Synodical government can be traced back to the New Testament, where it is clear that decisions were taken collectively and applied pastorally in different congregations and among various groups of Christians (like Jewish believers and Gentile converts). The principles found in the Scriptural accounts are valid for all time and ought to serve as a model for the way in which we govern our churches today.
In the Church of England, forms of synodical government can be traced back to the seventh century, but they have varied considerably over time. In the beginning synods were meetings of bishops who represented their local churches, but in the middle ages they came to include others as well, especially archdeacons, cathedral deans and elected representatives of the lower clergy. This was because the provincial synods of Canterbury and York mutated into tax convocations, summoned by the king and asked to make a ‘voluntary’ contribution to the state’s revenue. Clerical taxation was abolished in 1664, but by then the synods had become known as convocations, and so they remained. The Canterbury convocation was suspended in 1717 and not allowed to transact business again until 1852, when it was revived and the modern period of synodical government began.
It soon became apparent that the traditional convocations were inadequate for the needs of a modern church. The Church of England created an unofficial house of laity, which functioned alongside the clerical convocations until they were formally linked in the National Assembly set up in 1919. Fifty years later, an integrated General Synod was established along with a subordinate system of diocesan and deanery synods which were essentially new creations.
Since 1970 synods have grown in importance, as Parliament has taken a back seat and local parishes have lost much of their independence. Various proposals for revamping the synodical pattern have been made in recent years, with some success, but synodical government remains a work in progress and further reflection is timely. This booklet examines the process so far and makes suggestions as to how the synods can become more effective and more representative of the Church as a whole.
Synods by Gerald Bray