Synod, representation and gender

p15_circleIt is with some trepidation that I have offered myself as a candidate for General Synod for the next quinquennium (five-year term), having been a member for Salisbury Diocese in 2000–2005. During that time, we signed off the last stages of liturgical revision (remember that?!) including the ordinal and alternative collects, and received the excellent Some Issues in Human Sexuality, amongst other things. Since then, Synod has had to deal with some even more demanding (and bruising) issues, not least the two attempts to admit women to the episcopate.

It is clear that the next session will be strongly shaped by the ‘Reform and Renewal‘ agenda, and this will touch on issues of church growth, discipleship, and theological education as well as questions of clergy deployment and the increasing role of lay ministry. And, of course, with the Shared Conversations process coming to an end, the Church’s position on same-sex marriage will also be on the agenda in one form or another.

For that reason, it is worth thinking about the potential make-up of the new Synod—though these things usually take some time to work out. In recent conversation about the elections, someone passed to me the analysis they had done on the candidates, and I offer it here along with some further analysis of my own. The table below gives the numbers of men and women standing for clergy and lay elections in each diocese (CM is clergy men, etc), as far as it is possible to discern from diocesan websites, and I have calculated the number of candidates standing per place for each house (the column C/P):

Bath and Wells9242.754551.80
St Albans12453.2013253.00
St Eds and Ips7132.675533.33
Sodor and Man3013.001112.00
S’well and Nottm6032.008443.00
W Yorks & D (Leeds)128102.0014592.11

If there are any mistakes here you spot from your own diocese, or you can fill in the gaps, please post in the comments below.

There are a few interesting things to note:

  1. As you can see from the C/P average, the competition for clergy places overall (2.27 candidates per place) is slightly less than the competition for lay places (at 2.46)—which I think is fairly usual. What this masks, though, is that you have to be a particular kind of person to be a lay member of Synod; whereas clergy can count it as ‘work’ time, as a lay member you have to be able to take the time out since there is no recompense for lost earnings. You therefore need to be wealthy, self-employed, retired, highly committed, or a combination of all four. This is countered by the fact that there is no retirement age for lay members as there is for clergy—though there might be pressure to change this, with the increasing number of retired clergy who are active in ministry.
  2. There is considerable variation in competition between different dioceses. For clergy, your best chance of being elected is in Chester, Liverpool or Peterborough, where only one person will not succeed. In the new diocese of Leeds, there are not sufficient lay candidates to fill the places. On the other hand, Canterbury, Oxford and St Alban’s are hotly contested amongst the clergy, where fewer than one in three candidates will be elected, and there is also serious competition for lay places in several dioceses.
  3. The total number of members of Synod was reduced after my quinquennium, and these figures have been further revised for this election. This has left a good number of medium-sized dioceses with three proctors (clergy to be elected), and in most dioceses one of these is taken by an archdeacon, since the electoral ‘college’ of archdeacons was abolished when numbers were reduced. The net result of this is to (in effect) eliminate minority views under the STV system; if candidates holding a minority view come third amongst the non-archdeacons across all dioceses, then they will disappear from all but the larger dioceses. If, on the other hand, either dioceses or their Synod representation were merged, then such candidates would reappear again in the longer list that would result. In other words, two lists of three look much more homogeneous then one list of six, and this will be increasingly felt if Synod becomes any smaller. (A similar dynamic applies to contested mid-term elections; they result in appointing more of the same.)

But perhaps the most striking thing about these numbers is the low representation of women, particularly for the House of Clergy.

There are nearly three times as many men standing as women (299 to 99),

and five dioceses have no women standing at all.

(Bristol, Ely, Portsmouth, Sodor and Man, and Southwell and Nottingham)

It is not difficult to think of some reasons for this. There are a good number of jobs in the C of E that involve quite a bit of tedious admin, and in amongst the important debates, there is a lot of tedious admin involved in being on Synod. (For a theological evaluation of much of this tedious admin, I would refer you to Phil 3.8b.) My universal experience is that women are more sensible than men in avoiding this tedious admin! More broadly, a higher proportion of ordained women are in part-time or split-role ministries, and adding Synod membership into this mix is more challenging than if you are in a single, full-time, stipendiary role. There is a particular issue of timing as well; many women will have stood for the last Synod because of the issue of women bishops, and a good number of them probably feel as though they have done their time and have the bruises to show for it—now is a good time to step down.

Whatever the reasons, will it make a difference? Given the decisions made over the last ten years, I am not sure that there are major concerns about direct representation on issues that affect women in ministry or in church membership (though I am happy to be corrected on this). But my other universal experience is that women bring something distinctive to the kinds of processes that Synod makes use of, and if the next Synod is more male-dominated, I am not sure that that is going to be a particularly good thing. It remains to be seen whether this will be the case; where there are few women candidates, they are more likely to be elected, so the imbalance of candidates will not translate into the same imbalance of Synod members.

Either which way, one thing is clear: if we want more equal gender representation in Church government, we cannot leave it to chance.

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46 thoughts on “Synod, representation and gender”

      • Ian, the Lincoln lay candidates are 3 men and 5 women (not 4 and 4).

        I am very interested to see what proportion of those elected to General Synod this time will be women, and whether it will be more or less than in the last Synod. Ethnicity is another question – the church has been saying for many years that black and minority ethnic people are under-represented on synods and in senior clergy posts. More BME candidates are standing, I believe, this time, hoping that they will be elected.

        Sue Slater

      • Black And Minority Ethnic.

        I’m not a huge fan of this acronym, because it seems to be based on the idea that the black community’s experience of slavery and racism is normative for all ethnic minorities. That might be true in some parts of the US, but I’m not sure why Church House is so fond of it.

        • Racism (institutional and individual) continues to be an issue within the Church of England,
          We should, as Ian implies, also be concerned about the predominance of white middle class older men making decisions on everyone’s behalf.

  1. I’m glad you have raised this as an issue, Ian but I think you have been doing some guessing where reasons are concerned! You may of course be right, but tbh I don’t mind admin (I’d rather there wasn’t as much but if I’m reading for a meeting, it’s fine. It’s all the emails that are killing me). The two major reasons I didn’t put my name forward were 1) I have children at home. I’m already away for diocesan conference and my annual retreat and usually something else comes up and I’m often out in the evenings or worse tea time (school governors meetings). I just think I want to wait until they have flown the nest (or since that may take a lot longer than in the past, don’t want me around all the time)! Also, if I remember correctly, one session is in a half term and our family holidays are precious. there may not be many more. The other reason (2) is that I don’t feel confident enough to stand up at a hustings and tell everyone why I’m the best candidate (because maybe I’m not!). This may make me look a bit ridiculous but I thought it was important to hear from an actual woman what her actual reasons are. Maybe others can give us a heads up too?

    • Thanks Amanda. Your own experience doesn’t prove or disprove my observation about trends—but my consistent experience, whenever I have been sitting in dull, useless meetings which serve little purpose is that they are dominated by men!

      Curiously, I wonder what people would have commented had I suggested that women are tied up with childcare…!

    • In Sheffield we’re having online hustings this time – questions submitted via diocesan website and candidates replies will be posted there. Don’t know if any other diocese are doing the same, but it may reduce the pressure compared to traditional face to face meetings.

  2. Hereford Diocese – 3 men and 1 woman, me. I stood because I felt called to stand by God, I’m not sure I’m the ‘best candidate’, or that I know enough – I just felt that I needed to be obedient and God will do the rest! I’m a married, stipendiary curate, looking for first post. My husband works regular predictable working hours and my kids are 19, 18 & 15 meaning I can be away from home. Logically I wasn’t sure it was good timing to be taking on anything new, and certainly nothing as demanding as GenSyn, but the sense of calling to stand was unrelenting so I’m trusting the outcome to God!

  3. I still find the gender disparity around childcare unsettling. It bothers me that I never hear men talking about taking their children’s needs into consideration for roles and yet women continually do so. Do men make assumptions around childcare that women do not? Do women use childcare as legitimate excuses for avoiding certain roles (especially with all the research around imposter syndrome / lack of confidence speaking in public etc)? Si the expectation still in christian circles that childcare is by default a woman’s job? Do bodies like synod need to take new gender roles into consideration? I find it appalling that really because of the time commitment only rich people often in retirement can do the job as a lay person. HOW HAS THAT NOT BEEN MASSIVELY CHALLENGED?

    • Well, it is probably an exaggeration that ‘only rich people in retirement’ can do it. But you need to be able to take time out, and not everyone can do so.

      I think the evidence of the comments is that it is *not* about men making assumptions or expectations of the church. It is about how people actually live their lives, and who feels responsible for childcare. So if we would want to see change, then we need to change not attitudes but actual practice…

  4. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for doing this. I’d done the sums the other evening as well to see if my impression (that there were vastly fewer women standing) was accurate. As well as the dioceses where there are no female candidates for the House of Clergy, I was really concerned to count 13 (13!) where there is only one woman. These 13 include several where the track record of supporting women’s ministry is strong over many years.

    I agree with your suggested analysis, and your suggestion as to why this matters. Of course we will have to see how this translates into Synod members. But I also think it’s a problem if in some places there is kind of token woman – as though all women share the same perspectives and theological views. If Synod feels like male space (and it is anyway noticeable how many more men stand to speak than women in most debates) it will become harder not easier to change that. If the gender (im)balance of the candidates is reflected in the make-up of the new Synod, it will be more important that women stand to speak, and stand for election to committees, etc to ensure that female voices are well heard.

  5. Looking through the current list of candidates of the House of Laity to represent the Diocese of London at the General Synod I note that at least 20 of the 44 candidates are women. I say at least as a couple of the doctors have not indicated a Christian name. So as far as the House of Laity in the Diocese of London goes it looks a pretty even split of candidates, although for the House of Clergy it is as you say a different matter. Whether the breakdown of those candidates that are actually elected is of similar proportion time will tell. This may prove the move telling statistic (i.e. the relative proportion of women standing to those elected).

  6. The figures for lay candidates for Southwell & Nottingham are incorrect. From the official ballot paper: male 8, female 4 total 12 for 4 places.

  7. Hereford laity: 4 men, 2 women, standing for 3 places.

    Hereford clergy: 3 candidates out of 4 are from Bridgnorth Deanery (I am the one other) – gender balance is not the only thing sometimes skewed.

  8. Ian: I was curious to read your own election address where you say “It looks to many as though there will be no way through current disagreements. But the resolution on women bishops offers some hope, and my experience (of contributing to the formal process, speaking in debate and hosting discussions on my blog) is that there is progress to be made through careful and respectful listening on both sides.” When I suggested on this blog a while ago that the settlement about women in the episcopate would give GS a model for approaching the issue about sexuality you told me that sexuality was such a different issue and that basically there could not be an approach that allowed for two integrities. Have you changed your mind? Or is this electioneering on your part? 🙂

  9. 🙂 Well I’m sure Ian can answer for himself, but for me being willing to talk, listen and seek resolution doesn’t automatically lead to a ‘two-integrity’ solution.

  10. Thanks for this Paul.

    A reason I wouldn’t run for synod is for the same reason I am put off getting ordained. Having studied Theology for five years (Undergrad & Post Grad) and having lived at a theological college for two, I am tired of being in a room full of men discussing theology in an aggressive and often unpastoral manner.

  11. You say in your blog above” In the new diocese of Leeds, there are not sufficient lay candidates to fill the places”. However your table is correct and there were in fact 19 candidates for 9 laity places.

    The overall gender balance of those elected from our Diocese (as opposed to those who stood) is as follows – Clergy- 10 places – five men and five women elected. Laity- 9 places – 5 men and 4 women elected so in the end a good gender balance.


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