By Bishop Philip North
A wise priest on taking up a new Parish will start by evangelising the Parochial Church Council. In other words they will shift the priorities of the PCC from maintenance to mission. Important but routine items such as gutters and finances will move down the agenda. The heart of the meeting will be given over to vision and outreach. Because when you focus on evangelism, strangely all the other problems seem to disappear.
If that is how healthy parishes manage their PCCs, why can the same not be done for the General Synod of the Church of England? The recent series of sessions, held by the imagination-crushing medium of Zoom, were a sustained example of church in maintenance mode.
The evidence is how we spent our time. Yes there were one or two good outward-looking debates, for example on housing. But they were swamped by domestic matters. So for the third consecutive Synod we deliberated at length on how long people should be allowed to serve on Deanery Synods and reached the conclusion there should be no limit. This in effect means that the same people will go on electing General Synod members so that the same few voices can continue to dominate. And we spent hours without end agreeing minor reforms to the Crown Nominations Committee that nominates diocesan Bishops. Doubtless an important item, but did it really need quite so much time?
A debate on Vision and Strategy was one of the few that engaged and motivated synod members, and yet it was shortened by Synod game-playing in the form of a pointless adjournment motion and was in any case given so little space on the agenda that hordes of contributions will go for ever unheard. A motion to address chronic inequalities in our own financial structures was cut from the agenda.
I spent the weekend staying with a Parish Priest in north London who has tripled the size of her Sunday Mass attendance, largely through a remarkable project of social engagement which has served 10,000 meals since the pandemic began. The differing ways in which we spent the weekend could provide no clearer illustration. Synod’s agenda is a million miles away from that of the Parish churches we claim to serve.
Some will say at this point, ‘Oh but Philip, Synod is primarily a legislative body. It’s task is not to talk about mission but to enact legislation.’Well here’s my reply to those emails before I receive them. We are enduring a pandemic that has decimated congregations, destroyed youth ministry, wounded our finances and reduced many people to penury. We are ministering to a nation in which 97% of the population never go near to a church and know nothing of the Gospel of salvation. Across our nation, people are asking the big questions of life and death, yearning for relationship with the Lord of Life. In such circumstances, what should matter to us most? And what matters most to the wider church should surely be what matters most to Synod.
There are about to be elections for a new synod. Surely this is last chance saloon because the Church of England cannot afford to allow itself to be governed for much longer in this archaic, dysfunctional and costly way.
It seems to me that in this next Synod only two priorities will really matter. The first is unity, because the world will not believe unless we are one. People tend to get elected to Synod in order to campaign on various issues and fight battles. But instead of members who come to Synod to win, we need people who will come to listen and seek unity in diversity. We need people who will probe the boundaries of legitimate theological diversity, who will seek to understand each other’s positions and who can show real courage and imagination in working out how we can travel ahead together.
And the second is evangelism. The Vision work being advanced by the Archbishop of York must be allowed to pervade every aspect of our common life. There is no part of church life – finances, governance, buildings, legislation – that can go untouched by the transforming power of the Gospel. We need Synod to set the way in building a church that from top to bottom is driven by the Gospel and whose whole life is focussed on the task of transforming a nation under Christ.
Of course General Synod must remain a legislative body and the legal aspect of its life will have continued importance. But this is a matter of priorities. If the new Vision for the Church of England is to mean anything at all, then the core purpose of the General Synod should be setting the lead for the sort of church we long to become, one that is simpler, humbler and bolder. Because when you focus on evangelism, strangely all the other problems disappear.
The Rt Rev Philip North is Bishop of Burnley