Let's have a review - the GS debate on representing the laity, 2011

I wish to look at the 2011 debate on lay representation through the twins lenses of the actual polity of the Church of England (as a constitutional monarchy, set out here) and the ambiguities of legitimate decision making in a church (explored here). The full text is here (pdf - debate starts page 237).

There was an attempt to close down the whole discussion, which failed. Arguments against were that there was too much naval-gazing, it's not the right time, would be too expensive, there isn't really a problem, and that the motion was too London-centric.

One curiosity was that the motion for debate focused on whether 'the electorate' to the House of Laity should be 'some body of persons other than the lay members of deanery synods.’ The role and function of deanery synods, ostensibly the occasion for this debate, were not mentioned after the opening speech.

Robert Key
Only one person, Robert Key (Salisbury) addressed the politics of the issue directly, if briefly. Mr Key was previously a Conservative MP and Minister. He asserted "The Church of England is not a representative democracy, nor should it be. It is episcopally led." He cited the Bridge committee's use of 'gulf' as descriptive of the relationship between Synod and the parishes. he pointed out that the laity keep giving and working to keep the church going and get precious little back for it.

Key implicitly asked for a change in the relationship between leaders and led. But he had no time, even if he had the inclination, to explore the implications of what episcopal leadership might look like if his vision of a fully engaged and enthused laity were to transpire. He did point out that all licensed clergy had a vote though he didn't spell out the inference that they thereby already enjoyed representative democracy.

An overt anxiety about their own legitimacy ran through the words of several speakers. 'How', asked Clive Scowen, 'is the Church collectively to discern the will of her Lord?' He then conflated this question with the question of representation:
London Diocese wants to suggest that the time has come to consider whether this [the present arrangement] is the most representative electorate we could devise, and whether the democratic authority of this Synod could be enhanced by creating an electorate which was more truly representative of the rich diversity of the laity of the Church of England.
Prudence Dailey
Prudence Dailey (Oxford) spelled it out: General Synod lay members were legitimated by their electorate but electors are basically self-appointed and usually for reasons unrelated to elections. Most laity, she and others said, have no understanding of the system. The implication of what she said was that the legitimacy of lay General Synod members was unacceptably thin.

The general view was that the House of Laity should be as democratic and representative as possible. As a consequence the laity would be empowered, engaged, united, feel involved and included, and the consequence would be a tonic for the whole church.

During the debate an amendment to the original motion was successfully moved. If implemented it would ensure "that the diverse membership of the Church of England is fully reflected and represented." in General Synod. It made explicit what was implicit in the original motion.

This proposal no doubt came from the best of motives. The small number of General Synod lay members who are young or black or from minority ethnic groups was felt to undermine its legitimacy.

(In the late 1980s, having earlier agreed the principle, the House of Laity declined to give approval to a proposal to have a minimum number of black representatives. Michael Hodge in Representation.)

But, first, implementation would effectively locate the legitimacy of each lay general synod member in the degree to which they mirror their electorate, and the legitimacy of the House of Laity in the degree to which they embody the diversity of the whole church. This may leave synod all the more vulnerable to criticism if such higher and difficult aspirations were not met.

Second, implementation would necessitate an accurate (and continuously up to date) picture of the diversity of the church. In the debate ethnicity and age were mentioned. Gender and disability would also seem relevant, and maybe other factors too, not least socio-economic class. It's not clear that enough people would be willing to share this information as a condition of being a voter in the church.

If they did, however, it would generate a wonderful picture of the Church of England. It would also be relatively easy to compare against census data. It would be a mirror that the Church may not want to look at - or, if it did, to cope with the implications.

The vote
The vote in 2011 showed, in a smaller synod, a marked shift of opinion compared to that of 1997. (the motions and context were not the same so this is, at best, merely indicative of changing opinion.)

There was almost no change amongst the bishops who continue to show a strong preference for the proposal. The clergy had moved more strongly in favour whilst the laity showed both the biggest swing  in opinion and the lowest percentage in favour.



For % % change Against % % change For % Against %
Bishops 17 85 +3 3 15 -4 17 81 4 19
Clergy 88 79 +15 24 21 -12 107 64 60 36
Laity 92 58 +21 66 42 -19 75 37 129 63

Warning voices
Of course, engagement and legitimation are unlikely to be effected so easily. Universal lay franchise may not deliver the reformation its most ardent enthusiasts foresee. Two people pointed out that it may still be very difficult to get people to vote. Nor will direct voting for General Synod members automatically lead to more accurate representativeness or greater diversity amongst the House of Laity.

But it will be a start. And other related measures (education and training, information, accountability, bursaries, positive action) may help.

One member : One vote

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