General Synod 2010: the verdict?

Robert Forsyth

General Synod, it's all about expectations. And with sufficiently realistic expectations I agree with those who said that the General Synod just concluded in Melbourne was the best meeting of recent times.

The matter of realistic expectations was put beautifully by Dr John Davies of Melbourne when on the last day he remarked, "By God's providence, there is a bunch of all different kinds of Anglicans all put together in this one country, now belonging to the one church".

Yes, none of us chose each other and the diversity is very, very wide. Laurie Scandrett the day earlier had used different language when he described the Anglican Church of Australia in terms of a rather fragile egg with us all mixed up inside!

This is why I don't have high expectations of a General Synod. Though I expect that in the course of its business it will express our relationship adequately and manage the inevitable conflict that is part of the life of any church, let alone such a diverse mob as the Anglican Church of Australia.

Given that I can think of at least four reasons why General Synod 2010 was one of the best so far.

1. There was the experienced chairing of the Primate, Phillip Aspinall. Phillip has the rare ability of being right across the most minor detail and yet not lose the picture of where the Synod is going. And he can be at times appropriately serious but also bring a very helpful humour and light-heartedness that prevents the us all from being bogged down in our own pomposity or anxious tensions. The best chairman I've seen.

2. There was no “Big Deal Issue” before us. There were a number of potential issues floating near the edges, but this wasn't a Synod in which we either had to or had to not ordain women or have women bishops or say something positive about homosexually active Christians or vote in a prayer book or such like. They are always easier to manage when there is not a big win/lose issue before us. There were minor issues, but they were properly managed because of the next reason.

3. The leadership given by a number of bishops and others from other dioceses wishing to maintain a good relationship with us in Sydney was decisive. I think of one particular moment when debate on the funding of the Anglican Consultative Council looked like heading to a harsh decision for Sydney, but the leadership of the Bishops of Willochra and Adelaide in particular changed the terms of the matter in a most gracious way. While disagreeing with our stance they did not the General Synod want to push us too far. Most others seemed to have the same view. We in Sydney cannot ignore this good will despite real and intractable differences that may exist. The General Synod can be generous just when you thought it would not be. So should we.

4. Our own Sydney reps engaged very well, especially younger ones. Three years ago, the Synod in Canberra was marked by some real difficulties that arose from the way we Sydneysiders had behaved: partly to do with not understanding the culture, partly to do with just coming in with too aggressive an attitude. This time it was very different, and I particularly thought the process of Sydney representatives prepared to negotiate, to listen and to try to speak with the language of others made a big difference.

Here is an example of what I mean: there was a motion that looked like it would be a real bunfight over the Appellate Tribunal opinion that the Sydney policy on deacons celebrating Communion was illegal. At the start of the Synod the business paper contained the motion not so subtly condemning us. But by the time the motion came up towards the end of the synod, it had all changed. There had been sufficient good will and negotiations that the motion in an amended form was passed formally without dissent.

Of course this was only a successful synod given realistic expectations.

Sadly what we can't expect from the General Synod of a church like Anglican Church of Australia is agreement on a number of crucial theological issues. To be frank, I detected profound differences on issues of the gospel and its emphasis among us this year. Sometimes all we can do is be nice to each other. I am not troubled by that. I think it's an inevitable result of our history and the reality of who we are.

But to my mind it was the best General Synod I have experienced so far.