Revolting laity attacked by Parliament

In Are the laity revolting? we addressed three strands of activity that are being pursued within the Church to progress the issues raised by the ‘no’ vote of the House of Laity on the ordination of women to the episcopate:

  • the Archbishops’ Council recommendation for restarting the process at the next meeting of General Synod in July 2013;
  • the House of Laity’s proposed vote of no confidence in its Chair, who voted against the motion; and
  • individual dioceses that are 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.

We suggested that the root of the problem is that the governance of the Church of England grafts episcopacy on to conciliarity, two essentially dissimilar concepts, which is manifest in the lack of any separation of powers in its governance.

On Thursday 6th December, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, replied to questions on Women Bishops, General Synod (Reform), and Parish Weddings, and provided an update to the House on present and future developments:

  • A meeting of the House of Bishops is planned for early in the week commencing 10th December, at which the Archbishops’ Council has urged it to put in place “a clear process for discussions in the New Year to inform the decisions that will need to be taken on the shape of the new legislation”.
  • Parliamentarians will have the opportunity to discuss these matters further in a meeting with the next Archbishop of Canterbury, the current Bishop of Durham, on Thursday 13th December at 9.30 in the Moses Room in the House of Lords.

Tony Baldry also noted that

“[e]veryone in the Church of England needs to understand that, so far as Parliament and the wider community are concerned, this issue is increasingly seen as the Church of England discriminating against women. That is fundamentally wrong and fundamentally bad for the image and work of the Church”.

Of concern to some will be that in the context he appears to be referring to discrimination per se (i.e. to the exclusion of theological concerns) rather than issues of perception.

The main interest of his questioners, however, was the laity’s involvement in the synodical process.  The Church had published details of voting by diocese in GS 1847, and a post on Thinking Anglicans provides information on both dioceses and delegates.  However, a more fundamental concern was the suggested “complete failure of the House of Laity in the General Synod to reflect the overwhelming support in the diocesan synods for women bishops”, which was indicative to the questioner that “there is something deeply wrong with the system”.


The Second Church Estates Commissioner described the current procedures regarding lay representation like this:

“[t]he membership of deanery synods has constituted the electorate for the House of Laity since the General Synod was created in 1970. The review of synodical government chaired by Lord Bridge of Harwich, [Synodical Government in the Church of England: A Review, “The Bridge Report”] recommended in 1977 that deanery synods should be abolished and that the lay members of diocesan synods and General Synods should be chosen by parish representatives, each parish to have one for every 50 people on the electoral roll. The General Synod decided, however, to retain deanery synods. In July 2011 the Synod decided to ask for alternatives to the present electoral system to be further explored. The review group’s report is due to come to the General Synod this coming year” [emphasis added].

In changing or abolishing the role of deaneries as an electoral college for diocesan synods and General Synod it is necessary to address a number of issues, and as we have noted, this is only part of the problem.

With regard to the deaneries, however, the numbers involved place the issue in perspective.  There are significant variations between the sizes of each of the 44 dioceses, but in the Diocese of Oxford which has the greatest number of churches, there are: 302 benefices; 626 parishes and 813 churches.  Most recent figures show that there are around 55,000 on its church electoral rolls. The parishes are grouped in 29 deaneries which are themselves grouped into the archdeaconries of Oxford, Berkshire and Buckingham. Thus in addition to the electoral role of the deanery synods, there is an organizational requirement for some sub-division of the diocese into manageable units.

Whether or not the involvement of the laity through membership deanery synods assists the mission and management of the diocese is the subject of debate.  Opponents will cite the oft-repeated description of deanery synods as “a group of Anglicans waiting to go home”, and the recommendations of the Bridge Report summarized here. However, deaneries perceive their role inter alia as uniting benefices and “aiming to provide a common framework for mission and engagement with other local authorities and organisations”.

In view of recent events, the current review of the present electoral system will probably receive as much attention as the proposals on the ordination of women as bishops.

Note: There is a helpful short history of the structure of governance of the Church of England on Philip Jones’s ecclesiastical law blog.