Is general synod broken?

First, a rubric: This is a longish post, however you need only read the “introduction” and “conclusion” sections. If you want more, read the “discussion” section and if you’re a masochist read the “analysis” section.


The twit-o-sphere has been alive with the buzz criticism of the recent decision by general synod not to pass the women in the episcopate measure. Much has been said about how synod failed to implement what is the will of the majority of the Church of England. Bristol’s diocesan synod has even passed a vote of no confidence in general synod. The knives are out and nothing short of blood will suffice.

The argument does sound good, too. After all, general synod has already affirmed in July 2006 that women in the episcopate are “consonant with the faith of the Church as the Church of England has received” and in July 2008 that it is “the wish of its majority is for women to be admitted to the episcopate”. The only thing these synods have left open are the questions of when and how, not if. Further, the measure itself was approved by 42 of 44 dioceses – that’s a 95% majority. It is hard to see how the will of the majority of Church of England members could be otherwise than that the measure should have passed.

I would not, personally, go so far as to say that this means general synod is broken – it is my understanding that general synod’s job is to hear God, not to hear the majority of church members. We elect synod reps to do the job of listening to God, not to fight our corner. If synod were simply reflecting the views of the majority, I’d say that would be an argument that it is broken. However, not to get sidetracked, my purpose here is to look at the data and observe that if general synod is broken, it is not broken for the reasons which are being proposed. On the back of this, I think that our real problem lies elsewhere and it isn’t synod which needs fixing.


Let’s deal first with the 42 out of 44 dioceses argument. These numbers don’t tell you very much because they hide the details of what the actual votes were in the diocesan synods. In fact, 77% of the laity across all the dioceses supported the measure – comfortably above 2/3 but still a long way short of the 95% implied by the simple phrase “42 out of 44”.

However, even this is not enough. We need further analysis to determine the “statistical significance” of the votes. I’ll save you the boring details, but I have done some calculations based on the assumption that the diocesan synods and general synod are unbiased – that is to say that the views in the synods are representative of the views of the majority of the laity. I have found two things: firstly, that given how the diocesan synods voted, we should have been 99.95% sure of the measure passing in general synod. Secondly, taking only the general synod result, if we want to be reasonably (more than 95%) confident about what the majority of the laity think, then we can only say that between 58% and 71% of the laity as a whole supported the measure.

Firstly, then, we do actually have cause to say that the general synod result is probably inconsistent with how the dioceses voted. It isn’t absolutely certain, but 99.95% is a fairly high level of confidence. So there is probably some bias – although it isn’t clear whether the bias is in general synod, diocesan synod or both.

Secondly, the general synod vote is simply not statistically significant enough to determine whether 2/3 of the laity as a whole support the measure. It could as easily be 58% as 71%. This is a simple consequence of the number of laity in general synod – 206 is not enough.

Moving on, the other evidence I mentioned earlier was that both the July 2006 and July 2008 general synods have already stated their support for women in the episcopate. At face value, this says much, but the actual numbers paint a different picture. In fact, both of these synods failed to achieve a 2/3 majority in the laity, with 123 vs 68 in 2006 and 111 vs 68 in 2008. These previous motions only passed because the level of consensus required was lower. Given this past information, the recent general synod vote should not have been a surprise.

If you’re even more curious, I’ve written an addendum to this analysis here.


So, where are we? We know that there is very likely some bias which causes general synod and diocesan synods to vote differently. We know that even in the diocesan synods more than 20% of the laity rejected the measure. We know that general synod has consistently failed to achieve a 2/3 majority in the laity since 2006. And we know that having only about 200 members of laity on general synod is just not adequate to give us any great certainty about what the majority think.

I want to argue that general synod cannot and should not be expected to be representative of the laity as a whole. I think the first part of this statement is established by the statistical analysis: general synod is simply too small and leaves too much uncertainty.

So, to the “should not” side of the argument. An obvious point is that if general synod were supposed merely to represent the majority, then there would be no point in the whole process of debate. Every decision should simply be put immediately to a vote. Or, from a different perspective, any synod’s primary responsibility is surely to represent God, not people, in decision making. Given that general synod spent an entire day exchanging perspectives in the context of prayer and, hopefully under, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we should expect some bias. After all, “The wind blows wherever it pleases… So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Another reason to expect difference between general synod and diocesan synods is history. General synod has spent a lot more time considering and debating women in the episcopate, as the 2006 and 2008 decisions show. Further, this highlights the fact that the diocesan synod votes were not intended as a way of determining the will of the majority. Rather, they were to serve as a check on general synod to ensure that no decision was made without a wider process of hearing God. The diocesan votes were a minimal requirement for general synod to be allowed to pass the measure, not a whip with which to beat general synod. The entire process was structured this way for the specific purpose of determining whether we have consensus. And consensus is important if we are to be sure we are hearing God.

This brings me to my final point, and the one which I think is most important. The information above tells us both that there is a significant minority of the laity who did not support the measure and that we did not have consensus on whether the measure should pass. Actually, now we come to see it that way, there was also a significant minority of the clergy who did not support the measure in both diocesan and general synods (more than 20%).

The failure of the measure in the house of laity in general synod, then, primarily indicates that we do not have consensus. This, if anything, is how general synod is broken: not because it wasn’t representative but in that the bar was set extremely high with the intention of finding consensus. I’ll leave you to decide for yourself whether you think consensus is important, but I note that if you don’t then you remove a core value from the synod system and, frankly, undermine all the work our synods have ever done.

Personally, since I think consensus is partly to do with hearing God, what I want to ask is not how we can fix synod but what we can do about the failure to gain consensus.


I have covered a lot of ground. Here are the key observations:

  • General synod cannot be representative of the laity as a whole.
  • General synod should not be expected to be representative, but rather to be delegated the responsibility of listening to God.
  • The process required diocesan synods to vote on the measure with division by houses and 2/3 majority before general synod was allowed to vote, also with division by houses and 2/3 majority. This process is not about listening to the church, but about seeking consensus. The bar is intentionally very high.
  • Most importantly: we have a problem in the laity and clergy in general. A very significant minority do not support women in the episcopate. We do not have consensus across the church.

In conclusion, then, I think we ought to be concentrating on our lack on consensus. I think the only way through this is listening to God in communion. We need to pray and listen to God together.

So, here’s my humble suggestion: let us designate a specific week for the entire Church of England to engage in a 24-7 prayer vigil. Let every parish church or, perhaps better, every deanery put together a rota and fill it with names. And let us pray and listen. And let us all be open and vulnerable to hearing God say things we don’t expect and won’t necessarily like.

Or am I asking too much – is that a task which is beyond the Church of England?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *