The Church of England’s General Synod meets this week in London. It is the Church’s Parliament. Its meetings are generally ignored, receiving coverage only when controversial or divisive issues are debated. General Synod has three main constituent parts, the Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity. Its debates are modelled on the Parliamentary model. Papers and documents are produced. A vast amount of work and effort is required to keep it going. Usually it meets twice a year, in February at London and in July at York.
In the history of the Church of England General Synod is a very recent invention, coming into being in its current form in 1970. Its creation was the culmination of a process where the Church sought to reduce direct Parliamentary control over its affairs. At the time it was a reasonable attempt to re-discover some sense of self government to the church that had been crushed by King Henry VIII, King Edward VI, and Queen Elizabeth I. Today the General Synod is a cumbersome talking shop, vulnerable to organised groups hijacking its elections and debates, and drains the time and energy of the church’s leaders that would be better spent elsewhere. Synod is not the only part of the Church that needs wholesale reform.
Each week thousands of clergy go about their work as vicars, chaplains, and priests. Hearing confessions, conducting weddings and funerals, leading worship, visiting the sick and lonely, praying, just quietly going about their ministry – most of the time neither seeking nor expecting public recognition. This is the Church of England at its best. Working with those of other faiths and none. Often in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances. Clergy are visible and vulnerable. Guards do not stand at most church doors. Anyone can walk in. There are many non-ordained people too who keep churches up and down the country going, doing vital and unsung work.
Ever since Queen Elizabeth I forged the Elizabethan Settlement the Church of England has lived in a tension between its Catholic but reformed tradition. Its forms of worship tended to drive its congregations together. In recent years however the structures and forms of worship of the Church have begun to drive division and conflict. Where the Book of Common Prayer provided one form, Common Worship institutionalises division. Bishops are meant to be points of unity, but have become beacons of division. The Church’s leadership has become fixated on numbers and leadership qualities. A tendency to reject the challenges and opportunities of having a specifically Church of England approach to ministry is increasingly replaced with the language of a more generalised ‘Christianness’, in the seductive hope this is an easier ‘message’ to sell. The Church of England, like every weakened institution, is vulnerable to capture or undue influence by energetic and impassioned minority groups.
To many what goes on inside the Church of England matters not at all. Why should Parliament bother with it? The Church of England is unique among all the country’s religions and faith groups because it alone is established by law. It holds a unique relationship to the state and the nation as a whole. As such it has a unique duty and obligation to the state and the nation, to minister to the whole community. Queen Elizabeth I understood the need to settle the Church of England’s approach to its ministry which resulted in the Elizabethan Settlement – an agreement that the church would chart a middle, balanced way between the extremes of worship and behaviour. Five Hundred years since the beginning of the Reformation and in the sixty-fifth year of the reign of the Second Elizabeth perhaps it is time once again for the state to step in and help the national church to find a better focus on its national mission.
A handy guide to the General Synod can be found here.
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