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.


  1. A very interesting idea. Without a doubt the processes described in parliament as "glacial" could do with examination. I'm sure the 2/3 requirement is sensible for article 8 business. Where it belongs is the right question. I would think as early as possible for the principle of the thing, and among the diocesan synods for the consultation phase. The big anomaly, however, is the indirect voting system for the house of laity — a parliament in which the only voters were members of parish councils is a bizarre thought. The other virtue of what you're proposing is that it could reduce any ambiguity in the result of the consultation procedures caused by following motions. I think we need to re-imagine our processes in a less top-down way. Imagine, for example, that after the debacle last year, there had been a meeting of the whole synod for a couple of days to consider what the whole body could come up with to get itself out of the poo. Instead there was a "skin Philip Giddings" meeting, and the substantive problem was given to the House of Bishops, whose fiddling with it had failed to produce a solution in 12 years, in the hope of some heroic resolution that could then be pushed back down the line — give the broken train to Daddy and see if he can fix it?

  2. Certainly an interesting idea, and whatever your views (on process or substance) the sending-to-the-dioceses on this seems indeed to have been a frustrating waste of everybody’s time. In a sense any streamlining of that (on equitable terms) would be welcomed by almost everybody.

    It doesn’t seem to me, however, that that is anything like the cause of the annoyance around this process. There are a whole lot of unresolved tensions in what people think the synodical system ought to be for, and therefore what it ought to be like.

    Are we a democratic institution (in the sense of implementing members’ will) or a discerning one? If democratic, who do we count as ‘members’? Or if discerning, how do we demonstrate this? Can we do absolutely anything, or are we guardians of doctrine inherent to the Church of England? (Inherent doctrine might be conservative or liberal: the pursuit of justice for excluded groups might be inherent.) Should Synod members be led (by the bishops?) or independent? Should they reflect the views of their dioceses, or their own judgement? And we come full circle...

    Of course the rules and regs answer some of these questions, in a technical sense (laying down what we can do), but they don’t speak to the heart. On the subject of Women Bishops, the failure of this legislation won’t stop advocates pushing for it, nor would the passing of it have reconciled most opponents to it. And why should it? Man was not made for the Synod...

    Bishop Alan (with whose thoughts above I broadly agree) raises the interesting question of the indirect election of the synod (especially the HoL). That’s a big topic, but one particular oddity is that the indirect electors are members of Deanery Synods, perhaps the least-used parts of our system. Deanery Synod are not local and demotic enough to be genuinely accessible forums to the man-in-the-pew; nor are they central, exciting or significant enough to attract the membership (or the attendance) of the brightest and best. A problem, IMHO. For that reason, if for no other, I’d be more than open to a more direct election.

  3. This seems sensible to me - to the extent of my scratching my head after reading it and wondering why nobody had suggested something so obvious before... And yes, I would happily have a go at getting it in front of Synod.

  4. I wouldn't like to take away the 2/3 majority at the final hurdle - that seems to me the most important point, where the crunch really comes. For one thing, members of General Synod should be able to weigh the results of Diocesan voting. And Dioceses may ask for amendments in following motions, so there needs to be a proper chance to consider these.

    However, it was always clear that 2/3 would be hard to get on this legislation - and doubtless other contentious measures might be the same - so something more than a simple majority to pass anything to the Dioceses would be very sensible in terms of not wasting time, and energy (spiritual energy most importantly).

    I'd also favour a 2/3 majority of Diocesan Synods, so I'd be looking for three occasions where a 2/3 needs to be achieved, not two. In fact, I'd favour the voting in Diocesan Synods needing to be by 2/3 majorities of each house. In the women bishops case, the result of this would have been that 11 of 44 Dioceses would have rejected it - still enough to pass 2/3, but much closer to the end result in General Synod, and therefore making the end result a bit less incomprehensible.

    By having lots of 2/3 majorities required, contentious issues really do need to achieve a high level of consensus. And everyone, on every side, knows just what support they have.

    While we're at it, why not just abolish simple majority voting in all cases? How many times would that have made things more problematic? Let's be a Church that really values consensus, and get rid of the notion that we're a democracy in the same way as secular organisations.

  5. Isn't the CofE built on compromise rather than consensus? And isn't that the issue with all of this?

    1. Historically speaking, 'compromise' isn't quite the right word. 'Conformity' is more accurate (though not currently a popular word!). The basis of the CofE was that you could largely believe what you liked, but you had to be prepared to conform outwardly in matters such as forms of worship, church organisation, etc, to the decisions made by (ultimately) parliament. Many of our current debates are about this....

    2. "The basis of the CofE was that you could largely believe what you like". This is surely still the case.

  6. Your proposal is to improve decision making. However there comes a point when tinkering with process - e.g. amending Standing Orders - is no longer sufficient.

    General Synod is built on the foundations of the 1919 enabling Act which created Church Assembly, and these were rooted in late Victorian thinking.

    The Victorian legacy still predisposes much of the CofE's expectations and practice but I sense it is crumbling. It is ever harder to explain and justify to outsiders (and members) why we do what we do.

    Some of the fundamental building blocks of Victorian thought no longer exist, not least the 'Gentleman' (with its class, gender, educational, moral and imperialist overtones) as the ideal for clergy.

    A second ideological element now (largely, increasingly?) lost is that the church should realise and effect a tightly stratified social order because it reflects and embodies Divine order. This notion has been expressed in a sustained antipathy to democracy in church life. When GS was debated in the 1960s there was a repeated refrain of 'the Church is not a democracy'. It is still heard but much harder to sustain: increasingly the expectation is that lay people are 'members' and should be treated as such. (And not, therefore, be predominantly excluded from decision making by an indirect voting system, pace Bishop Alan.)

    Structures should be designed to expend every effort to bring all members on board with change, but not to allow a recalcitrant minority to block change (Stephen Neill on ecumenism, paraphrase). In this context a 2/3 majority seems a reasonable level to set a super-majority. The problem lies not with the timing of the vote but with building an ethos of church in which those who are on the losing side accept the result (without excluding anyone from constitutionally trying to overturn the majority vote on later occasions).

    The constitution of the church is not a matter of legal technicalities. It is a compromise structure of relationships designed to enable, manage and contain disagreement and antipathy. It is inevitably written with past conflicts in mind (and normally can only be written when those conflicts have passed their peak intensity).

    Everything is politics. Once a constitution is settled, the inevitable frictions and disputes about it can be handed over to the lawyers to sort out. But re-writing a constitution concerns the details of all relationships within the church and that is a fundamentally political process. The task of lawyers then is to translate a political settlement into a formal and sustainable shape.

    I think a substantial revision of the constitution of the CofE is inevitable. And I think it won't happen in a hurry. There is no obvious trigger or outcry for it so far. (GS emerged from the frustrations of reforming the Canons of 1603 through the 1950s and the chance to patriate powers over worship and doctrine from Parliament in the 1960s.)

    No leader wants to cope with the uncertainty and turmoil such a process entails. Nonethless, sooner or later, some-one will have to grasp the nettle.