If Michael Flanders and Donald Swann were alive today they would probably be moved to write a song about Synod. It would probably go something like this:
Synodical life is tedious, laborious and slow.
It feels like I’ve been here for most of my life so I blooming well ought to know
Last month I wrote an article under the heading of ‘Playing the game’ in which I argued that Synod had made courageous decisions in November to reform the Crown Appointments Commission. I expressed the fervent hope that the Business Committee would back Synod’s aspirations and in the event I was pleased to find they had done exactly that. Apparently the voting was close, with the elected members of the Committee voting to back the Synod’s decision and the appointed members keen to give Synod the opportunity to reconsider its desire to have more diocesan representatives involved in the selection of a new diocesan bishop.
I also dared to hope that no-one was planning to play ducks and drakes with standing orders to inhibit the passage of these long overdue reforms – but there I was disappointed.
No sooner had Synod begun with the usual pleasantries and we were into the debate on the agenda. Professor David McClean, as the voice of the Establishment, was on his feet to say how unsatisfactory he found the process in November and that he intended to move an amendment in the Crown Appointments Commission debate to adjourn consideration of the number of diocesan representatives until July, so that a means might be found to give Synod the option of choosing a number other than four or eight.
Well, the Professor was true to his word. When the debate came the following day, he was ready with his lawyer’s eloquence and sought to persuade the Synod that the procedures of November had denied members the chance to consider any number of diocesan representatives other than four or eight. Only an accomplished lawyer could make such a disingenuous argument sound so plausible. I began to understand why so many juries are persuaded to acquit the guilty.
The simple fact of the matter is that there was a proposal on the table to continue with the present system whereby the eight permanent members of the Crown Appointments Commission are joined by four representatives from the diocese where the vacancy has occurred. Stephen Trott exercised his right to move an amendment to change the number from four to eight. Indeed it was open to any member of Synod to propose an amendment advocating any other number of their choice but no-one chose to do so.
It was passing strange to hear Professor McClean’s tear-jerking performance lamenting that many of us would have welcomed the opportunity to vote on another number, say six. It became apparent that the villain of the peace was not the procedures Synod had employed, but Professor McClean himself, who had failed to move an amendment in November which would have given him exactly the opportunity that he complained he had been denied.
Now standing orders are a mystery to many members of Synod. I can remember reporting to my deanery synod on the 29th Report of the Standing Orders Committee and quipping that I was amazed they could find anything to say that hadn’t been said in the first twenty eight reports. I could almost have believed Professor McClean’s case had it come from anybody else, but Professor McClean was on the Standing Orders Committee for many years, and was I believe its chairman. Indeed most of the standing orders we have were probably drafted by the Professor himself. For him to plead that synodical procedures (no doubt of his own design) had thwarted him was a supreme irony.
Furthermore one gained the distinct impression that he had no particular interest in offering Synod the choice of six, or any other number, of diocesan representatives. It looked as though his agenda was to get a number as close to four as possible. He was clearly afraid that Synod might affirm its November decision and go for eight, but perhaps he hoped Synod might be persuaded to trim its aspirations to six (or ideally four) in July. All said and done, it was a brilliant performance and if he had been playing Uriah Heep in a Hollywood production, it would have been worthy of an Oscar nomination.
Well the show of hands on the Professor’s adjournment motion was inconclusive, so for the second time in two synods we were voting through the doors on whether to adjourn or not.
The adjournment motion was passed by about 30 votes, which happened to be about the same as the number of bishops in the house.
That was surprising, because the quorum in the House of Bishops is eleven and the bishops normally have a rota to ensure that the quorum is maintained. So one was left wondering why so many had turned out on this particular occasion when a dozen and a half of them could have been in that other place across the road claiming their daily attendance allowances.
Call me a conspiracy theorist, if you will, but it just so happens that it takes 25 members of the Synod to call for a division by houses, and I have a sneaking suspicion that if the adjournment motion had not been carried, then the proposal for eight diocesan members of the Crown Appointments Commission would have been lost, in a vote by houses, in the House of Bishops.
What are they afraid of? It was pointed out in the debate that it is hardly credible to claim that the addition of four members to the CAC would make it too large and unwieldy, since the Archbishops’ Council is larger (and no-one has suggested cutting down on the membership there). One suspects that the bishops, many of whom are old boys of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, fear that their ability to appoint their friends and their friends’ friends too might be diminished if dioceses were given a greater say in the appointments process.
I dare to hope that Synod members will keep their nerve between now and July and vote for Stephen Trott’s amendment to democratize the process. Could I dare to hope that the bishops will think that on reflection, they would do well to accept the mind of Synod and not attempt to thwart the representatives of church members across the land. It would not look good if the bishops were to exploit Standing Orders to protect their own self-interest. It would certainly compromise the bishops’ attempts to speak with integrity in the wider world.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.