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Scottish General Synod: Election of bishops

16 June 2023

Scottish Episcopal Church

The Bishop of Edinburgh, Dr John Armes

The Bishop of Edinburgh, Dr John Armes

A REVISED version of Canon 4, which governs the election of bishops, was presented for second reading by the Bishop of Edinburgh, Dr John Armes, last Friday.

The process of revision began in 2018, and, in 2021, Synod members indicated that they were in favour of a process that retained the chief part played by the diocese in selecting a new bishop rather than centralisation.

In 2022, the revised canon passed its first reading, amid procedural confusions that one member described as an “absolute shambles” (News, 17 June 2022).

“I believe it improves on the current canon in several ways,” Dr Armes said of the proposal. The new canon required bishops to be present at the first meeting of the electoral synod from the diocese — “not so that they can intimidate”, he said, but so that they understood the needs and priorities of the diocese.

The revised canon also includes a confidentiality clause to prevent the publication of candidates’ names.

As he had the previous year, Dr Armes urged members not to expect too much of the canon: “The election of a bishop is a matter of prayerful discernment by all concerned. A canon can provide a framework for this discernment, but is not a substitute for it. Electing a bishop is not the same as appointing a CEO.”

Two minor clarificatory amendments to the canon were put forward by the Committee on Canons, without objection from the floor, before it was debated.

Professor Alan Werritty (St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane), who was a member of the Canon 4 Review Group, said that the existing canon was “not fit for purpose”. He asked members to consider simply whether the revisions represented an improvement, and not to demand that it be perfect. “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said.

The Bishop of Glasgow & Galloway, the Rt Revd Kevin Pearson, said that it “grieved” him to speak against the motion. “I think the canon needs to be much more radical in its outcome.” Members of his diocesan synod had expressed “the pain and the anger and the distress over the last election, which produced me — and I realised that they didn’t want me, but I told them I was coming anyway.”

The Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, the Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth (Glasgow & Galloway), also spoke against the revised canon. It was he who had described the earlier debate as “shambolic”.

He urged members to “be kind” to candidates if they had the opportunity to do so. However, “the trouble with where we’ve landed today is it would remove that choice from people by cloaking everything in a veil of confidentiality.” Candidates, he said, “would be be cut off from their friends, and their congregations will be cut off from knowing what is happening to them. . . This canon will stop you from caring for candidates.”

He concluded: “From my point of view, this would make the actual canon worse, notwithstanding that everyone involved in trying to amend this is trying to make it better.”

Beth Routledge (Glasgow & Galloway) also spoke against the motion. “I am from a diocese where, in our last episcopal election, it went so badly, and was managed so badly, that the trauma is still evident in the diocese over five years later. I don’t use the word ‘trauma’ lightly.

“Canon 4 is dysfunctional; in Glasgow & Galloway, we know this better than anybody. But this doesn’t get us there.”

In diocesan synods held since the last Synod meeting, the diocese of Glasgow & Galloway had voted overwhelmingly against the proposed changes to Canon 4, whereas every other diocese had voted in favour.

The Very Revd Dr Emsley Nimmo, Dean Emeritus of Aberdeen & Orkney, observed that being on the Committee for Canons, on which he had previously sat, was a “thankless task”.

In a speech that made references to church history, Dr Nimmo suggested that the mandated presence of the bishops at the first meeting of the electoral synod would “without doubt risk jeopardising the necessarily independent and autonomous discernment of the local church”.

Helen Vincent (Edinburgh) said that she had been “profoundly troubled” by the fact that one diocese, Glasgow & Galloway, had such a different view, and that this should be a cause for reflection for the whole Church.

Dr Michael Wood (Edinburgh) said that this version of Canon 4 gave the Church a “fighting chance” of successfully electing bishops if called to do so in the next few years. “It’s a good path: let’s walk it,” he urged.

Canon Sophia Marriage (Edinburgh) said that removing confidentiality would put some people off. She concluded: “Everyone has agreed” that the current canon is “brutal and traumatic”, and so it was important to change it as soon as possible.

Responding to the debate, Dr Armes said that the confidentiality clause should not be read as prohibiting candidates from seeking support. Owing to the age of several of the current bishops, there would be a “succession of elections of bishops” over the next five years, he said, which lent a degree of urgency to this decision.

“Which of these is best . . . for the next round of elections,” he asked: the current canon, or the new one? “It’s not perfect, but I think it’s better.”

The motion was carried by the required two-thirds majority in all Houses: Clergy 49-8, with one recorded abstention; Laity 43-12; Bishops 4-1 with one recorded abstention.

The Synod adjourned for lunch, and returned to vote through a set of motions that gave effect to their decision.

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