The Origins of Synodical Government

by Philip Jones

Eric Waldron Kemp, Counsel and Consent (SPCK, London, 1961).

Formal ecclesiastical assemblies emerged clearly in England in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.  This was the era of Becket and Magna Carta, when English clergy started to become ‘very sensitive on the matter of secular encroachments upon ecclesiastical jurisdiction’ (p.67).  In the earlier middle ages, the distinction between secular and ecclesiastical assemblies was not at all clear, despite the famous separation of ecclesiastical and secular jurisdiction by William the Conqueror.

The earliest provincial councils tended to comprise only bishops, abbots and dignitaries such as deans and archdeacons.  Lesser clergy were not invited to them.  However, in 1283 the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a citation for the attendance of ‘two proctors [representatives] for the clergy of each diocese and one for the chapter of each cathedral’ (p.77).

Synodical government, like parliamentary government, was originally necessitated by royal tax demands.  The Pope also requested subsidies in the 13th century, and was informed that there would be ‘rebellion among the lower clergy’ if they were not consulted before a subsidy was agreed (p.70).

In 1294 Edward I summoned the clergy to Westminster to vote taxes.  Initially the lesser clergy sat with the lay commoners, but eventually a separate ecclesiastical assembly was formed for the purpose of voting taxes.  This was the convocation.

The convocation was originally quite distinct and separate from the ancient provincial council.  The council dealt with ecclesiastical business, but the convocation dealt only with taxation.  However, the constitution and proceedings of the convocation began to influence those of the council.

From 1356 onwards, the distinction between a provincial council and a convocation began to disappear.  By the early 15th century ‘the assemblies … seem to be described indifferently as convocation or provincial council … Under Archbishop Chichele (Archbishop from 1414-43) convocatio and concilium provinciale seem to be completely interchangeable terms’ (pp.109-10).

Thus the convocation, which had come into existence for the first time as a result of royal tax demands, eventually remoulded the constitution of the provincial council and gave it its name.  As Kemp says, convocation is ‘the ancient provincial council whose membership has been greatly expanded and formalized by its fusion with [the taxing assembly]’ (p.112).

One important consequence of this fusion was the advisory role of lesser clergy in ecclesiastical matters hardened into a right of veto, which they had originally enjoyed in the matter of taxation.

Synodical government in mediaeval England functioned predominantly in the Southern Province.  The Province of York then had only three dioceses (fewer than Wales, which had four).  The York records are very sparse, but there does not seem ever to have been any separate tax-raising convocation.  The provincial council voted tax subsidies.  As in Canterbury, the terms ‘council’ and ‘convocation’ were used interchangeably to refer to the provincial council.

In 1462, the York Convocation effectively adopted the ecclesiastical law of Canterbury, albeit with the reservation that no constitutions of Canterbury should take effect if they were repugnant or prejudicial to those of York.  Kemp records that, after 1462, ‘York was definitely taking second place to Canterbury.  It became increasingly rare for the Archbishop to attend meetings of Convocation … it was the custom to see first what … Canterbury decided, and then for York to consent or dissent as the case might be’ (p.118).

From 1435 onwards the Convocation was summoned following the issue of a royal writ addressed to the Archbishop and incorporated in the Archbishop’s citation of attendance.  Thus the Submission of the Clergy Act 1533, like the Appointment of Bishops Act 1533, confirmed and codified the existing late mediaeval practice, rather than introduced a new practice.

In 1603 the Canterbury Convocation prepared 141 canons, which were promulged the following year.  The new canons received the assent of the York Convocation a year or so later (p.141).

In 1664, shortly after the Stuart Restoration, the clergy ceased to tax themselves in Convocation and became taxpayers on the same terms as the laity.  However, the Convocations remained active until 1717 when they were effectively suppressed.  They had ceased to be a source of revenue for the Crown.  Bishops may have tired of listening to the complaints and grievances of the lesser clergy, and were better able to influence the governance of the Church from the House of Lords.  More seriously, the newly regal House of Hanover and the Whigs suspected the lesser clergy of Jacobite sympathies.

Yet the Convocations returned in the mid-19th century, to form the nucleus of the present system of synodical government.  This was prompted by the growing secularisation of the state.  In Phillimore’s words:

‘A feeling which had existed for some time that Parliament, in great measure composed of members wholly unconnected with and even necessarily hostile to the Church of England, could not, to say the least, properly claim the sole legislation on matters relating to her doctrine and discipline’ (Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd edition 1895, p.1541).

This feeling led eventually to the formation of the Church Assembly, and to the Church of England (Assembly) Powers Act 1919.