By Zachary Guiliano
Deliberations at the Church of England’s General Synod turned toward poverty on Feb. 21, as members discussed homelessness and the effect of church fees on the poor.
“I would like you to come with me on a journey. It began over three years ago in June 2015,” said Andrew Gray as he introduced a motion calling for the church to set up a new Homelessness Task Force. Gray, a Norwich-based entrepreneur, filmmaker, and member of General Synod, spoke of walking to a Sunday service when he descended “into a place called St. Stephen’s Underpass” and encountered an abandoned set of blankets, bunches of flowers, and a card, accompanied by a police notice on the wall, appealing for witnesses.
Gray was referring to the case of Sergiusz Meges, a 29-year-old Polish emigré, who died from internal bleeding and fatal injuries to the spleen after a brutal beating. “The circumstances of his death had seared my conscience,” Gray said.
He spoke of a similar moment, only 18 moths later, when he “came across the body of an old, homeless man” in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Homelessness has surged recently in Britain, with figures up at least 169 percent since 2010. While the Synod’s papers acknowledge work being done by the British government, commentators have rarely failed to note that the problems grew from the time a coalition government of Tories and Liberal Democrats came into power, particularly with the rollout of a new welfare system called Universal Credit.
After years of government denial, Amber Rudd, minister for Work and Pensions, admitted in mid-February it was “absolutely clear” the new system had “led to an increase in food bank use” and reliance on other charities.
Gray’s motion and the debate, originally scheduled for July 2018, almost did not happen. In July and on Feb. 21, Synod’s time was consumed by various other legislation.
Murmurs of disquiet arose when the chair of the business committee, the Rev. Susan Booys, announced that “desirable as it is to debate his motion, now is not the time,” because of timed business that afternoon. The business was to discuss the Living in Love and Faith project and the work of the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Advisory Group, both considering issues in human sexuality, identity, and gender.
The Bishop of Ely, Stephen Conway, eventually called a point of order, saying that the Synod risked “squeezing out” the homeless in the same way that “they are squeezed out in our society.” His intervention met with loud applause, and the Synod voted to extend time for the debate.
Gray’s motion called for the church to appoint a task force capable of convening charities, government, and the private sector in a larger discussion, and exploring a variety of potential efforts, including giving up church lands for building new social housing, support for those with problems of mental health or addiction, and help for the homeless in moving back into the workplace. A number of speakers stated their belief in the church’s unique ability to mediate between others and drive the discussion.
“All those charities with whom I have spoken have expressed the strongest interest in gaining the support and help of the church,” Gray said.
As stark as the debate and stories were throughout the session, Bishop Conway put things in an even clearer perspective: “I share my home with an elderly cat,” he said. “If anything were to happen to me, then my cat stands a better chance [of receiving care] than the average homeless person.”
A variety of speakers gave personal testimony about their work with the homeless and the change it afforded in their perspective, from Millie Cork, a young member from the Diocese of Leeds, to the Archbishop of York, the Most Rev. John Sentamu. The debate was also a reminder that many bishops serve with homelessness charities in their dioceses.
The Chair of Mission for the Archbishops’ Council, Mark Sheard, assured the Synod that he supported the motion “with all [his] heart,” and that the council would pursue it with vigor and urgency: “We need something agile,” he said, “something that’s going to make a difference now.” Synod could help “rid this land of the scourge of homelessness.”
After considerable discussion, the Synod supported the motion unanimously.
It was not the only discussion in which poverty played an important role. As relatively minor legislation came up earlier in the day, about increasing church fees for occasional offices like weddings and funerals, fully a third of the Synod voted against it, with many speakers claiming that high fees were harming society and the Church.
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt. Rev. Philip North, said high fees were “pricing the poor out of the pastoral and sacramental ministry of the church.”
Given a 22 percent drop in marriages in recent years, other speakers suggested that at least studying the issue was in order. Canon John Spence, CBE, chair of the Finance Committee for Archbishops’ Council, urged the Synod to pass the current legislation, trusting that such study would be done.
The legislation passed.
Other important legislation throughout the day included approving a code of practice on ecumenical relations, a change to the church representation rules that govern synodical structures, and a measure that frees small, understaffed churches from the canonical requirement to hold services each Sunday.
The evening closed with a discussion of the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Advisory Group and the Living in Love and Faith project. The Pastoral Advisory Group unveiled six “pastoral principles for living well together,” which were announced by Church House the next day with a slightly different title: “Pastoral principles for welcoming LGBTI+ people.” They name issues of prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy, and power.
A lengthy presentation on the Living in Love and Faith project followed, including the objects and aims of its work, which have developed in recent months.
During discussion of both the Pastoral Advisory Group and Living in Love and Faith, speakers made clear that neither effort was designed to lead to crafting public prayer or new liturgy, such as the blessing or solemnization of same-sex marriages in Church of England parishes.