Lay representation on General Synod

When proposals to allow women bishops in the Church of England were rejected by a tiny margin it sent shock waves through the whole church. Even opponents were nonplussed, though no doubt pleased.

The immediate response was to cast around to find alternative routes by which to consecrate women as bishops - without having to wait another 5 years and for a new Synod.  In my opinion these proposals and suggestions were more dangerous to the church than the crisis they intended to resolve.

To allow parliament or any other body or group to overrule a decision because it was unpopular - even very unpopular - is to open the door to any future decision being over-ruled by fiat of some sort.

That step would never be restricted to this one issue. Some genie would have escaped the bottle and its spectre would haunt all future decision making. It would become a normal and an anarchic part of the governance of the church - even if only as threat.

The Church was plunged into a constitutional crisis following 
the shock defeat in the General Synod earlier this month 
Photo: GETTY via Daily Telegraph
But the failure of General Synod to attain a two-thirds majority in all three houses despite the favourable votes of 42 of 44 dioceses immediately raised questions.

Constitutional questions
One of those questions was the extent to which lay representation on General Synod represented lay feeling in the pews - or even in the diocesan synods.

This blog will argue in favour of every member on the Church's electoral role having a vote for their representation in general synod - and in diocesan synod. The basis of the argument (which is also the main argument against) is that such a change will inevitably change the relationship between lay members and the governing bodies of the church.

Questions of legitimacy
Beneath (or alongside) constitutional and structural questions lie questions of the legitimacy of the House of Laity. And if the legitimacy of one House is weak, it weakens the authority of the whole Synod.

The immediate problem is the disjunction between diocesan votes for women bishops and the vote falling short in the House of Laity (though, it should be remembered, a majority voted in favour).

There are other, underlying causes for concern. There is a gap between all layers of governance above the PCC and ordinary members of the Church. The gap between General Synod and the pew is especially large. This is not a fluke of history but a deliberate consequence of the indirect voting for lay representatives agreed when the constitution of General synod was negotiated. The powers that were did not want a general franchise nor an engaged laity.

Allied with this gap is the lack of accountability. Lay members of General Synod report back to diocesan synods and, occasionally, to deanery synods. Sometimes newsletters have been produced with a wider, if uneven, circulation. But the fact remains that church members are very largely ill-informed and disengaged.

Where my interest came from
The history of lay representation on synod was one (minor) thread in a thesis I wrote in 2000 (available as a .pdf from Durham University). I've not followed the twists and turns of the extensive changes in church governance since then - and will need to catch up with at least some of it.

Worshippers as full members of the Church of England
But I remain convinced of this: the future of the church lies with lay people who are full members, whose role in decision making is clear, understood, valued, asserted by themselves and defended by bishops and clergy.

One little part of this is that all laity should vote for their representatives - and consequently that representatives should be accountable to their electorate.

It won't be the answer to all questions of legitimacy, though I think it will help. It won't of itself revitalise any thing, but I think it will set the CofE on a better path: away from the underlying monarchical ethos towards a more inclusive culture. It will also bring the CofE a little more in line with most other churches in the Anglican Communion.

And I believe it's the right thing to do. Irrespective of possible beneficial consequences.

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