Anyone observing parliamentary debates over the last few weeks will know that the awkward question can be many things. It can be fair or unfair, accurate or misconceived, mischievous or challenging. Even when entirely well placed and deserved by the recipient, it can be discomforting, but that is the price that must be paid for the democratic process to work properly.
The value of the awkward question has been greatly enhanced by the cultural shift arising out of technology. Early Reformation ideas were both challenging and better disseminated because of the printing press: the same technology aided the challenges to authority of the 17th-century English Parliamentarians, the French Revolutionaries and the American Founding Fathers. 20th-century dictators and those overthrowing them all made use of new technology in the form of radio, film and television. The arrival of the Internet has turbocharged the democratisation of the awkward question.
In 2012, a 12-year-old Scottish schoolgirl was unhappy with her school dinners. She took to photographing them on her phone and putting the pictures on the internet. It became a national and international story. The response of the responsible local authority was to forbid students to take such photographs. That attempt at cover-up failed, and eventually the dinners improved.
This example partly inspired Douglas Carswell MP to write his book The End of Politics and the Birth of I-Democracy which was well received across the spectra of parliamentary parties. It espoused the principles of transparency and accountability, and partly caused me to seek election to the General Synod of the Church of England. I had noticed that some candidates were reticent about saying what they actually stood for in their election addresses. I stood for ‘Transparency and Accountability’, and in passing mentioned that as a recently retired Child Protection lawyer, I might be able to assist from time to time with a few remarks on that subject too.
At General Synod I met some like-minded folk and together over the years we have used the ‘Question and Answer’ sessions to good effect: safeguarding attracts a good deal of attention now, and so does a variety of other subjects. In addition to the inevitable clashes on matters of sexuality expressed through competing questions, we have seen environmental matters attracting attention and more recently a surprising interest in the legality of the use of individual cups at communion. The ‘Save the Parish‘ movement, resisting centralised planning and church closures, has similarly made significant strides in the last elections. I expect that movement (which I support) to make good use of Synod’s Q&A session.
It should shock nobody that sometimes the ‘powers that be’ are reluctant to engage with or encourage scrutiny in awkward areas. The written answers can be bland, evasive, even frankly misleading, requiring further clarification, either by supplementary question or by further additional questions some months later at the next Synod.
The Q&A sessions are inevitably time limited. Members who ask an initial question are entitled to ask a supplementary oral question as of right, and notice of its substance need not be given. This is an important element of drawing out truth and exposing weakness in an argument. The supplementary question is bound by strict rules on relevance, politeness, and must be succinct: occasionally, at the discretion of the Chair, additional supplementaries can be asked by other members, though because of the crowded agenda we rarely linger for very long on any one question.
Asking a supplementary question on an oral answer to a prior supplemetary question is an art form not easily mastered. One has a few seconds to think, formulate the question, catch the attention of the Chair, and present the point in a few words. Inevitably, those habituated to participating in quick debate through experience in other contexts tend to engage at this point. Also inevitably, most of those involved are experienced old hands: the chamber is full, the format unfamiliar and fast-paced. The reticence of the newcomer is only to be expected.
One should acknowledge the role of the Chair in all this. General Synod is blessed with a number of very good Chairs and those chosen to manage the Q& A sessions tend to be the most seasoned. They bring experience, patience, calmness and tact to Q&As which, because there is so much to get through, can often be a tense, febrile and frustrating session, especially as some areas of inquiry matter a great deal to the questioners.
All this makes a recent report of the General Synod’s Business Committee somewhat disturbing:
The November Q&A session was chaired by the experienced Dean Andrew, and I am not aware that anyone was censured or ruled out of order. My Synod colleague Sam Margrave led the field contributors asking just five supplementaries over a variety of subjects. A couple of others asked three or four such questions. The Chair would always prioritise new voices if they stood to signify a desire to speak: if he called some who had spoken before it was because nobody else had a point to make on the relevant item of business.
The reason some people participate more is surely and simply that they have done the work, read the papers, and given due thought to the matter at hand. Why anyone would think that arbitrarily limiting such relevant contributions advances the work of holding Church leaders to account remains unexplained.
Occasionally there is a confrontational element to the proceedings. So what? This is a legislative chamber. Would there be any current support for a Government proposal to make it harder for difficult questions to be asked of the Prime Minister? Watching that process is also occasionally “aggressive and disrespectful”? And is not the tone in the House of Commons sometimes “hostile and unpleasant”? Is a reduced, sanitised Q&A session an acceptable price to pay for making the squeamish more comfortable?
We need to be clear. The Business Committee is the servant of the General Synod, and any changes would have to be approved by the elected members and there would have to be changes to Standing Orders for the concerns expressed to be brought into effect. Nevertheless, some experienced members are troubled at the potential direction of travel indicated in this feedback from an inexperienced membership. We must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Nobody likes to watch the sausages being made, but everyone wants honest, transparent, accountable Church governance. Polite non-confrontation is what brought us the scandals of Peter Ball, John Smyth QC and Jonathan Fletcher. In my field of interest, we made no progress until we started disturbing the powers that be, through persistent, well designed questions. That can be uncomfortable to see and hear if you are not used to it.
Maybe there are improvements that can be made, but developing premature plans for reform when 60% of the Synod is new to the task is not perhaps the best way forward. I hope new members will observe a few more sessions and talk to their more experienced colleagues before approving limitations on contributions.
Confrontation is relatively rare. I have found the Safeguarding Lead Bishops whom I have challenged (usually over answers drafted by third parties) entirely amicable about it. They have fully appreciated why I have questioned them closely, and we have occasionally continued the conversation afterwards over coffee or a beer. I have even advised my proposed supplementary question in advance so that they might answer well. Often those of us asking the questions know the answers already, but want the entire Synod to hear them, or simply have them recorded formally on the record.
Yet when the session is tense (“unpleasant”), might that be considered un-Christian?
The very first recorded conversation between Adam and his Creator was an uncomfortable one for Eve to behold: “Where are you?.. Who told you you were naked?.. Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” Each is a legitimate question; each is profoundly discomforting.
There are many subsequent examples. How often do the Old Testament prophets confront robustly? Prophecy may not involve questions, but is hard and challenging nevertheless. Hosea upbraids Israel in trenchant terms, and Amos tells of the plumb line by which God judges His people.
There is also ample Gospel precedent for robust challenge to religious authorities. In Luke 13:15 Jesus challenges the ruler of the synagogue: ‘Thou hypocrite, doth not each of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall and lead him away to watering?… all his adversaries were ashamed and all the people rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by him.’ Discomfort of wrongdoers is not improper, and our modern Church leadership would not claim to be beyond criticism.
It is, however, perhaps the passionate St Paul who most fiercely challenges his fellow Christians in the robustest of terms over the circumcision controversy: ‘As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and mutilate themselves.’ Might St Paul be called ‘out of order’ under a new Synod regime proposed by the Business Committee feedback?
Having never heard comparable intemperance in the Chamber, I must question whether we have yet reached the stage where we need be too sensitive about the occasional tense exchange. I would rather have this than our Question Time set on the path to emasculation.