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Day 1

General Synod Representation Bill proposed at General Synod 2021

The General Synod Representation Bill was presented to members this evening (Thursday September 30) during the second session of the 2021 meeting online. The Bill seeks to set out the principles upon which clerical and lay members of General Synod represent dioceses, and establish a regular review of the size, distribution and membership of the House of Representatives of the General Synod.

Following extensive consideration with dioceses, it provides for a reduction in the membership of the House of Representatives from 648 members to 597 members (in a transitional period covering 2024–2026) and then to 534 members (in the 2027–2032 triennium). It is proposed that the number of representatives from each diocese be equal to the number of cures in the diocese, with an additional number of places allocated on a sliding scale (i.e. from one for the diocese with the largest number of cures, to twelve for the diocese with the smallest number of cures). The representation for dioceses which are amalgamated would be fixed until the subsequent review, the first of which would commence in 2030. 

When the General Synod was established by the General Convention of 1870, diocesan representation in the House of Representatives was based on one clerical member for every 10 priests at that time and two lay members for each clerical member. The total number of representatives produced on this basis, 624, has remained largely unchanged since.

The last change to the diocesan allocation of seats took place in 1969 when 14 dioceses were re– allocated 648 House of Representative seats among them. With the exception of the merging of 14 dioceses into 12, this diocesan representation has remained since 1969. It is therefore 50 years since this last modification to the House of Representatives. Since then the change in totality and spread of the Church of Ireland population has created an imbalance in representation.

The Bill seeks to amend Chapter I of the Constitution in order to establish a proportional and representative formula to allocate seats; to increase the functionality and flexibility of General Synod as a debating forum and administrative body; to provide for a regular review of the number and distribution of members of General Synod; to amend representation on the amalgamation of dioceses; and to achieve a more proportional spread of membership whilst ensuring that the voices of smaller dioceses are not lost.

Proposing the Bill, Ken Gibson (Hon Sec) gave the background to the Bill which arose initially from a private member’s Representation Bill three and a half years ago. The matter was referred to Standing Committee and set up a sub group, which included representatives from each diocese.

“Standing Committee gave the issue considerable time at each of its five meetings that year and held a special one day meeting. it also asked a sub–group – one of its members from each diocese plus Canon Wharton and I as Honorary Secretaries to do the “number crunching”. As I and others have said in different fora, that process was of great importance in sharing and understanding the different contexts that the Church is working in throughout this island,” he said.

Seconding the Bill, the Ven Ruth Elmes, noted that when she was asked to represent Cashel, Ferns and Ossory at the representation sub–committee she was perturbed as her’s was the diocese that had the most representation to lose. However, she said that over time she realised that Cashel, Ferns and Ossory was over represented and the current numbers are unwieldy and are now calculated to be fair.

In discussion on the debate, Jocelyn Sanders (Limerick and Killaloe) said he feared for the future of the Church of Ireland if the Bill is passed, which he expected it would be. In order to reduce membership it would have been possible to proceed by a proportional reduction in diocesan representation and he would have supported that. But because the Bill is based on cures, the balance will be changed. This can be illustrated by looking at the balance between Northern and Southern provinces, he said. Under the new allocation the Northern province will have 62% of membership which will be close to the two thirds/one third requirement for change in doctrine. This would be inconsequential except for the divide in churchmanship in the North and South. This will further divide the Church of Ireland, he stated.

Dean Nigel Dunne (Cork, Cloyne and Ross) reacted to the first speaker saying the subgroup agreed to avoid the language of Northern/Southern Province – it is the Province of Armagh and the Province of Dublin. He said that the depiction of types of churchmanship was unhelpful as it left no space for those in the middle ground. The discussions were intense and there was a lot learned about the Church of Ireland, he stated. He said that all were agreed that the General Synod has been unwieldy given the small size of the Church.

Dr Patricia Barker (Dublin and Glendalough) said the Bill was complex and required a lot of thinking and thought particularly for someone new to General Synod. She said there had been a meeting with people from the working group to explain the background, which was a really useful exercise. As a chartered accountant, she found that the thinking was sound and said she will support it. But it is under–ambitious as the representation is still very large and it could have gone further and cut even more, she stated.

Canon Patrick Comerford (Limerick and Killaloe) said he thought it was a good Bill but not the best. He felt it is turning it into a congregationalist church, basing representation on the number of cures rather than dioceses. This is a turn away from an episcopal church, he felt. However, he said he would vote for the good if not for the best.

Replying to the debate, Mr Gibson said the point regarding the ratio going to 62% was taken but that was why there was a review built into the process. He said that in nine years time, when the members of Standing Committee carry out the first review it may change. In some ways he said he agreed that it may not be the best but it is, after all the discussion and work, an improvement. And when the review comes around in nine years’ time it might be better, he concluded.

Members of Synod agreed clearly to proceed to the next stage of the Bills process. The Bill will receive its third reading on Saturday morning.


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