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Elections, diversity, and safeguarding on General Synod agenda

16 April 2021

Members will meet virtually over two days on 23 and 24 April


The floor of the chamber in Church House, Westminster

The floor of the chamber in Church House, Westminster

THE General Synod will have some soul-searching to do when it meets for two days next week on Friday 23 and Saturday 24 April.

The chief business of Saturday afternoon is the report Responsible Representation, from the Crown Nominations Elections Review Group. The Synod will be asked to endorse its recommendations on the handling of elections of members to the Crown Nominations Commission and diocesan vacancy-in-see committees, and the steps that it proposes to ensure a diverse representation of views, ages, and traditions on these bodies.

The report acknowledges the General Synod to be “overwhelmingly white, middle-class and able-bodied”. It declares: “Our sincere belief is that change is necessary and if aspects of this report do not make for uncomfortable reading, we shall have failed to convey the strength of our deliberations.”

It identifies a change of culture as “essentially needed . . . most notably in the General Synod, but also more widely in the Church, so that our primary concern — both individually and corporately — is the flourishing of others: putting their needs and well-being ahead of our own”.

Politics, it says, “becomes destructive when it becomes a factionalism that works to divide the Body. Our reflections also cause us to question the existence of the lay/clergy divide in many of our electoral processes and specifically in elections to the CNC.”

One recommendation of the in-depth report is that one election should be held in which members of both Houses vote across the pool of the clerical and lay candidates, and that constraints are applied to the Single Transferable Vote system, such that the first three clergy representatives and the first three lay representatives are elected.

It says: “In the context of Synodical elections — from nominations, through voting, to the role of those chosen — too often it seems that partisan views may have weighed more heavily than genuine commitment to the vitality of the whole body of Christ, across its full breadth and legitimate diversity.”

The review group notes that it was only at the very end of its deliberations that the Black Lives Matter movement came to prominence: “It nevertheless provides a particular context to the conclusion of our work and brings into sharp focus the issues of diversity highlighted throughout our report.”

On Friday, a 90-minute debate will be held on the Draft Safeguarding (Code of Practice) Measure, which received first consideration at the November session. Its agreed fast-tracking through the Synod means that the revision stage is being taken in full synod during this session without a previous revision-committee stage (News, 4 December 2020).

The new code of practice is more akin to legislation than the current guidance. A new section of the code sets out an extended list of the categories of who is a “relevant person” to whom the code will apply. The Draft Measure then comes before the Synod for final drafting and final approval on Saturday.

On Friday afternoon, there will be a debate on international religious freedom, in the light of concerns about the 83 per cent of the global population living in countries where violations of freedom of religion or belief occur. The Pew Research Center reported in November that government restrictions on religion had reached the highest level globally in more than a decade (News 4 December 2020).

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, will move a motion affirming freedom of religion or belief to be a necessary condition for human and societal flourishing. The motion will call on the Government to implement the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s independent 2019 review for the Foreign Secretary of what was then the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO’s) support for persecuted Christians, and to strengthen the department’s commitment to upholding and protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief for all in its foreign, international-development, defence, and trade policy (News, 12 July 2019).

This review was commissioned by the Government, not by the Church, and has not previously been considered by the Synod. It was given the task of mapping the extent and nature of the global persecution of Christians, to assess the quality of the FCO’s response, and to make recommendations for changes in policy and practice.

The Government has accepted the review’s recommendations in full, but the paper suggests that “the weight which the government is likely to give to each remains in doubt.”

It says that the Government should not “shy away from using targeted sanctions when there is clear and compelling evidence of mass atrocities. In this sense it is disappointing that the government has yet to apply sanctions against named individuals in China for their well-documented complicity in perpetuating gross human rights abuses against the Uyghurs.”

It describes Britain’s policy towards China as “riddled with contradictions”.

It suggests that, “At the moment, the Brexit aspiration of ‘Global Britain’, described by Dominic Raab, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Secretary, as ‘expanding our global horizons’ and ‘reinforcing our national mission as a force for good in the world’, remains a campaign slogan.” The paper suggests ways in which the Church’s work might develop in the future.

Virtual question time has been a thorn in the side of hapless chairs at previous Synod meetings: the pace of muting and unmuting has been a particular vexation (News, 4 December 2020). The session is allocated 75 minutes at the end of Friday, and is being handled differently this time, so that whoever is chairing can take supplementary questions “in a more orderly manner”.

Members will have to submit their request to ask a supplementary in advance, but are not required to say what the question is about — a procedure that will allow for the advance preparation of a speakers’ list. The Business Committee reviewed a number of proposals, “none of which were perfect and all of which have advantages and disadvantages”, it reports.

On Saturday morning, there will be an hour-long debate on the Clergy Discipline (Amendment) Rules 2021. This 84-page document sets out the updated and improved code of practice, which “aims to be a relatively simple guide, to point users in the right direction, and to draw their attention to the relevant provisions of the Measure and the Clergy Discipline Rules”, Dame Sarah Asplin, who chairs the Clergy Discipline Commission, writes in a preface to the document.

Synod members will have access for the first time to a published list of all those who spoke in debates and other items on the floor of the Synod at the November 2020 session. The list has always been available and used by the panel of chairs. The summary of statistics reveals that 11 bishops, 39 clergy members, 56 lay members, and two non-voting members spoke.

More than seven out of every ten members of the Synod did not speak in any debate. David Lamming (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) topped the list, speaking five times, followed by the Revd Paul Benfield (Blackburn), Peter Bruinvels (Guildford), and Clive Scowen (London), all on four.

The Business Committee, chaired by Robert Hammond (Chelmsford), has also produced an updated running record of all the business transacted during the current quinquennium.

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