The word ‘synod’ is probably entirely unknown outside the rarefied atmosphere of Anglican governmental structures. The General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church is basically a three day AGM – and yes that is as challenging as it sounds! Can you imagine a three day AGM? I won’t try and explain the niceties of Synodal government, basically 140 plus representatives from the Anglican churches across Scotland gather together to do the business that keeps an organisation and institution going –much about overseeing the finances and administration, and the legal rules and requirements.
I’ve been going to synod now for over 16 years and I still really don’t understand all its nuances, arcane procedures, or peculiar practices, in fact we have to have a seriously high powered legal brain sitting at the front the whole time to advise on the legal procedures. When he was introduced he was congratulated on becoming the new Lord Lyon, not knowing what that meant in Scotland I Googled, Lord Lion, and got quite a few hits on the Lion King related articles. I didn’t know it wasn’t spelt Lion but Lyon, and it’s all about heraldry. Once I found out what this guy’s job was I was disappointed he was wearing a suit not the wonderfully colourful official garments that you can find on Google images. It made our Bishops in full regalia look dull and drab.
For the first time Synod met in the wonderful surroundings of the recently refurbished St Paul’s and St George’s church in York Place, Edinburgh (P+G’s) – a fantastic venue with arguably the best toilets in the province! The flexibility of the building allowed us to meet around tables, have great visuals, and fantastic worship, not only traditional Episcopalian Eucharist and morning prayer but a more relaxed P+G’s style of evening prayer. For me the worship was one of the highlights of the synod.
Another highlight was hearing three separate Bishops talking movingly and passionately about Mission. And they weren’t just speaking platitudes, or using the word mission as covering to include everything and anything, but clearly talking about mission opportunities to share our faith as well as to express our faith by good work. Telling the good news as well as being good news. They shared their own passion to see evangelism, church growth and community impact in their diocese, and talked about their own personal mission journey. Absolutely brilliant.
One of the most significant subjects there was dealt with was the radical root and branch change of how our training for ministry (both ordained and lay) be overseen and done. Involving the closing down of our previous structures, and the setting up of a new “institute” which has the capacity to bring in a much more varied, and I think relevant and flexible training regimes. With a number of different styles being on offer –including what is sometimes called “mixed mode” training where people will do two or three days a week fulltime training but linked with on going practical ministry embedded within a specific local church. It’s a model recently being pioneered in Holy Trinity Brompton that is now being reproduced right across the United Kingdom. I was excited about these changes and the appointment of a new principal to oversee the new institute. I’m thrilled by the positive way that training is going to take.
But often synod has to deal with very complex and highly emotionally charged subjects. This year, partly as a response to the Scottish government’s changes on the marriage laws, but also part of a much longer ongoing discussion within our church, the issue of same sex marriage broke into our agenda on a number of occasions. The Scottish Episcopal church is a very diverse church now, far more diverse than ever in its recent history. I hate using labels because they’re always unfair and often completely wrong, but I think it’s right to say that in the last 50 to 60 years the Episcopal church has been fairly monochrome, broadly Anglo catholic in its style of worship and liberal in its style of theology, and ethics. That would have been perceived as the dominant and recognized culture, but, like elsewhere in society, fragmentation and diversity has occurred, one strand of which is a far higher proportion of evangelical, charismatic clergy and congregations.
And that means that over almost every issue there will now be multiple positions. And the issue of human sexuality is a case in point, and the church’s response -particularly to the government’s change in the law over same sex marriages -brings it into sharp focus. At present the Scottish law exempts the Scottish Episcopal church from performing same sex weddings because our canonical rules state that marriage is between a man and a woman. And there are those who would wish very rapidly to change that definition, to open up the Episcopal church to doing same sex marriages, while there are others, and I include myself as one, who feel to change that canon is a serious and dangerous move away from orthodox Christian teaching about marriage. For someone like me changing the canons would be yet another sign that the Episcopal church has ceased to be a loving, caring, compassionate, grace filled, but also Biblically orthodox church, that holds firmly to the creeds, councils and traditions of Christianity rooted in the authority of scripture and its clear and plain teaching over faith and life.
But this debate spilled over into the synod on a number of occasions. Partly because the church -through its Bishops, standing committee, and boards -have decided the way to proceed is through a cascade conversation process. I explained it all, and my part in it, in a previous blog called ‘leadership lessons;- can you disagree agreeably?’ see http://www.stmungos.org/?p=16346 .
On the agenda was an opportunity for us to further that process by bring it into the synod so that more people could be exposed to the transformational effect of genuinely sharing about the responses to this deep and demanding subject.
However a number of people felt that what was needed was a more formal debate to catapult the synod immediately into canonical change. The motion to have a special debate didn’t receive the needed 2/3 majority, and a later motion to change the agenda from discussion groups into debate also didn’t receive a big enough majority. I personally was glad of that because once you get into adversarial public debate often painful divisions become worse. That debate must happen but I personally wanted to have at least another year of the cascade process without facing the immediate pressure of the procedural cut and thrust of motion and counter motion so we could learn to reflect respect and care for one another and bring those attitudes into our decision making.
Now some were deeply disappointed at the result of not having a formal debate and therefore possibly moving straight to canonical change next year, and felt very hurt and angry. And this was verbalised strongly both online and in person. As I respect and care for many of those I know personally, it’s difficult for me to remain objective. But reading some of their responses online I sometimes wondered if they were in a totally different meeting to me. I believe that everything was done properly, carefully and caringly. I do not believe I, or anybody else was being manipulated or stampeded or diverted. And this is a very important debate about the difficult choices and consequences for everyone involved whatever the outcome. In fact I would highly recommend anyone interested in the discussion and process happening in the Episcopal church to watch a superb film of two leading Edinburgh church ministers, one gay, one evangelical, discussing the process. I only wish there had been time for that film to have been shown at synod. – see
A lot of important things were talked about, shared, debated, discussed and decided at this year’s synod. But I’m fairly certain it’ll be actually something else that it will be remembered for – trams! 2014 was a tram synod. The Edinburgh trams are now working. And amazingly the tram terminus – the final stopping point is exactly outside P+G’s where we met. You can now get a direct line from Edinburgh Airport straight to that church, in fact as easy access to an international Airport may be one of the reasons that God chose an obscure little church to start a worldwide revival in Toronto in 1994, it has been suggested prophetically St Paul’s and St George’s change their name to ‘Edinburgh Airport Christian Fellowship’ in anticipation of all the international visitors who might fly in and go straight by tram to revival meetings!!
So going to synod on the first day was a great thrill because I went by tram. Leaving my car at the Ingliston park and ride I took the new smooth wonderfully quick comfortable tram in. The next day when I went by bus I was shocked by how uncomfortable, bumpy and sick making it was! Back to the tram on Saturday. If you haven’t been on the trams yet especially into the beautiful green western periphery, you have missed a treat and wonderful views. I am sure that that £700 million spent on the tram is worth every penny for me to have a nice journey to synod!