Among all the presents I received at my ordination as deacon in 1983 perhaps the most unusual was a poster. It depicted a group of people around a table engaged to varying degrees in some sort of argument. The caption was simply, “God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee”.
The poster is long gone, but the sentiments are still engraved on my heart. They come bubbling back to the foreground every time I’m confronted with a meeting agenda that looks poorly planned, confused, or lacking in clear purpose. So when the thick wad of papers for the forthcoming Church of England General Synod tumbled onto my doormat, that ordination present came back so clearly into my mind that I could almost describe every face on it.
Now I’m not, and never have been, a member of General Synod. So I need to test my reactions lest they are simply the natural suspicion most of us have towards clubs of which we are not a member. But just maybe the perspective of a non-member may have something to offer.
I don’t see my ordination poster as being an argument for abandoning all committees. There is a lot of work that can only effectively be progressed through a process of debate by duly authorised representatives. But it asks of any piece of committee business some sharp questions. Chief among these is “What will be different after this agenda item has been concluded? Close behind it comes “Is this the most efficient and effective way to achieve that difference?” and “Is the difference justified in terms of the costs entailed?” None of this is specific to General Synod – it applies just as much to a local church council, to a specialist charity and to the board of a multinational corporation.
In the heady days of my youth I was a member of a small Labour Party branch in a safe Conservative area. I still remember the night when, after lengthy debate and much proffering of amendments we voted through our simple and clear resolution to the problems of the Middle East. In terms of impact this item had considerably less than the same meeting’s traditional raffle of four cans of cheap lager. There’s much on the current Synod agenda reminiscent of those old political gatherings.
Worthy motions, that were I a member I would doubtless support, will be proposed, amended, and passed overwhelmingly. Members will feel somewhat better informed (a good thing) and that they have been part of something that will - simply because an august body has pronounced - make a difference (false – and therefore a bad thing).
The age has gone when councils or synods could, by passing resolutions, raise a topic above the threshold of public consciousness. Even Parliament, with all its resources, only influences opinion when it debates a subject already in the spotlight. Like it or not, the media are far more interested in reporting the views of individuals already in the public eye. People can be questioned, they can give a human dimension to an issue, and they can elaborate and go deeper in response to challenge. Whilst Synod members work through their preparatory papers, I’ve just produced a Press Release, in conjunction with other Bishops, on the Arms Trade. I suspect it will get rather more coverage in local media than any of the Justice Issues on the York Synod Agenda.
Emboldened by having removed all the worthy public issues for synodical debate let me turn my sights onto another target – the Private Member’s Motion – and dismiss it with brevity. Frankly, if I can’t get the backing of my Diocesan Synod for my concerns, I shouldn’t be taking them all the way to a National body. Too often they are simply a mechanism by which the disgruntled get to ride their hobbyhorses at everybody’s time and expense.
My final candidates for agenda pruning are those items that may well require general assent, but instead are subject to a detailed scrutiny that is achieved more efficiently elsewhere – indeed often the Synod debate duplicates this. I have yet to encounter a piece of Liturgy that has been significantly improved by General Synod.
In recent times Synod has improved itself by pruning its members. It was increasingly absurd that every single diocese had an archdeacon as a voting member. Indeed it was little more than a “payroll vote” giving the hierarchy a substantial caucus within the House of Clergy – perhaps at times a decisive caucus. Now is the time to take the same pruning shears to the agenda. With the goal being, that if we could reduce Synod to an annual gathering (like the Methodist Conference) or even less frequent (the ECUSA general Convention meets every three years) – it would not only be cheaper and more efficient but might actually attract the wider and more representative membership it so pointedly lacks.
Having no personal memories of D Day, and being required to take a service to commemorate the anniversary, I asked someone who took part in the landings about his memories. Bert suggested a hymn for the service, one that was unknown to me.
Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood for the good or evil side;
Some great Cause, God’s New Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by for ever ‘twixt that darkness and that light
Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust.
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, And ‘tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.
By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back.
New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of truth.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong,
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, beneath the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
James Russell Lowell
Bert had sung this as a schoolboy in rural Essex, and learned it long before he would be involved in ridding Europe of the tyranny of the Nazi regime. The hymn was actually written by an American, who I believe was strongly opposed to slavery, at the time of the American Civil War. Yet how appropriate it was to the conflict in Europe of 60 years ago.
It’s a pity the hymn went out of fashion, for it highlights to a need to remain vigilant in the cause of truth. Significantly, it points out that truth may not always require a simple repetition of an age old wisdom. No doubt Lowell was thinking particularly of slavery, which was accepted as normal in much of the society of his day, when he wrote New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth. But the message remains appropriate to the need to fight against fascism 60 years ago, and to the different challenges and concerns of our day.
They were curiously juxtaposed in Rome last week in the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the city from Fascism. The occasion had been planned to mark the gratitude of the Italian people, and recall how welcome the British and American troops had been as they arrived in Rome then. But the celebration was also marked by demonstrations against American policy today, highlighting the very different way in which war had been waged in Iraq.
I watched events on the news with mixed feelings. If Rome had not been liberated, there could have been no demonstrations of that sort today. But perhaps it was the moment to point out that ‘new occasions teach new duties’.
This will be the last report here on the week’s synodical proceedings in Canada.
Reports in British papers:
The Church Times has this report by David Harris (the content has been updated from the version that appears in the printed paper) Canada debates same-sex unions
In the Guardian Stephen Bates has Canadian Anglicans put off gay blessings which is subtitled
Synod avoids internal split and worldwide evangelical revulsion
Jonathan Petre in the Telegraph has Anglicans delay vote on gay blessings notes the overwhelming strength of the vote in favour of adding the “sanctity” clause against the “tiny majority” for the deferral proposal.
The Press Association has Canadian Anglicans Back ‘Sanctity’ of Gay Relationships
Today, the General Synod of the Church of Canada passed an addition to the motion approved yesterday that “affirms the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships.”
Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a press release which welcomed the decision by the Canadian General Synod to defer a decision on the question of same sex blessings until 2007.
Official Press Release Anglican synod ‘affirms’ integrity of same-sex relationships
Anglican Journal Synod ‘affirms’ same-sex relationships
Associated Press Canadian Church Affirms Same-Sex Unions
Today’s further move by the Synod has angered many conservatives:
Orthodox Anglicans astounded at back-door approval of same-sex relationships
Statement to faithful Canadian Anglicans from Archbishop Drexel Gomez
Update Friday morning
Anglican Journal Nine bishops ‘express sorrow’ at synod’s actions
The Anglican Church of Canada has decided to delay a decision on same-sex blessings until 2007.
The wording of the revised motion is here. Clergy and laity voted 142-118 and bishops voted 22-12 in favour of deferral. A further debate will occur Thursday concerning an additional proposal to “affirm the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships.”
Press Association Canada’s Anglicans Delay Action on Gay Blessings
BBC Canadian gay union vote put off
Anglican Journal Synod defers decision on blessings - Will decide tomorrow on ‘integrity’ of gay relationships and Reaction to synod’s vote to defer a decision on same-sex blessings
Toronto Globe and Mail Anglicans put sex issue on hold and Anglicans hesitate to bless same-sex unions
Toronto Star Anglicans defer same-sex decision and Anglicans retreat from conflict
Associated Press Canadian Church Nixes Gay Marriage Issue.
According to Associated Press Religion Writer Richard Ostling in Canadian Church Nixes Gay Marriage Issue the Canadian General Synod will consider an alternative proposal to the one originally scheduled for a vote tonight.
A proposal authorizing Anglican Church of Canada dioceses to provide blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples was pulled Wednesday, just hours before a scheduled vote on the matter at a national church meeting.
The move reflected caution and confusion among church delegates over the impact the go-ahead would have on the Canadian church - and internationally in the 77 million-member Anglican Communion of which it’s a part.
It remained possible that liberals would try to restore the original proposal to allow “local option” on gay policies, meaning each diocese gets to decide for itself whether to allow the blessing ceremonies.
A revised proposal calls for a two-year study of whether same-sex rituals are “a matter of doctrine,” delaying action till the next national meeting in 2007. That measure appeared to be gaining momentum on Wednesday afternoon.
If the 2007 meeting decides doctrine is involved but wants to allow same-sex unions, that would require amendment of church law at two consecutive meetings - further delaying any approval until at least 2010.
But according to Oliver Moore in the Toronto Globe and Mail in Anglican activists water down same-sex motion the original proposal has not been withdrawn, but draft amendments have been submitted.
“It was actually the same people who moved the original motion,” Anglican spokeswoman Lorrie Chortyk told globeandmail.com. “A layperson from the diocese of Toronto and it was seconded by the Bishop of the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.”
Ms. Chortyk denied reports that the original motion had been discarded because of its divisiveness.
“They haven’t discussed it all. It’s happening tonight from seven to nine,” she explained in a telephone interview from St. Catherines, Ont. “The original motion hasn’t even been presented yet. So nothing’s been tossed out or decided.”
Ms. Chortyk said that the 300 delegates at the meeting will have the chance Wednesday evening to vote first on whether to accept the motion as amended. If they do, it will be discussed and then voted upon.
If not, the original motion called that the issue be left to the discretion of the individual bishops.
In comments earlier Wednesday, the new head of the Canadian church had predicted that the original motion wouldn’t survive the day.
“There is a motion before the synod and discussion goes on through the day,” Primate Andrew Hutchison told CBC Newsworld early in the morning.
“But I think it’s quite unlikely that the motion will survive in its present form. It’s been subject to a number of amendments and I think, in the final analysis, we may end up voting on quite a different motion.”
Updated 6 pm London time
Later today the Canadian General Synod will decide what to do about same-sex blessings. (Internet live coverage here.) Official synod background paper here.
News Release: Anglican debate on same-sex blessings opens with a plea to delay decision
This event is discussed in British newspapers, two of whom have correspondents on the scene:
Telegraph Jonathan Petre New liberal primate as gay vote approaches
Guardian Stephen Bates Church faces split on gay blessings
The Canadian General Synod has elected Andrew Hutchison as the new Primate of Canada.
Official press release: Archbishop Andrew Hutchison of Montreal elected 12th Primate of Anglican Church of Canada
Associated Press via the Guardian: Canada’s Anglicans Pick Liberal Leader
Toronto Globe and Mail: Anglicans pick trailblazer to lead flock
Toronto Star: Anglicans pick liberal as leader