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Scottish Episcopal Synod: Procedural ‘shambles’ causes confusion

17 June 2022

Scottish Episcopal Church

Mary Woodward, from the Quakers, brought a moment of silence to the end of a dramatic debate

Mary Woodward, from the Quakers, brought a moment of silence to the end of a dramatic debate

SEVERAL points of procedure were debated, and proved to be the most contentious parts of the agenda, provoking a cry of “This is shambles, absolute shambles” from the Synod floor.

Last Friday morning, proposals were presented that would change the way in which bishops are elected.

In 2018, protesters accused bishops of ignoring the diocesan synod’s wishes in electing the Rt Revd Anne Dyer as Bishop of Aberdeen & Orkney (News, 8 January 2018).

Bishop Dyer has subsequently been accused of bullying, and an independent report recommended her removal from the diocese. Instead, mediation was initiated, which remains in process (News, 8 October 2021).

In an interview on Saturday, the Primus, the Most Revd Mark Strange, said that canonical process had been followed at all times. Those who protested against Bishop Dyer’s appointment also, at the time, conceded that the election had been properly conducted under Canon 4.

It was this canon that was discussed last Friday. A revised version was put forward for a first reading by the Bishop of Edinburgh, Dr John Armes. He warned against “unrealistic expectations of what canons can deliver”.

“We can’t build the people of God simply by canonical review,” he said. It could only provide a mandate for the discernment process, and would not ensure that it was achieved.

“We must be careful in any election process to treat each other with kindness and grace,” he said; and this applied especially to “how we treat those who wonder whether God might be calling them to be candidates”.

Part of the challenge was to ensure that the Church was producing enough candidates in the first place.

Graham Robertson, the convener of the Committee on Canons, described the changes as a “significant revision” rather than a complete rewriting. The language of the canon had been amended throughout to make its provisions clearer.

Among the substantive changes was an alteration in the part played by the Episcopal Synod in the event of a diocese’s twice failing to elect a new bishop. Currently, the decision passed only to the College of Bishops; the revised rules would mean that bishops would meet alongside representatives of the diocese.

The proposed revisions would also serve to make the timeframes for the election of a new bishop more flexible, and require that the list of candidates be confidential.

Dr Anne Martin (Edinburgh) questioned whether the names of candidates would, in practice, be kept confidential, although she welcomed the intent. Canon David Richards (Edinburgh) likewise welcomed the confidentiality clause. He expressed concern, however, that the Synod was moving too quickly to the “what” and the “how” of electing bishops, when it needed to give greater thought to the “why” and the “who”.

The Bishop of Argyll & The Isles, Dr Keith Riglin, noted that he was the most recent person to have gone through the process, having been elected last year. Although he welcomed the confidentiality clause, he said, it was necessary to be “realistic” about the possibility that names would be leaked. Participants in the process should “seek discipline in that”.

The Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, the Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth, spoke about his own experience as a candidate. He described the process as “shambolic”, with no hospitality being provided, despite full days of interviews and long distances travelled.

He suggested that the position of the conveners of the election of a new bishop needed to be scrutinised, as “this is where the mischief applies.” Accordingly, Provost Holdsworth said that he would be voting against the motion.

Beth Routledge (Glasgow & Galloway) also spoke against to the motion, albeit “with some reluctance”. She suggested that the revised canon did not go far enough in introducing “professionalism” into the process, and criticised the influence that bishops would still wield.

Confidentiality would not be maintained, and, in any case, it would make it harder for candidates if they were unable to receive the support of their congregations.

The Bishop of Brechin, the Rt Revd Andrew Swift, urged members to carry the motion so that it could be further discussed in the dioceses, and emphasised that further changes could be made when it returned for a second reading at the Synod next year.

The Revd Diana Hall (Edinburgh) disagreed. “I think if we’re not quite ready for this canon yet, we should knock it back now, and think about it more,” she said.

Despite opposition, it achieved a majority in all Houses: 35-17, with no recorded abstentions, in the House of Clergy, while the House of Laity voted 40-11, with one recorded abstention, and the Bishops 7 nem. con.

On Saturday, proposed changes to the rules of General Synod proved to be even more contentious. Motion 26 attempted to introduce a requirement that motions brought under rule 10 of the Rules of Order — which allows for motions to be introduced during a Synod session, provided that they have written support from 12 members — “shall” be introduced seven days before the meeting.

Bridget Campbell, the convener of the Standing Committee, said that provision remained to suspend the rules temporarily; so the seven-day requirement could be waived in situations when the Synod decided that this was appropriate.

The motion also sought to introduce a requirement for a two-thirds majority vote on any motion that would make a long-term change to the rules of the Synod.

With an amendment, Ms Routledge sought to change “shall” to “should normally”. She agreed that it was preferrable to abide by a seven-day requirement, to give committees time to consider motions that might directly contradict their initial proposals; but this was not always practicable.

Much reference was made to an incident in 2019, when a motion introduced under the current rules resulted in the adoption of a more radical position on disinvestment from fossil fuels than the relevant committee had proposed (News, 14 June 2019).

The Revd Diana Hall (Edinburgh), who had proposed the “offending motion” in 2019, said that here had been “no concerted effort to undermine the proper working order of Synod”. It had been necessary to table the motion at the last minute, because only after members had arrived at the Synod had proper discussions been possible, revealing support for a more ambitious approach.

Several members expressed a desire for more time for reflection and discussion to be built into the process. Euan Grant (St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane) suggested that pre-synodical discussions should be facilitated better. The Revd Sophia Marriage (Edinburgh) said that they needed to build “peace for a wee second” into the deliberation process, to allow members to reflect. Sometimes, she said, she had thought: “What the hell am I voting on?”

The amendment was carried by 65-25, with nine recorded abstentions. A further procedural amendment divided Motion 26 into five parts. The rationale was that the Synod would not have to give a blanket rejection or acceptance to all of the various procedural changes. Ms Campbell agreed that this was a sensible approach, and this course was adopted by a large majority: 89-7, with four recorded abstentions.

The splitting of the motion into five was to cause some disquiet, however, as 26D, which established a requirement for a two-thirds majority, was carried before members voted 55-33 (with 11 recorded abstentions) for 26E. Motion 26E was described as making “minor clarificatory revisions” to several rules, but had been opposed by Provost Holdsworth on the grounds that it changed the way in which it was decided when secret ballots should be used, putting the decision solely in the hands of whoever was chairing the session.

After it was announced that 26E had been carried, it was pointed out during the coffee break that it had fallen short of the two-thirds threshold, established a minute or so before the vote was held by carrying 26D.

The announcement that 26E had actually fallen caused some discontent. After further confusion over whether a two-thirds or simple majority was required for an amendment, someone shouted from the floor: “This is shambles, absolute shambles.”

After this final-day drama was a short address from Mary Woodward, a delegate from the Religious Society of Friends. “You are moving towards us in recognising the value of silence,” she observed.

Click here for more coverage of the SEC synod

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