A New Synod Takes Shape

Gerry O’Brien asks some basic questions about the new synod. Will it be representative? Will it be compliant? And …most important of all … will it vote the cash?

The General Synod elections are over. The winners are getting ready to go to Westminster Abbey for their appointment with the Church of England’s Supreme Governor. The losers are heaving a sigh of relief at having secured a five year sabbatical, courtesy of the electorate.

As I write this, I don’t know which group I shall be joining. This week we have all been meeting the electorate at the hustings – the count is still two weeks away. Some dioceses had hustings in deaneries, some had hustings in Archdeaconries and some didn’t have hustings at all. Most of the hustings I’ve heard about seem to have been characterised by a pretty poor turnout. So were the electors simply disinterested? Maybe. But being a literate lot, they may have found the election addresses sufficiently illuminating that they had decided how to vote anyway – and probably had more pressing things to do than turn out on a dark evening for a ten mile drive and hear five minutes from the likes of me. The prize must surely go to a clergy hustings meeting to which none of the electors turned up, though to be fair one elector did put in an appearance about a quarter of an hour late. I hope he was well armed with some searching questions for the posse of candidates.

Ninety five per cent of the lay members of Synod have had to persuade a quota of the electors to vote for them in order to be elected. In contrast a fair number of the Clergy are from rotten boroughs. For instance, the Archdeacons in each Diocese get together and vote one of themselves on to Synod, probably on the basis of Buggin’s’ turn – and those that don’t get on that way can try their luck in the Clerical election. Except in York that is, where the electorate of three didn’t get around to choosing which of the two candidates they preferred until after the Clergy nominations had closed. And I thought Archdeacons were the people who knew all the rules!

Five years ago, all the Archdeacons in Chelmsford Diocese managed to get themselves elected, and when I asked a question in Synod, I was amazed to be told that 44% of all Archdeacons were members of Synod (compared with 33% of Deans and Provosts, 20% of Suffragan Bishops, 2% of other clergy and 0.02% of laity).

So now we understand why Working as one Body is seeking to diminish the role of the elected laity.

I was quite surprised at the muted reaction to the Turnbull Report which was published halfway through the election campaign. Most of the candidates seemed to think it was “a good thing” in the parlance of 1066 and All That, but perhaps mention of such an ancient text simply shows my age.

The electors seemed to be all in favour of streamlining the bureaucracy – often on the basis of protracted and painful experiences trying to get a faculty from the ‘diocese’ – but not particularly exercised about whose hand would, in the end, be on the tiller. It will be interesting to see what the new Synod has to say when everybody has had a chance to read the report and think through its implications.

One issue that the electorate were exercised about was money. What’s new? As we move from an era when the Church Commissioners (half of whom are Bishops) were the channel through which most of the cash to run the church was provided, to an era when they won’t even be able to pay the pension bill, the centre of gravity of influence will have to move.

The laity are becoming acutely aware that with the rapid withdrawal of Commissioners’ money, everything we do is charged to you – to misquote Ford’s recent commercial. Every plate of Church House sandwiches will in future be charged to the person in the pew. It will be no good for the Archbishop’s appointees in the new Jerusalem being ushered in by the Bishop of Durham, simply to assume that whatever they serve up, the laity can be relied upon to pay up.

There are members of Synod who cut their teeth on loony left Councils. They have been through the “can’t pay, won’t pay” routine before, and they may well do so again.

That is not to say that the laity will demand budget cuts all round, but I think they may become a lot more discriminating about what they are prepared to pay for. They are likely to ask a lot more searching questions than they did in the past about the selection and training of clergy, readers and the like. They may well demand a focused approach to get clergy on the job in the parishes. They might even rate spirituality above administrative efficiency.

It remains to be seen whether they will prefer one lot of streamlined bureaucracy in Church House to what we’ve got at the moment, and whether they will discover the appetite to apply the same treatment to the staff who have been cloned in forty three different places.

But one way or another, a lot of vested interests are likely to be working as one body in the weeks to come. Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of General Synod

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of General Synod