This weekend was different from normal. I had the privilege of observing the Church of England (CofE) General Synod in York, with five other representatives of the CofE Youth Council. For those of you who don’t know much about church affairs, the CofE Synod is a council of Bishops, Priests and Laymen who meet twice a year to discuss, debate and vote on decisions in the church.
Friday 6th July
My journey down to the Synod was more than unexpected. Though I was hoping to catch up on some work, this didn’t happen. After very nearly missing my train due to my complete lack of organisation, I happened to sit down at a table opposite another of the youth representatives – Victoria. Though we had never met before, Victoria and I spent the journey discussing our shared love of Theology degrees, church choirs and politics.
On arrival to the Synod, held at the University of York, we quickly jumped into the main conference. The programme had already begun, with introductions and what seemed like general formalities (including making minor amendments to the ‘ecumenical relations measure’ if you were wondering). The whole afternoon was very fast paced and rather difficult to follow. The agenda then moved onto a more open session for questions, which covered a broad range of topics, from diversity in church membership to the new website!
In the evening, as members of the Youth Council, we were invited to a drinks reception with the Church Commissioners. After some general mingling with several Bishops, I came to the quick conclusion that one thing you come to know about the CofE is that the community is huge but so interconnected – Everyone knows everyone! Towards the end of the evening, we gathered as a complete Youth Council and spoke with First Estates Commissioner, Loretta Minghella. Loretta was interested in our views about how we can drive growth in the church. The answer we gave? Investing time and resources into youth and student services and improving chaplaincy relations with local schools so that faith becomes an entwined in everyday life – to encourage young people to live out their faiths every day of the week, not just on Sunday’s.
We also briefly discussed with Loretta the issue of sexual diversity in the church. The outside world doesn’t even know that the church is debating the issue, casting assumption that the church as a whole still rejects any sexual diversity – which, in reality, does not often represent the individual view. The church must “come out”, so to speak, and inform the public world that they are engaging in conversation and healthy debate about sexuality. But in order to do so, we must be vulnerable in bringing new topics to the table. As Loretta said, “Jesus had to make himself wholly vulnerable for transformation change”.
Saturday 7th July
On the Saturday I woke up bright and early (6:30!) to a broken shower… Not the best start to the day. After a cup of coffee, I felt slightly more awake and ready to face what was about to come. And what was to come? Breakfast with the Most Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. It was great to meet the man himself, and talk to him about things that were important to each of us. Justin asked me about my work with improving mental health services, and I told him how I believe it is the churches responsibility to step up and speak out about mental illness.
The morning officially began with a presidential address given by the Most Revd John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, to set the scene for the day. Sentamu used the example of Isaiah providing hope in a Messiah who comes to relieve the pain of exiles, as a call to the church. His statement that “we are ready to accept change as long as it doesn’t make a difference” rang harrowingly truthful, and reminded us that God’s commission requires every member of the church to embody his message of peace and love.
With this in mind, the agenda moved to safeguarding. Typically safeguarding is seen as an inconvenience within churches. However, the whole debate clarified that we need to stop viewing Safeguarding as a chore, but as an opportunity for new growth. A presentation was jointly led by Jo Kind and Sheila Fish. Jo spoke compellingly about how a “focus shift” was required, with special attention given to the individual needs of abuse victims as people, which includes crisis intervention and support. The whole presentation was extremely emotional, calling Christians to give survivors the compassion that Jesus calls us to – and fully deserved the standing ovation it received. We must remember that the God intended for the church to be a place of refuge, of safety and of healing.
During the afternoon, the Synod separated into different fringe and seminar events. Having said that, the biggest meeting was the showing of the England match in the main hall! I went to talks about young people’s ministry and biblical study of identity and sexuality. That evening we joined the annual Synod quiz, with a strong team of joint youth and clergy. Though our team were not able to claim the winning title, we put up a fair fight and offered a cracking team name – Les Quizerables. Still, a great way to spend the evening.
Sunday 8th July
On the final day of our Synod observation, we were joined for breakfast by William Nye, the Secretary-General of the Archbishops’ Council and the General Synod. William asked out our opinions about the Synod and how we could improve the CofE in general… Where do we start! Though I could write thousands of words on this conversation and its after-thoughts, I will save that for another post.
After packing up, we caught a coach to the York Minster, for the Sunday Eucharist. It felt very special congregating in the Minster for our last section of our time at the Synod. After the service, we stayed around for a cup of tea then headed to the station. Luckily Victoria and I were on the same train again, so we spent the journey reflecting on our time at the Synod.
Some Final Observations
A highlight of the weekend was a conversation we had with Libby Lane, who was the first women to be ordained as a Bishop in 2015. Libby came over to chat to us on Saturday afternoon, when we were outside enjoying the Sun. Libby started a short discussion with us about the role of schools in the spiritual lives of church. She specifically referred to a two-way system of schools offering as much to our church communities than churches do to our schools.
Coming from a church where PPC politics are quite intense and often lacking in the compassion they should be centred around, I was surprised to see that a considerable amount of time was dedicated to meaningful worship at the Synod. With prayer sessions every morning and evening, and speeches driven by the message of the Gospels, I really believe that God was held at the centre of the conference.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Synod. And though parts were difficult to follow and felt tedious, it was great to meet so many wonderful people and to get a glimpse of how the CofE makes their decisions. I am grateful to the CofE Youth Council for giving me the opportunity to observe the Synod, and hope to return in the future!
This blog is courtesy of Sophie, who went to General Synod as an observer in July 2018. You can read more of Sophie’s work at https://sophieannflorenceblog.wordpress.com/.