The Church is not a democracy ....

In any debate about the government of the Church sooner or later someone will say 'The Church is not a democracy ....'.

Mr Clive Scowen's opening words of the debate on the election of the laity in 2011 were "The Church of God is not a democracy, and rightly so." (here, page 237, big pdf).

I don't know if Mr Scowen is aware of how often that phrase has been used in the past. It has been a way of trying to stop reform and, in particular, any reform which would widen the franchise.

To argue for change it is de rigueur to say: 'The Church is not a democracy, but ....' Thus reformers are always on the back foot. Mr Scowen's version was "The Church may not be a democracy, but our polity involves a large democratic element."

(I might question just how large the element of democracy is, but I'll leave that for another day.)

But no-one asks, 'if the Church is not a democracy, then what is it?'

I suggest there are two answers. First, that the Church is a constitutional monarchy - with the emphasis on the monarchical rather than the constitutional (as in my previous post).

Democracy and/or truth?
The second answer is more complicated. It concerns the manner in which we discern God's truth and the way in which the Church legitimates the decisions it makes.

In effect a false opposition is set up: on the one hand there is divine truth, and the church is  its guardian.

The attributes of divine truth are unchallengeable rectitude, purity, abstraction, timelessness, compassion, universality.

Conversely, every human decision is challengeable and changeable. People are limited in their knowledge and imagination, self-interested, vulnerable to the winds of political and social flux and, whatever wisdom we can bring to bear on an issue, none of us know the future.

Yet a church must embody and effect divine truth if it is to be (and be recognised as being) legitimate: a real church. On the other hand all decisions are actually made by fallible humans.

Essence and action are fused in church governance. A church must hold divine and human, sacred and secular, together in a single process. For self-confidence it must have sufficient assurance that the outcome is of God and sufficient humility to know that the outcome of any moment is always transitory and insufficient.

This is difficult enough for an individual, or even a group of people who know each other well. It is all but impossible in a larger body.

and yet, in the absence of theory and shared human
understanding, truth is not knowable
In practice General Synod inevitably makes decisions very largely pragmatically - but usually with just enough theological or biblical seasoning to make it palatable. And tastes change. At one point historical argument was highly persuasive, now it's almost irrelevant.

(It's interesting the neither background paper for the debate on lay voting had any theological content. Both were entirely practical.)

And in formulating its polity and its culture of decision making in negative terms 'not a democracy' it offers no guidance as to how decisions are properly made under God, how its legitimacy as a Christian church may be affirmed or challenged.

Monarchy and divine truth
But I suspect the most pernicious aspect of 'The Church is not a democracy ....' lies in the combination of the two silences.

At the heart of church decision making - who may determine the will of God and how - there is silence. Silence about the structures of power, its expression in ordinary church life, and silence about the ambiguities and tests of legitimation.

'The Church is not a democracy' has become an occasional negating refrain, a way in which Synod members tell one another to Keep Off the Grass. (Or, perhaps, to always keep a-hold of nurse ...)

These are difficult and ultimately irresolvable issues, and I'm not sure that continually re-visiting them will help very much.

On the other hand I think they should be up for examination on occasions. In particular they should be looked at carefully and honestly when issues of reform of church structures come up for debate. At present shared silence has helped keep most lay people at the margins of the Church.

One member : one vote



Perhaps, in a previous post, I was too quick to be scathing about how one member, one vote could possibly be considered 'radical' in today's world.

I forgot. The Church of England is not like other institutions. It does things differently.

Specifically the it has a very low opinion of democracy. The reasons are seldom articulated in public.
Politically the church is a constitutional monarchy. This describes the British state too, and the CofE is the State Church. 

In the State, however, the emphasis is firmly on the constitutional end of that oxymoron whilst the church clings hard to the emphasis on the monarchical.

Bishops are princes in their own domains. (A couple still live in palaces.) And it's just been announced that Archbishop Williams will now be a life peer and Baron.

When synodical government was created a great deal of thought was given to the relationship of bishop to diocesan synod:
Bishop Mervyn Stockwood
  • Synods were carefully structured so that they could not outvote their bishop. 
  • The most explicit blurring of the monarchical and the constitutional is in the merging of the Diocesan Synod's Standing Committee with the Bishop's Council. Advising the bishop and formal responsibility for maintaining local government were conflated. Consequently the representation of the laity and inferior clergy [technical term] was subsumed into the Prince's court. 
  • Bishops remain judges in their own diocesan courts. This role is normally delegated to the Chancellor of each diocese. However Bishop Mervyn Stockwood (corrected, thanks to Frank Cranmer for pointing out my earlier mistake), Kingston-upon-Thames, fell out with his Chancellor, Garth Moore. Afterwards the bishop simply sidelined his officer and made most legal judgements himself. (Moore remained Chancellor but the two never spoke to each other again.) 
The Bishop is a prince in his court (in the sense of his personal council) - and is thus surrounded by courtiers. Subsidiary power in a diocese comes from access to the bishop and therefore there is every incentive to protect such access. Consequently sharing information horizontally can be foolish thing to do - even though (or, perhaps, because) it might be best for the organization as a whole.

Autocracy (however tempered) evokes sycophancy (however disguised). It is not good for human or spiritual flourishing, nor for objective or accountable decision making. 

This is a description of the polity of the CofE. It is not about 'good' and 'bad' bishops. It is the capacity for arbitrary decision making which is destructive, whether or not it's exercised, whether or not it's effective or the bishop loved. (And what is done by the Prince is echoed in each lesser fiefdom: parish priests may act arbitrarily because their bosses can.)

So this is the main reason why one member, one vote might be considered 'radical'. It suggests that the CofE might possibly step a little closer to being a membership church, maybe. 

One member, one vote is radical in the sense that the 1832 Reform Act was radical. It allowed a much wider section of the community to vote for their governing representatives. It did not bring chaos or instigate government by the working classes. The ruling class simply accommodated and adapted - and so will the Church.

One member : One vote


2011 debate on lay representation - background paper 2

William Fittall, 
General Synod's Secretary General
William Fittall contributed a background note on the legal and procedural background to the debate on voting for the House of Laity of the General Synod.

Looking back
He cites the conclusions of the Bridge Report of 1997 (I've not been able to locate a copy on my shelves, which is annoying).

These were:
  1. That deanery synods should no longer be part of the electoral process. Therefore
  2. A new electorate will need to be created, "(a) to enable parishes to have a direct involvement in the electoral process and so to feel confidence in its outcome and (b) to establish an electorate who would act responsibly to ensure, so far as possible, that the wishes of the parishes were accurately reflected."  He recommended:
  3. "synodical electors". I.e. people elected simply to elect diocesan and General synod members. In about the same numbers as the current Deanery Synod membership.
It considered and rejected one member, one vote one grounds of cost, practicalities and the difficulty of keeping the list free from irregularities (which might then lead to legal challenges).

It also rejected the suggestion that members of the Diocesan Synod should be the electorate.

Looking forwards
Fittall reinforces my belief that change would be simple by stating that it would not need a Measure.

On the other had it would need a two-thirds majority by houses and that may be far from easy.

He then raises a series of questions:
  • what impact the use of the electorate concerned would be likely to have, respectively, on the roles of deanery synods, diocesan synods and the General Synod in the life of the Church; 
  • whether the electorates for the House of Laity of the General Synod and houses of laity of diocesan synods should in principle be the same; 
  • whether the use of the electorate concerned would mean that the lay membership of the General Synod and of diocesan synods would better reflect the views and concerns of the laity of the Church of England; 
  • what impact the use of the electorate concerned would have upon the ability of  those elected to fulfil their responsibilities as, respectively, members of the General Synod or a diocesan synod; 
  • the cost of operating any new system; 
  • any other practical issues to which the use of the electorate concerned would give rise, including from the point of view of identifying its membership (a) in sufficient time to enable elections to proceed at the prescribed point and (b) with sufficient clarity to avoid legal challenge to their result; and 
  • the extent to which the use of technology might alleviate difficulties of either kind. 
Can technology help?
I sometimes wonder whether Mr Fittall has a thoroughly dry sense of humour. That, by way of just seeing what will happen or if anyone will notice, he can slip in a little something without changing the tone of the text. Misspelling his own name (as fit-all) was no doubt just a typographical slip. But where (bullet point 2 above) did the question of separating the electorates for diocesan and General synods come from?

Amongst what's missing:
  • How on earth can the Church of England justify an indirect electorate?
  • What is the proper place of the laity in the government of the Church of England?
  • Are lay people 'members' to the extend that an account should be given to them of the activity and achievements of those who govern?
One member : One vote


2011 debate on lay representation - background paper 1

In 2011 General Synod returned to the issue of the lay franchise in the government of the Church of England.

Two background papers were published. This post summarises the first, GS 1843A, by Mr Clive Scowen for the Diocese of London. The second, GS 1843B, is by William Fittall, Secretary General of General Synod, and will be considered in a separate post. (Links are to .pdfs)

The motion said:
'That this Synod request the Business Committee to commission a thorough review of how the House of Laity of this Synod and the houses of laity of diocesan synods are elected, particular consideration being given to whether the electorate should be some body of persons other than the lay members of deanery synods.'
The background paper sets out the argument. It is a novel in the debate on lay representation in that it is grounded on a structural difficulty in deanery synods, rather than on voting per se. 

The core argument is that:
(1) It impossible to adopt a scale of representation which enables fair representation of larger parishes on General Synod and diocesan synods without at the same swamping the PCCs of those parishes with deanery synod members and risking the domination of deanery synods by a few large parishes.
(2) It is highly questionable how representative deanery synod members are of their parishes or their electoral rolls.
With thanks to Mad Priest
(This latter point has been made often and extensively. It is inevitably true when the body is statutorily necessary and functionally hobbled).

Thus, the paper asserts, if we removed from deanery synods the function of electing diocesan and general synod members, the deaneries could reshape themselves in ways that would greatly enhance their efficacy.

This is not proven. Deanery synods will still have the same, optimistic and largely vacuous and discretionary functions as set out in law. But if substantive functions were legally specified and separated from diocesan synod purview as appropriate to the scale of the deanery (subsidiarity) it may well prove a valuable element in the running of any diocese. Despite all the weaknesses and shortcomings deanery synods have proved resilient and even popular.

Which, of course, leaves the question of the electorate for diocesan and General synod members.

The paper suggests two possible options:
1) A new electoral college for each deanery
In effect, more or less recreating the current electoral system, but separating it from deanery synods.
Pusillanimous (1) by Anja Marais
Or 2) One person, one vote.
Only in the Church of England could this option be described as 'radical'.

Universal suffrage was achieved in 1928 in the UK. (Women could vote for their representatives in the Church in 1919.) Is it really radical in  2011 to suggest that the Church adopt a system we take for granted in almost all other setting?

And the paper then set out the problems and difficulties as explored in 1993. Pusillanimous!

But at least the issue has been put back on the table.


General Synod votes for direct election of lay representatives (almost)

OK, it was 1993. And even then, they didn't.
It was 1993, and the UK came
2nd in the Eurovision song contest

Mr Jim White moved a Private Members' Motion asking that
... the principle of direct suffrage (as with clergy and bishops) should be applied to the election of lay members of General Synod as a foundation stone of, and not simply one of the options in, the impending review of the synodical system.  
[The review eventually emerged as the Bridge Commission Review, 1997]

Jim White said,
The proposition itself is very brief and simple: that the House of Laity should be elected directly by all Church members. It is a principle that is laid before you. You could say it was one member, one vote, if you wanted to choose that language. The reason for adopting the principle is the trust, fellowship and equality, one with another, that our Church institutions should demonstrate. 
Speakers against the proposal said,
  1. It would be less fair because (a) most candidates would be unknown to electors, and (b) because most would vote for someone they know this proposed system would give unfair advantage to candidates from large congregations.
  2. It would increase factionalism.
  3. Allowing non-Anglicans on electoral rolls to vote would be absurd.
  4. Deanery Synods should be taken more seriously, not sidelined
  5. It would cost too much
  6. Clergy would determine the lay vote
  7. The church is not a democracy (If I had an old shilling for every time I've read this ....)
  8. All representative systems are flawed
  9. "The House of Laity is not there to represent the interests of the laity, but to bring a lay interest to the representation of the Church as a whole and as a unity.". i.e. "to assist discernment" (Tom Sutcliffe)
  10. It disadvantages candidates who are less able to use the media, and aids the already famous
  11. There would be too much discrepancy between the value of a vote for a lay representative compared to the value of a vote for a clerical representative
  12. Church elections are totally different from secular elections
  13. There would be a possibility of a legal challenge if all the administration did not work fairly
  14. People won't inform themselves about the issues
  15. Voting on manifestos alone leaves you vulnerable to misrepresentation
  16. The young will be discriminated against because they move dioceses more often
Those in favour added
  1. You can trust the people
  2. The representativeness and legitimacy of the House of Laity under the present electoral system is questioned.
  3. Deanery Synods are 'the weakest link in synodical government', and too weak to legitimate General Synod.
Dr Christina Baxter
The motion was amended, a move instigated by the Synod's Standing Committee and led by Dr Christina Baxter. The amendment excised the substance  of the proposal and shunted discussion into the forthcoming review of synodical government as just one option.

The final motion read:
... the principle of direct suffrage for lay members of General Synod (as with clergy and bishops) should be considered as one of the main elements in the impending review of synodical government. 
But the Chairman of that debate pulled a fast one. In order to demand a vote by houses 25 members had to request it. When asked, only 22 members stood to make the request. He decided to order a vote by houses anyway.

The result was:
Bishops: 17 for, 4 against
Clergy 107 for, 60 against
Laity 75 for, 129 against
In a vote of the whole Synod, therefore, the motion would have passed. 

It's hard to interpret the vote in relation to the debate. Most speakers were against the motion, and were evidently outvoted. It's probable that those of the House of Laity who voted against the proposal were content with the arrangements that had put them there. Some may have objected to the watering down of the motion - though Jim White recommended acceptance, though with a heavy heart.

It's also probable that the fact the vote was lost in the House of Laity meant that the Bridge Commission need give the direct suffrage of the laity very little consideration.

This was good news for opponents of the idea, given that most (not all) of their arguments were very weak and that many relied on disparaging the electorate.

And I think I'm right - and open to correction - that this was the last time the issue of direct lay election was debated in General Synod until 2011.

One member : One vote


One member : One vote - simple!

It would be remarkably easy for the Church of England to change to one member, one vote for electing Diocesan and General Synod members.

It needs one practical change and a couple of substantive legal changes.

1) The practicality: a national database of members

This already exists for clergy (in fact, there's more than one) so there can be no objection in principle.

There would need to be a Code of Practice governing (amongst other things):

  • the duty to maintain the database and keep it up to date
  • data protection, permissions given by those on the list as to the use of their data, and levels of access to the records, physical and electronic security
  • the use of the data (in particular, contact details) by people who are already members (e.g. bishops, elected members of Synods)
  • the use of the data by people who are not members (e.g. commercial firms), and for purposes other than church governance (e.g. by lobby groups).

Electoral roll officers already have a duty to keep the roll up to date. They would, in addition, simply have to pass on any changes to whoever manages the database.

These are important matters and will need careful consideration. But they are practical and organizational details that are well within the existing competence of the Church.

2) Changes to the Church Representation Rules

To elect members of Diocesan Synod
To change rule 30(5)(b) to read:
members elected by the houses of laity of the deanery synods [insert] electors whose names are entered on the electoral roll of the parishes in the diocese in accordance with the next following rule
Deaneries would probably be regarded as constituencies (though it's not essential) and wording to make this explicit would also be needed.

The equivalent change would need to be made in the rule governing election to General Synod:
35(1)(a) the members elected by the diocesan electors [insertelectors whose names are entered on the electoral roll of the parishes of each diocese as hereinafter provided
There would, of course, be a number of alterations to other parts of the Church Representation Rules which will follow from these changes - but they would be relatively straight forward once the principle change was agreed.

OK, I'm not a lawyer or a parliamentary draughtsman, but the principle's clear.

Once General Synod decides in favour of 'One member : One vote' implementation will be entirely straightforward.

One member : One vote


How we got here (briefly)

The Church of England didn't create its current, wrong headed, voting arrangements for the laity by accident.  It took a lot of negotiating, compromising and conniving to arrive at such an unnecessarily complicated and inappropriate arrangement.
The Provinces of theChurch of England

The process of formally associating the laity with the clergy in the government of the Church of England can be traced back to the 1830s. The first phase led, through several recognized but informal meetings of laity with the clergy, to the creation of Church Assembly. The (all clerical) Convocations of York and Canterbury met, usually separately, twice a year. By the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act , 1919, Parliament enabled the Synods to meet together, and with a house of laity, to comprise the Church Assembly.

Pressure to reform Church Assembly came after the second world war. In the course of the reform of Canon Law (much underrated, in my opinion, in the modernization of the Church) two things became obvious. First, that the mechanism of formal consultation between the separate parts of the Church Assembly was cumbersome, inefficient and an utter waste of time. Second, that the Church's ultimate goal of acquiring powers over it own doctrine, worship and clerical discipline would only be possible if the laity had a bigger say in the decision making of the Church.

Since the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts the Church of England has been separating itself from the state, though at the speed of continental drift. One thread of this separation has been to move away from the idea that the House of Commons was, in theory and practice, the effective voice of the laity in Church affairs. Some MPs, in particular those most engaged with Church affairs, remained reluctant to let this go. But if they were to relinquish the role it would not be to an assembly wholly dominated by the clergy.

In 1952 the Convocation of York discussed the idea of a General Synod but no action followed. In the Spring session of the Church Assembly of 1953, Mr George Goyder proposed,
'That the Assembly respectfully requests the Archbishops to appoint a Commission (including representatives of the Convocations) to consider how the Clergy and Laity can best be joined together in the synodical government of the Church, and to report' Church Assembly Report of Proceedings, 1953, p. 89.
The motion was passed by a large majority and was 'gladly accepted' by the Archbishops. Seventeen years then passed before General Synod met.

George Goyder is, in my view, the hero of this story. He was a businessman, a leader of the Evangelicals in the House of Laity, and he stuck to his vision through forests of committees and commissions.  He was included to make dramatic claims and to see lay participation as the solution to an all-out assault on the Christian heritage of the country. He was convinced that the Holy Spirit worked through the whole church, not merely through the clergy.  He knew the challenges he faced. After four years as a member of the Synodical Government Commission he stated that he
became convinced that [outright synodical government] was impractical because of people [clergy] who would resist and resent any attempt to interfere with a body [Convocation] in which they exercised considerable prerogatives which they valued, and rightly so.' Church Assembly Report of Proceedings, 1958, p. 338.
At that point it looked as though all was lost. But the mood changed and there were more committees, commissions, reports, compromises, debates, and votes. Defenders of clerical privilege began to feel on the back foot.

In the end a mishmash of competing principles were squashed together into one scheme set out by the Hodson Commission report (government by synod, Synodical Government in the Church of England. (C.A. 1600) 1966))

It was this commission which insisted on indirect elections. The report stating that members were
firmly convinced that direct parochial election must be sacrificed at diocesan level in order to introduce effective synodical government ...' p. 50.
The rationales offered included:
  • That when the Anglican-Methodist unity proposals had been referred to the parishes there had been evident confusion
  • That parishes were too varied to meet the desire for reasonable uniformity in the lowest level of the electorate
  • That consultation with parishes all too often meant receiving the views of the incumbent
The central challenge to this proposal was that as a consequence
'... any kind of representation in the affairs or consultation of the main body of the Church by the parishes and congregations disappeared.' Valerie Pitt, Church Assembly Report of Proceedings, 1966, p. 594
The challenge was never answered.

This topic is going
to be tough to illustrate
There was one more step which has had a lasting detrimental effect. The Hodson Report had wanted to make ruri-decanal conferences (now Deanery Synods) an effective part of the structure of local government of the Church. It proposed that the business of the Diocesan Synods should be considered beforehand by the Deanery Synods. This would have given the opportunity for significant and sustained contributions to debate. But - with no announcement, explanation or discussion - the word 'beforehand' was dropped from the Measure. As a result Deanery Synods were emasculated. They were left with just one substantive statutory role: to elect the members of Diocesan and General Synod.

At some point a bureaucrat, bishop or church lawyer took it upon themselves to quietly and arbitrarily shift the balance of power in local church government and no-one noticed, or no-one spoke up. Shame on them.


One member, One vote - now!

It's time this blog either packed up its briefcase and went home for tea, or took a different tack.

With the Covenant (almost) dead, that focus has gone. 

But I came to oppose the Covenant through earlier studies which strongly suggested that attempts to determine doctrinal difference through (semi-) legal processes were both doomed and destructive of the Church. 

Related studies had long ago brought me to the view that every member of the Church of England should  have a vote for its representatives in Church government.

When General Synod defeated the proposal for women bishops despite 42 of 44 dioceses voting for it, some people raised their voices in favour of reform of Synod, and not least of the method of electing lay members. I would like to see that voice grow louder and for longer. 

The present system
At the moment those on the electoral roll of a church vote for Deanery Synod members. These people then vote for Diocesan and General Synod members. 

This system of indirect voting means that there is no accountability from governing bodies to the people in the pews - the people who very largely pay for the Church. Where there is no accountability, the people don't count.

The consequences of change
It isn't possible simply to change the voting system as though it was a technical matter with no other implications.
  • The marginalization of the laity is a cornerstone of our present synodical system.
  • To change the franchise would be to change the whole set of relationships which currently structure the church - clergy:laity, diocese:parish, General Synod:parish.
  • Inevitably too the present kingpins in this structure - bishops and parish clergy - would also have to modify the ways they work and their relationships with the people around them.
The fundamental change will be to treat each enrolled member as a fully adult member of the Church. I think such change will be beneficial - and equally that it will be resisted.  

From first debate in Church Assembly to the instigation of General Synod took some 15 years. I don't doubt that change now will take something like as long. So there's no reason to delay.