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Rumbling and Remembering

General Synod began with a bit of humor and contention Feb. 13. A tinny electronic piano helped lead the Synod in “All My Hope on God Is Founded” and sound problems humorously plagued the opening moments. But a series of angry or hurt speeches soon began, in what might otherwise have been an innocuous “take note” debate of the schedule formed by the business committee.

Jayne Ozanne, LGBT activist and a lay member for the Diocese of Oxford, was the first to speak in favor of changing the Synod’s schedule, arguing that “group work” was not fitting for the sexuality debate. “What is completely priceless and can never be bought? Trust,” she said. “And right now I suggest this Synod has a trust problem.”

She worried that private group work, rather than open debate, was faulty for three reasons: there would be no “formal reporting” or “record,” participants might not “be safe,” and open debate could serve as “a mechanism for people to know they’ve been heard.” There was less chance of “the bishops” ignoring it.

Four others spoke against the schedule or the bishops’ report, or raised questions. The Rev. Canon Simon Butler, prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, worried especially about safeguarding in the discussions, saying he had already received a “homophobic” text message that morning from another Synod member, asking about his lifestyle, which amounted to “harassment.”

Significant applause concluded each statement calling for a change to the schedule, though it is unclear whether the statements made a difference. In response to these speeches, the Rev. Canon Sue Booys, chair of the business committee, said she took the “criticism” of the schedule “on the chin.” She also noted that while only the presidents of Synod (the Archbishops of Canterbury and York) had the authority to change the schedule, the Synod could still express its disapproval of the schedule by refusing to “take note of the report standing in [her] name.”

Synod took note of the report.

Remembering the Reformation

A debate on GS 2044, regarding the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, took up the remaining time before the Archbishop of Canterbury’s presidential address. Moved by the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt. Rev. Christopher Cocksworth, GS 2044 focused especially on the “signs of convergence” between various churches on the doctrine of justification, and commended “initiatives in this anniversary year to foster mutual understanding and reconciliation between churches.”

Bishop Cocksworth’s speech highlighted especially how the preacher to the papal household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, had noted the importance of the anniversary when speaking to General Synod in November 2015: “The Christian world is preparing to mark the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation,” he said. “It is vital for the whole Church that this opportunity is not wasted.”

Throughout his speech, Bishop Cocksworth highlighted statements from a series of ecumenical and inter-Anglican documents, as well as central biblical texts on salvation and reconciliation from Ephesians 2.

He closed by saying that the Reformation’s anniversary “invites every Christian to … share the astounding news of God reaching out to the world, running to meet us in Christ and embracing us into his life by the Spirit with an infinity of love that lifts us into the full stature of our humanity and raises us into the joyful responsibility of being human.”

A substantive motion sought an amendment, introduced by Angus MacLeay (Diocese of Rochester). He moved that the following phrase be inserted: that the Synod “give thanks for the rich spiritual blessings that the Reformation brought to the Church of England.”

The Bishop of Coventry later thanked the Synod for a significant “level of debate.” Essentially all who spoke welcomed the original motion and the amendment. Patricia Hawkins (Diocese of Lichfield) sounded nearly the only note of caution, which appeared to be common as well: that the motion should not appear to raise “sectarian feeling.”

Others, such as the Rev. Dagmar Winter, Synod member for Newcastle, noted a range of practical riches offered by the doctrine of justification and the C of E’s Reformation heritage. “Sola gratia remains complete news to many, many Anglicans,” who otherwise feel they must earn their salvation, she said.

Others raised the heritage of placing Scripture at the center of the church’s life. The Rev. Philip Plyming (Diocese of Guildford) did so especially, even bringing up the current Playmobil figure of Luther, which portrays him holding the German Bible. The Bishop of Blackburn highlighted this attention to Scripture, as well as the significant attention given to the Reformation recently by Roman Catholics: “If our Catholic friends can say it, so should we.”

The Bishop of Coventry thanked the Synod for its significant support of the motion. Synod approved it almost unanimously. “I’ll leave it to you” to wonder what “Luther would have made of small graven images” of him made popular by Playmobil, said the Rt. Rev. David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, who moderated the discussion.

The Presidential Address

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech was relatively brief at less than 25 minutes. It focused especially on what it would mean for General Synod (and other church bodies) to be “truly synodical, on the way together,” what temptations it might encounter, and just what sort of time it was living through.

In light of vast changes represented by the Brexit votes and the election of Donald Trump, he said:

This is a moment to reimagine Britain, a moment of potential opportunity, certainly combined with immensely hard work and heavy lifting. It is a moment of challenge, but challenge that as a nation can be overcome with the right practices, values, culture and spirit. This could be a time of liberation, of seizing and defining the future, or it could be one in which the present problems seize our national future and define us.

Which is where we come in. Let’s not be too self-important. I don’t mean we, the Church of England, are the answer. But we can be part of the answer, we have a voice and a contribution and a capacity and a reach and above all a Lord who is faithful when we fail and faithful when we flourish.

Succumbing to various temptations would prevent the church from taking part in that reimagining: temptations to self-indulgence, relevance, and “short cuts and easy solutions.” He called the Synod especially to draw near to the Cross.

He spoke of how, as a canon at Coventry Cathedral, he often looked at the tapestry of Christ in glory. He drew the Synod’s attention to a human figure nestled between the wounded feet of Christ, before drawing a lesson from it:

It is in closeness to the crucified, in sharing in the burdens of that crucifixion by our own cross carrying, that we are truly secure in our future in this world at this time.

We are called to be the people of the cross, to live as those whose only hope is God, closely nestling in the presence of Christ, seeing and loving the world around as Christ does, so that in this time of a choice between national hope and opportunity or threat and fear we may play the part to which we are called in reimagining our country and seizing the best future that lies before us.

The Synod closed with more than an hour dedicated to answering dozens of previously submitted questions, as well as supplementary questions. Synod members already had the original questions before them, so nearly every person with a question used the time to make a political statement or ask a supplementary question. Here, there was a fair level of what the Synod’s guidelines for members call “playing to the gallery”: asking gotcha-style questions with colorful language, in a hope that reporters would record them.

Most members of the press, however, had already left or sat working on other items. Even Twitter kept its peace.

The first day of Synod closed in prayer.


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