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Day 1

Bill to Reduce Numbers of Synod Members Introduced at General Synod

A Bill which seeks to establish a proportional and representative formula for the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives of General Synod, and to reduce its membership came before Synod in Armagh today (Thursday May 10). The proposed formula would allocate the number of representatives according to the number of cures within respective dioceses subject to 2:1 laity/clerical representation. Six additional seats would be allocated to each diocese to proportionally increase the representation of smaller dioceses.

In proposing the Bill, Mr Andrew Brannigan said that 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 significant 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 static since 1969. In the almost 50 years since this last significant modification to the House of Representatives the change in totality and spread of the Church of Ireland population has created an imbalance in representation.

This Bill seeks to amend Chapter 1 of the Constitution to achieve the following two aims:

1.      To preserve the role of synod as a unifying, legislative and representative body for the whole of the Church of Ireland by establishing a proportional and representative formula to allocate seats each triennium.

2.      To increase the flexibility and functionality of synod as a debating forum and administrative body by reducing synod membership in proportion to the reduced size of the Church of Ireland, thereby allowing for more choice of venue, reduction in costs and giving higher value to synod membership. 

The move would reduce the House of Representatives by 117 seats from the current 648 to 531.

The Bill was proposed by Andrew Brannigan and seconded by Canon Alison Calvin.

Archdeacon Andrew Orr opposed the first reading of the Bill. He said that while few would argue that Synod did not need change, the Bill was passed it would be the most dramatic change to be introduced in the Church of Ireland since 1870 and yet there had only been a few short weeks to consider it. There had been no consultation and that it had been dropped on members with the smaller dioceses bearing the brunt, he said. “We have not had the time to scrutinise them or see what the implications will be for any of the dioceses affected. Are we really going to change the governance of the diocese on the hoof, on a whim?” he asked. He suggested that the proposers could come back next year with a proposal, consult with dioceses and let all stakeholders have a say.

Members of Synod voted to allow the Bill to be read.

Mr Brannigan said the lack of change in Synod representation had resulted in an imbalance of representation. Dioceses with extra seats ended up with them because Ireland had changed and the church had not been able to come up with a solution. He said that his proposal was a fair and missional way forward.

“How do we reform a representative system that has become democratically imbalanced?” he asked. He said years of time, energy, reports and finance had been put into proposals which had failed. “It’s time for a new idea,” he said. “Our parishes are the beating heart of the Church of Ireland community … Is it not fair and just that these units of ministry should be recognised in the way we do business?” He said that each seat should be added according to the amount of cures in a diocese.

He said his proposal was simple, fair and valued each cure equally. Some dioceses would lose more seats than others, he conceded. He said the formula would introduce a flexibility of representation and would reduce the size of synod’s House of Representatives.

Contributing to the debate on the principal on reform of Synod Archdeacon Miller suggested Mr Brannigan’s proposal was fair and offered a good way forward and a small step to achieving a more proportionate representation.

The Bishop of Tuam suggested that the Bill may seem reasonable and fair but said that there were implications for large parts of the island. He said there was already a 60:40 balance weighted towards the northern dioceses. But he said over the last 10 years there was a greater attendance from southern dioceses. However, the southern dioceses would lose a far greater number of representatives. He feared that if passed, southern representatives may not feel it would be worth attending as the representation was weighted to heavily against them. He said the question was ‘What is equitable?’ He argued that the principal should be not to move beyond a 60:40 split between the two provinces and holding the Church of Ireland together was important.

The Revd Andrew Campbell (Connor) supported the Bill which he said would present the opportunity to transform a system that was unbalanced, unrepresentative and unequal. He stated that the inequality of the current system impacted the entire Church of Ireland and contended that it was not a North/South issue. He said the Bill sought to restore balance and gave voice to smaller dioceses.

Canon Patrick Comerford (Limerick) asked the proposers to withdraw the Bill considering the division it was causing. He said they had not consulted widely with the wider Church. He said time was needed for Tuam, Killala and Achonry and Limerick and Killaloe to continue their discussions. He said the representation at General Synod was designed to allow voices from the smaller regions to be heard, it was not proportional representation.

The Revd Malcom Kingston (Armagh) said that being a member of General Synod was a privilege. He said Synods past had caused him to reflect on the similar challenges shared across the Church of Ireland, despite coming from different contexts. He said he understood that people feared that their dioceses would lose members in Synod but their voices were shared with one another even through people from other dioceses. This Bill would allow for a more cost effective Synod and a fairer representation of the dioceses of this church and assured smaller dioceses that their voices would be heard, he said.

Geoffrey McMaster (Glendalough) said that the impact of the Bill would be to reduce the possibility of people being involved. He said he might have been able to support it there had been a limit on the number of terms that could be served.

Alan Williamson (Kilmore) supported the Bill saying that they had to look at how people were fairly represented. He said if Northern Ireland was part of the Republic it would have proportionally less representation in a government and the same system should apply with governance of the church. He said he believed it allowed for fair representation of all the people in the church.

Robin Newman (Cork, Cloyne and Ross) said the Bill would make the Church of Ireland partisan. He said General Synod should be pared down and suggested that as 40% of those elected do not attend so proposed reducing the house by 40% across the board. He added the Bill should come from Standing Committee rather than individuals.

The Revd Willie Nixon (Down) said the Bill was not rushing into something. Attempts had been made in the past and got nowhere. For some time Synod had been ruminating, he suggested. At the heart of the proposal, he said, was that everyone at Synod was valued and members were called to value each other. “I don’t think it is good for us to talk of being a divided people. We a people of God, we are one people. We are not a divided people. It is important that we don’t take this into that horrible place where we don’t see each other as enemies. The representation is skewed and the best way to honour each other is to be honest about our representation, honest about the fact that representation needs to change. And we’re being honest by going back to the parish for representation,” he stated.

Roger Boyd (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory) said that he came from a quiet church with a quiet voice. He said it was the same church as in Dublin and Armagh. “The proposal here today is that some of those quiet voices shouldn’t be heard and I worry about the why of that,” he said. He said there were ways around reducing cost other than reducing people. He asked if there was another reason. He said he was for reform and change but said if they were going to do change, do it while everyone was still here. Let reform happen in a structured way.

The Revd David Huss (Derry and Raphoe) said he was supporting the Bill because the system proposed was already in place and working well in Raphoe where two thirds of the diocese was in Northern Ireland and one third in the Republic. He said they were represented in proportion in the number of cures and there was a strict two to one balance in representation. He said that people in Raphoe were able to punch above their weight and make their voices heard.

Dean Maria Jannson (Cashel Ferns and Ossory) asked if they were really representative. She said Synod was not representative of people who could not afford to be at Synod, or immigrants, or people under 30. She said if Synod was to be more missional and representative – they should think not of numbers but in Christian terms. She urged members to look to the edges and see those who are not represented and have no voices, look at social integration and Christian outreach. “I want an imaginative Gospel led, brave Synod which looks to the future. There’s more to this Synod than numbers,” she said.

Hilary McClay (Down and Dromore) said she had been distressed in listening to the debate. There had been talk of a northern consensus but what really mattered was that members talk about parishes and this Bill gave value to every member of every parish, she said. She said it was to do with an issue of justice and that we all count in God’s eyes. She said this was a first step towards having a Synod based on issues of justice, integrity and fairness.

George Woodman (Connor) said he felt a smaller tighter Synod could be too easily controlled by lobby groups and parties wishing to put forward a slate. He said he had come to value the larger baggy Synod and suggested there was greater democracy. He said the Church of Ireland was divided and the Anglican Communion’s unity was under threat.

Canon Horace McKinley (Dublin) urged people to look at the theology of what was meant by Church. He said he was a General Synod veteran of 40 years and the issue had been raised many times before. “I think there is great safety in numbers and the more the better rather than concentrating too much power in smaller numbers,” he said. He said the biggest hits were in the rural south and expressed concern that members may be losing sight of what was meant by church. He suggested it should be reverted to Standing Committee for a more representative group to look at it.

The Revd Alison Calvin (Kilmore) said it was not being imposed on anyone, it was a conversation. She said Synod represented the people of the Church of Ireland not places. She added that people valued fairness. She said that in the Bill they were appealing for fairness in representation. She said there was added generosity in that every diocese was being given an extra six people.

In reply, Mr Brannigan said he they were really looking for something fair and missional. He said did not believe it would weaken rural ministry, rather it said that each cure would be valued equally. He said it should not be sent to Standing Committee as that had already happened with no result. Asking the dioceses individually had been done before but this could be done here at General Synod. He said the passing of the Bill would be a positive change for all the Church of Ireland. He denied that the Bill would introduce a divide as fair representation would avoid this. He agreed with Dean Jannson’s vision of a Synod and said his proposal encompassed her views.

The vote to take the Bill to the next stage and approving the principal of the Bill was passed by members and the debate on amendments will take place tomorrow (Friday).