This past summer I was elected to be a clerical representative (technically known as a “proctor”) from the Diocese in Europe to the General Synod of the Church of England (“CoE”). As I had already been a member of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, as well as the Provincial Synod of the Ecclesiastical Province of British Columbia and Yukon, and the Diocesan Synods of Niagara (1988-1995) and British Columbia (1995-2018), you might say I am a synod hack. I even wrote a guidebook for the Synod of the Diocese of BC, which is still used in a rewritten format (they took out all the jokes and digressions, which I thought were the most interesting parts).
Here are some thoughts and comments about my first direct experience when we met on November 16-17.
What’s a Synod?
It comes from the Greek word η σύνοδος meaning meeting, or assembly. A diocese – a unit of a national church – will have a diocesan synod. The synod of an independent autonomous part of the Anglican Communion – a big “P” “Province” – is often called a General Synod, although in The Episcopal Church it is “General Convention”. A small “p” province – a subdivision of the national church consisting of several or many dioceses – may have a provincial synod, in between the diocesan synods and the General Synod – thus, in the Church of Nigeria there are fourteen ecclesiastical provinces, the Church of England has two, and the Anglican Church of Canada has four. Synods may range in size from a couple of dozen members to several hundred. In The Eastern Orthodox churches the synods are almost always composed of bishops assisted by a few high ranking priest-monks; thus, the Holy Synod in Athens is the governing body of the Orthodox Church of Greece.
The Diocese in Europe sends seven people to the General Synod – one diocesan bishop, three laity, and three clergy. There are 467 members, divided into three houses:
- fifty bishops (out of about 117 diocesan and suffragan bishops);
- 197 clergy (elected from the 20,000 clergy serving in the 42 dioceses, and also elected from Cathedral deans, from clergy teaching in universities & colleges, from chaplains of the Armed Forces and Prisons, and from ordained persons in religious communities); and
- something like 265 laity (elected from the dioceses, from among the 1.7 million active members of the Church of England i.e. those on the parish rolls and who actively worship, as opposed to the 26 million baptised members).
While the three houses usually meet together and vote together, they can and do occasionally meet separately – the House of Bishops meets separately once or twice a year, and the House of Laity met immediately after this November’s sitting was prorogued. They meet to discuss matters and elect officials, like procurator and so forth.
So here are some differences and similarities between the two General Synods of which I have been a member.
First, some similarities. Both are composed of three “houses” – bishops, clergy, and laity. For some votes a simple majority of everybody in attendance is necessary, but for more important ones a majority in all three houses is necessary, and for the most important a 2/3rds majority is required. In both Canada and England votes are often done by raised hands, but recorded votes are done with “clickers” – electronic devices that record your individual vote, which is then recorded and ultimately published several weeks later.
Both General Synods elect members to committees that run the business of the General Synod and the National Church. As well, members are appointed to a plethora of committees, commissions, and task groups. Both General Synods have representation from the chaplains of the Armed Forces and religious communities, as well as youth (although whereas Canada has a youth delegate from every diocese, i.e. thirty in total, England only has three). Both have presentations on the work of the church on which votes are not normally taken. There is a large number of reports produced in preparation for the meetings, but in an effort to save paper these are now distributed electronically. Motions are usually brought by bodies internal to the General Synod and proposed by their chair or another member, but motions can also come from diocesan synods and ordinary members. The whole operates according to parliamentary procedure as laid out in standing orders and similar to the Parliaments of the nation. Both synods operate in English (although the Canadian one occasionally has people speaking in French, Cree, Inuktitut, or some other vernacular).
Both General Synods seem to be very concerned with marriage, and whether it should be restricted to heterosexual couples or extended to any couple composed of any gender identity. If there are “parties” within the General Synod of the CoE they seem to have been elected along these lines. Both are frustrated with the declining relevance of the church in their home countries, as well as the decline in numbers of attendance and finances; there is much discussion of how to accomplish mission.
Both the CoE and the Anglican Church of Canada are concerned with representing the diverse membership of their active members, especially visible minorities and marginalized peoples in the General Synod. In England over the summer there was an effort to encourage young people and those of African and Asian heritage to run for election. That seems to have had some success, although I would say that the make-up of the General Synod of the CoE is still pretty “white bread” and skews to the over-fifty crowd. I did have a lovely conversation with Karowei Dorgu, the Bishop of Woolwich (Diocese of Southwark), who came from Nigeria to the London area as a medical doctor in 1987 but followed a call to ordained ministry. The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada likewise is pretty skewed to an older representation of people of British background, but there is always a treasured membership made up of Indigenous bishops, priests, and laity, as well as a few delegates whose forebears were from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Continental Europe.
As mentioned, both General Synods have gone paper-less, using websites and special apps to provide members and interested folk with the masses of documents that used to fill a binder. Both also live-stream the proceedings, and use large screens in the assemblies themselves to project the person speaking.
Differences: 1) Legal Status
There are huge differences. The most important is that England’s General Synod is a statutory body – it makes law for the realm of England. As the Church of England is an established church, it’s actions must be approved by the Sovereign via the Parliament. Thus, when a “Measure” or “canon” is approved by General Synod it goes to a committee of the Houses of Parliament that then either recommends its approval by the House of Lords and the Hose of Commons, or its rejection. A Measure from General Synod is almost always presented for approval, and after motions from Parliament doing so, the Queen signs her consent. It then comes back to General Synod for implementation. Obviously there is no separation between church and state as is understood by the US Constitution, although it would be going too far to say that the Church of England is just another branch of the government; it is better to say that the Church of England as the official church in the realm enjoys certain privileges and obligations that other faith groups do not, and as such is subject to the will of the people as expressed through Parliament.
In Canada the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, while incorporated by an Act of Parliament, is merely one unestablished faith group among many, and its actions govern only those who voluntarily submit to them. As a result, ecclesiastical law in Canada is a small subset of administrative law for non-profits and charities, whereas in England it has an extensive body of legislation and case history.
Since Canadian bishops are elected from by the synods their dioceses and ratified by the provincial Houses of Bishops, there is a sense of ownership and loyalty of these bishops by the dioceses. English bishops are nominated by a confidential Crown Appointments Commission and ratified by the UK Prime Minister’s office, after which they are appointed by the Queen who directs an body to elect a particular individual. Since the great body of the ordinary clergy and people have no say in who the bishops are, there is no rooted loyalty to them. Also, the dioceses are far larger in England than in Canada, and so it is much harder to have much of a personal relationship. Thus, not surprisingly, I have heard from my clergy colleagues a greater distrust of the bench of bishops in the Church of England than I ever experienced in the Anglican Church of Canada (or The Episcopal Church).
The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada was created in 1893 by the two Ecclesiastical Provinces of Canada and Rupert’s Land, along with three western dioceses. Subsequently the Ecclesiastical Province of Ontario was carved out of “Canada”, and British Columbia and Yukon was created out of the western dioceses that were part of no province. Each of these provinces have an archbishop and its own provincial synod, and the chair of General Synod is the Primate of Canada who is also an archbishop. Further, the National Indigenous Bishop was raised to being the National Indigenous Archbishop. Thus Canada has five to six archbishops, offices that were all created in the last 150 years or so.
England, on the other hand, has only two archbishops, York and Canterbury, both of which go back some 1400 years. In medieval times the bishops and clergy of the two ecclesiastical provinces of York and Canterbury had separate provincial “convocations” which from the 17th century until the 20th century hardly ever met. Legislation for the Church of England was dealt with by Parliament itself until the early 20th century, when it devolved authority to a “Church Assembly” which included laity for the first time. This was reorganised by Act of Parliament into General Synod only in 1970. Thus, the Canadian General Synod is older by some 77 years.
Differences: 2) Organization
The Canadian General Synod has an executive called the Council of General Synod, or CoGS, which consists of some thirty members elected from General Synod itself, and there are a number of committees which report to CoGS and whose membership is largely elected from GS. There is no such body in the Church of England, although one is being proposed by the Governance Review Task Group. Instead, at the moment, there are no fewer than seven national bodies with national executive responsibility, and some 120 committees, tasks groups, and commissions working away at important issues, whose interrelations are complex. There are proposals to reorganise and simplify all of this.
The English General Synod is much larger than the Canadian one, consisting of 467 members elected to a five year term, whereas that of Canada is something like 287 and they serve only for three years. The Canadian one meets only once every three years for a week to ten days, whereas the English one meets twice a year for two to five days. The English synod meets in the Assembly Hall of the purpose built Church House in London, adjacent to the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey, as well as at the University of York, whereas the Canadian General Synod moves from city to city across the country and gathers in rented facilities – usually hotels and universities. While services often take place in cathedrals or other large churches, this is not always the case – in 2016 everything was done in a hotel ballroom in a suburb of Toronto.
Differences: 3) Culture
The biggest difference in culture between the two churches is that while both have “parishes” they understand the term differently. In theory both have a geographical meaning. In Canada parish boundaries are largely ignored. While a parish church may be rooted in a particular neighbourhood or city, members will travel across those boundaries to go to the church they like. There is a sense of obligation to the community around them, but it is not defined by any diocesan definition of its territory. In England there is a strong sense that the incumbent, clergy, and lay leadership on the Parochial Church Council has a responsibility to everybody within the parish boundaries, regardless of whether they are active in the church or belong to any faith group. This is manifested by the legislated requirement that the incumbent must baptise, marry, or bury any individual or couple that present themselves for these sacramental acts. In Canada there is no such legal obligation.
Another cultural difference is that I have yet to see any highlighting of ecumenical or Anglican Communion links in the General Synod of the CoE, whereas they are always visible in the Canadian one. The Canadian General Synod invariably had prominent visitors from other parts of the Anglican Communion – the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the General Secretary of the Anglican Communion, and the Archbishop of York. Likewise we had at least two joint meetings with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and presentations from the United Church of Canada and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. I have only been to one sitting of this General Synod of the CoE, and it may yet happen, but I have yet to see anything like this there. There were ecumenical guests, but only two or three. I was obliged to be absent from Tuesday’s proceedings (I was self-isolating because of what was later determined to be a false positive Covid-19 test), so I may have missed the parts where their presence was noted. Nevertheless, the impression given is that the General Synod does not pay much attention to the Communion or other churches; as the established Church of England, it can be quite insular. You would never know that there are other Anglican Churches in the United Kingdom, such as the Church in Wales, The Scottish Episcopal Church, and the Church of Ireland.
Differences 4) Superficial
There are a number of superficial differences.
- The Canadian General Synod meets at tables, not chairs.
- The Primate in Canada usually chairs most of the proceedings, whereas in England each item has its own chair, and it is not clear to me if the person chairing is always a member of General Synod.
- The legal counsel attending and advising Synod in England are obvious, as they are in their legal robes and wigs. In Canada lawyers never wear wigs, and the Chancellor and Registrar only dress up for formal services, like the installation of a new primate.
- I understand that at the summer sitting in York the dress can get pretty casual, but what I saw in Westminister was that clergy dressed up as clergy and laity often wore ties and “smart casual”.
- In Canada we have but one Primate, but England has two, the Archbishop of York who is the Primate of England, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the Primate of All England. They seem to function very much as a tag team, and they both give the Presidential Address. With the National Indigenous Archbishop in the Anglican Church of Canada we come close to this, but he does not have the formal role in General Synod that the Archbishop of York does in his.
The Church of England carries the burden of 1420 years of institutional history, one that has carried it from Augustine’s monks meeting in the tiny little ruin of St Martin’s Church in Canterbury in the Kingdom of Kent in 597, to the Synod of Whitby in 664 in which the pre-existing Celtic Church conformed to Roman practice, through the Reformation in the 16th Century, the Civil Wars of the 17th Century, down to the present day and the disestablishment of the church in Wales and Ireland. If given a clean sheet of white paper nobody would design a structure for a national church that looks like the one that the Church of England has (as is evident from the structures in other Provinces of the Anglican Communion). Nevertheless, it is much loved by its members, and resists major change. One of my concerns is how much this impedes the effectiveness of carrying out the mission of God.
If this comparison of two General Synods does anything perhaps it is that it describes some of the culture shock I am experiencing as a new member of the English General Synod and as a long-ordained priest new to the Church of England. English Anglicans look and talk like Anglicans elsewhere, but in many ways (of which I suspect they are only dimly aware), they do think and act differently from most Anglicans in the Communion. That said, I appreciate the opportunity to attend on behalf of the Diocese in Europe, and pray that I might in some small way be able to influence its proceedings in a positive way.