Tuesday, 7 May 2013
Synod voting and 2/3 majorities: A discussion paper
If we were going to turn down the Women Bishops legislation, we should have done so earlier. Here's how.
In the immediate aftermath of November's rejection of the Women Bishops legislation by General Synod, there were many mutterings about the voting system and the requirement for a 2/3 majority. I did not join in with these, as knee-jerk suggestions that we change the system to try to get the result we wanted are rarely the best reaction to a disappointing outcome.
I have, though, spent some time thinking about the whole process that had taken us to that point. And in particular, I have tried since November to analyse why people felt let down by the voting system, not just the result, and whether there are lessons to be learned for the future. My suggestion would not have changed the outcome, but I think it would have saved much wasted time.
It seems to me that the mistake in our procedures lay not so much in requiring a 2/3 majority, but in requiring that 2/3 majority in the wrong place in the process. There was a great sense of anger and disillusionment amongst members of deanery and diocesan synods, who had discussed and agreed the legislation, that it could then be rejected. There seemed little point asking the dioceses' opinion, if it were to be ignored in the final voting.
Presumably the purpose of requiring a special majority is to ensure that any changes command broad support. It means there is an inherent prejudice in favour of the status quo, on any issue, which some may find reassuring. However, I think the experience of the Women Bishops debacle has demonstrated that the Final Approval stage is the wrong point for that majority to be needed.
There were many stages that the legislation had to pass through. A each stage, other than the final approval debate, the legislation needed to gain 50% of the votes cast (in Houses, if such was demanded) if it were to proceed to the next stage. At the final approval stage, it needed a 2/3 majority in each House.
The legislation proceeded smoothly (albeit via some major and stressful debates) to the reference to the diocesan synods. This reference is required of any 'Article 8' business (business that involves changing Canons of the Church of England).The Reference stage is designed to prevent General Synod from passing legislation that does not meet with the general approval of the members of the church at a more local level.
Let's look at what happened at the most critical of these stages:
Revision Stage (July 2010): Synod voted to 'take note' of the Revision Committee report, and then in a separate debate underwent detailed consideration of and voting on a series of amendments, which resulted in the legislation being substantially unchanged. The key vote was that 'Clause 2 stand part of the measure' - effectively, a vote on whether this legislation should be referred to the dioceses, and this passed:
Yes 373, No 14 (17 abstentions).
Article 8 Reference to Dioceses Passed with 42 dioceses in favour, 2 against
Final Drafting (Feb 2012) Passed, in houses:
Bishops: Yes 28, No 0. Clergy: Yes 149, No 14. Laity: Yes 132, No 37.
Reference to the House of Bishops Passed (with amendments, voting unrecorded)
Final Approval Rejected, voting in houses and needing a 2/3 majority:
Bishops:Yes 44, No 3. Clergy: Yes 148, No 45. Laity: Yes 132, No 74.
What strikes me, looking at those figures, is that the serious anomaly came at the Revision stage. Many people must have voted then to send it to the dioceses, who later voted against it. This, it seems to me, is the root of the anger and disenfranchisement felt by 'people in the pews'.
It was unfair, misleading, and wasteful of people's time and church resources to commit the legislation for debate by Diocesan Synods, if a third of the members of any house of General Synod was prepared to disregard their views.
I suggest, therefore, that if we wish to keep a 2/3 majority requirement for Article 8 business, that we move it to an earlier point in the process.
One option would be to require a 2/3 majority in General Synod at the end of the Revision Stage. This would mean that legislation was only sent to the diocese if it achieved the 2/3 requirement for the support of synod.
A second option - and my preference - would be to require a 2/3 majority of diocesan synods. In this case, when General Synod sent legislation to the dioceses, if 2/3 of them accepted it the legislation would then be deemed passed. In the first case, only a simple majority of diocesan synods would have to approve it for it to be deemed passed.
A third option would require a 2/3 majority at both of the above stages.
There would be no need for a further Final Approval stage: or if there was, for technical reasons, it should be a technicality only and would only require a simple majority.
Finally, it is very important that no further changes (other than technical drafting amendments, perhaps) should be made to the legislation after it has been sent to the dioceses. I can well understand that, when Synodical government was first introduced, the bishops didn't feel able to relinquish full control over matters of doctrine. I feel that is now an outdated attitude, but even if the bishops wish to retain the right to make amendments, that too should be moved to an earlier stage in the process. Perhaps, for example, the bishops might wish to make changes after synod had approved the legislation but before it went to the dioceses, though I think this would be a mistake. The bishops of course will always retain a veto on any legislation, since by voting in houses a simple majority of bishops can always defeat any proposal.
These proposals would mean that only legislation that General Synod was happy to see passed would be referred to the Diocesan Synods, avoiding the wasted time, money and goodwill that has been involved in this process.
General Synod is a fairly young institution, and so we shouldn't be surprised if glitches in its systems are sometimes discovered. Standing Orders are revised quite often, and it would be a simple matter to make these changes, itself requiring just a simple majority in General Synod.
In making this proposal I am trying to be as neutral as possible on the presenting issue. That is, I don't think - and it isn't my plan - that the change I am proposing would have made it more likely that the Women Bishops legislation would have got through. Instead, it would have meant it fell earlier, wasting considerably less time and energy in the process.
Any suggestions for changing Standing Orders need to be thought through. If changed, the new rules would apply to all future debates, not simply this one. You will all have your own particular bugbears that you can test my suggestion on by asking how it might affect issues that you care about deeply. My personal test has been to think about the Anglican Communion Covenant debate. I don't want to suggest any changes that, applied retrospectively, would have got the Women Bishops legislation through at the cost of also making it more likely that the Covenant would have been passed. But I don't think this suggestion would affect the outcome of any votes, simply move the point at which a special majority is required to prevent another debacle like that of November.
I would be very grateful for any feedback on this proposal; and perhaps, if it is found helpful, for someone who is currently a Member to formally propose it to General Synod for debate.