Inhibitions cast aside as Church faces the future

General Synod: The absence of burning issues to debate gives proceeding s a taint of irrelevance. Andrew Brown reports
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When the Church of England's General Synod meets on the campus of York University, you would never guess that this was the only body in England outside Parliament capable of making laws.

It might well be an Open University summer school: a sprinkling of dons amid a lot of earnest middle-aged seekers after truth all gossiping over paper cups of mud-coloured instant coffee.

There are thin men in open-necked shirts and fat men in unsuitable T- shirts, unless they are fat bishops, in which case their T-shirts are purple and dignified.

One of the thinner and grander bishops was sitting over a cold self-service buffet (pie, cottage cheese, rollmop herrings) on the benches of the university dining halls yesterday. At home he lives in a palace and rather enjoys it.

But he knows this style is on the way out.

"When I grew up, it was usual for the rector to have gone to the same public schools as the people who owned the village," he said.

He continued: "I grew up in an old fashioned rectory, with servants and a gardener, and a tennis court. It was usual to see people playing tennis in white flannels, with the trousers held up by a college tie; and, if it were hot, to wear a panama hat, even at the net."

Here the bishop mimed a gentle back-hand volley at the net and smiled at the memory. "Nowadays," he continued, "the people in the countryside with money are quite different, and our people feel much shyer about addressing them.

All the large rectories, the glebe barns and so on, now belong to businessmen and never to clergy."

He thought for a moment, and added: "I don't have any inhibitions about going to a house like that. I just tell myself it's where you get the best gin and tonics."

But bishops with the confidence to ask for their gin and tonics grow fewer every year. It is difficult to imagine any of the present crowd responding as Mervyn Stockwood, the retired Bishop of Southwark, did when told he was about to be outed last year. "Tell 'em I've had a lot of women too," he replied.

One of the most confused men at synod is Patrice de Beer, the correspondent of Le Monde. He has come here to learn something about Englishness - this is, after all, the established Church.

And yet in Private Members' Questions it emerges that the General Synod asked Parliament to allow Anglican priests to stand for election to the House of Commons 12 years ago, and Parliament has still not found the time to discuss this.

The only trace of pomp to be seen is an embossed letter from the Queen, stuck to a plain brick wall, which charges the Archbishops to dissolve the convocations for elections this autumn.

At these elections there will be no great single issue like the ordination of women at these elections.

There are no party divisions about how to cope with the Church's financial crisis.

The only real battle will be over the recognition of homosexual relationships and priests. It really is difficult to believe that this slightly sun- struck gathering is an essential part of the British Constitution.

Will anyone even notice if it is disestablished?