By Rosie Dawson
The Church of England’s General Synod, meeting in York on July 8-12, gave the wider Anglican Communion a larger say in choosing the next Archbishop of Canterbury, while urging churches to reduce carbon emissions and committing to fuller inclusion of disabled people.
Synod agreed overwhelmingly to a proposal by the Archbishops’ Council that increases the number of communion representatives on the Crowns Nomination Commission (CNC) from one to five when choosing the archbishop. The number of representatives from the Diocese of Canterbury will be reduced from six to three. It was also agreed that the five communion representatives should include at least two women and two men and that the majority should be of Global Majority heritage.
The proposal argued for change because Archbishop Welby spends a quarter of his time on communion matters and less than five percent in his diocese. Most diocesan matters are handled instead by the Bishop of Dover. TLC editorialized about the proposal, urging the Church of England to take the lead in sacrificing some of its autonomy in service to a more robust ecclesial life for the Communion.
Despite the proposal’s widespread support, some believe that it gives other churches too much say in the Church of England’s internal affairs. Others argue that it could pre-empt discussions about whether the role of the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion should rotate among other provinces rather than rest in Canterbury.
Rebecca Chapman of Southwark questioned how the change had come about, arguing that it would alter “our fundamental ecclesiology, our understanding of what it means to be a bishop, an archbishop, and to be in communion.”
She said the resolution needed more “leg work,” adding: “I also wonder what it says to the Anglican Communion and to our Church of England about process and discernment when we consider replacing three elected members with those who may be appointed.”
In response, Archbishop Stephen Cottrell of York said robust conversation on the issue had begun years ago. “I believe this is the right thing to do and we have gone about it in the right way,” he said.
Net Zero Emissions by 2030
Synod also supported plans for churches to achieve net zero carbon emissions within eight years. A “routemap,” drawn up under the leadership of the Bishop of Norwich, has no legislative teeth, but instead suggests measures it believes churches can take to reach the target.
The Rt. Rev. Graham Usher told synod the routemap “focuses on simple steps that every church community can take. Changing to LED lighting on a renewable energy tariff, reducing draughts, good maintenance … heating people, rather than the angels carved on our church roof.”
Seven percent of the Church of England’s 16,000 churches have already achieved net zero carbon. Synod members watched a film showcasing some of the initiatives. The Church Commissioners have pledged £190 million to support projects across the church.
Usher urged members to “think of the missional messages that this will send of what we treasure and value, of what we want to repent of and seek justice for … not only messages within and from our church communities but from our schools, where potentially a million lives will be learning and living net zero from within their classroom.”
The debate was interrupted by a group of protesters from Christian Climate Action (CCA), who unfurled a banner in front of a silent chamber calling for the church to divest from fossil fuels.
The Rev. Robert Thompson of London asked that standing orders be suspended to allow one of the demonstrators to speak, but he was refused. Instead the session adjourned for ten minutes while the protesters were escorted from the chamber.
“I felt in that moment that the CCA people were voicing the trauma that the entire creation groans under, to use St. Paul’s phrase, and that standing orders should be suspended so they could bear witness to that pain,” Thompson later told TLC. “CCA has deeply impressed me, making me more conscious of my own pitiful stewardship of the environment. Theirs is truly a missional witness.”
In a video message posted on social media, the Rev. Sue Parfit of CCA said the group wanted to draw synod’s attention to the areas of the church that continue to invest in fossil fuels, including twelve dioceses, the Church Commissioners, and the Pensions Board.
During the adjournment, Archbishop Justin Welby approached Parfitt and agreed to speak to the group after the session.
Including the Disabled
There were several moving contributions to a debate about the ways in which disabled people could be fully included in the life of the church. A motion committing to full inclusion passed unanimously in all three houses of synod.
The Rev. Tim Goode of Southwark, who brought the motion, told synod that the church often presents insurmountable challenges to disabled people, failing to notice them and sometimes discriminating against them.
“The church is not a safe place for disabled people to flourish,” Goode said. “It is not a safe place because many believe that disclosing disability or neurodiversity will lead to discrimination. Disabled people are all too often misrepresented as passive and devoid of personal agency.”
Fiona MacMillan of London warned that “disabled people who can’t access a building won’t just wait outside patiently for the promise of future access. Those met with the constant drip of what is not possible and why will stop asking and will simply stop coming. Accessibility is not an act of charity but a matter of justice.”
Canon Rachel Mann of Manchester spoke of her body as a “beautiful wreck” and a bearer of God’s image. She asked synod not to lose sight of the cost of living with invisible disabilities.
“As I speak to you, the waste stuff of my insides pumps out into a bag, and you might imagine I should be embarrassed to tell you that, but I find God in the midst of this reality. … The riches of God are found as we celebrate the diversity of these fragile, ever-changing bodies which we are.”
The motion included a request to revise liturgies that might appear exclusive, such as rubrics directing that worshipers “all stand.”
Clergy Discipline and Nominations
There was warm support for proposals to replace the Clergy Disciplinary Measure (CDM) of 2003 with a new clergy-conduct measure. The Archbishops’ Council was asked to prepare legislation for the change as soon as possible. The new measure will categorize complaints according to their severity, so that action against the clergy is proportionate to the grievance.
Amanda Robbie of Lichfield said the CDM has become a weaponized complaints system that punishes the accused without any finding of facts. She said it has brought her and her husband to the lowest point they have ever been as a couple in ministry.
“I urge the implementation group to thoroughly consider that abuse from above by clergy can be matched by abuse from below. Clergy and their families can find themselves in crushing grip between vexatious complainants or those with a disordered personality and the power of the bishop.” She also called for a full definition of vexatious complaints, and for clergy training in understanding personality disorders.
Elections were also held for membership on the Crown Nominations Commission, which will seek to fill six episcopal vacancies in the next year. Candidates were asked to present themselves in pairs so they could share the workload. Eleven of the 12 successful candidates came from the Southern province.
One unsuccessful candidate, new synod member Nicola Denyer of Newcastle, told TLC she was concerned about the lack of Northern voices on the CNC.
“I stood for election because I think I have skills to embolden people in the dioceses to tell the truth to the CNC about what they need in their bishop. The dioceses in the North are different. As a Northerner, I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable if everyone on the CNC was speaking in a certain way, or not understanding where we are coming from.”
She believes this imbalance of representation extends beyond the CNC’s membership.
“It seems that a lot of chairs at synod are from the Southern province. I think there’s something about people from the North not feeling as valued or heard.”
There was no debate on the Living in Love and Faith process exploring gender identity, sexuality, and marriage. Members spent an hour in small groups, with the aim of achieving a “deeper mutual understanding … and gracious discernment and decision-making in February 2023.” Bishops will spend the autumn considering what proposals to bring to synod in February.
“There were some people who were hurt by the conversations,” Nicola Denyer said. “I saw the disappointment and tiredness of people around it. It’s like there’s this massive intake of bated breath. What are the bishops going to do in the autumn, what are they going to bring to synod? We need to get to an endpoint.”
In other business, synod debated the war in Ukraine, urging the government to work toward a negotiated peace, and encouraging churches in their work of providing long-term hospitality for refugees. It also resisted calls for changes to the law on euthanasia and called on the government to compel age verification on pornographic websites.