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General Synod (Reform)

Volume 554: debated on Thursday 6 December 2012

2. What plans the Church of England has to make the House of Laity more representative of members of the Church. (131757)

4. What discussions the Church Commissioners have held on the issue of women bishops since the General Synod's vote of 20 November 2012; and what plans the Church has to make the House of Laity more representative of local opinion in dioceses and parishes. (131759)

8. What steps the Church Commissioners could take to allow the majority view of the General Synod to be enacted with regard to the appointment of women bishops. (131764)

The membership of deanery synods has constituted the electorate for the House of Laity since the General Synod was created in 1970. The review of synodical government chaired by Lord Bridge of Harwich recommended in 1977 that deanery synods should be abolished and that the lay members of diocesan synods and General Synods should be chosen by parish representatives, each parish to have one for every 50 people on the electoral roll. The General Synod decided, however, to retain deanery synods. In July 2011 the Synod decided to ask for alternatives to the present electoral system to be further explored. The review group’s report is due to come to the General Synod this coming year.

Does not the complete failure of the House of Laity in the General Synod to reflect the overwhelming support in the diocesan synods for women bishops show that there is something deeply wrong with the system? We cannot wait for a new synod in 2015 for this to be resolved. I have to tell my hon. Friend that it must be resolved in months, not years, and if that means a single clause Measure and facing down the conservative evangelicals, as we in the Labour party faced down the militants in the 1980s, so be it.

On the women bishop’s Measure, the Church of England has to get on with it. I am sure that the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate will be able to reassure colleagues next week that it is getting on with it. So far as the format of General Synod is concerned, as I have said to the House on a number of occasions, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to explain how 42 out of 44 dioceses voted for women bishops, yet the motion failed in General Synod. I think that the next Archbishop of Canterbury will want to focus on growth in the Church, and if one wants to focus on growth, one needs to make sure that everyone feels involved. I hope, personally, that in due course we will be able to move to a system in which every member of the Church who is on an electoral roll has a vote for those who go to General Synod. That seems to be a straightforward system.

If an emergency arises that the country has to deal with, the House of Commons and the other place have the power to expedite legislation and deal with it quickly. Is there no power within the structures of the Church of England to expedite matters when there is an emergency? I think the issue is an emergency for the Church of England.

I hope the hon. Lady will be able to be present next Thursday for the meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate. He, I am sure, will explain to her that the Church of England will expedite the issue as speedily as possible. At the start of his ministry I think that he will be very conscious that it will not be possible for the Church of England to get on to other matters such as growth and mission until we have resolved the issue of consecrating women to the episcopate.

In the more than 40 years since the General Synod became the governing body of the Church of England, whether one looks at the number of churches, the number of clergy or the number in the congregation, by any measure it has presided over a period of decline. Does my hon. Friend agree that however difficult the process might be, there is now a very urgent need for reform?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am sure that Justin Welby, as the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate, will make it clear that he sees it as his ministry as Archbishop of Canterbury to rebuild the Church. We have a once in a generation opportunity to start to grow the Church again. One in three parishes is growing. We need to work out how they are growing, and try to ensure that other parishes can grow similarly, if we are to have a Church of England which is truly a national Church speaking for the whole nation.

I agree with everything the previous three questioners said and think that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) gave comprehensive answers, so I have nothing to add.

I, however, have something to add. The Second Church Estates Commissioner’s last point was absolutely right: this is not a sect we are dealing with. I say that to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), whose assessment of our role in relation to the Church is completely and utterly wrong. The Church of England is established by law. We can turn down any changes to liturgy that it wants to make, for example. Is it not time we changed by law the system whereby people are elected to the Synod so that it is more representative and looks more like a national Church?

I am quite sure that the review that is taking place into the way people are elected to General Synod will try to ensure the greatest opportunity for people in the Church to have a vote and feel that they are represented. Parliament, for example, decided long ago that all of us—everyone in every parish—have a vote in elections for church wardens. One would think that at the very least in elections to General Synod everyone on a church electoral roll should have a vote.

I stand as someone who failed twice to get elected to Synod—for Southwark—for being too right wing, and I could not do it in London for being too left wing. Should we not recognise that most of the members of Laity at Synod voted for women bishops, and should we not let women be ordained as bishops and trust the bishops to make arrangements in their diocese that are suitable?

That was a loss for both the diocese of Southwark and General Synod, because my hon. Friend would have made a great addition. He makes a really important point: the Church of England is an episcopal-led Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate and a number of bishops made powerful speeches in General Synod on why it was appropriate and right for there to be women bishops, and I hope that the broader Church will now listen to what the bishops are saying.