I’ve survived my first General Synod. I must admit, I was very nervous before heading off to York last Friday. It’s always weird joining something ‘halfway-in’ as it were; it’s tricky being the new girl when everyone else seems to know each other very well already (even if that perception is illusory). I also felt like a bit of a marked woman, in part because I knew it was perhaps harder for me to be as incognito as many others in my position.
I’ve had to come home early, so – while everything is fresh – I thought I’d jot down a few general notes …
· Synod really is very odd, in a mostly charming way. Once one is in the ‘York campus bubble’ (I know it will be different in London) it can very difficult to escape; time and space warp and after a while it can be difficult to tell what day it is.
· Synod is sometimes accused of not being terribly representative of the wider C of E. There is a truth to this. There are a significant number of quite remarkable eccentrics and curiosities, amongst whom I count me. In that respect, perhaps I’ve found my tribe (or one of them). If I am not exactly to the taste of many at Synod, there is a sense in which even those who might find me irritating or even anathema are more like me than they are to those who don’t stand for Synod. We are united in an activity that is odd, rewarding and strange.
· Synod includes people who possess remarkable levels of knowledge and experience on a huge variety of topics. It is encouraging and impressive for the prospects of the Church. There is a quality of thought and attention that is not always captured in the media’s obsessions with the quick headlines.
· The backline staff, including the people who help the chair match faces to requests to speak, are high quality.
· There is a lot more humour than one might expect.
· Sometimes it can feel like a grind to get through the amendments, but it struck me as worth it; so often the devil is in the detail and good canon law requires seriously careful attention.
· There is (to my admittedly tortuously academic mind), a little less theology than I should like.
· John Spence, of the Archbishops’ Council, is a bit of a legend.
· I felt very much at home after a few hours, mainly because most people are very friendly and kind. I had some unexpectedly lovely conversations with people I might not otherwise get to chat to, who expanded my understanding of the C of E and its possibilities.
· When you are an introvert like me, Synod can be very intense and tiring.
Some more specific points:
There were powerful debates and discussions around safeguarding, climate change and the work of National Investment Bodies, as well as the ethics of nuclear weapons, among other things. It was fascinating to witness how much Synod has processes which mirror Parliament (one needs to stand if one wants to speak, for example; there are order papers and so on), yet debate is far more civilised, although it can get tetchy at times.
Much depends on the skill of the chair and their team to ensure that Synod hears a variety of positions and is kept to time. Sometimes it seems mysterious why some people get called and others don’t. I hope that will become clearer over time.
As an old rhetorician and debater, it was also fascinating to witness the techniques speakers and advocates deploy. Synod loves a bit of humour and a bite-sized metaphor; some deploy anecdote and emotion with mixed results; some operate by being careful technocrats.
Beyond the big debates, there are some extraordinarily detailed debates on draft legislation. It is where those with technical (dare I suggest ‘nit-picking’, in the best sense) brains come into their own. I found it fascinating and the ex-philosopher in me could see how I could end up getting into that way of thinking if I don’t control myself.
Of course, inevitably, there was reference to sex and sexuality and gender. The Saturday afternoon was devoted to seminars exploring a range of topics that were dominated by updates on where the Teaching Document on relationships and marriage is up to.
I don’t want to dwell on personalities or specific details here, mainly to give the process devoted to this Document (or set of documents) time to breathe. Nonetheless, I was not without anxiety regarding the three seminars I attended.
I was quite worried about the lack of trans and intersex voices in key areas. I’m delighted that Tina Beardsley is part of the Co-ordinating Group for this work, but there are some glaring absences in other areas I really hope can be addressed. I managed to have some conversations with relevant people about these absences and we shall see if anything emerges (I do not hold my breath!). I hope there is still time for some new voices to be added – not as witnesses speaking to members of established work streams or the pastoral advisory group, but as full members. I desperately want this work for the House of Bishops to have credibility; it still runs the risk of failing hold the trust of the wider LGBTI faith community because of absent representatives who can speak out of lived experience, as well as think about it in a scholarly way.
Finally, I thought I’d share the text of my Maiden Speech in Synod. I spoke as part of the Nuclear Weapons debate, proposed by Stephen Cottrell. I was stunned when I was one of the first two people called to speak and I suspect my nerves were evident in my delivery. I think I might have taken more time and been a little less intense! One learns from experience, though I must admit I do rather have a style of my own that I make no apologies for.
It’s been a tremendous privilege to go to my first Synod and represent the clergy of Manchester Diocese. Here’s to going deeper into the mysteries of this governmental process and making a difference!
SPEECH IN SUPPORT OF MOTION ON THE ETHICS OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS
Thank you, Chair, for inviting me to speak on a subject which draws close to many of my abiding concerns. I speak as one who has written about war, military power, remembrance and their place in British cultural myths and identity. I also speak as a recovering teaching fellow in philosophy and ethics.
I speak in support of this motion, though I wish to offer what I feel is a deeply Anglican caution.
As a student of war and its obscene, if sometimes unavoidable effects, I feel confident to say that nuclear weapons are the final iteration of war’s most savage logic, that war is in the business of injuring, it abridges hope and struggles to limit its effects. The specific perversity of nuclear weapons lies in their inability to control their effects at all, even at the tactical level. Their use salts the earth for the innocent and the blameworthy alike. They harness power so titanic it can wipe the earth clean and create seas of crystal glass. Even if we major on their deterrent effect we do so on the presumption of threatened use. Brinksmanship with such weapons represents living less on the promises of the living God and more on the threats of human vanity. The poet Milton reminds us, one of the names of Satan is Lucifer – the light-bringer. The nihilistic brightness of a nuclear blast represents one vision of Lucifer’s light.
And yet, I suggest Anglican ethical thinking requires an acute attention to the located and grounded. We might find it burdensome or irritating, but we are still a parochial church grounded in local community. So, Synod, I say be bold in supporting this motion, but let us avoid the risks of gesture politics. There are communities in places like Barrow-in-Furness that have found their past, present and futures deeply woven into the Nuclear Art of Defence. At a time when many of our poorest communities are breaking under a lack of central funding, the absence of rewarding jobs and profound anxieties about the future, the defence industry, and the remarkable Senior Service of Her Majesty’s armed forces, offer one kind of stability. Yes, a precarious one, but stability nonetheless.
I was raised in a working-class world where work was taken where it could be found, sometimes in the armed forces. So, Synod, while I commend this motion, I do so while inviting us to recognise that should the UK abandon its commitment to Trident there are real implications for work and prospects – often but not exclusively in the underfunded North. An Anglican response surely requires attention to what comes next for human beings should we abandon this unusable hardware. Anything less sends a signal that for the Church of England there are some people in hard-pressed and ignored communities who are easy collateral in our politics of faith.