The General Synod was formerly known as the National Assembly of the Church of England, or ‘Church Assembly’ for short. The Church Assembly first received statutory recognition under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the so-called ‘Enabling Act’.
It got its present name from the Synodical Government Measure 1969, s.2. Its constitution is found at schedule 2 of that Measure. The 1969 Measure also constituted diocesan synods (formerly diocesan conferences) and deanery synods (formerly ruridecanal conferences).
What does the General Synod do?
Schedule 2 contains extensive, detailed regulation of the membership and procedure of the General Synod. By contrast, there is very little regulation of its function, what it actually does.
The 1919 Act suggested that the Church Assembly / General Synod has 2 functions, to
(1) ‘discuss any proposal concerning the Church of England, and to make provision in respect thereof, and … where such provision requires Parliamentary sanction, the authority of Parliament shall be sought …’
(2) ‘debate and formulate its judgment … upon any matter concerning the Church of England, or otherwise of religious or public interest’ (Appendix 14).
The phrase ‘make provision’ in function (1) is exceedingly vague. It could refer merely to advice or exhortation, or supporting activities of a missionary or charitable nature. Function (1) does refer to a legislative function (preparing Measures for Parliament), but the wording ‘where such provision requires …’ may suggest that this function is intended to be exceptional, to be resorted to only where a particular ‘provision’ cannot otherwise be achieved.
The 1969 Measure reiterates the twofold function. The phrase ‘make provision’ is retained, indicating that the vagueness is intentional. However, the 1969 Measure suggests that legislation is normal, rather than exceptional, to function (1).
Thus the General Synod is
‘to consider matters concerning the Church of England and to make provision in respect thereof’ by
(1) Measure, under the 1919 Act
(3) order, regulation or other subordinate instrument authorised by a ‘parent’ Measure or canon
(4) Act of Synod, regulation, or other instrument or proceeding, where Measure or canon is not required’ (sch 2.6).
The purely deliberative function (2) is now worded ‘to consider and express … opinion on any other matters of religious or public interest’. This function is as broad as the ‘make provision’ function is vague. (Perhaps the idea was that wide-ranging discussion would ensure a better quality of ‘provision’.)
Legislation or regulation by canon is an ancient legislative function inherited from the convocations (cf 1969 Measure, s.1(1)). The revised canons do contain a reasonably coherent code of law concerning worship and doctrine (which are, after all, the raison d’etre of the Church). They also contain useful summaries of the common law concerning ecclesiastical jurisdiction and ministry. But most ecclesiastical legislation now takes the form of Measures, and secondary rules and regulations made under the authority of Measures.
The diocesan and deanery synods both share the General Synod’s twofold function ‘to make provision’ and ‘to consider and express their opinion etc’ (ss.4(2) and 5(3)), though their constitutions do not confer any legislative power. Instead of legislating, the diocesan synod is ‘to advise the bishop on any matters on which he may consult the synod’ (s.4(3)(b)).
However, the diocesan synod does possess a number of specific regulatory powers conferred by various Measures. For example, the constitution and procedure of the diocesan parsonages board is prescribed by a scheme made by the diocesan synod (Repair of Benefice Buildings Measure 1972, s.1). The synod also has power to give directions to the finance board (Diocesan Boards of Finance Measure 1925, s.3(1)), and to most other diocesan committees.
The Church of England’s Parliament?
This glib description of the General Synod is familiar, but comparisons with Parliament can be misleading. Its legislative and deliberative functions resemble those of Parliament. However, there is nothing in either the 1919 Act or the 1969 Measure to support a constitutional doctrine of the General Synod’s supremacy over the Church, analogous to Parliament’s supremacy over the state.
The vagueness of the General Synod’s ‘make provision’ function hardly supports a claim of its supremacy. The fact that the function is shared with diocesan synods, and even with the lowly deanery synods, also undermines such a claim.
The 1919 Act positively denied the Church Assembly’s supremacy. It provided that ‘Nothing in this Constitution shall … diminish or derogate from any of the powers belonging to the convocations … nor shall the Assembly exercise any power or perform any function distinctively belonging to the bishops in right of their episcopal office’ (Appendix, para 15).
The 1969 constitution of the General Synod suggests that its function is not supreme authority but rather its opposite – balance. This is the reason why there is so much regulation of its membership and procedure, and so little of its function.
Thus the Synodical Government Measure seeks to maintain a balance of claims and interests between
(1) bishops and other clergy
(2) clergy and laity, and
(3) the 2 Provinces of Canterbury and York.
The 1919 Act is concerned with the balance between Church and state, hence the legislative procedure provided by the Act.
Other legislation extends the balancing exercise to the various national and diocesan committees (also variously described as boards, commissions, councils) constituted since 1919, and to the Church Commissioners. The membership of these bodies, like that of the synods, is subject to quotas of episcopal, clerical and lay representatives.
This gentle system of government, based on deference, deliberation and balance, suffered an unpleasant economic jolt in the early 1990s. Ecclesiastical investments sustained heavy losses in the intense property recession of that unhappy time. Clergy stipends were painfully cut across the board. In consequence, discussion of synodical government moved away from high-minded theological reflection on the laity, and started to focus instead on more mundane considerations of administrative efficiency and accountability.
The National Institutions Measure 1998 addressed the economic concerns by constituting a new national body, the Archbishops’ Council, ‘whose objects shall be to co-ordinate, promote, aid and further the work and mission of the Church of England’ (s.1(1)). The Council is the last major addition to the structure of synodical government. The 1998 Measure also made changes to the constitution and functions of the Church Commissioners.
The Synodical Government (Amendment) Measure 2003 reduced the membership of the General Synod, in an apparent attempt to make it function more effectively (though nothing was done to limit the excessively broad scope of the Synod’s deliberative function (2), and so encourage members to concentrate on governance matters).
Economic difficulties connected to the recent coronavirus pandemic have encouraged renewed interest in efficiency and accountability in synodical government.
The recent report of a ‘Governance Review Group’ (GS2239, 2021) lamented that
’20 years on from [the National Institutions Measure] the Church of England still does not have a unified national governance structure, or a single focus of decision-making and strategic planning‘ (para 75) and
‘there remains a multitude of bodies all seeking to do the Church’s work but with a diverse set of accountabilities, structures and methods’ (para 78).
The solution to this problem is a vigorous policy of centralisation. Noting that the House of Bishops of the General Synod already has a standing committee of 15 members, ‘a suitable size to be a governance body’ (para 111), the report recommends a national ‘board of bishops’ (para 113), and the establishment of a new ‘Church of England National Services Governance Body’, known as CENS for short (para 133).
This may be a good idea (though it is unclear why a new national governance body has to be created, rather than making use of the existing one – the Archbishops’ Council). However, it is argued that any policy concerning national administration should address 2 questions
(1) Should the Church have a national administrative function at all?
(2) If yes, what should be the relationship between the national administration and the diocesan administration?
The report correctly observes that synodical government is a system of ‘widely dispersed authority’ (para 79). Its function is expressed in the vaguest terms. However, it is clear that synodical government is constructed around the institutions of pre-synodical government – Parliament, the convocations, the dioceses and the Commissioners. In particular, the General Synod is constructed around the convocations, the diocesan synod around the diocesan bishop.
The convocations had a legislative function, which now vests in the General Synod, but they had no administrative / executive function. The General Synod’s constitution likewise makes clear that the General Synod has a legislative function (Measures etc), but makes no specific allusion to an administrative / executive function. This is consistent with pre-synodical government.
In pre-synodical times, the diocese, not the nation or the province, was the ordinary unit of ecclesiastical administration. Indeed the diocesan bishop is described as ‘the ordinary‘ (canon C18(2)). The archdeacons, who assist the bishop, are likewise described as ordinaries (canon C22(8)). Thus legislative power in the Church was national and provincial. Administrative / executive power was diocesan.
There was virtually no supra-diocesan ecclesiastical administrative function before the 19th century. The Archbishops have a common law metropolitical jurisdiction ‘to correct and supply the defects of other bishops’ (canon C17(2)), but this has long been limited in practice to ad hoc intervention in response to a serious problem. Only when an intervention has been made does the Archbishop exercise ‘jurisdiction as ordinary’.
Apart from that, the Archbishops confirm the election of new bishops, and ordain (consecrate) them if they are not already in episcopal orders. Provincial courts hear appeals from the dioceses, but this is a judicial function rather than an administrative one. The Archbishop of Canterbury grants special marriage licences where banns and common licences will not suffice.
This account indicates another difference between the General Synod and Parliament. Parliament is supposed to hold the government (i.e the executive branch of government) to account. In England (though not in other parts of the United Kingdom), Parliament still functions in a unitary state with a central cabinet government. By contrast, there is no cabinet government in the Church. The Archbishops preside over the General Synod, as they presided over the convocations, and the bishops may be ‘frontbenchers’ in the Synod, but that is not the same thing. The bishops have no collective executive responsibility, only an individual responsibility for their own dioceses.
The Ecclesiastical Commissioners (now the Church Commissioners) were first constituted in the early 19th century, and given the national administrative function of effecting pastoral reorganisation, including the redistribution of ecclesiastical property. However, the Commissioners were constituted because the diocesan authorities had no ability to effect this reorganisation and redistribution themselves.
That National Institutions Measure and the Archbishops’ Council may have been an attempt to construct something like a system of ecclesiastical cabinet government. The recent governance report seems to propose something similar. (Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.)
However, national administration cannot be considered in isolation from diocesan administration. Any expansion of national administration without a corresponding reduction in diocesan administration obviously risks duplication and increased expense.
If dioceses are permitted to make joint administrative arrangements inter se, agreeing on policies and pooling resources, this should reduce, not increase, the need for a strong central administration.
It is argued that, while centralisation of the national administrative function may be desirable, ecclesiastical administration as a whole should conform to the contours of both synodical government and pre-synodical government, with the diocese as the ordinary unit of administration. This means that administration at the national and provincial levels should be limited to
(1) functions which cannot be exercised at diocesan level (diocesan reorganisation is an obvious example – altering diocesan boundaries, merging dioceses or creating new dioceses)
(2) reviewing, or hearing appeals from, diocesan decisions (a quasi-judicial function) and
(3) intervention, to remedy a serious administrative failure within a particular diocese.
(This blogpost presupposes some knowledge of the history, constitution and procedures of synodical government. These subjects are discussed in other posts filed under this category. See also posts filed under the category ‘Parliament and the Church’.)