Monday 3 December 2012

Reflections on a broken democracy ...

The Church of England has always voted for women Bishops.
Ever since the ordination of women to the priesthood 20 years ago, the church has been making its way, slowly but surely, towards the ordination of women as Bishops.

Every round of voting (and there have been many) has left no doubt that it was the will of the Church.  When I was a member of General Synod from 2000 – 2005, we had 2 of rounds of voting – both clearly in favour - but there have been many more.
So how is it that the law which would have created women bishops was thrown out – even when 74% of the General Synod and 42 out of the 44 dioceses in the CofE voted for it?

The answer lies in a voting system which is designed to prevent significant change.
In most areas, a simple majority in General Synod is needed to take something forward.  In a few cases the issue has to be sent to dioceses to vote on before it can come back to General Synod for the final majority vote.

But there are some areas where not only does General Synod have to vote for change - which is a challenge in the first place – but then it has to go to each diocese to be voted on – and then if a majority of dioceses support it, the innovation finally comes back to General Synod where it has to pass an even higher bar – a 2/3rds majority in each of the 3 ‘Houses’ – Bishops, Clergy, and Laity.
And that death by attrition is what scuppered the women Bishops vote.  It is democracy gone mad – a self-defeating democracy where the will of the majority is ignored in deference to the minority.  It is designed to ensure that radical change is prevented at all costs and this un-democratic framework has resulted in the CofE shooting itself in the foot with both barrels.

So what is it about women’s ministry that makes it such a threat?  Why should women’s ministry have to pass all the ridiculously high hurdles before the church can change?  Why are women so dangerous that such anti-democratic measures have to be employed to keep them in their place?
When women were ordained priest, it was only by the slimmest of 2/3rd majorities – just 2 votes in the infamous House of Laity.  Many predicted doom for the church as a result, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Women now outnumber men in ordination services, a third of all licenced clergy are now women and the church has not fallen apart.  Far from it, the church has been blessed by women priests up and down the country.  Those who have left as a result have left – but what of it?  The church has not disintegrated.   A church which doesn’t allow people to leave is not a church – it is a prison.  And a church which does not allow change because it fears the people who threaten to leave becomes a prison of a different kind – a prison of the past.

Having reflected on the debacle which we witnessed in the Synod vote, I have realised that the problem is not the membership of the Church of England – it is not the Bishops or the Clergy.  It is certainly not the Laity who voted ‘yes’ in 42 out of 44 Dioceses and by a clear majority in General Synod.  It is the system of voting we have shackled ourselves with – a system which despises the will of the majority – a system which requires ever higher hurdles to be negotiated until finally the loser becomes the winner in a moment worthy of Alice in Wonderland.
It is not the women Bishop’s legislation which needs fixing - it is the voting system itself.  Until this is addressed, the vocal minority can still play the heart-strings of the compassionate majority to ensure that nothing will ever be good enough to meet their demands.

And it would not need a major readjustment.  Even the high standard of requiring a 2/3rd majority could still be required to ensure overwhelming support.
·         If the requirement had been for a simple majority in each House and a 2/3rd majority overall – we would now have women Bishops.

·         If the requirement had been for 2/3rd of dioceses to vote for women Bishops and then a simple majority in General Synod to ratify the will of dioceses - we would now have women Bishops.

·         If the requirement was for a 2/3rd majority in 2/3rds of the Houses of General Synod and a simple majority in the third House - we would now have women Bishops.
The women Bishops vote in General Synod laid bare the structural flaws in our version of democracy – a version which allows the minority to dictate to the majority as an anchor against change.

It is time for change – it is time to lower the impossible hurdles to the point where the church can move forward and try to rebuild its shattered credibility – and that change must start in the structures of General Synod.


  1. Although I was devastated by the result in General Synod in November 2012 I think it's right to have a 2/3 majority rule for some issues. I think it is important to protect minorities. On the other hand it can't be right if an arrangement that was designed to protect a minority works by the minority dictating to the majority. I would like to see General Synod reformed by introducing some form of universal suffrage for election of House of Laity representatives.

  2. More than a third of the House of Laity voted against the measure and I really can't believe that more than a third of the lay membership of the Church is against women bishop. So is the House representative of the ordinary membership? I think not and I think that's a real problem. Conservative Evangelicals and Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics have worked hard to get their voice over-represented and we need to work equally hard to counter that. The key to that is getting more people from the mainstream to stand for General Synod. If the mainstream doesn't speak up then the voices on the fringes will be the only ones heard.

  3. James67. I think you are absolutely right.

  4. Thank you James and Nancy. I think that respresentation in the Hosue of Laity is a key problem and you are right to identify it. One of the issues is a generational one as I am sure you know.

    Lay members of General Synod need to be able to devote at least 2 weeks a year to GS which rules out the majority of people of working age unless they are happy to use up valuable holiday leave. Add to that the fact that Deanery Synods are the electoral college for the House of Laity (and we all know how youthful and dynamic most Deanery Synods are...) and we have a coaktail which pushes the balance towards an older more conservative membership in the House of Laity.

    Having siad that, I still think that the 2/3rd majority requirement needs to be reconsidered. As I point out, it would still be possible to have the safeguards of a 2/3rd majority but applied in a different way which would prevent the situation we now find oursleves in where 42 out of 44 Diocesan Synods voted for the measure and there was a 2/3rds majority accross Diocesan Synod members (in all houses) but it still did not pass in GS.

    Thinking Anglicans have done a useful calculation which shows this at

    Across all Diocesan Synod members, the voting was:
    Bishops: 75 for, 13 against, 4 abstentions
    Clergy: 1503 for, 461 against, 50 abstentions
    Laity: 1664 for, 489 against, 72 abstentions

    Thus the proportions voting against the motion were:
    Bishops 15%, Clergy 23%, Laity 23%.

    These contrast with General Synod proportions of 6%, 23%, and 36% respectively.

  5. Might I interest you in a campaign to reform the representation of the laity by enabling each member on the electoral roll to vote for their representatives?
    See Lay Anglicana:
    and my own blog: