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06 December 2019

A GENERAL ELECTION campaign is a good moment to mark the centenary of the 1919 Enabling Act, which brought a strong element of self-government to the Church of England. The fervid run-up to a first-past-the-post state election compares unfavourably with the calm, rather dull, STV (Single Transferable Vote) system used for General Synod elections. Where there is a lack of diversity, it is generally a consequence of the types of person who choose to become involved in church administration rather than any failing in the system. The quinquennial election next year will demonstrate whether this issue has been properly addressed. At least the Church Times is no longer prompted these days to refer to “elderly bores”, as it described members of the Synod’s forerunner, the Church Assembly, in 1932 (and not just because we now recognise that there is no lower age-limit for bores). There is a serious side to this. Other Churches without a history entangled with the State, as described by Dr Morris in this week’s feature, have chosen less representative structures, arguing, if challenged, that the Holy Spirit is perfectly able to communicate God’s wishes to individual leaders, and that those making decisions need not resemble those they are deciding for in order to act correctly. Set against such simple autocracies, the Church of England appears to have built an unnecessarily complex system of governance, enshrining a lack of trust and an excess of scrutiny.

This criticism sticks if Christians subscribe to a top-down understanding of authority. Attendance at any session of the General Synod, however, quickly demonstrates that wisdom is not conferred exclusively on a few leaders, be they bishops or senior lay office-holders. At times, innumerable contributions from the least-prominent members have shaped the Synod’s utterances and improved its legislation. Nor is it unfaithful to compose a system that contains within it checks and balances — not only because of the corruptible nature of power, but simply because a full range of experience is needed for a right judgement to be reached. A reasonable case can be made from the New Testament for collective leadership. A cast-iron one can be made for participation, by both women and men — and by the laity, since clericalism had not then taken hold. The synodical system is flawed, of course, and a characteristic of the Church Assembly identified by William Temple’s biographer F. A. Iremonger in 1948 persists. He described “a sharp and fateful struggle between two groups . . . [who] may be called, roughly, the legalists and the moralists. The struggle was a brief one. The legalists . . . were soon in control; the voice of the Assembly is now the voice of the administrator, not of the prophet” (William Temple: Archbishop of Canterbury: His life and letters). The present Synod attempts both voices, but is more comfortable with the former. None the less, functioning well, and accurately presented, the synodical system enables the Church to model a credible alternative to Westminster politics.

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