We are half way through the Church of England’s General Synod in York, and it has been fascinating as usual. Conversations with Synod members, Bishops and others reveal a huge amount about what happens behind the scenes in the Church of England – and helps make sense of the debates.
But there is one area which is still shrouded in mystery – the meetings of the House of Bishops.Questions on voting records in House of Bishops meetings, and questions about the secrecy which surrounds the Bishops meetings were swept aside on Friday evening by the blanket phrase “that remains confidential to the House” and there are clearly no plans to change that.
Such is that the secrecy that I saw the BBC’s correspondent’s eyes light up in a passing conversation with a Bishop at the vaguest prospect of getting an inside story on the last meeting.The House of Bishops – unlike General Synod as a whole meets in private. No record is published of votes taken, or of the content of speeches made, or contributions to discussions. We never know if a policy or statement has been overwhelmingly endorsed or just scraped through by the slimmest of margins.
When a decision is taken however, that becomes the policy of the House and a kind of Cabinet Collective Responsibility takes effect where everyone is expected to back the decision whether they voted for it or not.But is there another way of doing things?
It was also fascinating to read Christina Beardsley’s blog on Changing Attitude this morning. She was at a very different House of Bishop’s meeting yesterday in the USA as part of The Episcopal Church General Convention.Their House of Bishops meeting was not held behind closed doors. They met in ‘Open Session’ and observers could come, watch and listen. Nor were they keeping it safe by only addressing uncontentious issues. On the agenda were two resolutions relating to inclusion of Transgender people in the life of the church – including equal access to explore a vocation to ordination. There were speeches made on both sides of the debate – some supporting the changes and some opposing them - before a vote was taken in public on the two resolutions.
What struck me in reading Christina’s report, was how constructive and open the whole process was. Strong and moving statements were made on both sides, including a bishop opposing the resolutions who said that this would be “an idol that will break us” but the description of the open session was breath-taking for its maturity in handling areas of disagreement in public.This American model is a world away from the workings of the House of Bishops in England but it showed me that there is another way of doing things. There is another way for Bishops to model leadership in the Church. There is another way to make decisions which does not require Bishops to keep secret their discussions, or to bury their own convictions beneath the pretence of Cabinet Collective Responsibility. It is more open, more honest and infinitely more transparent.
Perhaps there is another way…