Listening, Consensus, Worship

If That Doesn’t Sound Like Synodical Government, Why Not?

Church Times, 16 April, 2010.

2010_04_10_A2010 marks forty years of synodical government and there is much for which to be thankful.  The synodical system has firmly established the voice of the laity within the governance of the Church of England and has provided a dynamic where laity, clergy and bishops can meet together for the ordering of the institution.  But the present synodical system, a child of the twentieth century, is no longer fit for purpose in the twenty-first.  I recently attended, for the first time,  General Synod, the ‘Queen’ of the synodical system – and what did I find?   I found committed women and men attending a meeting organised by efficient and kindly people feeding a voracious machine that is past its sell-by date. There were some highlights in the five days we spent together, but these were overshadowed by debates which should have taken place elsewhere – should a synod’s time really be taken on whether the reading set for the Monday of Lent 3 ought to include an extra three verses?   The time for questions was a real trial.  When, after two and a quarter hours, we reached question 60 (out of 84) I was beginning to lose the will to live.  Fortunately, this sentiment was shared by Synod as a whole, because when asked to extend the session, Synod voted conclusively against the proposal.  The rest of the questions would be answered by post, Synod was told. Why could not all 84 be answered in this way?   I recognise the need for the executive to be held accountable, but this was a graceless way of doing so. The synodical system is creaking and needs renewal at every level.

In the last two sets of elections, dioceses have found it difficult to encourage people to commit themselves to both deanery as well as diocesan synods: the result is a limited pool from which General Synod gets its members.  When such difficulty is encountered, many people whose talents and insights would be particularly valuable simply do not put themselves forward for election – ‘election’ is a misnomer, especially when, as appears to be frequently the case, there is only one candidate for each place.  What follows from this is that the various synods are not regarded as either representative of parishes or relevant to the activities of the wider church.

There are a number of causes for this deteriorating confidence in the synodical system, but I want to identify three.  First, the parliamentary, adversarial culture upon which the synodical system is based, does not provide a creative environment for debate and decision-making for the people of God.  A classic example is the debate at last July’s Synod around the ordination of women to the episcopate.  Wherever one stands on this issue, the environment and style of debating did not allow the ‘wisdom of the quiet’ to be heard: synodical aficiandos flourish in such an environment, but others wilt.  Secondly, the bureaucracy which was developed to support and carry the structures is now dominating it. This leads to a materialistic fatalism (deeply embedded in society) where, relentlessly, crushingly and depressingly the cycle of cause and effect trundles on without challenge and disturbance. Measuring performance, continuous assessment, benchmarking and agreed outcomes (significant as they are) elbow out imagination, serendipity and risk (important as they are).  Unwittingly imbibing  materialistic fatalism renders the church powerless in the face of the many laws and regulations which, under the guise of wanting to streamline the organisation, restrict and confine its activities.

As a Church we always need to ask whether a measure helps or hinders the mission of God.  It is a feature of many organisations that the bureaucracy which begins as the servant becomes the master. Indeed, the Church of England as a whole appears to be devoting an increasing amount of its energy to resourcing a defensive bureaucracy whose task is to protect it if challenged, which brings with it the danger of devoting a decreasing amount of energy on promoting the Good News of Jesus Christ.  This is reflected in the business, management and processes at synods. Some may argue that this is unavoidable in contemporary culture – though what an indictment about the state in which we find ourselves – but the Church needs to be counter-cultural.   Finally, and this relates mainly to General Synod, how representative of its membership can a body be that meets on week-days, usually for five days at a time?  Does this not exclude the voices of the very people the Church should be hearing?

2014_05_02_BThe church necessarily needs to be synodal, so that those who have the responsibility to lead and manage can consult with the whole body of believers, but the church does not necessarily need to be synodical.  Synodical is the system used to manage the Church of England over the last forty years, whereas synodal is the process by which the Church of God has tried to move forwards for nearly two thousand years.  Synodal means, fundamentally, walking the way together and for Anglicans, being synodal indicates the manner in which laity, clergy and bishops are held together (in synod) as they do this.  The ARCIC document, The Gift of Authority, points out that being synodal expresses our vocation as people of the Way (cf. Acts 9.2) to live, work and journey together in Christ who is the Way (cf. John 14.6).  It is important to remember that anybody following Jesus Christ and walking with him is bound to encounter the cross.  What is really crucial for such gatherings is the climate and environment out of which decisions are made.    Bishops, clergy and laity need to find effective vehicles in their walking together bearing in mind that the Body of Christ is a gathering of the People of God, past, present and yet to come.

One of the blessings of belonging to a world-wide church is that we are kept in touch with a variety of forms of deliberation and decision making.  Some communities focus on the need for consensus before decisions are made.  The World Council of Churches has adopted a method of coming to its decisions by consensus.  The 2008 Lambeth Conference moved away from the adversarial process of debate (employed by the synodical system) by meeting in indaba groups, where listening is more important than speaking. Churches in Germany have used the kirchentag, a form of church congress, which every two years draws people in their thousands to engage with theological, social and political themes through worship, discussion and drama.

2014_06_14_AWe live in a culture of shrill voices and polarised opinions, both inside and outside of parliament.  Forty years ago, the parliamentary model may have been the right vehicle to replicate for the synods of the People of God, but times have changed and it is no longer the case now.  The church deserves an environment where listening is valued above speaking and where the ultimate aim is not to demolish the argument of the other but to take it seriously, even though one may not agree with it.   Perhaps this fortieth anniversary of synodical government can provide an opportunity to think afresh about the way the church can be truly synodal. The future is open for debate and discussion, but what about including in the system mini-kirchentags, that is, regular, but occasional, large inspirational gatherings and celebrations where issues and theology can be aired and engaged through a variety of media such as drama and debate as well as liturgy?  This backdrop would provide the climate out of which a sleeker, more representative synod (which is synodal rather than synodical) reflecting the Church past, present and future, can deliberate and make its decisions on behalf of the whole People of God.  The synod could be based on listening and the decision-making on consensus.   It would never be perfect – nothing will be – but we need to find a vehicle that is in touch with the energy of the Holy Spirit, the aspirations of the People of God and the realities of the world.