By Rosie Dawson
The Church of England’s General Synod began its new five-year term in November after the most fiercely contested elections in its 50-year history.
It was the first time since 1970 that the Queen was absent from the opening of a new synod. She was represented by her son Prince Edward, the Duke of Wessex, who read a message from her commending the role played by the church during the height of the Covid pandemic. Her message also expressed the hope that, despite “inevitable disagreement, … you will be strengthened with the certainty of the love of God as you work together and draw on the church’s tradition of unity in fellowship for the tasks ahead.”
The immediate tasks for November’s meeting were straightforward — mainly the induction of new members. Future meetings will grapple with contested issues such as clergy discipline, parish structure and — most contentious of all — human sexuality.
General Synod meets three times a year and is composed of three houses: Bishops, Clergy, and Laity. The House of Bishops comprises all diocesan bishops and nine elected suffragan bishops. Elections for the house of clergy and laity take place within the 42 dioceses.
A Church of England advertising campaign aimed at attracting new candidates can claim some success: 60 percent of the those gathering at Church House in Westminster were new to General Synod, which is visibly younger and more diverse.
“I’m quite hopeful about this synod,” said the Dean of Manchester, the Very Rev. Rogers Govender, who chairs the Church of England’s Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns. ”We have more people from BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] backgrounds as a result of a conscious attempt to address their underrepresentation. It’s clear that the church is also beginning to address the question of representation among its senior leadership with the recent appointment of two BAME [suffragan] bishops” to Loughborough and Willesden.
But the increasing number of people wishing to serve on General Synod may owe more to the campaigning of particular interest groups than to advertising from the top. In July a new interest group, Save the Parish, was formed to challenge what it sees as the redirection of finances, power, and authority away from parishes to central church headquarters. Founder Marcus Walker, rector of Great St. Bartholomew’s in London, claims at least 150 supporters among the new cohort.
“We will be scrutinizing any revisions to the Mission and Pastoral measure to stop it making it easier to sell church buildings, and we will be asking at every stage whether the church’s plans for mission and strategy make life easier for parishioners and priests on the ground,” Walker said.
Nevertheless, the defining issue facing this synod will be human sexuality, in particular whether clergy will be authorized to bless same-sex unions or celebrate gay marriages in church. Both Inclusive Church, which advocates change, and the Evangelical Group on General Synod, which affirms traditional church teaching, engaged in unprecedented levels of campaigning during the elections.
The Archbishop of York, the Most Rev. Stephen Cottrell, told the meeting that he found the use of the word Parliament to describe synod “unhelpful. Still, synod observers suggest that it is increasingly coming to resemble its secular counterpart, with an adversarial two-party system forming around this issue.
Both parties claim increased representation on synod as a result of the elections. Nic Tall from Inclusive Church says that 131 of its 221 candidates were elected.
“It’s healthy that synod has representation from different traditions, but the inclusive representation remains pretty solid,” he said. “We’re confident we will be able to get our points across.”
The Evangelical Group “used to have 100 members on Synod, but 150 people turned up to the dinner this time,” said one of its members, the Rev. Ian Paul. “What is really striking is that this growth occurred after the group tightened its definition of evangelical to include only those who hold to a traditional view of marriage. So there’s a new and demonstrable commitment on synod to preserve the church’s teaching and practice in this area.”
Living in Love and Faith discussions began in 2017, and the bishops are due to present any proposals to the synod in February 2023. Any changes to church liturgy or doctrine must be passed by a two-thirds majority in all three houses.
“It’s already clear that both liberals and conservatives have enough votes to form a blocking minority,” says the Rev. Peter Ould, a conservative synod observer and psephologist. “So this means that official liturgies for same-sex blessings, or changes to the canons to alter the understanding of marriage, simply aren’t going to get through. Equally, a hardening of liturgy or doctrine isn’t going to succeed either.
“We’re deluding ourselves if we think people weren’t getting themselves on to General Synod without having already made their minds up on this.”
“I honestly don’t think that is true,” said Dr. Helen King, a member of Inclusive Church. “I’ve spoken to so many people at synod who are somewhere between the two poles — between those for whom only equal marriage will do and those who oppose any change to the church’s official position on human sexuality.”
“General Synod is designed with aim of achieving broad consensus,” says Nic Tall, “So change can take a very long time, but there are more openly LGBT members on synod this time. So when the discussions happen, it does at least mean that members are engaging with the real people who are affected by their decisions, and looking them in the eye.”
Rosie Dawson is a freelance religion journalist and audio producer based in Manchester, U.K.