by Anne Foreman, Member of General Synod, Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation and former National Youth Adviser for the Church of England
“If elected I will serve with the interested of parishes always in mind….” So said my election address for the Church of England’s General Synod in 1999. Now, as I approach my final few months on General Synod, having served on it for two very different Dioceses I have come to the conclusion that the gap between Synodical Structures and Pastoral Parishes is wider still. The central structures have come up with a plethora of initiatives, such as Renewal and Reform, Simplification, Mission Shaped Church, Strategic funding for Resourcing and Planting new church communities, Estates Ministry, Everyday Faith. However, questions need to be asked about how these fine sounding initiatives actually connect with existing neighbourhood schemes of care, advocacy and support? What is more, it often seems to be forgotten that parishes run on shoestring budgets, unlike the eye watering budgets behind these national projects! The relevance of such initiatives to parishes is questionable and so the gap remains. A gap brought sharply into focus by the response of the Institutional Church to Covid-19.
In parishes you do what you can, where you are. So, for the thousands of people going about their business of loving God and their neighbour there appeared to be little understanding at a national level of the impact of closing churches. The physical building of the church, whether in a rural or urban setting, is often the focus from which service to the community springs and sustenance for its worshipping community sought. Suddenly it was not to be available. Despite lockdown first appearing on the scene in mid-March, it was not until the 9th September that anything like an empathetic recognition of the impact on community life by church closures came from the Archbishop of Canterbury, where he said…”worship is the work of God – not a social gathering – and gives the strength to love and serve.” At last we had something that was more than a set of bureaucratic responses to matters of heart and soul. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding that the many imaginative and creative ways of being church locally during this Pandemic has been in spite of national directives, (sorry guidelines), rather than in response to them.
Though General Synod representatives in our diocese work hard to communicate to parishes through contact with their deaneries, it’s a bit of an uphill task to enthuse people about stuff that does not appear relevant to the day to day concerns of their own parish life. Concerns that have increased rather than diminished during this Pandemic. Parish share still has to be found, Annual Meetings still need to happen, faculties still have to be applied for. Small wonder that the General Synod Report isn’t high on the Deanery Synod Agenda!
In the main I think it’s due to time scale. Although the internal workings and time scale of the Church may make sense to us in our synodical, gathered state, when we scatter…..when we go back to our parishes and out into the real world…..”to live and work to His praise and glory….” then the snails pace of action simply baffles people. People, whether they be people in the pews or people on the fringe of church life, they simply don’t understand why things take so long. Structural requirements render the gap too wide to be able to capture imaginations, let alone hearts, for Christ.
Measures at General Synod may have to be debated, supported by voting and enacted nationally, but they are lived out and implemented locally, through local relationships whose foundation is trust and loving God and neighbour.
Of course some General Synod stuff is actually highly relevant, in particular for example that arising from the Simplification Agenda, designed to make Parochial Church life easier. For instance the enabling of joint Councils for small Parochial Church Councils – sounds great and will be welcomed, but the legal rigmarole involved in making it happen is far from simple! If the disciples on the road to Emmaus had been given some structural synodical stuff to read I don’t think for a moment that their hearts would have burned within them.!
Or take the long awaited publication of the Living in Love and Faith, LLF, materials. Good people have worked long and hard, consulted widely and produced high quality materials. And yet….and yet….it’s going to be another couple of years of conversations before any conclusions are reached, or not. Dr Eeva John spoke of the need for scholarly work to connect with lived experience. Speaking now as a former youth worker, for many (not all) young people, their lived experience includes sex. While LLF conversations carry on we have a generation of young people who think the church just doesn’t get it as far as sex is concerned. We have a generation of young people for whom sex has become an alternative leisure activity. So how then is the church to connect with them to model relationships, including same sex relationships, of fidelity, loyalty, kindness, delight and respect if it continues to say that marriage between a man and a woman is the only place that any physical expression of love or desire can happen, or indeed that sex is purely for procreation?
When I was still supervising full time Youth Workers and they were faced with a difficult issue I would ask….”how and in what way will your decision enhance the lives of the young people you work with and for…”.? But that was then, and now for me the question is…..”How and in what way will the mission of the church be enhanced by the existing structures of the Church of England?” The heart of the church beats in local communities and synodical structures need to uphold and strengthen the local. More attention needs to be paid to minimising the gap between those structures and life as it is lived locally.