found it all fascinating, not least – as a choir member – having the experience of singing with 1000 or so people without masks. But generally? Very little interest.
I don’t find this at all surprising. In the ordinary church, there’s little knowledge of what Synod is, or how it works, let alone of what it does. Many deanery synod members never cast their vote in the elections to Synod. Local concerns are far more relevant than anything else. What happens at national level – whether that’s a statement on poverty or the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – passes by largely unobserved.
What was done last week to make the connection between the national and the local? More than once in these sessions, the Archbishop of Canterbury emphasised the etymology of the word ‘synod’ – the Greek syn-hodos, the road/way together, also a reminder of course that what we call Christianity was once hodos, ‘the way’, and that in John 14:6 Jesus calls himself the hodos: ‘I am the way’ (ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς). The journey image – one which seems to have gained traction every year since I first met it – went on through what both Archbishops said in their joint Presidential Address. ++Stephen stated that we don’t have a map, but we do have a compass: the Holy Spirit. Alongside ‘the way’, we had the image of the nets: ++Justin took as his theme casting our nets on the right side of the boat and ++Stephen ended with the same thought, and on the way reiterated the call to be ‘simpler, humbler and bolder’.
That’s one of the current buzz-phrases, which I’ve never heard mentioned in my local church. The other one now is ‘mixed ecology’: meaning not just the parish, but chaplaincies too, as well as those 10,000 new churches we are supposed to be creating in the next ten years. I noted how often our leaders took the opportunity to say that we don’t need the ‘Save the Parish’ movement because nobody is threatening the parish; did they protest too much, though? ++Justin assured us that the church is always changing, using as examples the nineteenth-century ‘daughter churches’ for new areas of housing, and women being able to attend churches without wearing hats: nothing too controversial there. ++Stephen called us to survive by adapting.
As for what change or adaptation may mean, ++Justin used the saying from indigenous Australian people, that they are “walking backwards into the future”. This is supposed to suggest that, while we survive, adapt or change, we take with us our heritage. The phrase reminded me that, in 2014, the Archbishop of York published Walking Backwards to Christmas, telling the familiar Christmas story in reverse, starting with Anna and ending with the prophecies of Moses and Isaiah. It’s a powerful set of meditations. He credited his title to The Goons’ 1956 song, ‘I’m walking backwards for Christmas’. I’m not a fan of The Goons, but I was struck by these words in the song:
I’ve tried walking sideways,
And walking to the front,
But people just look at me,
And say it’s a publicity stunt.
The danger of the slogans, I think, is that they look precisely like a publicity stunt. We can say ‘simpler humbler bolder’ as much as we like, but when that’s said shortly after the pomp of a Westminster Abbey service, does it really make an impact?
And I did wonder about those fishing nets. I know it’s a different sort of fishing, but in lockdown we discovered the wonderful TV series with Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse, Gone Fishing. What they do together is, indeed, fishing, but it’s not about catching the fish, even though there’s great excitement when they do, before they put it back into the river. What it’s really about is the conversation between the two men; their careers, their families, their experience of severe illness and recovery. It’s about life, and death. The several series so far are often described as life-affirming, and we certainly found them so. The two friends come across as totally authentic: real. I have a deep distrust of slogans and ‘programmes’. True relationship, real trust, deep knowledge of each other: those are the qualities which I believe will make a church community, and a Synod, flourish.