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General Synod digest: members welcome CNC recommendations for greater diversity

30 April 2021
Church of England

The Dean of Manchester, the Very Revd Rogers Govender, welcomes the recommendations as an opportunity for greater diversity, particularly racial

The Dean of Manchester, the Very Revd Rogers Govender, welcomes the recommendations as an opportunity for greater diversity, particularly racial

THE General Synod voted on Saturday afternoon to receive and implement the recommendations of the report Responsible Representation — a review of election processes for the Crown Nominations Commission and diocesan vacancy-in-see committees. The new pairing process is to give the Synod the power to elect three members each of the Houses of Clergy and Laity to the Commission (CNC).

The report — which describes the Synod as “overwhelmingly white, middle-class and able-bodied” — calls for a diverse representation of views, ages, and traditions in the Houses. Synod members were urged to trim their speeches so that as many diverse voices as possible could be heard.

“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 strengths of our deliberations,” the report 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.”

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.”

The chair of the CNC review group, Aiden Hargreaves-Smith (London), said that it had sought a broader theological view of representation. The preferred model was “something which recognises that our identity is in Christ and our membership of the Body of Christ. Candidates should represent that body without distinction and be credible representatives of the body as a whole.”

He continued: “This is a genuine desire to engage constructively. . . The Church is perhaps too often better at proclaiming diversity than practising it.” Diversity represented trust, accountability, and responsibility in the context of electoral representation, where “we should not only care more for ‘the other’ than for ourselves, but live it out in our institutional life.”

Broadening voices was both desirable and necessary, he said — “a genuine openness, attentive listening and waiting on God”. The CNC should frame the vocation of a candidate or elected representative as “a crucial part of our Christian calling, our respect for the Body”.

This involved reviewing the Synod code of conduct and was an invitation to all synodical bodies to consider how their processes might be rooted in Christian discernment. More information would be available about each role, to widen the range of prospective candidates; it would be in the context of “liturgical and prayerful consideration together”.

Discernment — “waiting on God” — was at the heart of it; openness and frankness would be accepted and valued, and “We must guard against labelling and pigeonholing,” he said.

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) welcomed the attention to practicalities in the review, which, he said, was about a fundamental culture change. That was hard to make effective, as the Church’s experience in safeguarding had shown. “Entrenched attitudes” and “spoiling behaviour” — expressions used in the 2018 report Discerning in Obedience — would appear, he warned, and things that might seem to be good for the Church might in reality be entrenched attitudes. “It underlies the difficulty of culture change in this area.”

Abigail Ogier (Manchester), in her maiden speech, detected a genuine wish to improve diversity, but urged the Synod to consider what other barriers remained. The time commitment was likely to restrict the pool of candidates for both the Synod and CNC; there were differential effects in issues of paid-leave entitlement, family situations, and geography, and additional barriers related to limited disposable income and repayment of out-of-pocket expenses, and whether all this was “for people like us”.

Politics and power were given by God for the benefit of all, and politics could not be “wished away” in discussions over a new consensus-based approach, the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Peter Broadbent (Southern Suffragans), said. He supported the review and welcomed the increased transparency and greater inclusivity of the recommendations.

He wondered, however, whether the “pairs” concept weakened the experience and influence of elected representatives, giving more influence and power to the Archbishops and Appointments Secretary. He also questioned what kind of bishops were being sought: could a maverick bishop be elected under this system? Did the desire to “improve” the work at diocesan level actually weaken the diocese’s voice in the system? Would the proposals reinforce the mono-episcopacy model of the appointment of a single character who was then “expected to ride to the rescue of a weak diocese”?

Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) brought an amendment to “receive” rather than “endorse” the recommendations at this stage, and “request that steps be taken towards their implementation, including bringing the necessary legislative business and Standing Orders amendments to the Synod for decision”. This, he said, would allow for a period of reception so that members who could not, in good conscience, endorse the motion, did not derail it at this early stage. It would also provide a clear roadmap to enable the Synod to make decisions when they had the facts and the legal information in front of them. This was a “friendly” amendment, intended to facilitate, not impede, any other amendments, he said.

Mr Hargreaves-Smith welcomed the amendment.

Prebendary Simon Cawdell (Hereford) was also in favour. He took issue with the proposed electoral system.

Jane Patterson (Sheffield) described herself as “a veteran of 23 CNCs” and found the recommendations “helpful and practical”. She described this issue as one of mutual flourishing, and asked: “Are we prepared to use our vote for that? I am — are you?”

The Revd Stewart Fyfe (Carlisle) welcomed the recommendations, though some, he suggested, seemed to diminish the voices of both laity and clergy. “Let’s receive this joyously,” he said. “Don’t let us be a Church that gravitates towards the centre and allows the loudest voices to dominate.”

The amendment was carried by 302-9, with ten recorded abstentions.

Joyce Hill (Leeds) then brought an amendment that would require candidates to declare in their personal statement whether they had a principled objection to a woman’s being a diocesan bishop — “something that should be made clear and explicit to all electors”, she said. There was too much room for “fudge and wiggle”.

Mr Hargreaves-Smith urged the Synod to resist the amendment on the grounds that the framework provided an opportunity for all candidates to engage freely with electors.

The amendment provoked lively and lengthy debate, but was lost: by 195-115, with four recorded abstentions.

Christina Baron (Bath & Wells) brought an amendment seeking to exclude Recommendation 11: “that Synod elect across both houses three pairs of clergy and three pairs of laity to the CNC”. These would be nominated and seconded as a pair. She asked: “What is the problem to which election in pairs is seen to be a solution?” The consequence, she suggested, would be that should a Synod member lose their seat, the pair would also go.

After a debate, the amendment was lost by 189-98, with 24 recorded abstentions.

Martin Kingston (Gloucester) said that the report suggested more was required than a generalised request for disclosure. Candidates must be encouraged to declare any interests that might affect someone’s decision to vote. Clearer guidance was needed.

Nick Land (York) saw an unintended consequence in suffragan bishops’ not being eligible to stand for the committee — would it be inevitable, therefore, that more of them became chairs of vacancy-in-see-committees?

The Dean of Manchester, the Very Revd Rogers Govender (Manchester), supported the motion and warmly welcomed the recommendations which he said were an opportunity for greater diversity, particularly racial diversity, in the Church. “We know from past experience that the ability of the Synod to elect members of ethnic minorities to the CNC have been very difficult for a variety of reasons.” The fact that the review group had taken into account the context of the Black Lives Matter protests was “a sign of hope”, he said.

Mr Hargreaves-Smith reiterated in his final comments: that the recommendations represented “honest engagement and care for each other” and should not be seen as “a central power grab”.

The motion, as amended, was carried by 296-18, with 16 recorded abstentions. It read:

That this Synod receive the recommendations set out in section 6 of the report Responsible Representation: a review of the electoral processes to the Crown Nominations Commission (GS 2202)’ and request that steps be taken towards their implementation, including bringing the necessary legislative business and Standing Orders amendments to the Synod for decision.

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