General Synod - the Next Five Years

by John Saxbee

from Signs of the Times, No. 20 - Jan 2006

It is really difficult to call the exact balance of the new Synod. It is a smaller body, and that has meant that each Diocese will be represented by fewer members in the Houses of Clergy and Laity. Consequently, some familiar faces will be missing from the Synod during this quinquennium, including the likes of David McClean, Colin Buchanan, and Brian McHenry. Furthermore, Bishop Richard Harries took leave of the Synod at its first group of sessions, and he will also leave a considerable gap to be filled, when it comes to informing debates and giving commonsense guidance.

For the first time Archdeacons had to take their chance in the election process, and it is interesting to note that over 30 Archdeacons were returned by the Clergy electorate. It is good that the Archdeacons will be so strongly represented - I personally opposed the abolition of their separate constituency. However, it does mean that wherever an Archdeacon has been elected from a Diocese, one less member of the Parochial/Sector Clergy will be taking a seat, and this is not something which will be universally welcomed.

As to the balance of opinion/likely voting intentions in the new Synod, this is really very difficult to assess. There was very little on the agenda of the first group of sessions to really indicate which way the Synod might go on some of the more controversial issues that are before us, but the general view is that if there has been any shift at all, it is to the "left" rather than the "right". The first major test of opinion will be in February, when the legislative options for the Consecration of women as Bishops will be debated. Whether the Synod goes for a single clause Measure (plus Code of Practice) or for more detailed legislative provision for those opposed will significantly impact upon how this issue makes its slow progress through the synodical system over the next few years. There would appear to be very little energy for the "Third Province" option, and it will be interesting to see how the opponents of women Bishops line up with respect to alternative options. My own feeling is that what might be promoted by way of legislative provision can be made available through a robust Code of Practice, and so the issue will come down to a matter of trust - will opponents trust supporters to implement a Code in its right spirit, and will supporters trust opponents not to abuse legislative provision in ways that some people think the Act of Synod has been abused.

The new Synod will also have to cope with issues to do with human sexuality, but this is far more likely to be in relation to the backwash from e.g. Anglican Communion divisions, Civil Partnerships legislation, Lambeth Conference preparations etc., rather than the issue being dealt with head on. One way of taking the temperature of a new Synod is to see what kind of Private Members' Motions and Diocesan Synod Motions find their way on to the agenda, and this we will watch with interest when it comes to sexuality issues.

One advantage of a slimmed-down Synod is that it provides the opportunity for rather more complex issues to be studied and explored at greater depth. This opportunity was taken with the provision of a seminar on Episcopacy as part of the November group of sessions. This was a great success and there is no doubt that subsequent debates around women Bishops, Bishops in relation to the Anglican/Methodist Covenant etc. will be better informed as a result of this initiative by Archbishop Rowan. We look forward to similar seminar-type events in the future, especially as the MCU prides itself on being a theological resource serving the whole Church from a liberal perspective. It is to be hoped that MCU members on the Synod will have the chance to contribute to such seminars, as and when they feature in the coming years.

One small change in Synod procedure actually carries a great deal of significance. In the past, whenever there has been a vote of the whole Synod or by Houses, the Legal Officer has instructed members to "Divide". In future, the order will be to "Decide" and it is greatly to be hoped that this Synod will indeed prosper decisions rather than promote divisions, as we seek to proclaim the good news of God in Christ for this generation.

John Saxbee is the Bishop of Lincoln and MCU President.