By Mark Michael

Anxiety about the future of the Church of England’s parish system, unity across differences over the ordination of women, and the adequacy of its clergy discipline system featured prominently in the latest semiannual session of its General Synod, held online July 9-12.

Parish System

In his opening presidential address, Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell thanked church leaders for their faithfulness and perseverance in difficult times, and directly addressed criticisms that the call for 10,000 lay-led church plants by the Vision and Strategy group he chairs would undermine the parish system and sideline ordained ministers.

“Apparently, in some quarters it has been suggested that, somehow, clergy are a limiting factor on church growth. I think I want to agree. A shortage of clergy would really limit us. We need more vocations. That is my prayer: priests to serve a priestly people,” Cottrell said.

Cottrell’s assurances did not allay all concerns. Even before debate of the Vision and Strategy group’s report began on July 12, lay representative Sam Margrave from the Diocese of Coventry sought to adjourn the session. “I am aware the bulldozers are waiting outside many of our parishes, waiting to tear them down physically or spiritually,” he pleaded. “If we pass this report, we are handing a gun to the dioceses to kill off the Church as we know it.”

The Rev. Andrew Lightbown, a representative from the Diocese of Oxford, said that church-planting leader Canon John McGinley’s description of the clergy as “limiting factors” was demeaning. Prudence Dailey of Oxford Diocese said that funds invested in new worshipping communities would inevitably lead to the neglect of traditional parish ministry and that she could not vote to approve the report without clearer assurances that the members of the Vision and Strategy group clearly supported the parish system.

Cottrell promised that no such neglect was intended, and that if he thought the group’s plan to lead the Church of England to become “simpler, humbler, bolder” would undermine parish ministry, he would also refuse to vote for it. Bishop Philip North, a conservative Anglo-Catholic leader, came to Cottrell’s defense, noting the robust heritage of church planting within his own tradition, and emphasizing that the vision and strategy outlined was not a “tribally Evangelical” venture.

The Vision and Strategy group’s proposal was, in the end, approved 285-8, with 17 abstentions.

Tensions also ran high during a discussion of a proposal to reform the complex processes by which bishops and diocesan teams carry out pastoral reorganization, the umbrella term for creating, uniting, altering, and dissolving parish structures and the closing of church buildings. A commission is working on a proposed revision of Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011, which enables the process, and expect to release draft legislation for the synod’s February 2022 session.

A green paper from the Church Commissioners, who manage the Church of England’s common funds, notes that the reform is necessary, as the pandemic has intensified social, demographic, and financial pressures on local parishes. The Church of England owns 45% of the country’s Grade 1 listed buildings, which are subject to the strictest conservation requirements, it noted, and “many clergy find managing these buildings a burden and a struggle, but there are also many who find they help with mission by creating opportunities for outreach and community engagement.”

Emily Bagg, a lay representative from Portsmouth Diocese and the wife of a priest whose parish was recently dissolved through pastoral reorganization, testified to the failures of the current system. She recognized that closing the parish was the right step, but said it had caused “deep harm to my husband, which led him to deeply question his calling,” and said that the poorly managed financial arrangements around the end of her husband’s tenure had left the couple with a £20,000 tax bill.

Philip Blinkhorn from Manchester said his diocese was facing multiple church closures over a ten-year period, and that the pandemic had made some marginal situations untenable. Martin Kingston of Gloucester Diocese urged that the new system be more flexible. “Emily Bagg has highlighted the human face of getting it right. It needs to feel like something driven by local priorities: centrally only when some important principle or point of law is involved.”

Unity Across Differences

Heated debate was also aroused by a report from the group responsible for monitoring the church’s faithfulness to the Five Guiding Principles which aim to secure the “flourishing” of traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals who object to the ordination of women. The synod had been scheduled to debate the circumstances around the failed nomination of Philip North as Bishop of Sheffield in 2017. North, the only traditionalist to be nominated as a diocesan bishop since the 2014 approval of female bishops, withdrew from the process after intense public objection. Partly at North’s request, the agenda was revised to discuss only the principles themselves.

The Rev. David Fisher of Salisbury Diocese was one of several speakers who claimed that most Church of England parishes had never heard of the principles. At a recent meeting of the committee tasked with choosing Salisbury’s new bishop, he said, a fellow cleric had remarked “We must have the Five Guiding Principles for you Anglo-Catholics.” Fisher said he responded that they were for the good of the whole church. “If they disappear, so will unity in the Church of England.”

Other speakers during the debate, though, said they could not support the principles. The Rev. Alicia Dring described them as a form of institutional discrimination. “Mutuality must work both ways,” she said. “It must encompass the needs of the whole people of God, not a minority.” Jenny Humphreys of Bath & Wells added that there is already a higher proportion of bishops who do not ordain women than parishes that want their oversight, and several speakers said that parish websites should be required to indicate their theological position on women’s orders.

Bishop Sarah Mullaly of London, the first woman to hold one of the Church’s great sees, said that she supported the principles and the report, but added, “the work can’t stop here, nor [the acknowledgement] that it sometimes hurts.”  She also noted that female clergy, including herself, are more often abused on social media. “We need to get to grips with that… be intentionally engaged about where we stand. We have chosen to live with one another in total agreement and love.”

The motion to receive the report was approved 25-1 among the bishops, but only 93-39 among the clergy and 93-40 among the laity.

Clergy Discipline

The synod also considered a proposal for reforming the Clergy Discipline Measure, which has been widely criticized for its cost and inefficiency. The new system would separate out “misconduct,” i.e., allegations of serious wrongdoing, from “complaints.” Diocesan bishops would have the authority to determine the category into which a particular allegation fell.

The Rt. Worshipful Peter Collier QC, the senior ecclesiastical lawyer in the Province of York, who chaired an independent working group set up by the Ecclesiastical Law Society to consider revisions to the measure, criticized the working draft shared with synod in a July 1 Church Times article. He said the nomenclature of “complaints” and “misconduct” was confusing, and that the proposal’s inclusion of trivial matters like “inefficiency” and “inappropriate behavior” among potential issues of misconduct would do little to streamline the process.

Dr. Sarah Horsman, who leads the Sheldon Hub’s initiative on discipline reform, said in a recent letter to Church Times, that the person responsible for classifying complaints “needs to be independent of the diocese, with reliable training, formal accountability and the ability to act swiftly. Bishops are the wrong people for this role.”

While the synod voted 299-4 to approve the report from the group developing the new legislation, it also passed a separate motion that nodded to Collier’s concern that the ambiguity of the proposed twin tracks “is likely to perpetuate existing trauma of clergy being subjected to serious formal process for some conduct which does not justify prohibition from ministry and the loss of home or livelihood.”

The motion urged instead that initial assessments distinguish between “complaints not involving misconduct,” “misconduct that is less than serious,” and “serious misconduct.” Only offenses in the latter category would require a formal tribunal process. Synod also encouraged the implementation committee to speed up its work, so the new measure could be approved next year.

The busy session also appointed a body to oversee the next stage of ecumenical relations with the Methodist Church, received updates on the churchwide reception of the Living in Love and Faith process’s discernment about sexuality and identity and the implementation of more robust standards for safeguarding, acting on the recommendations of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. It reviewed proposals for reforming bishop selection and synod election to encourage greater diversity among applicants and approved the Church of England’s 2022 budget. The Church Commissioners also presented a report on its progress toward prioritizing carbon neutral investment in the church’s investment portfolio.

The session was the last for the current membership of the lay and clerical houses, with online elections for five-year terms scheduled for early fall. General Synod expects to convene next, in-person, in London in November 2021.

This article is based on the excellent synod reporting of Church Times.