How we got here (briefly)

The Church of England didn't create its current, wrong headed, voting arrangements for the laity by accident.  It took a lot of negotiating, compromising and conniving to arrive at such an unnecessarily complicated and inappropriate arrangement.
The Provinces of theChurch of England

The process of formally associating the laity with the clergy in the government of the Church of England can be traced back to the 1830s. The first phase led, through several recognized but informal meetings of laity with the clergy, to the creation of Church Assembly. The (all clerical) Convocations of York and Canterbury met, usually separately, twice a year. By the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act , 1919, Parliament enabled the Synods to meet together, and with a house of laity, to comprise the Church Assembly.

Pressure to reform Church Assembly came after the second world war. In the course of the reform of Canon Law (much underrated, in my opinion, in the modernization of the Church) two things became obvious. First, that the mechanism of formal consultation between the separate parts of the Church Assembly was cumbersome, inefficient and an utter waste of time. Second, that the Church's ultimate goal of acquiring powers over it own doctrine, worship and clerical discipline would only be possible if the laity had a bigger say in the decision making of the Church.

Since the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts the Church of England has been separating itself from the state, though at the speed of continental drift. One thread of this separation has been to move away from the idea that the House of Commons was, in theory and practice, the effective voice of the laity in Church affairs. Some MPs, in particular those most engaged with Church affairs, remained reluctant to let this go. But if they were to relinquish the role it would not be to an assembly wholly dominated by the clergy.

In 1952 the Convocation of York discussed the idea of a General Synod but no action followed. In the Spring session of the Church Assembly of 1953, Mr George Goyder proposed,
'That the Assembly respectfully requests the Archbishops to appoint a Commission (including representatives of the Convocations) to consider how the Clergy and Laity can best be joined together in the synodical government of the Church, and to report' Church Assembly Report of Proceedings, 1953, p. 89.
The motion was passed by a large majority and was 'gladly accepted' by the Archbishops. Seventeen years then passed before General Synod met.

George Goyder is, in my view, the hero of this story. He was a businessman, a leader of the Evangelicals in the House of Laity, and he stuck to his vision through forests of committees and commissions.  He was included to make dramatic claims and to see lay participation as the solution to an all-out assault on the Christian heritage of the country. He was convinced that the Holy Spirit worked through the whole church, not merely through the clergy.  He knew the challenges he faced. After four years as a member of the Synodical Government Commission he stated that he
became convinced that [outright synodical government] was impractical because of people [clergy] who would resist and resent any attempt to interfere with a body [Convocation] in which they exercised considerable prerogatives which they valued, and rightly so.' Church Assembly Report of Proceedings, 1958, p. 338.
At that point it looked as though all was lost. But the mood changed and there were more committees, commissions, reports, compromises, debates, and votes. Defenders of clerical privilege began to feel on the back foot.

In the end a mishmash of competing principles were squashed together into one scheme set out by the Hodson Commission report (government by synod, Synodical Government in the Church of England. (C.A. 1600) 1966))

It was this commission which insisted on indirect elections. The report stating that members were
firmly convinced that direct parochial election must be sacrificed at diocesan level in order to introduce effective synodical government ...' p. 50.
The rationales offered included:
  • That when the Anglican-Methodist unity proposals had been referred to the parishes there had been evident confusion
  • That parishes were too varied to meet the desire for reasonable uniformity in the lowest level of the electorate
  • That consultation with parishes all too often meant receiving the views of the incumbent
The central challenge to this proposal was that as a consequence
'... any kind of representation in the affairs or consultation of the main body of the Church by the parishes and congregations disappeared.' Valerie Pitt, Church Assembly Report of Proceedings, 1966, p. 594
The challenge was never answered.

This topic is going
to be tough to illustrate
There was one more step which has had a lasting detrimental effect. The Hodson Report had wanted to make ruri-decanal conferences (now Deanery Synods) an effective part of the structure of local government of the Church. It proposed that the business of the Diocesan Synods should be considered beforehand by the Deanery Synods. This would have given the opportunity for significant and sustained contributions to debate. But - with no announcement, explanation or discussion - the word 'beforehand' was dropped from the Measure. As a result Deanery Synods were emasculated. They were left with just one substantive statutory role: to elect the members of Diocesan and General Synod.

At some point a bureaucrat, bishop or church lawyer took it upon themselves to quietly and arbitrarily shift the balance of power in local church government and no-one noticed, or no-one spoke up. Shame on them.


  1. A succinct but very useful introduction. Most Deanery Synods do indeed struggle to find anything to talk about.

    On a slightly different note the abolition by the General Synod (simple majority only) of clergy Freehold, which is now being steadily replaced by 'Common Tenure' will, in due course, weaken the position of the clergy, strengthen that of the laity somewhat, but really worryingly greatly increase the powers of the Bishops.

  2. Concerned Anglican,

    Good to talk to you again. Common Tenure has come into being over the last few years when I've stopped watching in any detail.

    I can see how it strengthens the hand of the bishop, at least by comparison with the days of clergy freehold. And there were times that I felt vulnerable when licensed as priest in charge in my previous post. But nothing happened.

    I guess I think clergy should not expect to be too secure. The other side of possible arbitrary action by bishops is clerical complacency, time-serving and a failure/refusal to engage in diocesan structures. None of these are desirable (and I've been guilty of some of this).

    I guess there's a double question to be addressed: on the one hand, what would an attainable ideal of relationships between clergy, laity and bishops look like? (Or range of relationships?) And, on the other, how do you deal with individuals and groups of clergy - and bishops and laity - who reject this ideal? (Or who step outside the range?)

    I'm currently (and temporarily) in a parish mopping up after a priest who did a lot of damage and who, I believe, was allowed to stay in post far too long.

    I guess this doesn't answer your point. But that's because I don't know what would answer. What would you suggest?

  3. Dear Paul,

    A few brief comments.

    The old system, patron appoints, bishop licenses and the incumbent ministers produced a balance of power. There were, of course, a few rotten apples but overall the freehold protected the clergy and incidentally the people and their parishes from the bishop.

    Despite your own experience with a relatively benign bishop when you were without a freehold, I would suggest that as the number of freeholds gradually dries up and vanishes, so correspondingly the power of the bishops will increase. The laity will also get a bit more power, but come back in twenty years time and the C of E will have an entirely different feel to it. It'll be a more thoroughgoing 'episcopal' Church which is not necessarily a good thing.

  4. Thanks for the history - really useful.