Synodical juggernaut

The Bishop of Chichester, the Right Revd John Hind continues the Bishop of Willesden's criticisms of last month, and offers a solemn warning to General Synod in its forthcoming deliberations


It’s a pretty sure sign that all is not well with General Synod when a synodical arch-geek, the former chairman of its business committee, writes such a trenchant piece as the Bishop of Willesden in the last issue of New Directions [May 2006] – poachers and gamekeepers come to mind!

I suspect however that the problems are even more deep-seated and systemic than he suggests. As any form of governance reflects particular views of the organization in question, we can learn much about the Church of England’s self-understanding as well as its practice from its present patterns of synodical government. Pete Broadbent’s criticisms are not merely complaints about structures and procedures, but should be taken seriously because of what they expose of a theological black hole in our polity.

Consulting the faithful

It is of course important at any time of critical questioning to identify as carefully as possible where the perceived problem lies. I hope, for example, that nobody would wish to challenge the principle that the Church as a whole is the laos tou theou, the people of God, the laity, and that all the baptized should be involved in the mission of the Church. Nor should this be thought to be restricted to matters of practical housekeeping; it is an obligation which includes the duty and joy of witnessing to the Gospel, whatever that costs, and also extends to the discernment of truth, not least in moments of controversy.

John Henry Newman’s famous 1859 essay On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine is still an important guide. It was prophetic and controversial at the time and remains so. He starts with an apparently arcane discussion about the meaning of the word ‘consult.’ It may either mean ‘ask the opinion of’ or to ‘look to for information and instruction.’ Fundamental to his argument is the principle that the people of God as a whole have a kind of instinct for the truth of the Gospel which is evidence of the faith. ‘Consulting the faithful’ is not so much a matter of asking what a majority of individuals think about a particular subject but of enquiring what their corporate belief reveals about the way in which the Holy Spirit is leading the disciples of Jesus into the whole truth (inseparable from the Spirit’s role in reminding them of all that Jesus taught them).

It is not difficult to see that this is very different from notions of democratic decision-making. Things are not true because more of us think they are than do not; we ought rather to believe them and witness to them because they are true. But how hard this is to understand and defend in a post-modern world!

The Preface to the Declaration of Assent, which is solemnly affirmed by every office and licence holder in the Church of England, does however make the matter plain. After reference to the faith revealed in the scriptures and the catholic creeds, the Preface adds, ‘which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.’ Note that it does not say ‘interpret afresh,’ although that may be part of it. It states clearly, ‘proclaim the faith afresh,’ not ‘proclaim a fresh faith.’

It follows that neither bishops (even popes) nor synods have any right to make new doctrine. So this is not a question of struggles between power blocs but rather of where the authority lies for Christian decision-making, especially in matters which touch or may touch the heart of the Gospel.

Constitutional problem

All of this relates directly to our current dilemmas in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Please do not misunderstand me. I am setting out a formal argument and not even hinting that this gives us an easy key to unlocking these dilemmas or determining them. I do however think it may help shape our approach to a number of some current difficulties.

An immediate constitutional problem for the Church of England lies in the fact that the General Synod is predicated on a parliamentary model. This does not only mean an adversarial nature of debate, with decisions even on the deepest theological matters being made by majority vote, even if qualified. More than that, it assumes the sovereignty of Parliament, the right of a secular body to be the ultimate arbiter of the faith and practice of the Church. Whatever might be said for the role of a Christian monarch in convening councils and not infrequently banging theological heads together, there is a world of difference between one who is understood to be God’s vice-regent and a constitutional monarch, who even in ecclesiastical matters must take the advice of others who may not necessarily share the faith of the Church.

It was a perceptive member of the House of Bishops who observed that the decision to ordain women to the episcopate in the Church of England was not taken in July 2005 (begin removing the legal obstacles), nor in 1992 (the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure), nor again in 1974 (no fundamental objections); but in 1969, with the passing of the Synodical Government Measure. Coming from one who is known to be a strong supporter of the opening of the episcopate to women, this was a telling observation, indicating, if nothing else, that it is synodical processes which have made this development (and others like it) inevitable, regardless of any other concerns, be they of a theological or practical nature.


I was reminded of this during this February’s Group of Sessions, when another member and I both challenged the chair during the presentation of the ecumenical responses to the Rochester Report – I to protest at the repeated inability (I probably said refusal!) of Synod to debate a report which had been commissioned precisely to address the theological arguments, and he because this inability appeared undemocratic. In my view however the kind of democracy represented by our current synodical processes is precisely the problem, as it makes our ecclesial life captive to whatever activists are able to convince Synod is in accordance with the mind of the ‘majority’ of our ‘fellow citizens.’

There is of course little evidence to support protagonists on either side that they hold the key to leading the people of England to flock back to church. It does not seem on the whole that people’s views or practices in this matter have in themselves much influence on the way our mission impacts in local communities. Indeed it seems to be that those Christian groups which are currently appearing to cut most ice these days are, for the most part, not very interested in this question.

Evangelism in the twenty-first century is about more fundamental issues than who or who may not be ordained. (I am not trivializing the issue which is, for many for and against, a touchstone of authentic gospel faith; all I am doing is pointing out that Christians in England have even more difficult questions to answer if they are to persuade their contemporaries that following Jesus is even worth considering as an option for their lives.)

More consideration

Having said all that, it now necessary to ask what implications it has for the immediate crisis (point of decision) for the Church of England in relation to women in the episcopate. Despite what some friends and critics might think, I honestly do not know whether God wants this development or not. I do not know whether the logic of the Gospel demands or excludes it. I do however believe that our present synodical processes encourage and even impose a political rather than a theological approach, and that the Church of England is currently being rushed towards an action about which there is no consensus and whose consequences cannot be foreseen.

The very complexity of the various options proves the point. Even if TEA could be worked up into a viable framework for holding the Church of England in a form of unity, despite not knowing wholeheartedly what it believes in the matter, this must be a process that needs longer consideration. For General Synod to make a definite decision in July would be to perpetuate and even increase the ecclesiological anomaly with which we have already lived for over a decade, and is thus complicating not only our internal life but also our ecumenical relations.

I do not know whether the Church of England has an ecumenical future or not. I do however think that a church claiming to stand on Scripture and the ancient common traditions ought to be more respectful of the other churches which claim the same inheritance. This is one of the sharp points about synodical government. Our parliamentary model excludes any place either for historical memory or for faithfulness to undertakings previously given. Anything once said can be unsaid tomorrow. Hence our cavalier attitude to the response of the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales to the Rochester Report (or perhaps their offence was to have taken it seriously!). No wonder so many ecumenical partners (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox) wonder who they are talking to when they debate with Anglicans!

So where do we go from here? The crisis of Anglicanism today no longer seems to be a matter of this problem or that, of distinct issues which can be handled without cross-reference. We are faced with a moment of decision about what it means to be an Anglican Christian in the modern world. There are those who say ‘we must go with the culture,’ although such voices are more usually favourable to some cultures than to others. There are those who say ‘change nothing,’ although not changing has never been an option among Christians (except among those who pretend it is not happening!).

Humility and trust

My conclusion therefore is ‘ask a question in the wrong way and you get the wrong answer.’ Questions such as the ordination of women bishops, in the case of which many who disagree about the answer do agree that it is a question of gospel faithfulness, should not be determined within our current synodical timetables and processes. The real sadness at the moment is that however July’s vote goes, there must be winners and losers. I do not share the sentimental illusion that we shall ever all agree about everything; I do however think that in matters of faith, consensus rather than the power of the majority should be the Christian way. It may still not be too late to begin a serious engagement with the Rochester Report and thus to keep faith both with the General Synod vote in 2000 and with the wider pastoral, theological and ecumenical dimensions of the issue.

We cannot address properly this or any other of our difficulties without a holy, humble and penitent return to the sources of the faith in the Scriptures and the creeds, and without a genuine and trusting dependence on the Holy Spirit whom the Lord promised to his disciples together and not to this, that or the other group among them.

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