Gerry O’Brien who was first elected to the General Synod in 1980, offers a straightforward guide to the up-coming elections, unravelling the mysteries of the single transferable vote

The new General Synod to be elected in a couple of months time will be taking decisions that will profoundly affect the nature of the Church of England in the coming years. By and large we get the kind of government we deserve – and if we cannot be bothered to play our part, we have to put up with the choices made by those who do.

Who are the electors?

The first question to ask is who will the electorate be. Basically there are two elections held in each diocese, one for clergy the other for lay people. There are separate national or provincial constituencies for suffragan bishops, deans, university proctors, ordained religious, lay religious and so on, which operate on a similar basis, but my purpose is to concentrate on the main elections that will involve most of us.

Voters in the proctorial (i.e. clergy) elections will be the priests and deacons of the diocese, including archdeacons, clergy resident outside the diocese who hold the licence of the diocesan bishop, and clergy with permission to officiate who are members of a deanery synod. This includes clergy not licensed under seal because they have retired from full time ministry.

Voters in the lay elections will be the members of all the houses of laity of the deanery synods in the diocese; put another way, all the parish deanery reps.

Who are the candidates?

The qualifications to be a candidate are different from the qualifications to be an elector. Candidates in the proctorial elections will normally be qualified electors, meaning other diocesan clergy, but they may also be priests or deacons holding written permission to officiate from the bishop, who would have been qualified electors had they been members of a deanery synod in the diocese.

Candidates in the lay elections may be any person who is aged over 18, an actual communicant and whose name is entered on the electoral roll of any parish in the diocese (or the community roll of the cathedral). So it is quite possible to be a candidate even though you are not an elector.

Election procedures

By Tuesday, 19 July all electors will be advised of the exact timetable of the elections in their diocese. Any potential candidate may complete a nomination form and, when it has been proposed and seconded, submit it to the diocesan office. The returning officer will then acknowledge that the candidature is in order. If it is not (say you have been proposed by someone who is not qualified as an elector) your form will be returned for amendment. Even though the closing date for nominations is not until Friday, 2 September, it is worth getting your nomination in well before that to avoid last minute disappointment.

You are also advised to prepare one copy of an election address which your diocese will copy and send to all electors with the voting papers on Friday, 9 September. Candidates who do not prepare an election address seldom get elected! Voters have three weeks to return their voting papers, but again you are advised to post them well before the deadline of Friday, 30 September.

The election is by a single transferable vote. Voters have only one vote, but they are required to arrange all the candidates in order of preference from one to twenty one or whatever. The reason is that the election does not work on first past the post principles. Each candidate has to secure a quota of votes to be elected.

Explaining the vote

Suppose there are four candidates to be elected and 499 votes are cast. The quota would be set at 100, on the basis that if four candidates secured 100 votes there would only be 99 left, which would be insufficient for any of the remaining candidates to secure a quota of votes.

If four candidates polled 100 votes each, that would be easy – but it never happens like that. Suppose one candidate tops the poll with 125 votes. He needs 0.8 of each vote to secure his quota, so 0.2 of each vote will be transferred to the voter’s second choice candidate.

On the other hand, the candidate at the bottom of the poll (with ten votes, say) clearly has insufficient support, so his votes can be transferred at full value to each voter’s next preference candidate.

As the votes are progressively transferred, it may be that your first preference candidate has been eliminated for lack of support, your second preference candidate has already secured his quota, your third preference candidate has been eliminated, and so on. At the end of the election there is just one place left and two candidates (your 12th preference and your 18th preference) remain. Your vote would finish up with your 12th preference candidate. At that stage it really amounts to giving your vote to the candidate you dislike least.

The votes will be counted during the first week in October and early the following week the make up of the new Synod will become clear.

Take it seriously

It is worth taking the process of voting seriously. In a previous election I asked one of our deanery synod reps whether she had sent in her voting papers yet. ‘Oh yes,’ she replied. ‘I’ll tell you what I did. I read all the election addresses and sorted them into two piles, one for those that mentioned God and one for those who didn’t. I then re-read those that mentioned God and arranged them in order of preference.’

This time, why not give your candidates a hard time? Turn up to the hustings and ask questions. Write to them. Phone them up or email them with your questions. Ask them how seriously they think the Church of England should take the Bible. Ask them how they would handle the hot potato of women bishops. Ask them whether they think parish share should increase or decrease. Ask how they would react to merging some diocesan offices and passing the savings on to the parishes. Ask them what they think needs to be achieved over the next five years. If you like what you hear, give the candidate a high preference vote.

Finally, if you need to check the precise regulations which govern the forthcoming elections, the full details are on the Church of England website.

Check out:

or contact your diocesan office.