If you read our Archibishop’s opening address to Synod on Friday night 28 June after the Synod Eucharist in the Cathedral, you will see that he talks primarily about a new large group technique he was introducing to this year’s gathering as a radical inversion of the usual Synod structure, called Open Space. Synod reps had received a steady stream of preparatory materials leading up to last weekend and I must confess I approached these sessions with come cynicism. Archbishop asked us to approach Synod as a gift and to invest ourselves to make a difference to God’s mission through this discussion circle. He counselled us to avoid under-investing in the process and so rob the experiment of the vitality it needs while also avoiding over-investing which would prevent us from hearing the voices of others.
So as I sat there beside Fr Don and Fr Patrick on Saturday morning, I wondered what would happen. Yet dozens of people approached the centre of the seated circle, collected the paper & pens there and wrote down a burning issue that was important to them, then posted that sheet onto the Agenda Wall. Rooms were allocated to each issue across 3 sessions - about 20 rooms spread across the Churchie campus were used concurrently for each session - so each of us could choose which to contribute to or just to listen. Some rooms attracted 60 or more people, others only the person who posted that issue, which immediately gives a solid metric of the issues that Anglicans in this Diocese find important. Unsurprisingly, topics on sexuality within the Church and Church growth attracted big numbers. Yet even the rather small groups attracted to what may be regarded as fringe topics attracted ernest & committed people with strong ideas.
This Open Space experiment meant that everyone could have a voice at Synod, if they so chose. Archbishop cautioned us to be prepared to be surprised. He was so right - I was very surprised! In these rooms, broken our from the Open Space, raw & honest experiences and thoughts were shared in a way that does not occur in the formal settings of the Synod floor. People came to share, to listen and to learn. A full set of proceedings will soon be published on the Diocesan website and I encourage you to skim through these, perhaps even read a few that catch your eye in some depth. This was a riveting 6 hours for me, totally converting my initial cynicism. The energy it conferred on this Synod gathering was palpable.
After these 3 sets comprising 60 or more groups, those people with the drive elected to set up small teams. You can see how this radically inverts the usual Synod, where the people basically generate a big todo list that the Archbishop and his delegates are required to enact. This Open Space experiment distributed that load among people who were passionate about an issue and accepted responsibility for doing something about it.
When Morris Hall was reset to the standard rows of seating by mid afternoon on Saturday, the mood was very different. In previous years people have been tired by this stage, but this year the room was energised and to my mind less picky. I think the collegial spirit was much stronger because those who wanted to say something - and it sounds unkind but there tend to be a good number of people who attend Synod because they do like to share their opinions at great length - stood on their soap-box during the breakout sessions so the formal Synod just got through business. I remain very impressed with this initiative.
Please look through the resources already posted to the Diocesan website and keep an eye out for the Open Space proceedings when they are uploaded:
The other great highlight is the Lay Conference on Sunday morning after the Synod chapel services. Archbishop received only 10 questions this year which were consistently positive in orientation, where various parishes shared initiatives and issues but in a very inclusive environment. Quite a few parishes express concern about falling numbers and their apparent inability to harness the perceived holy grail of parish growth - attracting young people.
I must say I feel a little smug on this topic since we so successfully harness the digital platforms to positively impact people, many of whom never actually come into our Church on a regular basis. Our web analytics indicate we enjoy solid year-on-year growth in terms of interacting with our web presence across most ages but especially the 65+ and 25-35 year groups. Our parish continues to shine in this style of ministry, spreading our particular brand of the Anglican mission well beyond the parish borders.
Archbishop also mentioned how the Roman Catholic diocese in Canberra has built an immersive pathway program for high school children which is showing signs of being very popular now and instilling a new breed of deep faith commitment in the young that lasts well beyond their school years. So if you are one of the people who think our secular society means we dumb-down our Christian message, this recent development would moderate that argument! It also shows that something good can come out of Canberra 🙂
Synod was a new kind of joy this year. I admire our courageous Archbishop for undertaking this bold experiment with Open Space, I admire the Synod reps for engaging so positively to learn new insights and I love the way our church grows in our turbulent world. I know we are well set for the challenges ahead as we face them together.
ps: I should highlight that Archbishop is leading the Explore Anglican Foundations program over 3 Saturdays at St Francis, if you are interested. The program offers a door to a deeper understanding of Anglicanism, with time for questions and reflections. $100 for the set of 12 lectures (about an hour each) spread over 3 August, 24 August & 14 September - 9am - 4pm on each day. Register on Eventbrite by 1 August or call 3514 7424