Is it time to call time on General Synod 1.0?

This month’s meeting of the General Synod is not so much about whether women will be allowed to become bishops in the immediate future, as whether the Synod in its current form has any credibility. In November 2012, the same basic question was before it. Prior to those sessions, all forty-four dioceses making up the Church of England had been consulted. All, bar three, had supported the measure, most by very large majorities; yet, still, the legislation failed to pass the House of Laity. At the time, I suggested that the current Synod was clearly “broken” in that it failed to act in a way which reflected the “mind of the Church”. This was why I proposed that Diocesan Synods pass motions of no confidence, in the wake of the vote. Bristol Diocesan Synod went ahead and passed a modified form of my proposals, but the news was soon out that a bid to return the legislation in the life of the present Synod was afoot, so the idea stopped there.

Of course, if the legislation fails again on Monday, Synod will probably be in a worse place in terms of both Church and public opinion. Parliament may choose to introduce legislation – as it still has the powers to govern the Church by Act should it wish to do so; and I think were Synod to fail to reflect the view of the Church of England so unanimously reflected at diocesan level, then there would be few Church voices raised in protest by such a move by the State. So if the vote goes “no”, it will be beyond dispute that the Church’s current system of synodical government has broken down. However, even if the legislation is voted through, I would suggest that the current system is irredeemably discredited in Church circles and beyond.

The current problems

The most obvious problem is with the House of Laity. The members are elected by Deanery Synod members, who themselves are elected by PCCs at the annual church meeting. Most parishes struggle to get people to sit on Deanery Synod, partly because it means several extra evening meetings per year, and partly because everyone knows that most Deanery Synod meetings are like watching paint dry (whilst doing so in a cold church or a damp church hall). As a result, the electorate of the General Synod House of Laity is made up of a combination of the pressganged, the crusading and the accidental, as cartoonist Dave Walker’s picture of a PCC illustrates. Nevertheless, one doesn’t need to be a Deanery Synod member to stand for General Synod. The second, compounding problem is that General Synod meets on weekdays. This inevitably means that the House of Laity contains an unrepresentative and large number of the retired, the elderly and those whose professions allow them to attend during working hours (lawyers and doctors are over-represented professions, for example). There are some House of Laity members (God bless them) who take paid or unpaid leave to attend, but one has to concede that this sacrifice is a huge political disincentive. The third problem is the turnover of members: many among the House of Laity have been members for decades, and to this is added the phenomenon of the “senior figure”, ie. a person who has the time and some motivation to get on lots of committees and to exert considerable influence over process and other members, simply because they are known well and know the system. Of course, among the House of Laity are many outstanding members, many whose professional stature gives them valuable insight into the affairs of the Church and its mission. But representative of the rank and file of the Church, the House of Laity is not. As the debate over women bishops has proved, this is affecting the Church’s reputation and its responsiveness to the challenges of contemporary mission.

Things could be somewhat improved by minor changes in the Church Representation Rules, which govern who can stand and who can vote for General Synod members. It would be entirely possible to synchronise a General Synod election with the season of annual parochial church meetings (APCMs), so that ballots can be held in the local church with all electoral roll members eligible. It is possible for the process to be divided up among parishes, with each parish having a local ballot to determine which candidates get its electoral vote or votes. The pros and cons of various systems are familiar ground to political scientists. But one thing is clear: the electorate needs to change. The current system reflects a pre-internet state of affairs, and dates back, in the main, to systems which were set up with the Church Assembly as long ago as 1919. This is what I mean by “General Synod 1.0” – we’ve been stuck at various minor versions of that model for nearly a century. Society and Church have both moved on, especially in the past twenty years with the digital revolution.

The reason for meeting during the week seems to be the need to keep the total number of meetings (and, hence, travel expenses) down, which pushes up the number of days a single meeting requires to complete the business. The July meeting takes place over a weekend (with a grand communion at York Minster taking half a day), but still spills over as far as the following Tuesday. The answer is obvious: to have a smaller, more representative General Synod meeting more frequently at weekends. The current size of the General Synod is nearly 500 people, and, since any reduction requires the consent of the Synod, rather unsurprisingly it has resisted cutting its own size down to something more cost effective (let us say 300 members). A much smaller synod could then afford, say, five rather than three meetings per year, held at weekends. At a stroke, this would open membership of the House of Laity up to a far wider range of adults. But the deeper problem is that General Synod, as presently constituted, is unlikely to agree anything radical about its nature. Turkeys don’t usually vote for Christmas. If it is capable of bringing the Church into public derision and disrepute by its acts in November 2012, I don’t hold out much hope of its ability to self-reform. Again, we’re stuck by the functionality of “General Synod 1.0”. Perhaps State intervention may be the only way, although as a theologian, I’d rather hope not.

A total rethink?

But are the above proposals merely tweaking with something that needs a more radical change? General Synod is a democratic machine, designed in the twentieth century, in the era of High Modernity. It came into being during a government headed by David Lloyd George that had shown it was quite willing to step in to govern when the Church seemed resistant to the wider political will (as, in part, it had already done with the disestablishment of the Welsh dioceses in an Act of 1911). Above all, the Church needed to prove the relevance and integrity of its own systems of decision-making if it was to continue to command respect (and a subsequent lack of tampering) by the secular state. The mood-music of 1919 shaped a model which has been with us since. That same mood-music is around us once again.

Although the above proposals could make things somewhat better than they presently are, a much better step would be to commission a widespread review of the present system, Synod 1.0, especially in the context of recent problems and the need to engage a wider sense of commitment by very people the House of Laity are meant to represent. This would be a task for theologians (for the task of Synod is to gather together to discern the mind of the Holy Spirit in considering matters of governance and legislature), political scientists (for the method of discerning the mind of the Spirit remains a human task for a human system), representatives of the present Synod, and, especially, those who are presently most disenfranchised: the younger laity and those who have contractual or immoveable Monday-Friday job commitments.

A rethink about General Synod also needs to address a wider set of questions about how the whole nature of democracy is changing in the digital age. Although there is still no consensus about what secular systems of government can or ought to do to address this, the same issue affects younger lay people within the Church of England. If the Church wants to stem the exodus of young people, which has been seriously affecting it for the past thirty years, then proposing models where young voices can be seen to shape directly its teaching, worship, operations and beliefs would be a step in the right direction.

So let us have that review. And then, if General Synod cannot put its own “House” in order, it may be appropriate for the State to do something about it and bring in Synod 2.0 whether Synod 1.0 likes it or not.

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