General Synod: A Primer

Members of the 41st General Synod, in Richmond Hill, Ont., wait their turn to speak July 11, 2016. Photo: Art Babych
Published July 4, 2019

More than 350 Anglicans from across Canada—delegates, partners, invited guests, displayers, volunteers and observers—will gather July 10-16 in Vancouver for the 42nd General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. While there, delegates will consider resolutions affecting the whole church.

General Synod is the highest governing body in the church. Although the Anglican Church of Canada is a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, it has final authority over its own affairs. It can pass, alter and strike down its own laws—or, in church parlance, canons.

The General Synod meets every three years, unless otherwise determined by Council of General Synod (CoGS), provided such meetings are not more than five years apart.

Who Is General Synod?

General Synod is composed of clergy and lay delegates—who are elected at the diocesan synods of every diocese in the Anglican Church of Canada—and the church’s bishops.

These delegates are divided into three orders: the Order of Laity, the Order of Clergy and the Order of Bishops. The Order of Bishops includes the primate; provincial metropolitans; diocesan bishops; coadjutor and suffragan bishops; assistant bishops who have been designated by the synod/executive of their dioceses and who exercise episcopal duties within those dioceses; the Bishop Ordinary to the Canadian Forces; and the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop.

While members are elected at diocesan synods, they are not considered to be their representatives; they are free to vote however they choose.

General Synod also includes several voting officers: president and chairperson (the primate); prolocutor; deputy prolocutor; general secretary; and chancellor. The treasurer is able to participate in discussions but may not vote.

How does General Synod create and change its canons?

The General Synod is a legislative body, which means it has the power to draft, change and enact laws through a process of voting.

For a canon to be changed, a resolution must be submitted to the general secretary of the church. CoGS, a committee of General Synod, a diocese or an individual delegate can initiate a motion.

When a resolution comes before synod, it must be moved and seconded before debate can begin. The mover is given five minutes to introduce the motion, after which each member has a chance to speak on the matter for up to three minutes. Resolutions that come before the synod may be voted upon, but they can also be amended, postponed (to a specific time or indefinitely), referred for study, tabled (ending discussion without decision) or voted upon clause by clause.

Some matters of business only require a simple majority, while a vote to approve or change a canon requires a two-thirds majority in each order (lay, clergy and bishops). If the canon deals with doctrine, worship or discipline, it must be voted on in two consecutive synods before the change can take effect. However, even in the case of simple majority votes, if six members ask for a vote by orders, the synod must vote by orders.

If a motion is defeated, another motion dealing with the same issue can only be brought to the floor of synod if two-thirds of the members vote to allow it. If the motion has to do with a canon, however, it must await the next General Synod.

What about the voting error in 2016?

In 2016, General Synod received international media attention when an error occurred during voting on a first reading of changes to the marriage canon. At first, it appeared General Synod rejected the measure—but closer examination revealed it had passed.

“The error in recording the vote on Resolution A051-r2 came as a result of an error of classification,” says Archdeacon Michael Thompson, general secretary of General Synod. “I was listed among the lay members, rather than among the clergy.”

The result: Thompson’s positive vote was recorded among the laity, where the resolution passed by a substantial margin above the two-thirds required.  “As it turns out, its re-classification as a result of a re-examination of the print-out of the vote meant that the two-thirds margin was realized in the clergy vote, and the resolution was passed at first reading.”

The general secretary says the problem became apparent when members of the clergy reported that their votes, cast in favour of the resolution, were not reported. “This came to light when the synod voted to request immediate disclosure of the record of the vote. In reviewing that record, the mis-classification of my vote was discovered, and the further question of unrecorded positive votes became moot.”

Steps have been taken to avoid this kind of error in Vancouver, Thompson says. “In 2019, the company we have engaged has assured us that they will create a process by which members can confirm that their vote has been recorded,” he says. “In addition, electronic voting will be audited by an external reviewer. The credentials committee has been asked to exercise vigilance with respect to the listing of members by order.”

With thanks to André Forget for his work in 2016, “A General Synod explainer,” the foundation upon which this article was built.

Correction notice: Contrary to a previous version of this article, the vice-chancellor is not a member of General Synod.


  • Matthew Townsend

    Matthew Townsend was editorial supervisor of the Anglican Journal from 2019 to 2020, and served as editor from 2020 to 2021.

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