Moving furniture at York University

This weekend the General Synod of the Church of England meets in York. Paul Handley, Editor of the Church Times, wishes that its members would reform their agenda.
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The Independent Online
The stationery cupboards are empty at the Church of England's administrative HQ, Church House, this weekend. Everything has been boxed up and driven to York, where the Church's General Synod is meeting. Next week everything will travel back to London, minus a few tonnes of waste paper and that all-important computer lead which will never be found again.

In other religions, the faithful make arduous journeys to holy sites. In Anglicanism (unless the York University campus has an innate sanctity of which I'm unaware), the holy relics are moveable ones, transportable to anywhere near a motorway, and consist of paper-clips, rubber bands and countless yellow order papers.

The summer pilgrimage is an object lesson in the way the Church of England does things. The Church has a perfect adequate debating chamber in the middle of Church House, used by the General Synod when it meets in the spring and the autumn. This has just been refurbished and is easily serviced from the offices of the support staff from surrounding corridors.

The annual visits to York began several years ago. The chief object was to make Synod members nicer to each other. Synod debates at that time, the mid-Eighties, had got very cross. Since these were Christians, it can't have been because Synod included rather a lot of cross people, somebody argued. It must simply be a result of . . . geography. Three or four sunny days wandering around the campus at York would help bring opponents together and heal old divisions.

In some ways it worked. It was hard to take an anti-women-priests slogan quite so seriously when, instead of being spat across the chamber, it was spread across an expanse of flabby T-shirted chest. And Synod members were too groggy at breakfast - especially if they had missed early-morning prayers at the parish church - to notice they were passing the toast to someone who took an opposing view on homosexuality (if it is possible to take any view on homosexuality at breakfast time). Synod members also have more time to pray in York. So it is, then, that the governing body of the Church of England has to move to a secular venue, with great difficulty and at considerable expense, in order to be more religious.

Despite all this, the Synod's job is an organisational one. Christianity was created a little while before the Synod came into existence and brooks no serious interference - a source of regret to members from time to time. Their task is to "arrange the ecclesiastical furniture", as Frank Field MP put it the other week.

Synod members aren't always happy with this role. There is a prevailing hope, surprisingly undashed by years of experience, that sooner or later the Church will get its furniture just so; then it can start inviting people in. The reshuffle proposed by the Turnbull Commission, combining the counting house with the Archbishop's sitting-room, is the latest preoccupation.

In the meantime, Synod members get impatient. At each session, they are given permission to debate one or two motions of their own choosing, and these generally refer to matters of wider importance. This time it will be the National Lottery; soon it will be world debt. Such debates get them mentioned outside the trade press; but usually their deliberations, however wise or well-informed, come too late to change anything.

This session meets in the wake of two events which could disturb the northern peace. One is the recent report of the parliamentary select committee which warned Synod that a prized item of furniture, dating from Queen Anne, was theirs to look after, not necessarily keep. If this item, the Church Commissioners' historic assets, is affected by the Turnbull changes, Parliament wants a greater say in what happens to it. A row with MPs about the fabric of Establishment, which this might turn into, is the last thing Synod will want in the run-up to an election, when the bishops' seats in the House of Lords are not yet secured.

The other event was Dr Carey's debate on morality, not so much for what he said but for what was expected of him. There are, it seems, still opportunities for the Church to contribute to the nation's thinking. If these are to be taken, the Synod might consider a reform of its agenda to enable it to respond with greater confidence to matters of the day. Like the royal divorce, for instance. That is, after they've moved the office furniture back again.