Synod elections a ‘battle for the CofE’s soul’

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Image credit: Church of England

By Rosie Dawson

Voting closed on Friday in the elections for membership of the Church of England’s governing body, the General Synod, with candidates from all wings of the church claiming that the next five years will be the “crunch time” for the CofE’s future.

The coming quinquennium — five years — of General Synod will see debate and decisions on clergy discipline, the parish system, church structures and racial justice. But it will also be asked to determine the church’s position on human sexuality and whether the church will allow clergy to bless same-sex unions or conduct gay marriages in church.

The “Living in Love and Faith” process began in 2017 and bishops are due to bring proposals to synod in February 2023. In response to a set of resources published last year to aid discussion, traditionalists who oppose any change to current practice made it clear that the issue could split the church.

The General Synod meets three times a year: November and February in Church House, Westminster, and a residential gathering in July in York.

It is made up of the three houses of bishops, clergy and laity, in total 467 people. Elections take place within individual dioceses with each allocated a minimum of three clergy and three lay representatives. Clergy are elected by their fellow clergy and the laity are chosen by deanery synod members.

The 42 diocesan bishops have automatic seats on synod. They are joined by 12 elected suffragan or area bishops. There are also seats for cathedral deans, universities and army chaplains.

According to the CofE, 749 of the 956 clergy and lay candidates standing in these elections were not members of the last synod. It took to YouTube to invite people to stand for election in an attempt to appeal to younger people and those from more diverse background, but the overall increase in the number of candidates may owe as much to the politics as to the marketing.

Dr Paula Gooder, chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and who has served two terms on synod, says: “I’ve never seen so many people standing for synod. When I stood, there were not as many people standing because they didn’t see it as something relevant which had an impact on their lives. So, while Living in Love and Faith might be raising the temperature, I think it’s great because it means we’re getting a broad range of really interesting people standing.”

The Rev Dr Ian Paul, an evangelical who is standing in Southwell and Nottingham, says: “The process for electing this synod has been much more political than previously.” He is a prominent opponent of any change to the church’s position on marriage, but says there are other important issues for the next synod to address.

“For me, clergy morale is the biggest issue right now,” he adds. “There is the question of the reform of the clergy discipline measure which affects clergy morale but there is also the controversy around the future of the parish where priests are feeling that the day-to-day job of parish ministry is undervalued by the bishops.”

The Rev Dr Charlie Bell, assistant curate at St John the Divine, Kennington, who wants to see the church bless same-sex unions, said: “The church has stopped pretending that synod is not political and that decisions are not made in a political way.

“The discussion has been kicked into the long grass again and again, but the bishops have now said this next synod will make a decision about it, and this has meant that the gloves have come off. The reality is that whoever gets elected will be making significant changes on behalf of the wider church.”

For Andrew Symes, executive secretary for the organisation Anglican Mainstream, any change to the church’s position on marriage would be an unacceptable innovation.

“There are a significant number of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics who are very concerned about the possibility of an official change to the teaching and liturgy around marriage such as we have just seen in the Church in Wales,” he says. “This has been the teaching of the church for 2,000 years and it remains so around most of the world.”

But for Jayne Ozanne, a prominent LGBTQ+ campaigner and editor of ViaMedia News, there is no conflict between change and orthodoxy. “True orthodoxy is being faithful to scripture, which reveals God’s unconditional love of all, coupled with a humility that calls us to be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and demands we recognise when we have got things badly wrong.

“The arch of history always bends towards justice — as we’ve seen with our understanding of ‘slaves’ and women, and now those of us who are LGBTQ+.”

According to the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), those it calls “revisionists” formed a majority on the previous synod. Therefore, its website says, “the election of even a small number of additional orthodox clergy and laity would represent a significant and positive sea-change in the composition of the synod”. However, its advice to candidates was to avoid raising the issue in their election addresses, a move called dishonest by its critics. Some members of the CEEC also expressed private embarrassment and frustration over the guidance.

Dr Bell, meanwhile, is encouraged that four suffragan bishops standing for election have explicitly supported change in their election addresses. “Most bishops tend not to commit on this issue and talk in general terms about finding a positive way forward,” he says.

“So, it’s been interesting to see suffragan bishops breaking cover to say that they will support the blessing of same-sex unions.” All four cathedral deans standing in the Canterbury province have also committed themselves to change.

Elections results from dioceses will be published over the next two weeks. But whatever the complexion of the next synod no one is envisaging that the church will reach agreement on the way forward on this issue.

“Both sides are being told they need to embrace and accept each other,” Ms Ozanne writes on her blog. “Neither side can. And that’s what’s going in these elections for General Synod. There is a battle going on for the soul of the Church of England where each thinks the other is doing the devil’s work.”

Similarly, Dr Paul cannot imagine a satisfactory settlement. “I don’t think there is going to be a position which meets the demands of different parties. It’s not a question of compromise; everyone agrees that compromise is not possible. It’s a question of coming to a decision.”

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