The Two Structures of the Church of England: Pyramids with Grass Roots

by Philip Jones

‘a pyramid structure of dispersed authority with the General Synod at its top and parochial church councils at the ‘grass roots’.’

(Mark Hill QC, Ecclesiastical Law, Oxford University Press, 3rd edition 2007, at p.38)

This memorable description of the legal-constitutional structure of the Church of England comes from the leading commentary on the subject, and offers an intriguing insight into the mind of its learned author.  However, it is argued that the Church of England, or ecclesiastical state, is better understood as comprising two structures:

(1)  the late mediaeval structure and

(2) the late Victorian structure.

The late mediaeval structure comprises the hierarchy of Archbishops, bishops, archdeacons, cathedral chapters, rectors (including lay rectors) and vicars, and Church courts, organised into provinces, dioceses and parishes.  This was the structure inherited from the late mediaeval Catholic Church and which survived the Reformation.

This structure was reorganised and rationalised by legislation from the 19th century onwards.  Recent reforms of the mediaeval structure include

(1) the introduction of team and group ministries, whereby rectors and vicars work together in the same parishes, instead of in separate parishes

(2) the reorganisation of the Church courts by the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 and the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003

(3) the reform of cathedral governance by the Cathedrals Measure 1999.

These adjustments have not altered the late mediaeval character of the structure.  The effect of modern legislation has been to reinforce the structure, not to dismantle it.

The late Victorian structure originated in the voluntary work of clergy and pious laypeople.  It started as a reaction against the secularisation of state and society in the 19th century.  The structure comprises the various institutions of what is now called ‘synodical government’, such as parochial church councils (PCCs), diocesan boards, conferences and trusts, houses of laity, and various other committees and corporations.

These institutions were not constituted by ecclesiastical law until the 20th century, but they began on a voluntary basis in the 19th.  Indeed some of them are still outwith the scope of ecclesiastical law.  Thus the Lambeth conferences and the theological colleges of the Anglican Church date from the 19th century, but they have never been legally incorporated into the structure of synodical government.

The most recent major development of the late Victorian structure was probably the creation of the Archbishops’ Council by the National Institutions Measure 1998.  The Dioceses Measure 1978 (now repealed) permitted the creation of ‘area synods’ within dioceses (s.17(2)).  However, synodical government by ‘area’ seems to have been discontinued by the Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure 2007.

The convocations form the link between the mediaeval and Victorian structures.  Although virtually suppressed in the early 18th century, they were revived in the mid-19th century to form the nucleus of modern synodical government.

The development of modern synodical government is described in a Church of England report Government by Synod (1966).  In 1886 and 1892 the two Convocations admitted lay representatives to their proceedings for the first time since the middle ages.  At first, these new Houses of Laity had only a consultative, advisory role.  Lay representatives could comment on proposed legislation, but approval of the legislation depended on the bishops and lesser clergy alone.

In 1903 a new ecclesiastical assembly called the Representative Church Council was formed, comprising both Convocations, including their lay representatives.  This body evolved into the Church Assembly.

The Church Assembly was granted certain legislative powers under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, also known as the Enabling Act.  Half a century later, and following the 1966 report, the Church Assembly was reconstituted as the General Synod, under the Synodical Government Measure 1969, s.1.  The 1969 Measure also constituted the diocesan and deanery conferences as synods (ss.4 and 5).

It was originally felt that a synod was, or should be, an exclusively clerical body.  Thus the institutions of synodical government were originally described in secular, functional terms as ‘assemblies’ or ‘conferences’, because they included lay members.  The word ‘synod’ did not appear in legislation until the 1969 Measure.  The Church in Wales still declines to describe its representative assemblies as synods.  The Welsh equivalent of the General Synod is called only the ‘Governing Body’.

A mid-20th century commentator noted that the 1919 regime  ‘imposed a modern democratic system on a mediaeval theocratic one, and the two do not easily dovetail together’. (Bishop of London, ‘Our Legislative Assemblies’ (1954) Theology, p.204).

He further observed that the reverence for the ‘sacred’ office of the clergy meant that ‘the Enabling Act [of 1919] … left the rights of convocation unimpaired.  The four houses [of convocation, for Canterbury and York] were still responsible for matters of faith and worship because such questions were regarded as the special province of the clergy’.  The Church Assembly was kept separate from the convocations.  This caused practical difficulties: ‘it has never been quite clear where the rights and duties of convocation end, and those of the Assembly begin’.

Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who presided over the 1969 reforms, argued that the General Synod was practically needed as a forum ‘in which bishops, clergy and laity will sit together, debate together and decide together’ (House of Lords Official Report, volume 302, column 843).

However, a minority of the authors of the 1966 report remained unconvinced.  They argued that the ancient convocations

‘must remain provincial synods whose members are summoned … in the old sense of being set apart, under the vows of obedience … and subject to canonical discipline, to discharge their doctrinal and pastoral responsibilities’ (p.106).

This dissenting opinion evoked a concept of the synod as the self-regulatory professional authority of the ordained ministry, rather than as the Church of England’s ‘parliament’.

Although this view did not prevail, the present regime of synodical government includes certain safeguards of the ‘sacred’ ministry of bishops and clergy.

Hence diocesan and deanery synods, and PCCs, are not supposed to issue ‘any statement purporting to declare the doctrine of the Church on any question’ (Sections 4 and 5 of the 1969 Measure: s.2(2) of the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1956).  A similar restriction was imposed on the Church Assembly under the 1919 Act (Appendix, rule 14(2)).

However, the restriction applies only to the declaration of doctrine.  It does not forbid discussion of doctrine.  It may difficult in practice to distinguish a discussion of doctrine from a declaration of doctrine.  The internet websites of dioceses and parishes suggest that the restrictions on declaring doctrine are widely ignored in practice.

The General Synod is not prohibited from declaring doctrine, but Article 7(1) of its constitution provides that legislative provisions or Acts of Synod which ‘touch’ worship and doctrine can only be approved by the General Synod ‘in terms proposed by the House of Bishops and not otherwise’ (1969 Measure, schedule 2.7(1)).  Again, the Church Assembly was subject to a similar provision (1919 Act, Appendix, rule 14(1)).

The members of the House of Laity of the General Synod are now mostly elected by the elected lay members of the deanery synods (Church Representation Rules, 35(3)), though there are ex officio and co-opted members as well.  There is no separate representation for licensed lay ministers.

However, licensed lay workers are ex officio members of their local deanery synod and so, unlike other lay people, have a direct vote in elections to the House of Laity (rule 24(6)).  Strangely, the rule refers only to lay workers, not lay readers, even though the Canons suggest that lay readers and lay workers are distinct (Canons E6 and E7).

Apart from this special provision for lay workers, the lack of direct representation for the parish electors means that the House of Laity suffers from something of a ‘democratic deficit’.  Ironically the ancient clerical convocations were probably more representative of their constituencies than is the modern General Synod.

Archbishop Ramsey acknowledged this difficulty.  Speaking in the House of Lords in 1974, he referred to the objection that ‘the [General] Synod fails to represent the laity because it is elected by 36,000 people, while there are nearly 2 million people on the parish [electoral] rolls’ (Official Report volume 354, column 867).  He suggested that direct election to the House of Laity by the parishes was simply too expensive to introduce.

The difficulty nonetheless remains, that the House of Laity is composed of persons with no individual responsibility for the ministry of the Church, its cure of souls, and with only a very doubtful claim to represent the lay members of the Church.  It has been observed that the House of Laity represents opinions rather than people.

The two convocations are organised by provinces, whereas the General Synod, like the Church Assembly before it, is a national body.  The 1966 report referred to the ‘fears of the Convocation of York as to the possible loss of status of the Northern Province should the powers of its convocation be curtailed’ (p.12).  The report also suggested that ‘in matters of theology and liturgy the views of North and South do not always coincide’ (p.97).

This concern may be reflected in Article 7 of the General Synod’s constitution which provides that a legislative provision or Act of Synod which ‘touches’ worship and doctrine may, after being settled by the House of Bishops, require the further approval of each House of each convocation sitting separately, and of the House of Laity sitting separately, if either convocation or the House of Laity requires this.

By the late 1990s, the North-South divide was evidently less acute.  The 1997 report Synodical Government in the Church of England suggested that the convocations had no significant function any more and recommended their abolition.  Nothing has yet come of this recommendation.

The 1969 Measure provides that the two Archbishops are joint Presidents of the General Synod (schedule 2, para 4(i)).  The National Institutions Measure 1998 likewise provides that the Archbishops are joint Presidents of the Archbishops’ Council (schedule 1.2).  The 1966 report stressed that ‘the two English primates should complement and balance each other … Canterbury should not be allowed to develop into a patriarchate or papacy’ (p.98).

The collegial character of the two Archbishops’ responsibilities for synodical government is in contrast to the status of ‘president’, ‘primate’ or ‘spiritual leader’ sometimes claimed for the Archbishop of Canterbury in relation to the Anglican Communion.

There may also be some misunderstanding of the place of the House of Bishops in synodical government.  The Interpretation Measure 1925 makes clear that the House of Bishops is ‘the House of Bishops of the General Synod’ (s.3).  It is not the House of Bishops of the Church of England.

According to yet another Church of England report Working as One Body (1993), the House of Bishops ‘has twice yearly residential meetings’ which are held independently of meetings of the General Synod (p.74).  Nevertheless the House of Bishops is not a free-standing institution.  It exists only as one House of the General Synod, or as one House of each Convocation, alongside the Houses of Clergy and Laity.

The 1997 report concludes that ‘Synodical Government is an attempt to seek and find the mind of Christ for His Church, as well as consensus in the ordering of the Church’s life’ (p.10). The 1966 report suggested that ‘no system of synodical government at the centre can be effective without a corresponding and complementary system in each diocese’ (p.8).  The diocesan and deanery synods should complement the work of the General Synod and of each other.

The functions of the General Synod are stated in Article 6 of its constitution (1969 Measure, schedule 2).  One of its functions is ‘to consider and express … opinion on … matters of religious and public interest’.  Sections 4 and 5 of the 1969 Measure provide that the diocesan and deanery synods share this deliberative function.

The diocesan and deanery synods also have a kind of reciprocal deliberative function.  S.4(5) of the 1969 Measure provides that diocesan synods must

‘keep the deanery synods … informed of the policies and problems of the diocese, and of the [agenda] of the diocesan synod’, and ‘keep themselves informed, through the deanery synods, of events and opinion in the parishes, and shall give opportunities for discussing … matters raised by deanery synods and parochial church councils’.

The function of the deanery synod under s.5(3) is ‘to bring together the views of the parishes … on common problems, to discuss and formulate common policies on those problems … to sound parochial opinion … to raise … matters … with the diocesan synod’.

The PCCs share the deliberative function of their diocesan and deanery synods.  According to s.2(2) of the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1956 they may also discuss matters of religious or public interest but, like the synods, are not supposed to ‘declare’ doctrine.  They may give advice to, and raise matters with, the synods.  S.2(3) obliges PCCs to consider expressions of opinion by parochial meetings.

The late mediaeval structure clearly has a vertical character.  It is a hierarchy with Archbishops at the top, parish clergy at the bottom, and bishops and various ‘dignitaries’ in between.  The late Victorian synodical structure has a circular or lateral character.  It surrounds the vertical mediaeval structure and so protects and reinforces it, keeps it standing upright in the shifting sands of a secular state and society.  The mediaeval structure would collapse without the support of the Victorian structure.

With its combination of mediaeval and Victorian elements the constitutional structure of the Church of England may indeed resemble the architectural structure of many of its ancient church buildings.

The reference to ‘dispersed authority’ in Hill’s Ecclesiastical Law requires clarification.  There are two processes at work in synodical government

(1) the legislative process and

(2) the deliberative process.

It is true that the legislative functions of the Church of England vest only in the General Synod (1969 Measure, schedule 2, Article 6) and the Archbishops’ Council (for terms of service regulations under s.2 of the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure 2009), though certain important Measures and canons also require the approval of a majority of the diocesan synods (1969 Measure, schedule 2, article 8).

However, the legislative process originates in the deliberative process.  Our account shows that the deliberative process involves the diocesan and deanery synods and PCCs as much as the General Synod.  The General Synod and the Archbishops’ Council are therefore located at the centre rather than at the top of the synodical structure.