Mood change at Anglican General Synod

I do not normally follow in detail the proceedings of the General Synod of the Church of England. But there was something which caught my eye in one of the commentaries made by a conservative evangelical member of that body. Rob Munro, a representative from the Chester diocese and a member of the conservative body, the Church Society wrote a reaction to the recent Synod in York. He was particularly concerned about what he perceived to be the declining influence of the evangelical bloc within the Synod. He suggested that, politically speaking, the centre ground of General Synod has shifted away from the biblical position on topics to do with sexuality etc. In other words, the perspective of the bulk of Synod members no longer identifies with the well-rehearsed conservative positions on these matters. I read this comment alongside another hint that things are changing in General Synod. It seems that when certain well-known conservative individuals stand up to rehearse their predictable positions, they were sometimes being greeted with ‘noises of unhappiness and booing’. This behaviour was deemed to be unhelpful to the conduct of Synod.

I have reflected on these two pieces of information about what might be going on in the Church of England Synod. Obviously, I was not present to hear the ‘noises of unhappiness’. I am however able to reflect on why people might begin to express their feelings in this way. One of the features of the conservative position on issues like same-sex marriage and the ordination of same-sex individuals is that it is completely unchanging. The spokesmen for the conservative groups in Synod will quote the same bible passages and repeat the same arguments over and over again. Obviously, there are differences among the proponents of the conservative evangelical bloc, but the actual individuals who support these views will not want to shift from personal positions they have in some cases held for decades.

How do we react to a person who never varies in their strongly held opinions? The first thing that happens is that we become bored when we have to listen to the same arguments rehearsed again and again. We hear the argument but, because we know exactly what is coming next, our willingness to listen carefully is compromised. Listening to an apologist for the conservative position over same-sex marriage creates the same effect on me as having to listen to listen to Easyjet cabin crew explain safety measure before take-off. The noises of unhappiness and booing during the speech of such a Synod spokesman as Andrea Minchiello Williams may be simply the sounds of boredom rather than disagreement. The hearers have heard identical arguments being rehearsed so many times before that their reaction is now to feel bored and dispirited.

The arguments from Scripture over gay ordination and all the other things that divide evangelicals from other Christians do need to be heard and the debate is necessary for the church to conduct. The issue in Synod at York at the beginning of July 2017 was not about the value or otherwise of the conservative position on these things. The problem for the evangelical bloc is whether their arguments on these topics have started to sound like a gramophone record which has got stuck. The same words are being repeated again and again with decreasing impact. This repetition has now created a sense of tedium in the listener so that the core message is no longer easily heard.

I personally will always be suspicious of a version of truth which is presented to me through endless repetition. This is because my understanding of the Christian faith has never worked like this. The things that I was taught at theological college almost 50 years ago are by no means the only truths that I have to offer. If they were I am sure that I would by now be utterly bored in endlessly repeating them. What is true for me is that the Christian faith constantly grows and deepens. There are all the time new insights that I obtain through reading and exposure to fresh experiences. Last week at the conference I was attending, an acquaintance introduced me to a writer that I have never heard of. She had heard me speak about power issues in the church and thought that this writer, Carter Heyward, would help me to clarify my thought on these matters. Reading new ideas, grappling with fresh insights is the way that my faith is not in danger of becoming utterly blighted by stale repetition. As it is, I allow myself to explore across cultures and centuries looking for new ways in which to articulate old and traditional truths.

As I write these words I am reminded of a Sydney Carter song. He writes about travelling from the old to the new. The old, the traditional, is not cancelled or destroyed by the new. It is however constantly transformed and changed. As far as the Christian faith is concerned there is always, as far as I can understand, a constant process of travelling. As we travel we allow new insights, new understandings and impressions to enthral us along the way. Without it we would be easily tempted to be among those who prompted ‘the noises of unhappiness and booing’. Boredom is never meant to be part of our understanding of the Christian faith. We certainly don’t want to be guilty of spreading such staleness and repetitiveness to others. The hints that this version of the Christian faith seems to be on the way out within parts of Anglicanism is to be welcomed. The Church of England and its General Synod is far healthier with less in the way of repetition and tedium.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

13 thoughts on “Mood change at Anglican General Synod

  1. Can’t say I agree with you here Stephen. “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21) which often rings a bell in the Church these days! Sometimes “same old, same old” is the right thing to say but “boring, boring” is what any parent will tell you is the standard response.

  2. Perhaps 2,000 years later we are reading and listening to the latest ideas today and how this affects our faith now. New ways and insights keep me interested and definitely transforming. Thanks for blog Stephen.

  3. The apostle’s Paul and John didn’t tire of repeating themselves for the sake of the Church. John said “I am not writing a new command but an old one” that we love one another. We have to learn to love the ones we love to hate. Difficult, but there is no other way. Blessings on all fellow contributors.

    1. We all have the same message of love and hope. But surely we don’t just repeat the same set phrases over and over for years and years? That’s what Stephen is saying. These guys do exactly that.

  4. Stephen, if you listen to the debates from GS (which are lived streamed)and available on You-tube, I think the only occasion you will hear anything like a boo was when one member made some very disparaging remarks about another member in a speech. She was then called to order by the Chair. Making allegations about another member must always be, if not wrong, at least unwise. This is why the Business Committee has produced a Code of Conduct for Synod members. We saw in the Debate a demonstration why this is necessary.

  5. I am sorry if I made a wrong assessment of the mood of Synod. My reference to ‘noises of unhappiness and booing’ was ascribed to Sally Gaze of Norwich. It was said in the context of a complaint that the agenda was dominated by issues of sexuality being debated for ‘three and a half days’ (exaggeration?). I remain hopeful that, as my piece claimed, there is ‘a fresh sensibility within Synod’. Someone else was reported to have said ‘Change is coming. Aslan is on the move’. Let us hope so.

    1. Yes, she did say that, but I have just made a point of listening to that debate again and only heard very muted ‘noises’ once, when Andrea Minchiello Williams spoke as a ‘point of order’ following Jayne Ozanne’s speech about the proposal by the Business Committee to produce a voluntary code of conduct for Synod Members. The Chair dealt very effectively with Ms Williams, who was clearly out of order in what she said. Other than that I have heard no boos.

      Issues of sexuality were definitely not debated for 3.5 days as a quick look at the Agenda would confirm. Do listen to the debates online, they make very interesting listening. I too felt that there was a new mood in Synod, though there has since been a predictable backlash. We must all keep on praying!

  6. I was suddenly reminded of an incident I hadn’t thought of in years. When the Team Rector left, one of the Team Vicars made a bid for power and started taking over. There was one particular PCC meeting (the governing body of the parish for those not in the CofE) when she brought up something absolutely no-one else agreed with. The Non-stipendiary priest said so first, and she looked at him, and carefully repeated it, exactly as she had before. (Think Eric Morecambe explaining to little Ern) Then someone else chimed in and disagreed. She repeated it again, same way, same fake patient tone. Then someone else, and she did it again. Then one or two people did a sort of group murmur. She repeated it again. People started looking at each other uncomfortably. Would we ever get on to the next thing on the agenda? Would we be there all night? Someone again disagreed, even pointed out no-one agreed with her. She repeated it all over again. The Church Wardens were by then looking closely at their shoes. The meeting fell silent. “Fine”, she said, “that’s agreed then”. I’ve seen some bare-faced manipulation of meetings in my time, but that took the biscuit. I wonder if the immoveable conservatives hope that everyone else will just give up eventually?

  7. English Athena – humble thanks for the forgiveness of my problematic punctuation! It passed through my mind when thinking about punctuation that in our deep disagreements in the Church the invisible punctuation of our arguments often seems like the little angry emoticon. I know that sometimes we just feel anger and annoyance at people in the Church but if only we could add a little gentle emoticon to our disagreements maybe the “other side” would realise that we DO love them. Anyway it is a reflection for myself. Blessings.

    1. 🙂 I’m a terrible pedant about punctuation. I get really exercised about people getting it wrong, particularly journalists and sub-editors! So I smiled broadly at your request. Cheered me up no end.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.