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General Synod: Will My Voice be Effective?

In September 2021, after a delay of a year due to the pandemic, there will be a national election for the General Synod of the Church of England. To encourage people to get involved, the Church has launched the first ever central campaign, including a promotional video which asks:

Will you stand to vote on important issues in the life of the church like education, poverty, climate change? Do you want to be part of a diverse leadership community? To think together, to pray together and make decisions about our future together? Will you stand to help vulnerable communities, defend the rights of people with disabilities and stop modern slavery? Will you stand to help establish new church communities and enable funding to train the next generation of church leaders. Will you join us to help transform the church?

We want to put your voices at the heart of decision making.” [1]

Which surely begs the question, “How will my voice be heard?”

In the past it was simple. Being a member of General Synod gave you the opportunity to speak in debates and use your vote to express whether you agreed or disagreed with proposed motions, which set out the opinion of General Synod and call for future action. As, General Synod was ‘dissolved’, in July, the Guardian published an article[2] claiming that debate was being stifled on important matters, by the use of presentations rather than debate. As this reflected the concerns of many members, Anglican Futures analysed the General Synod agendas from 2005 to 2019, to see if there was any objective truth to the claim.

The results were conclusive. Over the past fifteen years, the proportion of business dealt with using presentations has doubled in comparison with the proportion of business which allows for debate and meaningful votes. In other words, it is getting harder for ordinary members of General Synod to have their voice heard.

How did we come to this conclusion?

We worked on the basis that General Synod has four main roles; considering and approving new legislation; formulating new forms of worship; approving the annual budget for national bodies; and debating matters of national and international importance. The way in which the first three are managed are strictly controlled by the Standing Orders, however it is in the latter area that there is room for manouvere.

Three approaches to debating matters of national and international importance can be taken. The first is to have a debate: a motion is put, amendments can be made (and voted on) and then a final vote is taken. The second is to have a “Take Note” debate: a report is circulated to General Synod members and a debate follows on the content, but General Synod only votes on whether they ‘take note’ of the report, rather than expressing a view on the content. In effect, the vote is merely an indication the report has been debated. The third is to have a presentation: given by one or more people about a particular issue, or a piece of work being done by a sub-committee, after which there is sometimes the opportunity for questions, but there is no debate or vote.

A simple comparison of the number of motions debated during each quinquennium with the number of presentations given speaks volumes.

In the 2005-2010 quinquennium the result was approximately 3:1 (3 debates to each presentation). In the 2010-2015 quinquennium it became approximately 2:1 and in the last quinquennium, before General Synod went on-line, that ratio was approximately 3:2. We have not included the business dealt with since Covid forced Synod on-line, though it is interesting to note that in July 2021 the ratio was 5:8!

What does this mean for the future of General Synod?

If these trends continue then most of those elected to General Synod will struggle to have an effective voice, whatever the advertising campaign suggests.

Many would say that the move away from open debate was a response to the adversarial atmosphere that developed during the debates about the introduction of women to the episcopate. Others have gone further and suggested that ever since the first women bishops Measure was defeated, in November 2012, the House of Bishops have been wary of putting contentious issues to the vote in case they don’t get the ‘right’ answer. This might also explain the bishops' decision in 2017 to offer a ‘Take Note’ debate in response to their thinking following the Shared Conversations about human sexuality (GS2055) rather than asking for General Synod’s approval of their suggested approach. Although that was not enough to control the House of Clergy, who refused to even take note of the report, leading to the demand by the Archbishops for, “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church,” and kickstarting the whole Living in Love and Faith process.

The increased use of working groups, made up of selected individuals (who are not necessarily elected members of General Synod), can also not be ignored. This approach has been at the heart of both the Living in Love and Faith and the Reform and Renewal processes. These working groups do present their work for feedback; sometimes through facilitated group work, sometimes by asking for written submissions, sometimes by allowing a few questions from the floor. But without open debate or access to all the submissions made, it is very hard for members of General Synod to hold these working groups to account for the way that feedback is assessed and applied.

So, questions remain. Will the voice of those elected to the next General Synod be effective? Will their voices really be at the heart of decision making if their opportunity to speak and vote are limited? Or will they be there to, at best tweak, and, at worst, rubber stamp, the decisions of others?

In 1969, the then Archbishop of Canterbury commended the Synodical Government Measure to the House of Lords, saying, “The main work in all parts of the Church's affairs will be done by the General Synod in which Bishops, clergy and laity will sit together, debate together, and decide together.”[3]

Please join with us in praying that the trends we have identified do not continue and that the original vision of General Synod is restored.

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