Prudence Dailey Commentary: Ever Wondered About Elections to General Synod?

Prudence Dailey Commentary

Ever wondered about elections to the General Synod of the Church of England?

Quinquennial elections to the General Synod of the Church of England (which should have taken place last year, but were postponed because of COVID) are once again upon us. Twenty-one years ago, when I was first elected to the Synod, another member of the congregation expressed surprised and said, ’I didn’t know you could be! How does it work?’

I think it would be fair to assume that the clergy are at least somewhat familiar with the process; but for the laity (like me) it is rather less transparent, and so it is to them that most of my comments will be addressed. The General Synod elections go unnoticed by most church members for the simple reason that the electorate for the House of Laity is made up of lay Deanery Synod members, acting as an electoral college across the Diocese, and so they alone receive the relevant communications. Any regular communicant member of the Church of England who is on a church electoral roll is, however, eligible to stand: candidates are not required to be members of Deanery or Diocesan Synods prior to election, or even their PCC; although those elected will become ex officio members of all these bodies.

Those wishing to stand must first find two lay Deanery Synod members from anywhere in the Diocese who are willing to act as proposer and seconder, and the deadline for receipt of nominations is 12 noon on Wednesday, 9th September. For the first time, the ballot is being held electronically rather than by post, and will take place between 17th September and 8th October this year.

Elections take place by Diocese by single transferrable vote (which is intended to ensure that candidates representing a spectrum of opinion are elected). Most of the electors will not know most (or sometimes even any) of the candidates, so election addresses (which are circulated when the ballot opens) are key: completely unknown candidates (as I was when I first stood) can easily be elected if they produce an appealing manifesto. Many election addresses are disappointingly vague: I have always favoured a rather more direct approach, although at the same time it is important to retain a degree of diplomacy! Candidates are provided with contact details to enable them to telephone or even electors; but few do this, and those who do are giving themselves an additional advantage.

So what does being on the General Synod involve, and why should anyone consider standing?

The Synod meets for (usually) up to four days in London in February, five days in York, and very occasionally an additional two days in November. Travel, accommodation and other costs are reimbursed; and while it is possible to claim for loss of earnings, employers are under no obligation to give unpaid leave. Each Group of Sessions (as a sitting is known) is accompanied by a huge wedge of papers (now distributed electronically), and between times much of the work of the Synod is carried out in committees (membership of which is optional).

The Church of England is often described as ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’, and the functions of the General Synod include the power to pass Measures which have the force of law; as well as determining doctrine. (It remains the case that the doctrine of the Church of England is defined by its Formularies—the 39 Articles, the Ordinal and the Book of Common Prayer—and occasionally, discussion arises as to whether this or that proposal is in conformance with the Formularies; but anything agreed by the Synod through its formal processes is thereafter assumed to be consistent with the Formularies!) Above all, the Synod has the power to say ‘No’—and, on occasion, it does.