The General Synod of the Church of England: A brief introduction to the issues
The latest – and, arguably, the most important – meeting of the Church of England’s General Synod will start this Friday in York.
I may be speaking too soon on this one, considering the Synod’s history of prevarication and issue-dodging, but it’s looking likely that fireworks are on the agenda – this is one of the more eagerly (or bitterly, depending on your point of view) awaited sessions of recent times.
There is plenty of meat on the agenda, but the biggest issue at stake surely has to be the consecration of women bishops, one of the most divisive subjects ever to face the Anglican Communion, and one that could ultimately end in schism.
The General Synod of the Church of England meets three times a year, and issues such as this are discussed without fail during each session, but the reason this particular meeting is quite so important is that draft legislation on women bishops – the actual words that will inform Church practice – is due to be debated in its final form for the first time. The hope is that the wording will be agreed by vote, and that the new legislation can then enter the revision stage – the final stage before it is formally referred to the dioceses.
The debate has been bubbling fiercely away since the Synod first agreed in 1992 to allow women priests to be ordained, and it’s a fearsomely complicated one. I’ll be looking at the issues in more depth tomorrow in another blog, but for the moment, suffice it to say that the spectre of female bishops is more likely to do damage to the Anglican Communion as a whole than any issue other than the ordination of homosexual bishops.
Also on the agenda is the funding of clergy pensions, another crisis in the brewing. There is now a huge shortfall – in the hundreds of millions – in CofE finances, and the pension fund has been hit especially. Something has to be done about it, and there aren’t any particularly palatable solutions on the table. What’s more, there are also increasing numbers of unpaid clergy – known as non-stipendiary ministers – who represent another facet of the Church’s dire financial straits. I’ll discuss these further in a blog on Wednesday.
The CofE’s Synods have a well-earned reputation for avoiding the reaching of conclusions at all costs, but it really seems as if it’s crunch time on this one. We’ve said that before, of course, but we now have the Roman Catholic Church waiting in the wings, doing its best to entice dissenters and ferment disgruntlement.
Last year, the Pope offered a way out for dissenting clergy and congregations, offering to let them back into the Roman Catholic Communion, but to allow priests to keep their wives and churchgoers to keep their rites. With the CofE’s various conservative and traditionalist factions feeling unable to compromise on women bishops, and the new presence of a viable escape route, the threat of schism is a real one.
It remains to be seen how many congregations really have the stomach to follow their dissenting clerics, as even in the most staunchly conservative parishes, rejoining Rome is not viewed as a truly positive option. Nevertheless, all eyes will be on the Synod, which is being seen in some quarters as the last roll of the dice.
There are currently 467 members of the Synod, taken from three distinct Houses: the bishops, the clergy and the laity. The clergy and the laity are elected from their own provinces – Canterbury or York – or from various universities, cathedrals and the armed services.
The signs are that the Synod will press ahead with women bishops – it’s come further from the last crisis in 2008, where principles on the matter were agreed, and members are a liberal bunch in general. In fact, traditionalist parishes probably account for only tens of thousands of Anglicans, a drop in the ocean compared to the estimated 1.7m worshippers in this country.
Homosexuality is also rearing its head again, at a most inopportune time, with the openly gay Dean of St Albans Jeffrey John appearing on the shortlist to become Bishop of Southwark. This is more of an issue for the Anglican Communion as a whole, however, and homosexual bishops are not on this week’s agenda in York, which is a meeting of the Synod of the Church of England alone. This means there will be no contretemps between extremely liberal American Episcopalians and extremely conservative Africans, as there have been in the past, for which the Archbishop of Canterbury will be thankful.
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