By Zachary Guiliano
The Archbishop of Canterbury and others frequently dubbed the General Synod’s late February sessions “the Synod for evangelism.” It is easy to see why: three motions touched directly on the topic; two other motions on the Church of England’s ministry were indirectly related or took on a new note as a result of context; and the addresses from Anglican Communion guests and the presidential address of the Archbishop of Canterbury focused on the topic.
As a result, the Synod spent nearly a quarter of its time on evangelism, mostly during its Feb. 22 session. Like the debate on homelessness, the topic was originally deferred during the July 2018 session of Synod because of time constraints.
The Rev. Barry Hill, team rector of Market Harborough in the Diocese of Leicester, moved the first general motion on evangelism, which aims at a wholesale culture change in the Church of England. It calls on “every worshiping community to make evangelism a planned priority for the coming year and always.”
It also commends the work of the new Evangelism and Discipleship team in the Archbishops’ Council, which has engaged in a variety of efforts, along with its evangelism task group. The council’s spending on evangelism has been significant in recent years, particularly as a result of the more than £46 million released as Strategic Development Funding given to diocesan mission plans.
Other notable efforts include the church’s burgeoning digital evangelism and discipleship efforts, as well as Thy Kingdom Come, initially a national but now a “global wave of prayer” for the empowerment of mission by the gift of the Spirit.
Evangelism “changes everything,” Abp. Justin Welby said during the first debate. “When we talk of evangelism and discipleship, we are talking about a radically, differently shaped Church, which starts with being filled afresh with the Spirit of God, consumed with the love of God for us, for the world, and obsessed by the vision of God of the world, which we seek to change to show the shape of his love.”
Culture change will be required for the motions to succeed. Few of the motions have provision that will formally require anything of the church, whether in releasing funding or authorizing changes in dioceses. The language is primarily that of commending and encouraging particular efforts named in the reports to the Synod.
The Bishop of Burnley, Philip North, took an atypical approach. While introducing his motion about evangelism on impoverished housing estates, he said he would ask Synod “to vote against” it.
“It would be very easy to nod through a motion on estates evangelism because it ticks so many boxes,” he said. “In fact there’s something in it for everyone. We’ve got evangelism for the evangelicals, the social gospel for the liberals, and the bias to the poor for the Catholics. All we need is some loud-mouthed rhetorical speeches to clap and we can click the green button on our voting machines and head for the bar. … I want you to vote this motion down and vote it down decisively if you are not up for the implications.”
The motion on estates evangelism, if followed through, would indeed amount to a sea change, potentially affecting every diocese. It would provide the impetus for sending priests back into parishes from which they had been withdrawn years before, building new congregations in areas of social housing, and finding ways to ensure that those who live in “estates and other marginalized communities” are included, as well as “heard and heeded,” in the church’s governance and in its ordinations.
The church would need “not just to enter the estates, but stay there,” said the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullaly. “I know there is a cost.”
The costs would not simply be financial, but personal. The Rev. Jason Roach, assistant curate at Christ Church Mayfair, is one who knows those costs. He ministers on an estate marred by knife crimes plaguing London, with the violence “some meters” from his house. Yet he spoke powerfully of the church’s ministry and proclamation. Those on estates “often lap up these promises of beauty out of ashes and joy out of mourning.”
Many of the speeches became raw. Christopher Paye, a member from Liverpool, spoke of being in a parish “at the top of the deprivation scales.” “I’m not asking for billions,” he said. “I’m asking for a few bob.”
In her first speech to the Synod, Izzy McDonald-Booth, from a suddenly booming parish in an estate in Newcastle Diocese, provided a phrase that others would repeat. One young person had begged her, “Please don’t leave us.”
When the Synod turned to youth evangelism on Feb. 23, Canon Mark Russell, the director of Church Army, would echo Burnley’s advice. Synod should “vote against” youth evangelism, unless it would commit the resources. “The situation is bleak,” he said, with relatively few children under 16 in the vast majority of parishes. “Let’s be frank: the numbers are so bad, it wouldn’t take [much] to turn it around.”
Many speakers lined up to address the motion, and support it strongly. The Rev. Canon Leah Vasey-Saunders, a member of Synod from the Diocese of Leeds, struck a critical note, urging the church to act, given its history and current state. At 38, she said, “I have been the youngest person in the room in most church gatherings since I was ordained in 2003.”
In 1996, the church addressed ministry to young people through its Youth Apart report. “How much have we seen the wisdom of Youth Apart manifested?” she asked. “Synod has said good things before, but now is the time to act.”
Numerous members highlighted the good work of youth workers, and credited them with bringing them to faith or encouraging them when they were young. A few others, however, addressed what Lucy Gorman (York) called a silence in the room: the church’s position on LGBT persons.
Simon Friend (Exeter) described the position of his four boys, who all enjoyed good children’s and youth ministry at their church, and are now all in higher education: “At university, none of them are now interested in joining a church, he said. … “One of the reasons they don’t currently attend church is due to the church’s” ambivalence about “inclusion of LGBT+ people.”
Mark Russell affirmed that these points were key, calling youth “a prophetic voice” the church must heed.
The two other substantial motions on ministry involved substantial debates on ministry with children and among Gypsy, Roma, and Traveler communities. Other business on the third and fourth days of Synod included motions on environmental efforts, proposed changes to the Crown Nominations Commission (which were voted down), and a reduction in gambling advertising, particularly at sporting events and online. The latter comes in the wake of the church’s successful work with the government on fixed-odds betting.
After a period of debate and prayer, a final motion from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, offered in light of the Brexit deadline on March 29, called on the church to support the United Kingdom in prayer, reaffirmed “the Christian commitment to the voices of the poor and the marginalized,” and urged the nation’s leaders “to work together for that common good at this time of division.”