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‘Will we need a sick note?’ Synod struggles over voter-not-present proposals

10 July 2021

YouTube/Church of England

Dr Rachel Jepson, chairing the session on responsible representation

Dr Rachel Jepson, chairing the session on responsible representation

A MARATHON session on implementing the recommendations of the Responsible Representation review brought issues of trust to the surface on the first day of the General Synod, meeting remotely.

Members proved unhappy with the chosen voting platform for key amendments in the three-and-a half-hour debate: the electronic equivalent of a show of hands, which some protested gave no indication of how the figures might have looked or what the mood of Synod really was.

At issue was the new election process to the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC), the body that selects and recommends new diocesan bishops (News, 16 April; 24 April). The plan is to give Synod the power to elect to the CNC three pairs of members from the House of Clergy and three from the House of Laity. The recommendations seek to ensure a diverse representation of views, ages, and traditions, and the review body acknowledged its report would make uncomfortable reading for an “overwhelmingly white, middle-class and able-bodied” General Synod.

The role of trust and accountability in the shaping of the Church’s common life, cultural context, and inclusion of different voices and perspectives, and the discernment and responsibilities of the electorate as they cast their vote, were all identified as founding principles.

Aiden Hargreaves-Smith (London) moved each of five propositions in turn. The report had set both a challenge and an invitation, and work had been going on for two-and-a-half years to ensure the reflection of “a glorious diversity of voices and experience round the table”, he told the Synod, urging members to keep in mind “the bigger picture of new and creative working together . . . the ultimate challenge for all of us”.

One key recommendation is that the election must take place at a group of sessions at the Synod, “with only the members of the House of Clergy and Laity who are present (including by participating remotely in the case of a remote group of sessions) being entitled to vote”.

Postal ballots therefore would go. The election would take place in a context of silence and prayer. That was “profound and liberating”, Mr Hargreaves-Smith said. But some members were uneasy with the removal of postal voting, which they judged would disadvantage those unable to be present at the session. An amendment from David Lamming (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) covered both remote and hybrid meetings, and was carried in a 30-second vote, the equivalent of a show of hands.

A second amendment from Anne Foreman (Exeter) sought to enable a member to vote who was unable to be present at the session because of illness or disability. She highlighted the commitment to inclusivity and diversity and warned of “an unintended consequence of not addressing the needs of disabled people. Synod must be fully accessible to all.”

Feelings began to run high. “Either it matters that all members are present at the debate or it doesn’t,” said Clive Scowen (London). What about clergy officiating at funerals on that day; what about carers, he asked? “What constitutes being ill, and how ill do you have to be?” He suggested it was likely to lead to an argument about who qualified and who didn’t and as such, was “unfair and unworkable”.

Sam Margrave (Coventry) a champion of the rights of disabled people, said that not supporting this amendment would send a message that disabled people were not welcome and did not matter. It was about equity and equality: “If we remove postal voting we must make provision.”

The Revd Stephen Lynas (Bath & Wells) was also concerned. Would all this lead to doctors’ certificates being requested? It had to be something workable and consistent with voting for other forms of business.

The vote for that amendment was carried. It became evident as the debate wore on, and members lined up to speak and subsequent amendments were lost, that a 30-second “show of hands” was not adequate on such important issues. Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) protested that it gave no indication of what percentage of members had voted which way, nor of the mood of Synod.

A point of order by the Revd Neil Patterson (Hereford) led to the chair, Dr Rachel Jepson, exercising her powers to change the voting method for amendments to a 60-second counted vote of Synod. A 90-second counted vote remained for the main propositions and the final motion was finally carried with 281 votes for, 12 against, and seven abstentions.

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