IT WAS JUST after mid-day on a Saturday in the Main Hall on the campus of the University of York. The date was Saturday 12th July 1997. The General Synod was in session and with half an hour to go until lunchtime, who knows what was uppermost in members’ minds? The Chairman ordered a division by houses and 26 bishops, 148 laity and 181 laity voted in favour. There were only eleven votes against. This was obviously a matter where everybody (except the awkward squad) were of one mind. Clearly the overwhelming vote was the end of the matter.

But there you would be wrong. The Measure was committed to Synod’s Legislative Committee who in turn forwarded it to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament. The wheels of bureaucracy ground on for nearly two years. The parliamentarians were definitely not happy, to coin a phrase, and I read in my newspaper just a few weeks ago that the joint meeting of the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament with the Legislative Committee of the Synod, which took place in the Palace of Westminster on Monday 24 May 1999, revolved around possible changes to clause 9 of the Churchwardens Measure, which were discussed at some length and in detail by both parties.

A separate meeting of the Ecclesiastical Committee immediately afterwards voted unanimously (nem con, according to one report) to reject three sub-clauses of the proposed new clause 9, which would have given wide discretion to the diocesan bishop in deciding whether or not to suspend churchwardens from office.

The Legislative Committee of the General Synod has therefore withdrawn the Measure from the consideration of the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament, and is reporting back to the General Synod at its meeting this month – two years after the original fateful vote.

Why, you may be wondering, should the Synod (all three houses of it) vote so overwhelmingly for a measure that parliamentarians regard as such a serious breach of basic human rights?

The offending clause in the Measure concerns the power of a Bishop to suspend a Churchwarden without any right of appeal. The Revision Committee’s Report (GS1165Y) gives us some insight as to how this clause was honed.

The situations with which this draconian power was designed to deal were of two kinds. One was where a churchwarden had committed or was suspected of conduct which was not a criminal offence, but which could cause scandal. The other situation was where the churchwarden had done something or was suspected of doing something which had given rise to legal proceedings. Given that a Churchwarden was elected for a one year term, so the argument ran, there had to be a mechanism for suspension in such circumstances.

The consensus in the Steering Committee seemed to be that there should be equality as between churchwardens and the clergy (who could, if licensed, have their licenses revoked). Further they argued that “as Churchwardens were the bishop’s officers, the bishop should have the right to restrain them from acting, if necessary. It was thought that the laity would trust their diocesan bishop not to act without good reason.

Re-reading the Revision Committee’s report at leisure, it is surprising how plausible these undemocratic notions appear. There were some good people on the Revision Committee who, with hindsight, ought to have known better and stood out against the injustice which was being proposed. They might have saved the Church of England the appalling embarrassment of finding that a secular parliament is more mindful of the rights of individuals than we are.

They seemed to place great emphasis on the notion of the Churchwarden being a “bishop’s officer” and very little score on the Churchwarden being an elected representative of the laity. Reading between the lines of the report, there is a worrying feeling that the Committee were distrustful of the laity to elect fit and proper persons as Churchwardens. There seems to be an implicit assumption that many Annual Parochial Meetings are hell-bent on electing the most unsuitable scoundrel they can find.

It may be that the Committee were influenced by the account they received from the Diocesan Registrar of Chester “of an unfortunate and difficult situation” that had arisen in that diocese. But one swallow doesn’t make a summer and the totalitarian powers the measure proposed for bishops is surely a truly massive overreaction to what must be a very rare problem.

An intriguing speech in the July 97 debate by Canon Bob Baker (Norwich), who was not a member of the Revision Committee, revealed the way that the Committee had succeeded in shaping the thinking of some Synod members.

He said, “Hard cases make bad law, but when we are making a law it is important to think of particular cases where it might or might not apply. I am sure that it would not happen in the Diocese of Norwich, but suppose there was a group of parishes which were in rebellion against their bishop. Suppose, for example, that one parish elected as churchwarden somebody who was not willing to recognise the ministry of the incumbent and was in disagreement with the bishop on this matter. The bishop may well not wish to admit that churchwarden to office.”

Quite so, but surely the views of the churchwarden on the issue would have been known to the electors at the Annual Parochial Meeting that elected him. Indeed they may have elected him precisely for the purpose of protecting their parish from a ministry they considered inappropriate.

Well, when all was said and done, Synod accepted the honeyed words of the report and voted for the measure by a massive margin. Perhaps the time has now come for Synod members to accept their Parliamentary admonishment and eat some humble pie (all except 11 of us that is). And I will have to eat my share, because I wasn’t one of the 11. I have to confess that I voted with the lemmings.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.