Are the laity revolting?

The failure of the General Synod of the Church of England to endorse the ordination of women to the episcopate has placed the focus on the role of the laity in this decision. Whilst the Houses of Bishops and Clergy voted in favour of the motion, it failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority in the House of Laity by a mere six votes. Leaving aside the hostile political and media reaction – except to note that this was mainly directed at the institution of the Church, its established status and the role of the Lords Spiritual – three different strands of action have resulted:

  • the decision of the Archbishops’ Council that “a process to admit women to the episcopate needed to be restarted at the next meeting of the General Synod in July 2013”;
  • action from within the House of Laity to force a meeting to discuss a vote of no confidence in its Chair, who voted against the motion; and
  • action by individual dioceses to seek a dissolution of the current General Synod on the premise that with “the present makeup of the General Synod … it [is] unable to pass any form of legislation enabling the consecration of women [to the episcopate]”.

With regard to the last of these, the Bristol Diocesan Synod has passed a vote of no confidence in the ability of the General Synod of the Church of England to effect the clear will of the majority of Church members in relation to the consecration of women as bishops, here.

Although thematically linked, these measures are uncoordinated and, to a certain degree, are representative only of particular groups of opinion within the Church. They could also provide headline writers with material to suggest “Church confused and divided on way forward”. However, there are three aspects to the present situation that need to be addressed:

  • an urgent need to consider how it might be possible to expedite the introduction of any new legislation within the Church;
  • a review of how the decisions of individual dioceses are represented in the General Synod; and
  • whether or not the Chair of the House of Laity should be “neutral” even when not in the Chair.

As with any legislative considerations, an important factor is the potential for unintended consequences, and here the time-factor may be critical in achieving an early review of the ordination of women to the episcopate. A July 2013 meeting of the present General Synod may present an earlier opportunity to revisit the issue than if Synod were to be dissolved and a new one elected. In the absence of new provisions regarding the representation of diocesan opinion at General Synod, that would place greater emphasis, (and even interest) on who was elected by each diocese, their views on the issues likely to be discussed and whether or not they would follow the decisions agreed in Synod.

With regard to the Chair of the House of Laity, without further clarification of his or her role, a similar situation could arise in the future. However, this is merely part of a broader underlying issue.

If, as the critics are suggesting, the Chair of the House of Laity should maintain some kind of Speaker-like impartiality all the time, that might preclude him from speaking in debates that he was not chairing. One option would be to adopt a system similar to the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers in the House of Commons, under which the person in the Chair pro tem has only a casting vote in the event of a tie and may not vote on the first round – although this seems somewhat excessive for a body that only meets two or three times a year and which is, at least in principle, apolitical. But that still does not solve the problem of perceived lack of impartiality when that person is not actually in the Chair. Nor is anyone (so far as we are aware) suggesting that the Chairs of the Houses of Bishops and of Clergy should be “impartial”: to suggest otherwise – in effect, that the two Archbishops should somehow stand back from debates on contentious issues because of their chairing role – is surely reductio ad absurdum. So why single out the Chair of the House of Laity in particular?

At least part of the problem, it seems to us, is the lack of any separation of powers in the governance of the Church of England. General Synod was set up on a Parliamentary model, with Synod itself as the legislature and the Archbishops’ Council as a quasi-Cabinet. But if Synod loses confidence in the Archbishops’ Council – or vice versa­ ­ it is exceedingly difficult to dissolve Synod and have an election. And if the problem lies with the Council the situation is not a parallel of the House losing confidence in the Cabinet: there isn’t an alternative Council and two new Archbishops waiting in the wings to take over. And, of course, Dr Giddings is both a member of General Synod and a member of the Archbishops’ Council ex officio, as are the prolocutors of the two Convocations.

The root of the problem is that the governance of the C of E grafts episcopacy on to conciliarity – and (whatever one’s theology of episcopacy) the two are not the easiest of bedfellows. “Episcopally led and synodically governed” is the frequently-heard strapline: but what happens when at least a significant minority of “the led” do not wish to be governed in the way that the leaders wish and prefer to try their hand at it themselves?

It is fairly unlikely that they would ever have that kind of problem in the Church of Scotland (though the Kirk undoubtedly has other problems of its own) because the General Assembly does not include a small group of members that has greater inherent powers than everyone else – nor, incidentally, does the Moderator have a deliberative vote. If the General Synod is in difficulty over the failure of the proposal to consecrate women as bishops, then we fear that the problem is as much a technical one of governance as of theological or doctrinal disagreement.

David Pocklington & Frank Cranmer