At this time of year I usually write something about what went on at the General Synod and I see no reason to do otherwise this year.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was once asked “What do Anglicans do”? His answer was “We meet”. And that is true of our won part of the Anglican Communion. We love to get together in our parishes and our dioceses and as a whole Church. And our get-togethers are not quiet.
A number of years ago, when I was a rector in the Diocese of Down, the Bishop of Cashel and I were asked to attend a meeting of the members Churches of the Porvoo Communion. The meeting was to take place in big retreat centre owned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden at a place called Sigtuna, just outside Stockholm. Our flight was delayed and we arrived late at the snow covered destination. All was silence.
It was a very large building and our first task was to find where the meeting was taking place. It took us about half an hour to find the room where about 35 people were talking respectfully to one another. If the meeting had been in a Church of Ireland equivalent, it would have taken about thirty seconds, given the noise that thirty-five people from the Church of Ireland can make in ordinary conversation.
And so it was when this years General Synod met in the lovely sea-side suburb of Dun Laoghaire with its Royal Yacht Club and its extraordinarily long pier. The weather was good and those who didn’t feel the need to stay in the meeting for the entire period could be seen ambling along the sea front, ice cream in hand and looking as though they had been let out of a cave for the first time in a year.
The General Synod has more than six hundred members although it is very rare for more than about four hundred and fifty to turn up for its three day meeting. This year the Synod Service took place in Glenageary Parish Church and was not especially well attende3d, presumably because Synod members found it difficult enough to get to south Dublin for the noon start time of the meeting without breaking their journey on the way.
One of the most important elements of any General Synod is the Primate’s address which is given just before the opening session. This year Archbishop Clarke said how in this year of significant historical centenaries, ‘the reality is that we are all shaped in some way or another by our history’. He continued, ‘I think it is … nonsense to suggest that we can somehow begin “reality” with ourselves. The real gift is surely to recognise the shaping that we have received by our past (for better or worse), to interrogate it, and to decide upon how this may and should influence our future, so that we in our generation may contribute to the shaping of a wider future.’
The Archbishop said, ‘This is as true in the life of the Church as in the life of a nation. We as the Church of Ireland have been shaped by previous generations, by events both inside and outside the life of the Church, and by the influence of others upon us.’ Archbishop Clarke also described how he plans to join with Archbishop Eamon Martin in late June in leading a group of young people from across the island and from Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic community backgrounds on a three–day journey starting at the new memorial wall in Glasnevin cemetery and on to the visit the battlefields of the Somme and the Irish Peace Park in Messines.
As it happens I will be joining the two Archbishops on that trip along with two young adults from the diocese (one from Fermanagh and another from Monaghan) and I am greatly looking forward to the experience which should be full of insight and interest.
Concerning the upcoming British referendum on Europe, the Archbishop said, ‘As in every election and referendum, all citizens have a duty to consider carefully the consequences of their decision–making for the whole community, while also ensuring that they do not neglect the privilege they have been given as voters in a democratic system of government.’ Members of the Synod had also the opportunity to pick up a little background booklet on the Referendum prepared by the European Affairs Committee of the Irish Council of Churches.
Archbishop Clarke also focused on refugees to Europe and said that ‘we must all face up to the responsibilities we have been given for those who have come to western Europe, in the hope of finding safety and security, as they flee from violence and destruction in their own countries. It can never be permissible for Christians to imagine that refugees should not be “our problem”.’ He continued, ‘…we need to recall that Christ himself was always more at home with those who were suffering and outside the realm of social or religious respectability than with the comfortable and complacent insiders. In so many ways he himself was an outsider, and he died on the cross as one rejected by all around him. God does not distinguish, in his love, between those we think of as “like us” and those we think of as somehow different. We cannot turn our backs on dire need before our eyes; we are all made, equally, in the image of God.’
This theme of hospitality and engagement with the life of our won country and of the wider world was reiterated throughout the following days. However all was not sweetness and light and the most disappointing aspect of this years Synod was that a committee, which had been set up to bring recommendations about restructuring the dioceses of the Church withdrew its Bill. Its recommendations were not revolutionary and, although entailing difficult changes for some, would have had the goodwill of very many to help make them happen.
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the whole episode was that it confirmed the concern of many people that the Church at this level is incapable of reforming itself. In the meantime the work has been put back in the hands of the dioceses affected and it will be interesting to see what progress is made by this time next year.
Whatever the disappointments and (occasional) tedium which any large parliamentary style gathering will always bring, the General Synod remains a most remarkable gathering. It contains people of from every part of Ireland and of every opinion possible on a very wide range of subjects. There are no strictly organised parties to keep everyone in order and no whips to tell anyone how to vote. It has its characters and its bores, but anyone visiting for the first time and knowing nothing of our Church would (I suggest) think it was a meeting of some extended clan; endlessly diverse and incorrigibly argumentative - but irrefutably a family.