The 11th General Synod of the Church of England was opened yesterday, and the Supreme Governor was absent for the first time since Synod was created more than 50 years ago. Absent in body, that is, but certainly not in spirit, as the message she sent to be vicariously delivered by the Earl of Wessex was infused with her essential spirit of faith, devotion and service to the gospel.
This Synod will sit for five years. Nobody is saying it, but Her Majesty alluded to it: “None of us can slow the passage of time,” she wrote, perhaps mindful that, at 95 years old, she was missing what is almost certainly the last Synod of her reign. She may, of course, live as long as her mother did, but not even this supremest of Supreme Governors will live forever, as the lyric of ‘Zadok the Priest’ entreats. “Long to reign over us”, certainly, but no Amen or Hallelujah can slow the passage of time.
Her message was short, as the best sermons are, and in just those very few minutes the Earl of Wessex spoke, we heard the essential Anglican identity of communion, ecumenism, and patristic witness:
Your Graces, the Convocations of Canterbury and York, duly called together in obedience to Our Royal Writs, are on this day joined together in accordance with the Synodical Government Measure 1969 and the House of Laity is added to them in accordance with the Measure, so as to constitute the Eleventh General Synod of the Church of England.
Archbishops and members, the opening of a new Synod provides an opportunity for us all to give thanks for the witness of those who have gone before, and pray for wisdom as you seek to balance change and continuity in the decisions that lie ahead.
It is hard to believe that it is over 50 years since Prince Philip and I attended the very first meeting of the General Synod. None of us can slow the passage of time; and while we often focus on all that has changed in the intervening years, much remains unchanged, including the Gospel of Christ and his teachings.
The list of tasks facing that first General Synod may sound familiar to many of you: Christian education; Christian unity; the better distribution of the ordained ministry to the needs of the population. But one stands out supreme: “to bring the people of this country to the knowledge and the love of God”.
Of course, in our richly diverse modern society, the well-being of the nation depends on the contribution of people of all faiths, and of none.
But for people of faith, the last few years have been particularly hard, with unprecedented restrictions in accessing the comfort and reassurance of public worship. For many, it has been a time of anxiety, of grief, and of weariness.
Yet the Gospel has brought hope, as it has done throughout the ages; and the Church has adapted and continued its ministry, often in new ways – such as digital forms of worship.
St. Paul reminds us that all Christians are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation, and the deepening of relations across the great Christian traditions has been a continuing priority since the first General Synod in 1970. And so I am pleased to note the enhanced cooperation between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, as well as the sustained ecumenical links between many churches, in the pursuit of Christian unity.
Your Graces and members of the Synod, the next five years will not always be straightforward. Like every new Synod, you have inherited weighty responsibilities with many issues to address, reports to debate, and difficult decisions to make. You may have to consider proposals on governance, on conduct, on the use of resources, and on other issues; and on a vision for the future of the Church.
In some areas, there will, of course, be differing views and my hope is that you will be strengthened with the certainty of the love of God, as you work together and draw on the Church’s tradition of unity in fellowship for the tasks ahead.
At the beginning of this new Synod, my prayer is that the Lord’s blessing may be upon you as you embark on your deliberations; and that you will find inspiration in the joyous words of the hymn you sang this morning:
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.
Note the supremest task: “to bring the people of this country to the knowledge and the love of God”. It isn’t to wrangle interminably over divisive doctrines or contentious teachings, but to sustain the visible historical continuity with the Church of the Apostles, the Fathers, the martyrs and the bishops in their historic sees in order to preach the gospel of Christ and to make him known. The Supreme Governor reminded Synod of the unchanged centrality of Scripture, and that nothing needs to be added to the explicit teachings of Christ in order to show the way of salvation. In this, she alluded to Article VI:
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.
The Church of England preaches a gospel of reconciliation; of man to God, and man to man. It is tolerant of difference, generous in scope, and reasoned in its theological exploration. And the essential purpose of the General Synod is to debate the reasonable aspects of the Faith in order to forge the via media between its historic formularies, the intellectual currents of modernity and the cultural trends of postmodernity, all while being faithful to its inheritance of Scripture, the creeds, and the witness of the Early Church.
It is worth reminding ourselves and remembering that the Church of England affirms the ministry of lay people on the basis of the royal priesthood of believers, and that Her Majesty herself is a lay person, though she radiates Christ far more than a few bishops. While the Anglican laity play leading roles in the life and governance of the Church at every level, from the parish to the General Synod, it is the Monarch who is supreme under Christ, the head.
God save the Queen.
Long live the Queen.