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Review group: Oh, and the General Synod needs reforming, too

14 September 2021

Church Times/Geoff Crawford

THE Church of England should give “serious attention” to reforming the General Synod, says the Governance Review Group’s report, published on Tuesday.

“The General Synod sets the budget of just one of the NCIs [National Church Institutions],” the report notes, “elects board members to some but not all of them, receives annual reports from some but not all of them, and can pass motions ‘calling upon’ any of them to do things which it cannot necessarily enforce. Neither is Synod the governance body for the NCIs; they are registered charities subject to separate regulation of their governance (e.g. by the Charity Commission).”

The General Synod was not included in the review group’s terms of reference. The group heard from some of those whom it consulted, however, “that the Church cannot fix governance problems without addressing flaws in the synodical system”, and urged the group to “address this ‘elephant in the room’”.

The report speaks of “a more positive case for reform of the General Synod. Quite simply that there is a pressing need to shape Church of England governance to meet the challenges — which are also exciting opportunities — of the future and reflect the work done on vision, values and strategy.”

Although the General Synod was set up in 1969 to be a legislative body, there is, the report says, “far less clarity about the extent to which it has (or should have) oversight of the NCIs’ work.

“The expression ‘synodically governed’ may have originated with the 1969 Measure, which created the General Synod in its current form, but the phrase is an unhelpful one as it supports the widespread misconception in the media that General Synod is the Church’s governing body, when this is not the case.”

The report also expresses misgivings about whether Synod elections produce enough members with the right levels of expertise; and says that a significant number of “campaigners” and “specialists” are elected to the Synod, who are “not socially, racially or demographically diverse”.

It continues: “While this is not necessarily an entirely fair depiction of the overall contribution of Synod and its enormously committed and knowledgeable members, we do agree that a) the Synod’s culture can be impacted by some elements of factionalism, and b) that Synod’s lack of diversity impacts its ability to perform its own function as a legislative body in the ecosystem of the governance of the Church, and has a secondary impact on the governance bodies to which it elects members from its own number.”

At the same time, the report notes that “the Synod does . . . perform a significant non-legislative role in the governance of the national Church, receiving the annual report and accounts on behalf of the membership of the Church of England.”

Furthermore, most national policy initiatives, it says, are put before the Synod in non-legislative form, to gain its approval before the governance bodies take them forward. “It is difficult to conceive of any national initiative — legislative or non-legislative — which could proceed against the will of the General Synod.

“In reality, therefore, Synod does have a role in decision-making as well as its legislative role, but this position needs to be clarified. Synod does potentially have an important role to play in ensuring accountability, for example in taking a proactive role in scrutinising the financial reports of some of the other governance bodies.”

The report also says that, although the Synod is, legally, a legislative body, “it is noticeable that there is less and less interest amongst Synod members in transacting legislation. . . Legislative debates (the main function of General Synod) are generally poorly attended.”

Most members, it says, are more interested in debates on social-policy motions “where Synod’s powers to influence change are usually expressed in the form of motions requesting the governing bodies and Diocesan bodies to take some form of action”.

It continues: “Despite all these concerns, we take the view that any viable alternative governance arrangements must ensure that — notwithstanding the leadership role of the bishops — the role of the clergy and the laity is properly recognised and that Synod takes its proper place in the structure. The General Synod does have the potential to play a more positive role in national Church governance through modelling the partnership of the whole people of God.

“As a legislative body, Synod may not be equipped to govern, strictly speaking, but its influence is large, because it wields a different kind of power, both legislative and ‘soft’ power in terms of its public profile and status within the Church.”

In conclusion, the review group recommends that: “The Church of England should initiate a new piece of work to explore the reform of the General Synod and Synodical government more widely. . .

“We consider that there is a lack of clarity about the role of General Synod and issues with its perception which need to be resolved as well as the potential for Synod to perform a greater role in scrutinising national Church activities. All these issues should be addressed in order for national Church governance to operate effectively.”

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