Friday, September 24, 2010

General Synod election fever

There's low-level excitement in the Church of England as it's time for the five-yearly elections to General Synod, the Church's "parliament". Those of us who get a vote have received the names of our candidates and their "election addresses": in my case, the six hopeful clergy who have put themselves forward in this Diocese. There's a lot of debate right now about what makes a good candidate or a good address (see Revd Lesley for her own take on this, also Alan Wilson for an irreverent take on the electoral system). But what I haven't seen much of is any discussion of whether Synod really works, as a governing instrument of the C of E.

Synod is important because it has the power to make the rules (although major pieces of legislation still have to go before Parliament). So I suppose that if it didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent it. But would it look the same? I can think of some good things about synod:
1. Making decisions at national level gives coherence to church policy
2. Having an elected body makes decision-making democratic and saves us from being at the mercy of Bishops' bright ideas.
3. Meeting 3 times a year focuses attention on Synod and means debates are held in the glare of publicity - some people don't like this but generally, more scrutiny leads to better decision making.

All very good. But I can also think of some things that aren't so good.

1. The house system. Not Gryffindor, Slytherin, et al, but something equally arcane: the houses of Bishops, Clergy, and Laity. The three houses are elected separately but comprise the synod together. Sometimes they all vote together and sometimes separately. The House of Bishops meets independently but the others rarely do. I can see the need to balance out the numbers of clergy against the rest, but do we really need this Byzantine level of complexity? It just adds to the air of Barchester that still surrounds the C of E and makes it hard for the ordinary churchgoer to relate to the process.

2. There's a problem with the representation of the laity. This is partly due to circumstances: having to go to three residential synods a year rules out the majority of people of working age, and results in a slightly aged membership. But it's also because of the unfortunate electoral system which means that the only people who can vote for the House of Laity are those who are members of Deanery Synods. This really isn't a good thing.

3. It's a bit .. well .. dull. This summer I followed the synod in real time, thanks to the new live feed and because of the crucial debate on women bishops. It was a painful experience which left me feeling only sympathy for the delegates who gather three times a year for this hot-air fest. Apart from the incomprehensible procedures which accompanied the showpiece motion (three hours of debate on whether to have the debate, what was that about?), there were the other debates on points of liturgy and such like, topics which don't lend themselves to the cut and thrust of the debating chamber. I can understand why we need to gather 378 people together to decide on major changes like women bishops, but do they all need their say on every minor change? It wouldn't be too difficult to make the whole thing slicker and less cumbersome, for example by delegating minor business to committees.

Maybe the new Synod could have a debate about this? Good luck to all standing, you have my prayers. You'll need them if you win.

3 comments:

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Charlie for some very much on the money questions. A few of us have been saying how mucuh the communications environment, if not the system, for this needs to be improved so people have some idea of how to stand and whom to vote for. And I think the question of indirect election really does need addressing. When I said this a while ago in a Guardian article I had various withering "you'll learn, sonny" emails on day 1 (along the lines of "if you were on this you'd know how necessary the present system is"). Next day various people got in touch to say they'd believed it for years, but didn't know how to do anything about it!

Charlie said...

Thank you for that comment, Alan. I think it neatly illustrates another problem with the synod system - that it is self-perpetuating. It is going to be incredibly difficult to get any change to the synodical system, at any level, because the changes wouldn't go through unless they are approved by synod. The words "turkeys", "voting" and "Christmas" come to mind.

Alastair Cutting said...

I actually think there is a groundswell of opinion that the Synod has given us good service over the last 40 years; but it may be time to start to look for what might follow it in terms of church government. I certainly had that in my election address.
Probably making me a turkey...