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Where did it go wrong? Structural issues have done us

A photo of tears, frustration and disappointment at General Synod today

I appreciate that, in the rarified bubble that clergy can sometimes inhabit, it probably feels like the entire world will have noticed tonight that the Church of England has failed at the final hurdle to pass legislation to enable women to enter the ranks of Bishops.

I’m sure the reality is that lots of people aren’t paying the blindest bit of notice.

I’m not going to comment on the why’s and wherefore’s of those in favour and those against. My task now, like all of us in the church, is to pray, to support one another, especially those with whom we disagree and to take seriously the desire on all sides to keep working on a solution that will be the best for all.

In the Summer, I expressed my thought that we might be better saying no and getting it right, painful as that might be for our mission to this country. Subsequently I was very happy to run with the revisions they made and say yes, but perhaps a more tortuous route may yield better fruit if it means women can truly be equal bishops, without any sense of discrimination or a two-tier system.

I’ve genuinely cried today. I’m frustrated and angry. I’ve read more Psalms in one evening than I can shake a stick at.

I have no idea how I explain this to people in the parishes who don’t go to church but who genuinely want a Church of England to be there for them and represent them.

Frankly, it all looks a bit ridiculous this evening.

In the press, we are told that the Church of England has voted no to women bishops. And yet…

  • 95% of the Dioceses voted in favour.
  • 89% of the House of Bishops voted in favour.
  • 77% of the House of Clergy voted in favour.
  • 64% of the House of Laity voted in favour.

That isn’t a no.

Given that we’ve been electing Police & Crime Commissioners on turnouts of less than 15%, it’s hard to know how such overwhelming numbers in favour can be interpreted as a no. And yet, on another level, the press are right because the legislation has now failed at the final hurdle.

Effectively, it’s failed because of two structural issues. One of which is a good thing. One of which is a bad thing.

The good thing is that the Church sets our electoral bar very, very high. The legislation had to get two thirds majority in every single one of the three houses. It failed today because it was 2% short in one of those three.

The easy thing to do would be to say ‘that’s daft’. Why set a bar so high? Make the bar lower. If a Police Commissioner can get a mandate on minimal voting, then more than 50% sounds okay and we could have Women Bishops by Thursday!

But setting the bar high holds us to a higher Christian standard. Setting the bar that high means I’ve got to pay attention to my brother. If he or she disagrees with me, we need to find a way to walk together. It’s about trying to reach a place of consensus or, at least, mutual understanding so that there can be mutual flourishing. We ought not to be a place like the Houses of Parliament where Labour says ‘You’re Wrong’ and the Tories say ‘No, You’re Wrong’ and there’s never any meeting in the middle.

Every Sunday, I hold up a wafer, break it in half and then bring it back together as a whole circle again as we say ‘though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’

That is a weekly commitment before God to work as one.

It means tonight that I must now listen and support and pray and cry with my sisters amongst the clergy who feel deeply hurt by all this. It also means tonight that I listen and pray and try to hear the concerns of Anglo-Catholic and Conservative Evangelical brothers and sisters who feel like this won’t work for them as currently envisaged.

I’m glad we hold ourselves to two thirds majority. Even if that makes life hard and makes tonight very painful. That shouldn’t be messed with.

The bad thing, on the other hand, the second structural issue is that the way Synod meets has not helped us and it needs to change. It’s not good at all.

The fact is Synod meets three times a year. Each time for the best part of a week. All day, everyday for five odd days. If you are a Bishop or a Clergyman, that’s fine. You can work the diary around it. The diocese or church understand. It’s part of the deal.

If you’re a layperson, a regular member of the church, taking three weeks a year to sit in London or York is not so easy. You either need a very understanding employer, the ability to take three weeks unpaid and afford it, or you need to be retired. You probably also need to find a place to stay for those five days. My hunch is that the world in which we live doesn’t make it easy for our laity to be able to participate in the synodical government process.

Even if you were deeply passionate about getting involved, you would struggle to make it work.

My hunch, therefore, is that the House of Laity is generally not very representative of the wider church. If my reasoning about which groups could participate is correct, then that would make the House of Laity generally either retired, rich, or extremely committed to a particular party line and so make it a strong priority and considerable sacrifice to be in the room. Some of them are all three.

Most of our laity across the nation don’t fit that profile. I think there may be a lot more interest in diocesan elections next time around, but even allowing for increased interest – when people sit down and think ‘could I stand?’ and ‘could I make it work practically?’, many people will have to draw the conclusion ‘No’.

I remember this being talked about during my days at Church House and that was nearly seven years ago now. It’s long been known that there is a structural problem as to how you create a representative body that works in a modern society where no-one is being paid to be there. Tonight it has seriously bit us in the bum and somehow that needs to change.


Simon Nash

Good post, and echoes something I have been thinking about overnight. My wife is a lay anglican so I asked her about Synod (or Sanhedrin as the NIV translates the greek sunedrion). She couldn;t tell me who her representative was at diocesan or general synods, other than some guesswork about the clerical reps. She also couldn’t be sure how they were selected, what theri term of office was, and how they went about consulting with their constituency. I don’t think Katie was being particularly ignorant or naive, and she’s a pretty engaged Anglican in various ministries such as teaching, home groups, pastoral care and the like. I would guess that most pew-fillers couldn’t answer these questions which as you suggest makes it a haven for those with a narrow agenda (plus as you acknowledge the means to support themselves).

Two quick suggestions from a non-Anglican who has started to care about the polity of the the old dear.

1) Centrallised travbel and accommodation expenses for members of synod (they don’t HAVE to be claimed).
2) Direct elections to lay synodical constituencies, using postal ballots, supervised by a competent authority.
3) Open records of voting records at Synod, as other representative bodies have.

But what do I know, my lot were outlawed in the 39 Articles.

Simon Nash

Obviously can’t count to two, nor spell, so perhaps the Old Dear is better off without an Anabaptist like me.


Thanks Simon for posting.

I’m not sure how travel and accomodation expenses work (if at all). As far as I know there are no ‘loss of earnings’ which might be the key to opening things up.

There are open voting records. It’s all done electronically and shortly we should see those records released.

In one sense, we do have number 2 as well. General Synod reps are elected by Diocesan Synods. Diocesan Synods in turn are elected by Deanery Synods. It’s open and supervised. The key is participation since, the bottom of the chain, Deanery Synods are fairly uninspiring and I don’t think they realise that actually their interest and participation, or lack of it, has ripples up the line.


The other thing to add is that General Synod members are reps, not delegates.

In other words, even if their diocese voted 100% in favour of women bishops, they have no absolutely obligation to represent that view in their vote. They vote as themselves with their own opinions.

Certainly that’s an issue here, where I suspect (don’t yet know until the votes are published) that two of our lay people would have voted against even though the Diocese voted overwhelmingly in favour.

Simon Nash

Interesting stuff – learning more about CofE polity today. I expect many other lay Anglicans like my wife do not know how their church is governed.

David Chillman

I agree 100% that there needs to be changes to the way General Synod is elected and run, so that it becomes more representative of the C of E as a whole, rather than the plaything of pressure groups.

My personal preferences would be:
a) all people on Parochial Electoral Rolls to have a vote on their GS representatives. A small issue here would be those people who are on more than one ER – but that could be easily dealt with.

b) A change to the voting rules in GS. Instead of requiring a 2/3 majority in all houses, I would look for a simple majority in each house AND an overall 2/3 majority across all GS. Such a change would make it less possible for a small minority in one house to stymie something that otherwise has widespread support.

c) A radical change to the way that GS works, with the specific aim of making it possible for more “ordinary” members of the C of E to be involved. For example, make GS meet only at weekends; having a clear sense of purpose about what GS is there to do – too much at the moment is still just waffle and excruciating tedium.

There is an another important aspect about GS reform – GS needs to be able to hold the Archbishops’ Council to account more effectively. We need to ensure that the C of E does not get to the point where it is effectively run by the Archbishops’s Council, with GS as a rubber stamp.

Lizzie Taylor

Further to David’s comment above, next time round candidates for General Synod could be invited to make their personal views on women bishops clear, so that electors can have some idea of how they might be likely to vote. This could be included in their electoral manifestos. If they fail to do this, they could be questioned on this issue at hustings.

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