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No longer content to pray, pay, and obey

24 February 2017

The Synod’s rejection of the Bishops’ report was the result of shifting power dynamics, says John Saxbee

TO UNDERSTAND what happened in the General Synod last week it is necessary to acknowledge a notable shift in synodical dynamics.

The General Synod was originally constituted as a Synod of Houses, but has now morphed into a Synod of constituencies. Houses are pre­dicated on status — episcopal, cler­ical, lay — while constituencies are coalitions of interests, special agendas, and points of view. In his­torical terms, this shift is highly significant.

For nigh on 2000 years, whatever forms conciliar activity may have taken in the Church up to, and even through and beyond, the Reforma­tion, a special and superior position was reserved for the bishops as chief pastors, teachers, and guardians of the Church’s apostolicity and Cath­olicity.

Even though, in the early patristic period, clergy and laity did have a voice in Council, and would even from time to time stand out against episcopal opinion, still it was as­­sumed that the will of the bishops should prevail — or, at least, no­­thing should be enacted relating to worship, doctrine, and the adminis­tration of the sacraments without their consent.

Notwithstanding the flexing of presbyteral muscles in the Convoca­tions at the turn of the 18th century, it was still assumed in the Victorian era that “The House of Bishops not only has seniority, but constitutes the Church in Council, with assist­ance from the presbyters as and when their Lordships choose to accept it” (Episcopal Ministry: The report of the Archbishops’ Commiss­ion on the Episcopate, 1990).


IN 1920, the National Assembly of the Church of England was brought into being, and, although it created some confusion when it came to its relationship with the Convocations, there remained an overwhelming sense that, even if the laity and clergy now had an equal voice in debate, the moral and spiritual authority of the bishops would determine the outcome.

The advent of the General Synod rationalised and regular­ised a number of constitutional arrangements, but again, to quote from Episcopal Ministry: “The House of Bishops retained a sig­nificant measure of . . . authority in constitutional terms.”

As that same report observed, however: “There remain deep ques­tions concerning the balance between episcopal and synodical authority which have not been re­­solved in our theology or our prac­tice.” The report goes on to suggest that it is important to be clear about two senses of “election”: “The bishop is ‘elected’ in the sense of being chosen by God and the com­munity to fulfil an episcopal minis­try, and the bulk of the mem­bers of the synod are ‘elected’ by a modern democratic process.” It is the as­­cend­­­ancy of the elected mem­bers which came to the fore last week.

In recent times, the Bishops ad­­vanced proposals for an Anglican Covenant, and provisions for those opposed to women bishops, which have been rejected by their own dio­cesan synods. Now, the General Synod has declined to take note of their report on marriage and same-sex relationships (News, 17 Feb­ruary). Mussolini once said that governing Italy was not impossible, merely pointless. The same might be said of the Church of England, but in so far as it is governed, it is synod­ically governed — but is it any longer episcopally led?

The shift in synodical dynamics has been the result of several factors. Chambers of appointees, such as the House of Lords, are increasingly under threat from democratically elected legislatures. Suspicion of “experts” and establishment “elites” — episcopal or otherwise — is on the increase. With specific reference to the Church of England, we have witnessed the flexing of ecclesio­logical muscles by those no longer content to only pray, pay, and obey.

Consequently, we have become used to the elected Houses’ defeat­ing proposals brought to the Synod by the bishops — and, in recent times, it has happened with some regularity. But perhaps more significant than these specific instances of clerical and lay constituencies’ asserting themselves through their patterns of voting are changes in the “feel” of the Synod in recent years. Bishops continue to be held in affection and respect, but there is not that sense of distance and deference which came as standard 30 years ago. The toler­ance of hierarchy is not what it was.

We may well conclude that proposals predicated on an em­­phasis on episcopal and Primatial power are likely to prove counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, and counter-productive in provinces that have seen steady growth in clergy and lay influence in synodical government.


WHEN all is said and done, promoting the orthodoxy, ortho­praxis, apostolicity, and Catholicity of the Church are functions of discipleship through baptism, and so belong to all members of the body of Christ, even if, historically, such functions have been seen almost exclusively as the prerogative of those in episcopal orders. That the Bishops have a clearly defined charge laid on them in respect of such functions cannot and should not be denied, but some rebalancing of lay, clerical, and episcopal in­­fluence in the ordering of our affairs is clearly in evidence. Adjusting to that trend will be a challenging but necessary task for the Bishops to undertake in the years ahead.

For a start, it must be acknow­ledged that attempts to conform bishops to a common mind on con­troversial issues will inevitably tend towards a contrived consensus that is acceptable to few, if any, of the Synod’s constituencies. Prophetic voices of protest must be heard, and, if that results in the publication of minority reports, then so be it. Most significant initiatives for reform be­­gin as minority movements.

Furthermore, in so far as episcopal appointments are man­aged so as to secure such a consensus, the episcopal palette will become far less colourful, and fail to represent the diversity of views in dioceses and parishes.

On other fronts, in responding to these new realities, the Arch­bishops’ letter to members of the General Synod after last week’s vote is a very positive development. While we are not yet clear what “radical new Christian inclusion” might mean in practice, it certainly has a Christlike feel about it.

Similarly, reference to “a proper 21st-century understanding of being human and being sexual” indicates a readiness to affirm the much ma­­ligned “spirit of the age” as poten­tially one with the Spirit leading into all truth.

By no means least, the acknow­ledgement that “we need to work together — not just bishops, but the whole Church” must be welcomed.

The promise of a debate “in gen­eral terms on the issues of marriage and human sexuality”, however, fails to recognise that the need now is to move on to specific measures to effect change. For the Bishops to remain in damage-limitation mode is really no longer an option.

The way ahead will not be easy. But to acknowledge that all the synodical Houses might contain members from all the synodical constituencies is at least honest, and at best liberating for all concerned.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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