The legitimacy of General Synod

It's a funny thing, legitimacy. Very slippery and hard to pin down.

At its simplest General Synod is entirely legitimate because the Synodical Government Measure, 1969, as amended, says it is.

From Reconciliation Australia,
looking at difficult issues of
governance with majority
and indigenous communities
But this isn't enough. legitimacy also requires that people believe in the Synod. It must have credibility - which is an equally difficult thing to encapsulate. Two groups of people in particular need to believe in it - church members and the media.

When all works well legitimacy, credibility, confidence and authority come together and are mutually reinforcing. When things go badly, the wheels come off and the whole kit and caboodle is scattered to the winds.

And the fact is that for almost all the time things can't go well because Synod is always dealing with changes, improvements, alterations, repairs - and always in the context of uncertainty and conflict. It is always necessary to work on remaining legitimate, credible.

Legitimacy is never a given. It is always a process, a relationship constantly being made and re-made by perceptions, actions, consequences. It looks different depending on the perspective of the viewer. It can look different day to day depending, for example, what hits the headlines and how. It inevitably looks different from inside than it does from without.

A church divided
against itself cannot stand
The vote on women bishops was perceived to weaken the legitimacy of the Synod, and in particular of the House of Laity, because:
  • the vote in the House of Laity did not mirror the vote in the dioceses,
  • this is a contentious and emotional issue where clear leadership is both desired and scarcely possible,
  • there are background weaknesses in the House of Laity, 
  • the vote played into a pre-existing media narrative that the Church is confused/incompetent/outdated/obsessed with sex (delete, or add, as appropriate), and
  • for the great majority of Church members it was the wrong result.
This will pass. But the vote will also add a significant weight to the sense of unease with the present arrangements articulated in the 2011 debate on changing the voting system for lay members of Synod.

No quick fixes
Faced with this debacle there was an understandable urge to find a quick fix, to short-circuit the rules. Perhaps Parliament, or the House of Bishops, or someone should take the decision anyway. The wrong decision was taken therefore someone else must make the right decision.

But to do so would be fatal to the legitimacy of Synod. The present vote can be overturned by a later, constitutional, vote. But if ever it is made clear that the process and substance of a vote can be over-ruled by some other body or mechanism, then the credibility of the Synod as an organ of government is immediately undermined. Why bother with Synod if Parliament is the route to get things changed? The votes of Synod are vacuous if Bishops have the capacity to reverse anything they don't like. No-one could trust the process again.

One member, one vote 
One member, one vote would not resolve the legitimacy of the House of Laity or General Synod. Nor would it guarantee that General Synod never came to decisions that were out of tune with majority opinion in the pews.

But I believe that it would add considerable weight to the legitimacy of the House of Laity. Its members would be chosen by and more closely represent the whole lay community of the church. Their standing would be greater in proportion to the greater breadth of the electorate. The basis on which they represent the laity would be clear and easy to explain and understand.

More would still be needed
But this will not be enough. Representatives would need to be more in touch with their electorate, to inform them of what's going on, to explain the way things are done, and to listen to the opinions and priorities of their electors. Legitimacy (which is not the same as agreement) would be strengthened in the process of mutual learning and education.

Lay representatives would have much more incentive to listen to views other than their own (on all sides). This would not lead to the end of church parties (and I don't believe it would be an advance if it did) but it should deepen the underlying notion of representativeness. (Perhaps even more so if there were geographic constituencies within a diocese.)

This widening and deepening relationship would also engage more members in a richer understanding of the Church of England and the issues and challenges it faces.

One member : One vote

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