The Changing Face of General Synod

by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University, elected member of General Synod and member of Living in Love and Faith project

I have just been elected to General Synod for Oxford diocese. This isn’t the first time I have stood for General Synod: it’s actually the third. I stood successfully in another diocese in 1985, in my late 20s, making me one of the youngest people on Synod, and then again five years later; at that point there were only eleven of us under-35 (out of a Synod total of around 500 people). I stood down because I moved diocese.

I didn’t miss it: I had found it a bruising experience. In particular, the debates leading up to ordaining women were painful, even for someone with a strong vocation to be a laywoman.

Yet I felt very strongly that I must stand this time around. So, how is it feeling now?

In some ways, it’s familiar, even though different. Synodical government wasn’t new to me even in 1985. I’d accepted my vicar’s invitation to stand for PCC when I was 19. I was a rep on the local Council of Churches, and I rapidly moved on to Deanery Synod and then Diocesan Synod, as well as becoming Deanery Synod secretary. It was pretty obvious where I was heading. I remember the election process before the internet: including finding a local printer and paying for the printing costs (I was on a grant, just finishing my PhD, and money was very tight). The first time around, we had hustings; real, in-person, pretty well-attended hustings. I remember one candidate a few years older than me who spoke before me at the first of these, who stressed how many people had urged him to stand. Then as now, I saw this as typically churchy false modesty. Why is it wrong to know what you are capable of doing, and to put yourself forward? When I spoke, I talked about how I felt my skill-set and my experience made me a good candidate, and about how I had been along to listen to Synod meetings in Church House and, from my position in the public gallery, had realised for myself that this was something I could do well.

When I joined General Synod, I was advised that it’s a good idea to belong to some ‘grouping’ just to get a sense of what is really going on. I joined the Catholic Group because that was where I thought I would feel most comfortable. I was then a member of the Church Union and enthused by the charismatic movement then taking place. In my early teens, I had been part of a large evangelical Church of England congregation with a very good youth club, which was also influenced by the charismatic revival, and I had then switched to a much-nearer middle-of-the-road parish church because my parents preferred it (my father, a former choirboy, was entirely turned off by the music at the evangelical church) and I didn’t need to rely on lifts home after evening events.

The Catholic Group on General Synod had its moments, particularly in the bar at the York sessions, but, even though some supported women as deacons, as one of the few members fully committed to the ordination of women (I was also a member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, and made no secret of this) I was never going to feel fully comfortable there. On one occasion I suspect I was left off a mailing list because they felt they couldn’t entirely trust me.

I have no idea which groupings will exist when I turn up in November, but I have felt very well supported by the Inclusive Synod group during the election process so that is one which I will attend.

At the end of the previous Synod, I was surprised to read people commenting about how much they thought they’d miss the camaraderie: I made friends on Synod, but not to that level. Partly this could be down to location. My diocese didn’t pay for overnight stays, so the two London meetings each year involved daily commutes home. This meant I missed out entirely on the evening meetings, and on any socialising over dinner. Some people from my diocese stayed with friends; I didn’t know anyone with whom I could stay. For next month, I’ve booked my room at the Premier Inn!

With the results still being announced, I already feel I know more people on this new Synod than I did first time around. That’s not surprising: it’s at least partly just because I am older. My friendship circle, both lay and ordained, is completely different to that of a lay woman in her late 20s who had never worked for the Church. An old schoolfriend just sent me a message to say she has been elected; yesterday a colleague I’ve worked with in academic contexts sent me the same message. Social media puts me in contact with more Church members, some of whom I’ve never met, but who have also been elected to Synod.

I’ll be interested to find out how it now feels to be a woman on Synod. Even “Can women be laity?” was once a genuine question, one I explored here. In the 1985-1990 Synod, while there were women in the House of Laity, a surprising number turned out to be the wives or children of clergy. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that – my own stepdaughter is a priest – but the experience of being part of a clergy household is a very different to my own. On one occasion, after I’d used a single word in ancient Greek in a speech, someone noted that I had done so and asked me if my husband was a priest; a startling assumption! I pointed out that my degrees are in ancient history.

Now, we have women in all three houses. Then, we fought to get a crèche. Now, members can claim for the cost of caring for a dependent. Has all this change altered the feel of the Synod, I wonder?

Only a month to wait and find out…



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Any thoughts?