Sounding Board

Passed with a synod and a wink

Putting matters theological to a vote might seem odd, but it actually makes sense

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

So the results are in. A new dawn has broken, has it not? Where there is discord may we bring harmony; let’s get it done. Et cetera.

What? You didn’t know there was a General Election on? Well there was. All across England (and the Channel Islands). At least, sort-of. An election for the General Synod, which is the Church of England’s parliament and has the power to pass measures which, unless they are blocked by the national Parliament, enter into the laws of the land — for we are a State Church, and long may that last.

At first sight the idea that theological decisions could be taken by majority vote might sound absurd

The Synod is a funny beast. For a start, it is tricameral. A House of Bishops sits as the Upper House, alongside the House of Clergy and the House of Laity. As a general rule, the houses all sit together and vote together, although the House of Bishops has taken to meeting alone, and in secret — rather a lot recently — even if this seems rather counter to the point of a legislative chamber.

The concept of a synod is itself a funny beast. At first sight the idea that theological decisions could be taken by majority vote might sound absurd, maybe even blasphemous. How can truth be put to the vote? And yet, this has always been the case, one way or the other.

The Reformation in England was, in fact, determined by Parliament. It was Parliament which passed all the necessary legislation separating the Church from the Bishop of Rome under Henry VIII and then returning her to him under Mary, and then re-severing ties under Elizabeth. It was Parliament that passed the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion which defined Anglican theology for most of our separate existence.

And if Parliament seems a curious vehicle for theological debate, John Calvin’s Geneva used no more august an institution than the local town council. You can imagine the agenda: 1. Traffic cones; 2. Potholes; 3. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

When it comes to talking about God we are all fallible. We will all get it wrong from time to time

And before any Roman Catholic readers start polishing their halos and remarking that this all seems awfully Protestant, may I remind them that the very Creed that we all recite every Sunday, the Nicene Creed, is so called because it was voted on at the Council of Constantinople and was, by majority vote, declared to be an accurate representation of the theological position of the Council of Nicæa.

That council had, in turn, determined what the proper and true theology of the Christ and his Father was — and did so by voting. And who was it who called these councils to determine these great and weighty matters? The secular authorities. As it says in the Thirty-Nine Articles: “General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes.”

And that article spotted something else that is important: “And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God.” In short: they may get it wrong. And recognising this is, in fact, hugely important.

Many want the church to be able to issue unimpeachably authoritative rulings on all manner of matters (especially matters theological). It would make life much easier. One church I could mention even allows its most senior bishop to speak infallibly under certain circumstances.

But the reality is that, when it comes to talking about God we are all fallible. We will all get it wrong from time to time. Those glorious sixteenth century articles of religion don’t hesitate to point this out too, mostly in order to give the Pope a little kicking: “As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.”

Well, the Thirty-Nine Articles can err too. And so can the Church of England, and its General Synod, and the Parliament which ultimately has authority over us.

This is why I’m an Anglican. I love the liberty to be able to disagree with my Archbishops

And voting is a very crude way of getting to the truth. But the good thing about it is that it forces us to know and understand our own arguments, and to hear and, maybe, understand our opponents’ arguments too. Conversation is essential if we’re going to convert those who disagree with us, although of course we risk being converted by them if we try.

This is why I’m an Anglican. I love the liberty to be able to disagree with my Archbishops, but to do so in love and charity. I love the fact that I can find my rougher edges being smoothed by those with whom I have disagreed, and whose arguments and thoughts and reflections have been better than mine. And I look forward to the fact that, courtesy of the election just finished, I shall be a part of the debates of the next five years within our church.

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony”, as a great Christian leader once said.

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