A ‘Culture of Mistrust’ at General Synod

Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, gives his address at General Synod. | Archbishop of York

By Rosie Dawson

Learning to trust is one of life’s most difficult tasks, according to the 18th-century hymnwriter Isaac Watts. How to regain trust once it’s lost is the challenge now facing the Church of England. This applies not only to its relationship with survivors of abuse but also to its relationship with its General Synod.

Even before the four-day gathering in York began, a paper on National Church Governance (GS2307) had warned of a “culture of mistrust” and poor relationships between national church institutions and General Synod. Levels of trust were so low that some people (bishops are people too) were afraid to speak, or felt that they were being silenced.

Even the failure of the livestream was put down to Church House spin doctors rather than to technical errors. When the feed was working, the online audience witnessed synod members taking on the secretariat, and the eventual resignation of one of its most prominent members, Gavin Drake, who through his work as communications director of the Anglican Communion Office is well known in global circles.

“It really has all blown up in our faces,” one member said to me. “No one can remember a synod like it.”

With the decision at the end of June by the Archbishops’ Council to disband the Independent Safeguarding Board, safeguarding was bound to be the main drama. Already on July 7 there was confusion about whether the archbishops had supported sacking two of the three ISB members, requiring a further hasty statement from Church House emphasizing that the decision had indeed been unanimous.

Jane Chevous, founder and codirector of Survivors Voices, was invited to address synod on July 9, and she spoke about the effects of that decision on her. She and other survivors had high hopes for ISB, she said, but their trust in the church had been shattered. “You could not have got it more wrong, and survivors have paid the price.”

Her presentation was followed by members of the Archbishops’ Council offering their perceptions about what had gone wrong. Much of this had already been presented to synod in a paper by William Nye, secretary general of both General Synod and the Archbishops’ Council, who claimed that the two ISB members refused to work in a collegial spirit, did not fulfil their remit, and engaged in unhelpful press briefings.

Archbishop Stephen Cottrell acknowledged that the council had made mistakes, and he wished it had handled things differently. “I imagine Jesus weeps over this situation — and I know many of us are not far from those tears as well.”

In what some saw as a farce and others as the following of due process, members sought an opportunity for the two sacked ISB members, Steve Reeves and Jasvinder Sanghera, to address the synod. The archbishops could have suspended standing orders, but this would have required joint approval, and Archbishop Justin Welby had left York to attend to his gravely ill mother.

Eventually a way was found. “Standing orders were being thrown around like we normally hand out sweeties,” said Rebecca Chapman of the Diocese of Southwark.

Steve Reeves launched an excoriating attack on the Archbishops’ Council. “When the Archbishops’ Council talks about trust, they do not mean trust in the way that you or I or the average person in the street means trust,” he said. “When they talk about trust … they mean obedience.”

Subdued, members had a break for dinner before moving to other business, but more drama came the next day when Drake resigned from synod, accusing church lawyers of “procedural shenanigans” seeking to frustrate its will to debate the issue further.

“If the General Synod of the Church of England is unable to hold the Archbishops’ Council and its National Safeguarding Team to account, if we are unable to bring about proper change, if we are going to be blocked from hearing who we want to hear from, and stopped from debating what we want to debate, then what is it for?” he asked.

The other hot topic at synod was, of course, Living in Love and Faith’s prayers for same-sex blessings. Synod had an informal meeting rather than a formal session, and it was intended to give members an update on the blessings synod approved in principle in February.

Since then, three working groups of bishops have been drafting new pastoral guidance, refining the texts of the prayers, and exploring what pastoral reassurance might be necessary for those unable to approve or use them. Sandy Thomas of Chelmsford asked bishops what work would be done to mitigate distress to congregations that find themselves in services where prayers might be used without prior notice and urged them not to forget the laity.

“We need looking after too,” she said. “In my own church there is a large group of people who are close to walking away.”

Ros Clarke of Lichfield wanted to know whether bishops were allowing for the possibility that disagreement on the issue “is too deep and too serious” and that “ walking together is not a realistic goal.”

Bishop Rose Hudson-Wilkin of Dover, who is not on any of the working groups, was angry at what she saw as a “callous refusal to work together” and “glib” talk about “differentiation” (alternative structural and episcopal oversight). “My heart is breaking, listening and hearing this conversation, when there are real issues out there,” she said. “Is this really the most important issue, and why is it? What does this say about us?”

“Trust came up repeatedly as an issue, most notably around Safeguarding and Living in Love and Faith, but the role of the parish is another significant area of unease,” Archdeacon Stewart Fyfe of Carlisle, who chairs the Rural Interest Group on General Synod, told TLC. “Questions of the strategic value of the parish, its funding, and resourcing all create a latent unease, anxiety, and, in places, anger from folk in the grassroots. What emerged from synod is that there is no national strategic thinking going on about rural parishes.”

Citing Cornwall as an example, the Rev. Marcus Walker of the Save the Parish Movement told synod that significantly more churches close in low-income areas than in those that are more affluent.

“We know how it works,” he said. “First you shrink the number of clergy, then you merge the number of churches. Then those churches are shut one by one. The Word of God is available only if you have a car that can drive you there.”

There was frustration that a session on “Revitalizing the Parish” was limited to 45 minutes, with no opportunity for debate. The Archbishop of York offered the closing comment: “It’s a ten-second speech, “ he said. “I blame no one, but I lament the fact that when we come to discuss [the church’s] vision and strategy, the time is always squeezed.”

Given the dissatisfaction about process throughout the sessions, it was perhaps not surprising that proposals for a thorough overhaul of church governance won synod’s overwhelming approval.

The National Church Governance Project Board made 17 recommendations, including the creation of Church of England National Services (CENS), a new body that will combine most of the functions of the Archbishops’ Council, Church Commissioners, and the Office of the Archbishops. Once again the issue of trust emerged.

“I have been personally shocked by the depth of resentment and mistrust that pervades relationships between different organizations, traditions, and people within the church family,” said Sir David Lidington, chairman of the project’s board. He believed governance reform could “help create the cultural change needed to overcome that mistrust.”

His report spoke of the need for a “sustained commitment to collaborative action and habits of mutual respect by every leader and institution within the Church of England.”

Perhaps the value of this synod was a reminder of how just how far the church has to go to achieve that goal.


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