Peter Ould writes: The General Synod Elections 2021 are over and the results are in. Sadly we didn’t get David Dimbleby or Huw Edwards bringing us an exit poll and wall to wall coverage, but there are still plenty of things for psephologists to get their teeth into.
I have spent the last week analysing the election results as they have come in for the Houses of Clergy and Laity. As new members of Synod have been announced, I’ve been able to categorise them on the basis of their stance on same-sex blessings, not least because many of the candidates were on one of two official slates from the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) and Inclusive Church (IC). By looking at these lists, by reading election addresses, watching hustings videos or looking at voting records, it is possible very accurately to assess who sits in which camp and what the balance of power is in the new Synod (at least in the House of Clergy and Laity).
So here it is—Peter’s preliminary analysis of the elections, broken down into a number of categories.
Almost uniformly, turnout is up in both Houses, particularly amongst the Clergy. This is obviously good news for the democratic process, but it’s worth reflecting why it happened. The primary reason was that two large campaigning organisations did their best to run an effective “Get Out the Vote” (GOTV) campaign, motivated by the one major issue that divided them. Yes, other campaigning groups also tried to stand on particular platforms, not least the “Save the Parish” movement, but they were on the whole swept aside by the two main groups.
For over half a century the Church of England has tried to present Synod elections as being devoid of party politics, but with the 2021 election that pretence must be consigned to the dustbin. The majority of elected members are going to associate with the two largest groupings in Synod (Evangelical Group on General Synod, ‘EGGS’, and the Human Sexuality Group) which mirror pretty much the two pressure groups, CEEC and IC, who recommended slates of candidates. Turnout was up simply because electors knew exactly where their candidates stood on the key issue of the day, knew who they agreed with and didn’t, and were advised by the “party” they agreed with how to cast their vote.
Like it or not, Synod is now dominated by two main parties, much in the same way our Westminster politics is. One of the things that General Synod should consider is whether in 2026, candidates should be able to provide an official allegiance or party loyalty in order to further educate the electorate where they stand. They can still have a personal address, but knowing that particular candidates officially belong to a certain grouping would make it even clearer what they were (and weren’t voting for). And wouldn’t it be fun if next time round I could even provide you with a swingometer to show you how voting patterns have changed since 2021?
And so to the results. As I wrote above, I was able to analyse the loyalties of elected members, which gives us the following results. Others have estimated the numbers slightly differently, but I have tried to be as cautious as possible in ascribing members to particular views. The labels Orthodox and Revisionist refer to the member’s position on blessing same-sex unions.
House of Clergy
Orthodox – 79 (40%)
Revisionist – 83 (42%)
Unknown – 34 (17%)
House of Laity
Orthodox – 73 (37%)
Revisionist – 69 (35%)
Unknown – 55 (28%)
There are some obvious observations to be made. First, party loyalty is stronger in the House of Clergy than the House of Laity. This is probably due to a much stronger whipping operation amongst the clergy than the laity (which I will discuss below).
Secondly, orthodox laity actually form a larger group than revisionist laity, and given that the electorate knew quite explicity what they were voting for, this puts to bed finally the misconception constantly spun by those wanting a change in the church’s teaching that the average person in the pews supports their position. In reality, the representatives of those in the pews were more likely to back someone who took a traditional stance than someone who wanted to revise the church’s teaching.
Third, and probably most importantly, both revisionists and the orthodox have enough votes to form a blocking minority, a third or more of seats that prevents a super-majority being reached which is necessary for any doctrinal or liturgical change. What this means in practice is that official liturgies for same-sex blessings, or changes to the Canons to alter the understanding of marriage, simply aren’t going to get through (and equally, a hardening of liturgy or doctrine isn’t going to succeed either). It has been pointed out by a number of people that the House of Bishops could get around this by offering liturgies for experimentation, but whilst technically they can do this, would they really think that was appropriate where almost half the Synod was opposed?
The results mean that the chances of any substantial liberal drift are very much reduced, and that the outcome of the current Living in Love and Faith process is not a foregone conclusion. In particular orthodox bishops should look at the level of conservative presence in the rest of Synod and realise that the narrative of inevitable compromise is not a necessary outcome. We can stand firm.
Get Out the Vote
One thing that psephologists are fascinated by is not just the headline results but the fine detail of voting patterns. The General Synod uses a form of Single Transferable Vote where electors can rank candidates in preference order so that the full value of their vote is used until the end of the count. Candidates who don’t have enough votes are eliminated and those who voted for them have their next votes considered, whilst at the other end candidates who meet the quota to be elected have their surplus redistributed. This means that the preferences of individual voters can have enormous impact, especially at later stages of the count.
And it’s here where there is evidence that some of the lobby groups have managed to guide the voting in some dioceses in a really impressive way. The reason for the high number of orthodox clergy seats is chiefly down to the fact that their candidates succeeded in keeping the vote within their theological constituency, so that when a candidate was eliminated or had their surplus redistributed, the votes stayed within other orthodox candidates. The result was that time and time again the orthodox picked up the last seat in a diocese when arguably, based on first preference votes, it should have gone the other way.
Conversely there are also some examples of very poor vote managament. In one diocese, candidates for one particular lobby group scored 50% of first preference votes, but only got 25% of the seats (1 in 4), mainly because they put up far too many candidates (so the vote was spread out too narrowly and lots of candidates were eliminated far too early on) and then had massive vote leakage (so time and time again in this constituency electors voted 1 for a candidate from Side A and then 2 for one from Side B).
The lesson of this is clear: where the lobby groups understand how the STV system works, put up the right number of candidates (for example, there really is no point in having 5 candidates for 4 seats when you can reasonably only hope to win 2 or 3 of them) and can help their electors understand that voting a certain way really does make a difference, they can boost their chances of success dramatically. We know from places in the UK where STV has been common practice for decades that electors who are told by their party (and listen to them) exactly how to vote can really swing a vote. Part of the massive rise in Sinn Fein’s support in Northern Ireland where STV has been used in local elections for many years, was their brilliant voter education. Sinn Fein would famously print different leaflets for almost every street, telling voters exactly how to use all of their preferences in order to maximise transfers and gain extra seats.
The evidence from the returns I’ve examined so far show that clergy were more likely to vote tactically in this way, and orthodox clergy were more likely to do so than revisionist clergy. When push came to shove, orthodox clergy (and laity to a lesser extent) understood exactly how serious this election was and that every vote and every transfer counted.
As I continue my analysis, more useful insights are emerging which I’ll share in due course. One thought has already crossed my mind though. There has been a small but significant stream of orthodox clergy who have left the Church of England over the past few years, bemoaning the liberal drift and arguing that innovations like same-sex blessings are a foregone conclusion. The election results prove such a position to be incorrect.
Rather, the results show us that there is still a substantial orthodox presence in the Church of England that has to be taken into account by the bishops, not just as a small minority (like in Wales or Scotland) but as a significant and influential group—and a group that arguably keeps the church afloat financially in many dioceses. The Living in Love and Faith process is not a shoe-in for the revisionists and we are as likely to see no change whatsoever this Synod Quinquenium as we are a move towards accommodating liturgy for same-sex unions.
Peter Ould is a Church of England priest, a consultant statistician and an amateur psephologist contributing to electoral analysis on TV and Radio. His Forecast UK project has been predicting UK and Global elections for over a decade, and at the UK General Election in 2019 he was one of the leading predictors amongst a wide range of models and exit polls.