AN OBSERVER’S VIEW OF GENERAL SYNOD
Diocesan Communications Officer Report
Wondering what happened at the General Synod? What it’s like to attend such an event?
With new elections to General Synod coming up soon for the next three-year period (triennium) would you like your name to go forward? If you were elected, what would that experience be like?
I attended the General Synod in the South Court Hotel, Limerick between May 4-6th 2017, not as an elected representative, but as Diocesan Communications Officer. It was my first time to attend so I thought I would share my experience of being there and give you an insider/outsider view, so to speak.
I also asked two Synod members from our Diocese for their opinions and those can be read at the end of this article.
Prior to going I knew, of course, that the General Synod is the top-of-the-ladder body when it comes to running the Church of Ireland. The democratic aspect is something that most of us hold dear – having a voice and a vote, if we want to, at the highest level of the church we’ve committed to.
Would I be overawed by the experience? Overwhelmed? Bored? Turned off? Angered? Inspired?
Arriving the evening before all of these were possibilities. The crowds were already gathering – laity, clergy and bishops pulling suitcases behind them, a lot of meeting and greeting going on in the foyer, friendships being renewed, fellowship obvious, people gathering from all over the country who had met at such events before. Yes, it had all the hallmarks of one big annual gig.
A peep into the conference room provided an insight into the mechanics of it. 500 people were expected. The chairs were out – dressed for a wedding, for some reason. There were two podia and two television screens, one each side so that not a beat would be missed, the sound/light engineers table with its flashing light system to alert speakers to time limits and top tables for bishops and staff, positioned to face the crowd.
The Bible and Book of Common Prayer weren’t on the table just yet – that would come later, an essential act before proceedings got underway.
DAY 1 – HIGHLIGHTS
Day 1 saw us depart early by bus for the ancient St Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick city for the Opening Service. There we watched a cleric climb a step-ladder to light the candles in the chandeliers. I wondered for how many centuries steel had scraped on stone to do that before special services…
The Mayor of Limerick was there as well as many guests from other Christian traditions and the Bishop of Limerick, Kenneth Kearon, in his sermon, preached on the theme of mission.
“The mission of the Church is to be the Church God wants us to be and to do the things God wants to have done…” he said. “We meet as a church, seeking the mind of God for our Church, praying that our faith will help us to make sense of it all, that God will guide and sustain us all, not for the sake of the Synod, but for the sake of the world, to be a church in the world, of the world and for the world.”
Then it was back to the hotel for the Archbishop of Armagh, Richard Clarke’s address. He spoke primarily about identity and domestic abuse.
‘As Christian disciples, we recognise that we do indeed have a basic identity that we must share with all others, that of being made by God in His image and likeness. This means that others – all others – must be treated with a complete dignity and with an utter respect,” he said.
He hit home with comments about the violence of domestic abuse and mentioned how Armagh diocese is trying to make a difference on this front.
“Domestic violence is in every community. It is under our noses, perhaps even in our own families. People who suffer in this way must be encouraged to seek help,” he said.
“One of the possibilities that we are investigating in Armagh Diocese is how parish churches can be designated as “safe places” for those who are suffering domestic abuse. For many people, in every part of this island, the Church does not have a reputation as being a place of safety, far from it. Surely we can work together to reverse this notion of what we are.”
Then the complicated bits started – Bill (new legislation) time with its first reading, second reading, third reading process and two Houses (with three sections) – bishops and representatives (which means clergy and laity) – within one House and the House going into committee and the House resuming while all the time staying in the one place and Standing Committees sitting down and Select Committees which were different committees altogether, then proposals and seconding and motions and ayes and noes and contraries and queues for the podium and the occasional unaccustomed phrasing like ‘does anybody wish to speak to this Bill? Not ‘about the Bill’… A lot of it seemed like fodder for confusion. Then there were section x and sub-section a,b,c occasions to add to the fog…
Luckily there were some bishops who did their best to explain the system as they went along. It was particularly complicated around the whole issue of who could speak when and about what aspect of a particular Bill. Brave hearts seemed to be needed, for fools, I suspected, or anyone who didn’t get their timing right, weren’t always suffered gladly amid the pomp (and perhaps vanity on occasion…) of this parliamentary procedure. Encouragement for those who haven’t spoken before at Synod mightn’t have gone astray but I have found out since Church House staff that newly-elected people are issued with a guidebook to Synod. Let’s hope it’s in plain language but courage would still be needed…
10 reports were presented to the Synod over the packed three days, from the Representative Church Body – the money people’s – report to those of the Standing Committee (those elected to implement the decisions of the last Synod), the Board of Education report and those of the Church of Ireland Youth Department, The Covenant Council and the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue.
The report of the Liturgy Advisory Committee was in there too along with that of the Church of Ireland Council for Mission, the Commission on Ministry, the Church of Ireland Marriage Council and that of the Select Committee on Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief.
Even the titles could be mind-boggling to the uninitiated but it was all about bringing the House (made up of two Houses) up to date on the work that had been going on in the background over the past year by committee members and there was no doubt, based on the thickness of the green book of reports printed for General Synod 2017, that a huge amount of work had been done over the year.
How many hours of meetings and paid and voluntary work had gone into making all that progress, I wondered?
Over time the fog began to clear and it became more of a pleasure to see democracy at work – the thought that had gone into what people said, the way they said it, for or against, weaving the nuance of grey expertly in among the threads of black and white.
Other colours came into the event too – the blue and yellow of the voting cards that rose from the crowd many times – blue for clergy and yellow for laity.
Highlights on Day 1 included the Brexit Bracket motion which fell (was voted against) and there was a Bill about confirmation registers being kept in parishes. We’re fussy about births, marriages and death registration our parishes, apparently, but not careful enough about recording confirmation details. An amendment of the Constitution is needed to make sure that this happens in home parishes and confirming ones but this may take time as the legislative wheels of the Synod move slowly.
We heard, in an interesting informal session (in the middle of the formal), from Canon Patrick Comerford, about ecumenical outreach to travellers in Rathkeale.
He highlighted the work of a pre-social cohesion project (big titles again…) which works with local Travellers and involves a wide cross section of the community there.
The big report of the day – that of the Standing Committee – brought many speakers to the podium.
Presenting it, the Bishop of Meath and Kildare, the Most Reverend Pat Storey focussed on the good news stories it contained, including the work of the Bishops’ Appeal, the 2016 Census which she saw as an encouragement to the Church to be ‘missional’, developments in communications and the Parish Development Working Group.
Citizens’ Assembly, refugee support, Safeguarding Trust and the importance of the inclusion of those with disability were also topics for discussion.
Day 2 FOCUS
The agenda (order of business) was packed for Day 2 also.
It went from what the Archbishop of Armagh called ‘getting a steer’ in the form of a straw poll from the floor (the assembled company) for the Dioceses of Tuam and Limerick as they try to make decisions around amalgamation. The option of a full-time bishop and a ‘suffragan’ bishop (called an auxiliary bishop in the Roman Catholic church) rather than two full-time bishops seemed popular although the detail may take a bit of working out if speakers’ comments were anything to do by.
The touchy subject of the government’s proposed Admissions to Schools Bill occupied those concerned with Education and Michael Hall (of the Diocese of Elphin and Ardagh) who proposed this report said that all of the (government) proposals would impinge negatively on Church of Ireland primary and secondary schools.
The RCB report revealed that the total funds available to the Representative Church Body in 2016 increased by 1.3 per cent to €188.6 million.
In relation to climate change, a motion calling on the RCB to ensure that the Church of Ireland further improves the carbon footprint of its investment portfolio (reduces how much money it invests in fossil fuel industries) was passed by Synod.
The most anticipated motion on Day 2 – a private member’s motion (another term to understand) was the one about human sexuality.
The bishops were asked ‘to investigate a means to develop sensitive, local pastoral arrangements for public prayers and thanksgiving with same-sex couples and present their ideas to General Synod 2018.”
The motion, proposed by Dr Leo Kilroy of Dublin and Glendalough Diocese, was defeated by 104 votes to 90 (laity) with 15 abstentions, with 72 clergy voting against and 56 voting for and 9 abstentions. The Bishops chose not to enter into the debate or vote.
There were many speakers for and against but thanks to good direction and appeal, the tone of the debate was respectful.
DAY 3 brought up Christian unity and youth work and had two newer topics in the mix – those of ordained local ministry and the possibility of a national retreat centre for the Church of Ireland.
Tenure (security) of clergy in their jobs was talked about in the context of a proposed ordained local ministry – who are clergy answerable to and should they be, for example? It was all up for discussion.
In relation to a retreat centre, cost came into it, with sharp brains energised by the feasibility study that has been done but it’s still early days in this debate and we can still ‘dream the dream but not be constrained by consequences at the moment’ as our Bishop, Michael Burrows, the report’s proposer said.
At the end of Synod, I was what you would call ‘happy tired’. Yes I’d been a bit overawed at times, sometimes a bit overwhelmed, occasionally bored, on one occasion angry, at another turned off but I didn’t lose the will to live due to tedium. Overall I had been impressed and inspired by witnessing democracy in action so it was all good.
All roads lead to Armagh in 2018 for the next General Synod where a new batch of elected representatives will face the challenge, joy and honour of having a voice and a vote in what is essentially a church parliament and again, no doubt, as the Bishop of Limerick said this time, there will be prayers seeking the mind of God for our Church and prayers too, that our faith will help us to make sense of it all.
VIEWS OF TWO SYNODSPEOPLE
Here two synod members from this Diocese talk about their experience of General Synod 2017:
“I let my name go forward because I was interested in learning and hearing how decisions are reached. I found it hard to follow and understand (it was a little bit over my head). However I did learn and value the voting. A lot of good people giving their time for their church and regulations and a great opportunity to give your opinion (if brave enough).
Three days is almost impossible, though, for younger people to be away from home and jobs, hence a lot of older/retired people at Synod. All at Synod were very knowledgeable.
My helpful tips would be to have larger print of names on labels, better coffee with biscuits, that speakers would obey ‘time light’. Discussion groups would be a good idea to encourage shy speakers or a roaming mic or any other business time.”
“I am coming to General Synod for three years and am getting used to the workings now. Although I do find it very interesting sometimes it feels as though certain people speak in debate only to be seen as opposed to because they have something important to add. It also seems that in general it is the same people who constantly speak and I wonder if for the ‘newbies’ like me that puts people off speaking out.
I think it is important to be involved in the decision making of our church and yet many people seem to be here with their minds already ‘made up’ on certain issues and despite debate are unmoved. As many of the members are of an older generation and have been on Synod for years I wonder if their mind set is somewhat ‘stuck in time’, but I suppose in many cases the same could be said of many vestries.
While I appreciate a lot of work goes on behind the scenes before Synod – I feel that if we could get the book of reports etc a bit sooner than we do it could be studied with less haste and then perhaps more people would have confidence to speak.
I hope to get back onto Synod when voting takes places later this year as I feel next year’s synod will be a very different place as many people will be too old to go forward again and times ahead may see a very ‘changing’ church.
The one thing I really don’t understand is how people get appointed to all of the commissions of committees that write the reports and do all these jobs.
To read all detail of events, speeches and decisions see ireland.anglican.org/synod/2017/news
There are links to each one in the posts related to General Synod on the Diocesan website cashel.anglican.org also.