It’s very hard to find a silver lining to the cloud created by this week’s General Synod vote not to pass the measure making it possible for women to become Bishops in the Church of England. If there was an upside, though, it would be the sudden resurgence of interest in the synodical governance of the Church of England and the legal framework which underpin it. Synod has done in one day what the education officers of the Ecclesiastical Law Society have been trying to do for years: get people excited about Canon Law.
Over the past week there have been many different voices clamouring to explain how just 6 people could swing this vote so dramatically. There have been calls for reform (small ‘R’) calls for disestablishment, some fairly scary calls for laity (non-clergy) to butt out of decision making altogether and also some potted historical analysis to try and explain why the General Synod is follows the same debating ethos as the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ on the other side of the Abbey Precinct.
There are three questions which need to be asked in the light of some of these comments. My answers come from my study of representation and governance in the Church of England, so hopefully they are more than just personal opinion. But then, as all good students of Canon Law know, interpretation of English law is very much to do with opinion, so feel free to weigh in.
#1 What are General Synod Members there to do?
Before I began my formal theological training, I worked for a while in the Student Union at a university. My job was to prepare students to represent their peers and to be involved with the governance and academic improvement of the university. So when students sat on disciplinary panels they were there to look at the evidence and decide for themselves, and when they came to quality assurance meetings they were there to offer a student perspective on the teaching and learning in their department. Most of the time they were there to think for themselves.
But once a year we prepared delegates to attend the Nation Union of Students’ annual conference. These students were different because they were not only elected, they were also given a mandate and the wider student body indicted how they should vote. As such, it was usually possible to predict quite accurately what the outcome of a proposal would be, even before there had been a vote.
Now, the important thing to realise about General Synod members is that they are representatives, not delegates. Members are elected from and by their peers and entrusted with making a decision on our behalf. They are not sent with a mandate, they are elected to think for themselves.
As such, a representative is there to listen to as much information as they can and to make an informed decision about how they will vote. When they came to vote on Tuesday evening, General Synod members had seen the responses from the parishes, deanery and diocesan synods, they had read the documents and responses produced by the different interest groups, they had read the letters to The Times and The Independent and noted the numbers (and genders) of signatories, they had done their own reading and reflection, and then they had listened to over 100 speeches over the course of the debate. Then they were asked to have a few moments silent reflection before pressing one of the three buttons on their electronic keypad.
It is absolutely no surprise how many of the members voted. Before they had even been elected they had laid their cards on the table and so it was possible to have a fairly good estimate about the general shape of the vote. But synod is not partisan in the same way Parliament is, and there is no mechanism for compelling members to vote with their ‘party’, to vote with the majority and especially not to vote to appease the secular media or even government.
And so there were members who went into the chamber undecided and formed their opinion by listening carefully over the course of the day. Some were looking to be persuaded one way or another, some just wanted to hear how the different opinions stood at the end of the debate.
There is no question that the rank-and-file of the Church of England (myself include) wanted a measure to be passed which allowed for Women to be consecrated as bishops. Those floating voters in the Synod’s House of Laity, however, felt that it was more important not to exclude those who could not accept this, rather then to push ahead regardless. That was the conclusion they came to after hearing all those speeches and their decision was informed and deeply considered. Those in the public gallery might have felt that provision was adequate but having heard the debate, more than a third of the House of Laity did not.
Having understood what the members of General Synod are there to do, we then need to ask the question about whether the members themselves really are trustworthy to make decisions of this magnitude on our behalf.
#2 Is the House of Laity Representative?
The criticism which has been repeated online and in print is that the method of election of General Synod members either ‘favours larger churches’ and that it ‘allows it to be captured by special interest groups’.
The first thing to say is that these two criticism are antithesis to each other. EITHER the membership can be dominated by the majority OR it is open to abuse by minority groups. It cannot be the case that a majority can be called a special interest group.
But let’s look at those two statements one at a time. Is there any truth in them, and are there better ways to choose representatives from those who are most invested in the Church of England, its members?
For those who’ve missed the multitude of dummies-guides-to-synod over the past few days, most of members of the House of Laity of the General Synod are elected by the membership of al the Deanery Synods in their diocese. Anyone who is on the electoral roll of a Church of England church can stand as a candidate for the Laity of General Synod, but it is a subset of this total ‘membership’ who will decide who is sent to represent the diocese. There are a few unelected (ex-officio) positions, but these are a tiny minority of the total number of lay reps.
This is in contrast to the House of Clergy, where all the clergy licensed to a particular diocese can vote for their General Synod representatives.
Each Deanery synod will have members from every church in the local area (the deanery) and so every parish in the Church of England will have at least one person who votes for lay General Synod reps, and this person will be elected by the church members who attend the annual church meeting. The number of reps elected depends on the size of the electoral roll (which is usually bigger, but proportional to, the regular attendance at that church). But does this favour larger churches? Well, it’s the diocesan synod that determines the number of Deanery Synod reps from each parish and, if anything, the smaller churches send a larger number of reps per person of the roll.
If a church has under 26 names on the electoral roll, it can only send one rep to Deanery Synod so, in theory, a church with 26 members could send two reps, although in practice the cut-off is more like 40. Much larger churches on the other hand, usually find themselves allowed six or seven reps from a membership of several hundred. This means small churches can have a ratio of Deanery reps to members of 1:20, while in a large church it could be as low as 1:100.
Add to this the fact that there are many more small churches than big ones, it does seem that the criticism that larger churches are overrepresented simply does not hold water.
There have been some calls to reform this house, or at least reform the way it is elected. These do seem to misunderstand the way representation in the CofE works. As I hope I’ve demonstrated above, any sort of proportional representation would only seek to increase the influence of the larger churches. Also, it is almost impossible to determine a genuine ‘membership’ of any given church. The two instruments which come into play in the selection of Deanery Synod representatives are the Electoral Roll and the Annual Meeting. If you are on one and come to the other, you have a say. Moving the other way would also be counter productive. Having some sort of ‘electoral college’ (maybe the members of diocesan synod) further removed the process of election from those people who the lay members of General Synod are there to represent. As it stands, the electorate of General Synod lay reps is directly representative of every church in the country, and there is no other body than Deanery Synods of which that is true.
So what about the claim that General Synod is open to ‘capture’ by minority interest groups? As with all elections were candidates are not personally known to the electorate, voters are choosing based on the information they have. Name, manifesto, history, churchmanship, gender, views on women bishops; most of this will be used by voters as they select their candidates, but it seems that the most important criteria is record of service.
In representative organisations it is common for voters to choose to stick with the status-quo, so in practice a diocese will often have the same set of General Synod reps until one moves away or decides not to stand for reelection. This means that the members are usually stable and informed about debates but, more than that, they are also known to the electorate. So it is quite hard for a new candidate to be elected, especially if they are trying to unseat an existing rep. And trying to co-ordinate Deanery Synods across a whole diocese to elect a particular rep (as one of the current online petitions is trying to do) is difficult, if not impossible.
Like all committees, the reason why minority candidates can wield influence is not a problem with the structure, but because of apathy among candidates and voters alike. With a few notable exceptions, Deanery Synods are not the most exciting place to spend and evening, and so members do tend to be there by default rather than because of an active choice. Because of the time commitment, General Synod elections are also not that hotly contested, so often the limited choice of candidates confirm the view that voters don’t really need to be that informed as they cast their vote.
I am extremely fearful of the damage of a politicised single-issue General Synod could have on the governance of the church, but the effect at deanery level could be quite exciting. Having a local meeting of Anglican Christians who are engaged with the process, involved in local mission and there by active choice could transform Deanery Synods into really effect forums for collaboration in mission. So my plea to those who want to hijack the process is this: if you stand for Deanery Synod, please don’t see your role as just to number the right boxes in a few years’ time, instead sign up with a willingness to be a part of the Church’s mission in your local area.
#3 Does Tuesday’s vote show that the system of synodical government has failed?
Over the past week the prevailing narrative seems to have been “Synod has failed”. There have also been petitions, calls in Westminster and cynical cartoons calling for synod members to go back in the chamber and ‘come out with the right result’. One or two people have helpfully pointed out though, that having agreed the rules of debate, we cannot say that democracy has failed, just because the system did not deliver the result we wanted.
Did the House of Laity fail the church last Tuesday? No, I think it showed us that synod is still working. General Synod members are still prepared to vote against massive pressure from other members, from the clergy, from the bishops, from the internet and from the government if they feel that what is being proposed is not right for their church. For that I applaud them. Those who only last week were saying, ‘trust in the process’ now need to examine themselves to see if the abuse they have directed towards ‘no’ voters is anything more than sheer bullying.
But what about the overall majority who wanted to pass this measure? Would reform of the voting within synod be an option? The phrase that is commonly used of governance in the Church of England is that we are ‘Synodically Governed and Episcopally Led”. In practice, this means that it is difficult, if not impossible, for significant developments unless they are supported by both synod and the Bishops. The reason why the ability to vote by houses is unlikely to be removed is that it gives power to the House of Bishops as they can to veto legislation and other developments of importance. The Bishops also have the power to modify legislation before a vote (as they did earlier this year), but this isn’t a right that is shared by the other two houses. And this cuts both ways, because by the same token the House of Laity can also exercise the same right of veto, which they did in Tuesday’s vote.
One person who brought huge clarity to Tuesday’s debate was Elaine Storkey. I remember clearly a story which she told about the vote 20 years ago to ordain women as priests. Following the vote she met a senior churchman in tears outside the chamber who held her hands and said “I don’t agree with this, but the church has spoken”.
The synod has spoken, and it has said that we cannot have Women Bishops at any price. Now the challenge is to work out a solution, which allows women to become bishops without tearing the church apart. What I can’t see any point in doing is bringing this back to another vote on this same measure with this same synod before there is some sort of consensus among members about a way forward that is acceptable to all.
UPDATE: If you thought this was long, my college essay on Synodical Government is even longer, you can download it from this page.