Cui Bono?

The General Synod is difficult to describe. It is unlike any Synod at any other level in the Church. We all know about Deanery Synods and Diocesan Synods where the members turn up early, sit through all of it and go home when its over. We all know about budget debates in Diocesan Synods – the budget is always approved, isn’t it? We’ve all heard the jokes about Deanery Synods being meetings in search of an Agenda.

Well, General Synod is different. For a start, its bigger than any of the others with over 550 members. Its agendas fill eight or nine full days a year. It also takes the big decisions, for good or ill, which affect every diocese and every parish in England – and Europe. Every group of sessions starts with a set piece debate on the agenda. The form is familiar; only the details change. It usually goes something like, “I’m so pleased to see that X is on the agenda.” Then someone pipes up with, “Why isn’t Y on the agenda?” to be followed by, “And why are we spending time talking about Z?”

Some of this good natured repartee is an indication that beneath the surface we’ve got a lot of different ideas about what Synod is for. Let me explain. I remember talking to a newly-appointed Diocesan Bishop some years ago. He had been on Synod before as a proctor, but on becoming an Archdeacon in a different diocese he had been obliged to resign his seat, (with considerable relief). “But now I’m a Diocesan Bishop,” he moaned, “and I’ve got a life sentence!”

There are indeed those who regard Synod as a form of penance. It is understandable that some folk with busy lives will begrudge several days of hanging around Synod, not being called to speak, and just adding their votes to the overwhelming majorities that “take note” of the various reports that are debated.

For many of us, the simple answer is that if you resent having to give up the time for Synod, then stand aside and make way for someone with more enthusiasm to take your place. But that isn’t much help if you’re there ex-officio – which all the Diocesan Bishops are. It is not just the Bishops though. We had a debate in November to set the times and dates of Synod Sessions for the next four years. The question of whether we meet two or three times a year came up and it was interesting to hear the reactions.

My postman is all too well aware of the weight of the mailings that dropped through my letterbox in the month before Synod. He knows perfectly well that I would not have had time to read all the documents as thoroughly as I would have wished. Common sense says that having three bites at the cherry – three days at a time – would be better than the five-day sessions we get in July and November. Yes, it would cost a little bit more – according to estimates from the General Synod office, the cost of all of us making an extra return trip to London once a year would amount to the grand sum of 1.6p per person in the pew last Sunday. So why don’t we do it?

In the debate, one clergyman from the Northern Province bemoaned his long journey to London and saw virtue in coming as infrequently as possible. The fact that York is an equally long way from the South of England clearly wasn’t a consideration.

However it is germane to ask what we’re at Synod for? Some, as I’ve said, regard it as a form of penance. Others see it as a kind of reward for long service to the Church – “the crowning glory of my ecclesiastical career” as a hopeful lay candidate once described the prospect of election. Some may well count it a privilege merely to be present at Synod and hear addresses from Anglican observers at the United Nations, Archbishops and the like. And, what an honour to actually walk through the division doors supporting whatever motion is before the Synod.

For such as these, an honour is an honour and it gets tedious if it goes on too long. Does it matter whether the Standing Committee take decisions, or the Church Commissioners, or the Archbishop’s Council, or the Privy Council, or Lambeth Council – just so long as we have a share in the rich tapestry of the short-lived traditions which are Synodical Government in an established church.

On the other hand, there are some who have worked hard to secure a place on the Synod and are mindful of their responsibilities to those who elected them. They know that their electors will, in future, be providing the funding for most of the activities of the Church of England, except the payment of past pensions, and that they expect their representatives on Synod to hold the executive to account for their stewardship.

They are unimpressed by the arguments that suggest Synod should be downgraded to little more than a talking shop. They are convinced that a little more accountability for the Church Commissioners ten years ago wouldn’t have come amiss. They realise that they can’t hope to fulfil their electorate’s expectations if Synod shuts up shop in November and doesn’t meet again until the Summer holidays. The House of Bishops, left to their own sweet ways, would have closed Oak Hill and Mirfield years ago. Only a revolt on the floor of Synod put a stop to that. If Synod hadn’t met for that debate, by the next time, it would have been faced with a fait accompli.

All said and done, The Synodical System can work a lot better than most people give it credit for. The present structures, which are designed to incorporate a democratic element in decision making, work well when there’s a will. Like any structures, they don’t work when people don’t want them to.

Synodical structures give a majority voice to elected clergy and laity. The proposed Archbishop’s Council will give a majority voice to Archbishop’s nominees.

In the coming months, your elected representatives will be pressured to vote away the power they exercise on your behalf – and if they don’t do that, they will be encouraged to meet so infrequently that they have little opportunity to do the job you elect them to Synod to do.

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