Synodical government ‘has served church well’

Published April 3, 2017

National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald (How do we act like a church?notes the similarities between synodical government and parliamentary government and muses about whether this model of governance is appropriate for the church.

Many people will be surprised as to the reasons for the similarities between the two systems of government. Although both should rightly be traced back to Athenian democracy half a millennium before Christ, the shape given to synodical government arose in the 13th century in the Dominican order. The spirituality and form of synodical government thus owe a great deal to St. Dominic and his successors. But equally so does the shape of parliamentary democracy, which evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries, for it is built on the governance of the Dominicans as much as our synods are.

Bishop Mark suggests three fundamental features of church governance, drawn from five communal assumptions of Indigenous decision-making. First is that reading and praying through the gospel is an essential component of decision-making. This is already built into the way we conduct synods. Rule 4 of the General Synod Rules of Order and Procedure requires that the Eucharist be celebrated on the first day of General Synod. Although not formally required by the Rules of Order, in practice we also celebrate the Eucharist on Sunday and at the close of the General Synod. In addition, each day begins with Morning Prayer and Bible study, and incorporates noonday prayers, Evening Prayer and Compline in the agenda. Daily Eucharist is also available, as are spaces for prayer by individuals and smaller groups. And from time to time during sessions, the primate has been known to pause for prayer. Synod, in short, is infused constant with prayer and reflection on Scripture.

The second fundamental feature of church governance that Bishop Mark proposes is “that consensus is…an appropriate way to act within a Christian context.” He notes that the Council of General Synod has been using a consensus model for some of its decision-making. At the level of the General Synod, the practice of having a “no-debate list” of motions might be viewed as a form of consensus decision-making. As the name implies, these motions are presented and voted upon without debate. Consensus on these motions is tested in two ways. First, any member may require that a motion be removed from the no-debate list to allow it to be debated in the normal way. Second, each motion is voted on and either carried or defeated. (In practice, in seven General Synod sessions I have never seen a no-debate motion defeated.) This procedure is usually viewed as an efficient way of dealing with business that is routine or non-controversial, thus leaving more time for debate on other matters, but it is still a form of consensus nonetheless.

A similar approach, used in The Episcopal Church General Convention as well as in some dioceses in Canada, is a consent resolution (or “consent calendar” in Episcopal Church parlance), which amounts to an omnibus bill to adopt a number of motions at once. Consensus is reflected in the name of this procedure, and is tested again by the ability to remove any individual item from the consent agenda for debate, much as with the no-debate list.

Bishop Mark’s third proposed fundamental feature is that “wherever two or three gather together in the name of Jesus, Jesus is present and guides decision-making.” This follows implicitly from the grounding in prayer, worship and Bible study noted above as a fundamental part of the General Synod’s agenda. It can also be seen in the basis for the theology of synod as seen in Acts, Chapter 15, where the apostles report the decisions of the first synod, stating, “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28).

My observation over the course of seven sessions of the General Synod, five provincial synods and at least 20 diocesan synods, is that the fundamental difficulty with synodical government is not that the model is inadequate or inappropriate, but that the system is often inadequately understood by those who gather to conduct the business of synod. To be sure, there are always persons present at all these levels who have an excellent understanding of synodical governance, and we benefit from the advice and guidance of chancellors and assessors. But as with anything else in life, participating effectively in synod is a skill to learn, and it seems to me that we would do well to explore ways to help synod members learn the necessary skills.

No system is perfect, and there are certainly ways that we can improve our synodical government, but this system of making decisions has served the church well for eight centuries—so well, as noted above, that it was adapted for secular governance in the formation of Parliament.


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