This month I’m off to General Synod – the national governing body of the Church of England – for the first time. I thought, therefore, it might be interesting for you to know a little bit more about its workings and how it relates to each and every one of us.
It is often said that the Church of England is ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’. This means that Bishops (and the clergy appointed by them to parishes) lead the direction of the Church. Once upon a time, bishops had enormous power in their dioceses, just as clergy had enormous power in their parishes. In recent times, however, more careful forms of government have been sought. Thus, the importance of synods (and PCCs!). The different kinds of synod – Deanery, Diocesan and General – are instruments of legislation and good order, working in concert with bishops, clergy and PCCs.
The term ‘synod’ derives from the Latin word for assembly or meeting, and there have been lots of synods over the centuries, including a famous one at Whitby in 664 CE. This settled the question of when Easter would be celebrated in England and brought the English Church in line with Rome. In the Church of England, the General Synod was established in 1970 as a replacement for the General Assembly.
‘Beneath’ the General Synod is ‘Diocesan Synod’ – a meeting of elected local representatives held in each of the 42 dioceses – and below that, ‘Deanery Synod’. As some of you will know, the countless Deanery Synods that meet around England are easily mocked as places where very little happens and there’s very little energy. However, it’s worth remembering that it’s possible for a local Deanery Synod to pass a resolution that goes all the way up to General Synod. This happened in Lancaster Deanery a couple of years ago. Their Deanery Synod proposed a motion to support transgender people in church. This was then supported by Blackburn Diocesan Synod and last summer General Synod voted overwhelmingly to support trans people in church. The local can have an impact on the national!
So, in July I go to York for the summer meeting of Synod (it usually meets twice a year, the other time in London). It’s going to be a curious and fascinating experience. The work of Synod is much like the House of Commons, though usually politer. It reflects the fact that the powers Synod has have been devolved from Parliament. It is, then, a version of national government, and has all of the elements you would expect: debates, motions, questions and sometimes huge disagreements. What happens there matters because it affects national life and the local life of the Church. It was only because Syno voted for it, that we have women priests and bishops in the C of E.
This session will have present a few pressure points. The mess the C of E has got itself in over same-sex marriage and the status of LGBT people rumbles on. Given that the Business Committee (which sets Synod’s agenda) has said that no motions about LGBT people can be tabled until after 2020’s House of Bishops’ Teaching Document on Sexuality, is going to cause some anger. Any Synod member can ask a question in Synod, and there are bound to be a fair few on this topic!
Leaving aside that smouldering issue, there is – as ever – a lot of more routine business that doesn’t get picked up on in the national press (leaving aside the Church Times). This session will also include debates and voting on ‘ecumenical matters’ (to quote Father Ted!), on Nuclear Weapons, and Clergy Pensions among many others.
Each member has – as in parliament – one vote to cast. Given that the Synod is divided into three Houses – Bishops, Clergy and Laity – one sometimes sees very different perspectives on show. The House of Bishops, for example, tends to vote as one unit, reflecting the increasing sense that there is a ‘party line’ in that House. The clergy are often seen as the more progressive House and the laity as the more conservative, though in recent times, the clergy and laity have worked together to give the bishops something of a bloody nose!
It’s going to be a steep learning curve, but I feel genuinely honoured to have been voted in by the clergy of this diocese to represent them. If I . represent them, I hope I speak for a wider sense of grace and generosity too. As laity, you have your own representatives and if you have a particular issue you wish to have raised, speak to them. Perhaps, even consider standing for General Synod yourself! Democracy works best when we participate and seek to be well informed.