Robert Leach questions synodical reforms which will put more power in the hands of the House of Bishops

A NOBLEMAN once said that when a guest asserted his honesty, he knew it was time to count the teaspoons. Similarly when a bishop says, “We are an Episcopal church,” it is time for the clergy and laity to check what rights are being raided.

Bishops are unquestionably an ancient institution, continuing the work started by the apostles. They were selected from those who were the recognised spiritual leaders of the early church and it was at least in part because of this recognition that they warranted their early authority.

But how far can the present grey characters in purple shirts claim this inheritance? They are not selected because they are recognised leaders – indeed no one would deny that many recognised leaders in the church never become bishops.

Today’s bishops are political appointees, selected by a Prime Minister (even if he is an atheist) from nominations produced by a discredited system. What other organisation is stupid enough to choose candidates for key positions without first interviewing them, or even finding out if they want the job? For some inexplicable reason, it appears to be in order for a person who believes he is being called to the priesthood to say so, but wrong for a person who believes he is being called to the Episcopate to do the same.

For those chosen by such a daft system, to claim the ancient role of bishops is just about as bizarre as Greece and what remains of Yugoslavia both claiming the right to call their territories Macedonia, and thus lay claim to the ancient glories of the land that once bore that name.

One does not need to study much church history to see that the periods when the bishops were most powerful were the times when the church’s witness to the Gospel was at its weakest. In the last century bishops denounced democracy, astronomy, newspapers, trad jazz and almost every new fashion in music or clothing. Historically they have banned private bible study and promoted torture.

Just recently we have seen the kind of disaster which ensues when bishops wake up and decide to provide “leadership”. When a private member’s motion on homosexuality was debated at General Synod last July, the bishops blocked all amendments. It was known that the motion, as worded, would be portrayed as a victory for the gay lobby – so the bishops could have shown good leadership by putting up their own amendment to avoid both this and the unfortunate, but predictable, newspaper headlines the following day. The bishops could have demonstrated leadership that was intelligent, perceptive, unifying and worldly-wise, but they failed.

A view of the role of today’s bishops must be based on today’s realities, not on the hopes or practices of yesterday. Today’s bishops are unelected, unrepresentative and unaccountable – and most parishioners couldn’t tell you their bishop’s name to save their lives. Of the four levels of church government – parish, deanery, diocese and national – bishops are members of only two. And these are the least important two, as they are the furthest from the people of God.

In recent Synod reports one finds frequent reference to “the bishop in synod” and a church which is “episcopally led but synodically governed”. The concept of bishops and synod is a good one since it provides protection against both episcopal autocracy and congregationalist sectarianism. Bishops and synods protect the church from each other and this balance needs preservation.

However the “we are an episcopal church” movement is rumbling again. Reams of paper are now pouring out to promote diocesan empire building, to snub General Synod and to downgrade deanery synods. The Turnbull Report follow-up included a proposal to replace elected Synod members (in financial matters) with unelected diocesan officers, until General Synod threw this out. Now there is a similar attempt at diocesan empire building in the Bridge Report.

First of all, it proposes knocking out deanery synods as they play no great part in church government. Did the Bridge Commission visit a deanery synod, I wonder? Deanery synods provide a forum for local churches to share knowledge and experience, consider their collective role, and filter out parochial concerns for wider review. Against that, diocesan synods are merely rubber stamps for stage-managed presentations of decisions made elsewhere, usually the bishop’s study, and often of no consequence anyway. What difference does a diocesan mission statement make to parish worship and witness?

Secondly, Bridge proposes cutting the size of the General Synod by reducing the number of bishops by 3.5%, the number of clergy by 39% and the number of laity by 31%. No real reason is offered for the cut.

The present General Synod contains 53 bishops, 261 clergy and 260 laity. The Bridge proposals would have 51 bishops, 159 clergy and 180 laity (assuming that the ten places which can be filled by either clergy or laity are filled equally). The percentages of members from each house would change from 9:45:45 to 13:41:46. This means that the relative strength of the House of Bishops would increase by about half at the expense of the clergy and the ratio of clergy to bishops would be dramatically reduced from 5:1 to 3:1. Needless to say the Bridge Report does not draw attention to this.

Under the proposed system, five clergy or laity would not be elected, but appointed by the archbishops. So if these five placemen (say two clergy and three laity) are assumed always to toe the bishops’ line, the effective representation of the bishops increases still further while that of the clergy and laity decreases. The effective representation in percentage terms becomes 14:40:45

The Bridge proposals can only make matters worse by replacing deanery synod members with synodical electors who will have no responsibilities for the wider church other than airing their own opinion at election time.

However this is not the end of the affair. The system of voting in synod elections – the single transferable vote encourages extremism. Any group that bothers to organise itself stands a good chance of electing one of its number if that person gets enough first preference votes.. It does not matter that no one else wants that person. Any candidate who is everyone’s second choice is eliminated in the first round.

It may have escaped the Commission’s notice that in General Synod elections, the lower placed successful candidates tend not only to be the less extreme candidates, but they also tend to be the newly elected candidates. A synod which is smaller is likely to become less representative of ordinary parishioners and become a body of long-serving church politicians – lay bishops? We are an episcopal church and we are also a synodical church. What we have here is a Bridge that does not span.

Robert Leach is a member of the General Synod. He represents Guildford Diocese. He is also Lay Chairman of Epsom Deanery Synod and Chairman of the Church of England Newspaper.