What does it mean to discern the will of God by vote in General Synod?

It's not my place to comment of the forthcoming meeting of the House of Laity concerned with the chairmanship of Dr. Phillip Giddens. (I'm ordained, not a member of Synod, and wasn't there.)
Dr Phillip Giddings

But it has caused a fine brouhaha. See Thinking Anglicans (not least the comments): 2 Dec, 10 Dec19 Dec9 Jan11 Jan15 Jan.

I first took note of Dr Giddings' name as I was trawling through the records of General Synod. Now this was some time ago, and I can't remember the context nor the subject matter. But I remember being struck because whatever position Dr Giddings was asserting at the time he backed it by a claim that it was the will of God. I think he was the first, and one of very few, to have done so in Synod's history.

Dr Giddings knows his mind. He is firm in his views and has been passionately partisan. But to claim to know the will of God - even if spelled out in Gospel words - is inherently destructive of synodical government.

Synodical government is government by council and counsel. Its foundation is that devout and faithful Christians seek the will of God collectively. It presupposes that all members are faithful Christians, that they disagree in their collective task, and that any answer to the question in front of them is always provisional. Uncertainty and transience, mutual regard and (party) politics are built into the process from its foundation stones.

To declare this is the will of the Lord in such a context and process is simply destructive. It is a claim to authority that can only be accepted or dismissed. It to assert that the speaker has privileged access to the mind of God and that anyone who disagrees is faithless or worse. It is the antithesis of taking counsel together.

(Oh dear. My second point appears to have been taken from me between starting this blog and getting to this point. The page on Anglican Mainstream which was here now seems to have been taken down. Nonetheless...)
Tom Sutcliffe

The missing page quoted Tom Sutcliffe asking
Do we as a Church really believe that obedience to the majority at any given time is an important part of our faith?
He goes on to cite noble examples of people who stood out against the prevailing consensus - as if that were sufficient to show we should answer 'no way' to his question.

But I wish to answer 'yes', at least in the terms set out above.

In practice synodical government is about majority votes. When Synod concludes an issue by such a vote then (any subsequent processes permitting) that decision is the settled view of the Church. Minority and dissenting opinions are permitted and expected. But it is the majority vote which, in effect, declares that is the belief of the Church -  on that particular issue, within the jurisdiction of the Church of England, and until a different majority vote takes place.

The underlying question is: what does it mean to discern the will of God?

The underlying dissonance is that 'the will of God', 'truth' (and sometimes 'faith') are conceived in absolute terms: x is either the will of God or it isn't - there is no middle ground, no shades of grey, there is no need for debate nor any right to one. Therefore voting (and politics, and all that accompanies it) is seen as grubby, inferior, even wrong in matters of belief. In this perspective church politics is the evidence and symptom of our lack of faith.

But (even accepting these categories) it remains the case that all knowledge of God is mediated through human beings. And, as God is inherently so much more than humanity, such knowledge is always partial, contingent, self-interested, small. None of us can definitively know the mind of God.

Fill in the blanks, but
use a washable ink.
Alternatively, we could celebrate these characteristics. We are as God made us - knowing his creation, knowing God and God's love and judgement revealed in the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus, and always trapped in our own limitations of knowledge, circumstances, hopes and the inability to see what will happen tomorrow.

Together - making a virtue of all that divides us - we have some chance that our collective discernment may be better (by any criteria) than the discernment of one individual or party.

But howsoever good it might be (and I don't know how you would judge in the abstract) any discernment remains characterised by the constraints of the people who took the decision: inevitably local, limited, transient and cast in the presuppositions of its times.


  1. Lovely post, Paul. Your series of posts on governance in the Church of England are well worth a read. I've found them useful and informative in helping me understand the polity of the church.

    Regarding persons who claim to know the will of God, I'm especially wary of people who claim to know the will of God for others.

  2. Thank you Grandmère, though I should caution that I see the CofE through spectacles which don't seem widely shared.

    Not least, I think I know a fair amount about it, but I know I don't see it from inside - how it actually works. I'm not part of the club and (quite possibly) can't be in part because of the way I see it. If that makes sense.

    1. Paul, what you say makes perfect sense. Although the workings of the Episcopal Church are more transparent and democratic, what goes on in informal conversations and gatherings that are not transparent, and which those of us who are not insiders may never know about, can affect the functioning of church in important ways. Such, I suppose, is the way of any organization, no matter how democratic.

      Still, the manner in which the Church of England does its business seems more impenetrable than is necessary, even within the present constraints of governance.

  3. It's supposed to be going to snow heavily in London tomorrow (Friday, the day of the meeting) and traffic disruption is guaranteed - is that the will of God trying to stop the vote?

    1. Concerned Anglican, surely you jest.

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