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.