Expand the electorate and meet once a year

by
17 November 2010

The General Synod is undemocratic and unbalanced: it needs urgent reform, argues Nicholas Holtam

The General Synod’s shared work between laity, clergy, and bishops is a strength of the Church of England. It is immensely important, and it has got out of proportion in the life of the Church.

For the next five years, 467 of those who are among our best people will meet on church business probably for nine or ten days a year, but in principle for up to 13 days. Also, the committee, preparatory, and follow-up work means that for our bishops and elected representatives, synodical work takes up a large part of their time. It must limit the type of person able to stand.

This is a scandal against both in­clusion and common sense about whom we would want in our leader­ship. It also skews what the Church of England thinks of as its main business. When Jesus called his dis­ciples, he told them that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.

On the Archbishop of Canter­bury’s recent visit to the Church of South India (News, 22 October), Dr Williams reportedly warned about the number of com­mittees in that Church and others: “Churches can be paralysed by too many committees. It is a sinful experience.” I wonder whether he was thinking just about them.

In the past 30 years, the C of E has become more “mission-shaped”. Some dioceses (for example, London) and some parishes (including those I have served on the Isle of Dogs and at St Martin-in-the-Fields) have grown. The General Synod needs to become more mission-shaped, take itself more seriously, and meet less often.

For those of us not directly involved, the General Synod does not seem to offer much to the local church. At worst, it gets us a bad name for the bureaucratic ways in which complex and sensitive matters are debated in a parliamentary way in which argu­ments are won, but not settled, by majority.

It is hard to see how arguments could be settled in a General Synod that lacks democratic legit­imacy. In London, the com­peti­tion for places on this General Synod was hot: 27 clergy and 52 laity stood for the ten seats in each House.

The electorate of laity is con­fined to deanery-synod repre­sentatives. In London, just 50 per cent of them voted. So, in a diocese with 70,000 on the electoral rolls, 566 people voted for our ten lay representatives. It ought to be a scandal. But most people are so in­different to the Synod that it is has barely been noticed.

In a complex voting system that few understand, but which is ap­parently very fair, London’s leading lay candidate romped home with 60 votes — 5.3 per cent of the electorate and 10.6 per cent of those who voted.

The House of Clergy in London was marginally more impressive: 56 per cent voted from an electorate of 823. The two leading clerical can­didates were elected with 66 and 44 votes, the first being 14 per cent of the electorate and 9.5 per cent of those who voted.

In these elections, London was the C of E’s star performer, at least in terms of the number of candidates. In Liverpool, there were six candidates for five places in each of the Houses of Clergy and Laity. In Hereford, four candidates stood for three places among the clergy and five for three in the laity. Overall in the six dioceses with the lowest numbers, 31 clergy stood for 22 places.

The evidence suggests that, despite the boost given to candidate numbers by the continuing debates on women bishops, there is not much interest in the General Synod. How could it be otherwise when lay people are so comprehensively disenfranchised? Reform is urgently needed.

So here are three proposals I am putting to the PCC of St Martin-in-the-Fields, in the hope that they will work their way to the General Synod for consideration. They are intended to give democratic legitimacy to the Synod, and to broaden its member­ship and sense of purpose, while reducing its sense of burden.

First, the electorate for the General Synod should be the members of Electoral Rolls.

Second, our General Synod should meet once a year, for a maximum of five days. The savings from meeting less would probably pay for the cost of enlarging the franchise, although if the election were done online, it might be cheaper than at present. A reduced time commitment would also make it possible for more people to stand for election.

There is another area of concern. The parliamentary model used by the Synod is one in which party groups function in opposition to one an­other, questioning each other’s legit­imacy to be truly Christian.

This is de­structive, and has infected the Church. It prevents our deep­ening our diverse shared life in Christ.

The experiment at the Lambeth Conference with African indaba or tribal meetings is worth trying as one way of seeking the mind of Christ collectively. Not every matter needs be put to the vote. On many issues, the Church does not need an opinion. It needs to inform our consciences so that Christians are encouraged to act well.

Hence, third, the business com­mittee of the General Synod is asked to review the workings of the Synod and to propose alternatives to the parliamentary model.these reforms would run alongside the painful reforms currently being undertaken in the political realm towards lighter, cheaper, and less-stultifying government.

Local churches would see the central struc­tures of the Church taking radical action to cost less financially, as well as in terms of people’s time and the Church’s focus. They would help rebalance the relationship between the local and national Church. The Synod would be forced to work out its priorities even more carefully than at present.

Hence, third, the business com­mittee of the General Synod is asked to review the workings of the Synod and to propose alternatives to the parliamentary model.these reforms would run alongside the painful reforms currently being undertaken in the political realm towards lighter, cheaper, and less-stultifying government.

Local churches would see the central struc­tures of the Church taking radical action to cost less financially, as well as in terms of people’s time and the Church’s focus. They would help rebalance the relationship between the local and national Church. The Synod would be forced to work out its priorities even more carefully than at present.

These reforms might also release those employed by the Archbishops’ Council to serve the Church, and not just the General Synod — whose 467 members would be able to become leaders rather than spokes­people with small and often party followings. The Synod would become a more represent­ative body, and its standing in the eyes of most of the Church would be enhanced.

The Revd Nicholas Holtam is Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)