How representative is General Synod? The question is not new. In 2005 Dr Colin Podmore, the then Secretary to the Synod, remarked in a useful essay on synodical government that ‘there is, admittedly, an issue as to how far those who are elected – especially the members of the House of Laity of the General Synod – are actually representative of the churchgoing laity as a whole.’1
In 2010 an Electoral Reform Review Group was set up to look into this. The Group was scheduled to report back in July 2013 but in November 2012 events overtook it when the legislation to admit women to the episcopate was defeated by a mere six votes. Suddenly the matter was more than academic and attention focused sharply on the House of Laity where the legislation had fallen. How had it happened that a piece of legislation which had such huge support across the Church could not be carried by its central decision making body?
Here’s the problem: although anyone can stand as a lay member of General Synod, only members of Deanery Synods can elect, which in turn means that most active and committed lay people in our churches don’t have a direct voice in who represents them. The system tends to elect those who are ‘activists’ – which sounds fair enough in one way but in practice means that those with more moderate views may find themselves being ‘represented’ by those whose views are more extreme. In the case of the ‘women in the episcopate’ legislation, around 3% of the wider church was unhappy with this in principle but the proportion opposed in Synod was nearer 33% so that the legislation repeatedly struggled to get the necessary ‘two thirds majority in each house’ required to pass it.
The Electoral Reform Review Group understood the need to broaden the electorate and proposed a range of ways in which this might be achieved including: a specially elected Electoral College elected at the APCM of every parish, an Electoral College elected by lay members of PCCs, an Electoral College elected by Diocesan Synods, and the so called ‘Universal Suffrage’ option which would give a vote to every person on the electoral roll of a Diocese. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these options but in the event the General Synod declined to support any of them.
Although disappointing, this may in reality be no bad thing since none of the proposed solutions really reached to the heart of the problem. Among those in our society who self define as Anglicans around 87% are not regular church goers. They are not usually to be found on electoral rolls so that even ‘Universal Suffrage’, the most radical of the options proposed, would not have improved the representation of this group of people on General Synod. Yet we need to hear their voices. These are not unbelievers – they have a faith which they practise in various ways, they bring a Christian perspective into their places of work and leisure, they wish the institutional church well and are among those who contribute to its upkeep. Statistically they are now ‘typical’ Anglicans but because their views and needs are increasingly poorly reflected in the decisions that the Church takes we are in danger of driving them away.
It is worth remembering that prior to 1970 decisions about Church matters were taken in Parliament where the interests of Anglican laity were represented by their MPs. General Synod is a comparatively recent innovation set up in response to the increasing press of Church business and also specifically to give ordinary lay Christians a greater and more direct say in decision making. Ironically it could be argued that the ‘typical’ Anglican is now less well represented by General Synod than they would be if Parliament were still the decision making body in matters relating to the life of the Church. It may be that this is starting to dawn on Parliament too. Had the General Synod not found a means to pass the ‘women in the episcopate’ legislation through its own processes it is not impossible that Parliament would have felt a responsibility to intervene.
If the Church of England wants to continue to be synodically governed we need to make our synodical processes as democratic as they can be. For that we need a much more representative central decision making body which may look very different from the General Synod we currently have, or else we need to accept that Parliament should have a bigger say in our affairs again. Synodical reform is no longer on the agenda for General Synod unless and until it is reintroduced in the next quinquennium but clearly an imaginative conversation is urgently needed. When and where might it take place?
1Aspects of Anglican Identity, Colin Podmore, Church House Publishing 2005
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Jane is Director of Ministry in the Diocese of Salisbury and team leader of the Diocesan Learning for Discipleship and Ministry Team. The team oversees lay learning and vocations, discernment and training for all authorised ministries and Jane has particular responsibility for ministry strategy and continuing ministerial development. Jane has been in full time stipendiary ministry since 1985 and has served as a curate in an urban priority area, a College Chaplain in Cambridge, and a parish priest in a multi-parish rural benefice. Jane is currently a non residentiary canon of Salisbury Cathedral and a member of General Synod.