As usual, Derry and Raphoe faces featured prominently at the General Synod, which has been taking place this year in sunny Armagh. The liveliest debate on the opening day concerned a Bill which seeks to establish a proportional and representative formula for the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives of General Synod, and to reduce the Synod’s membership.
The proposed formula would allocate the number of representatives according to the number of cures within respective dioceses subject to 2:1 laity/clerical representation. Six additional seats would be allocated to each diocese to increase the representation of smaller dioceses proportionally.
Proposing the Bill, Andrew Brannigan said that when the General Synod was established by the General Convention of 1870, diocesan representation in the House of Representatives was based on one clerical member for every 10 priests at that time and two lay members for each clerical member. The total number of representatives produced on this basis – 624 – had remained largely unchanged since.
The last significant change to the diocesan allocation of seats took place in 1969 when 14 dioceses were re–allocated 648 House of Representative seats among them. With the exception of the merging of 14 dioceses into 12, this diocesan representation has remained static since 1969. In the almost 50 years since this last significant modification to the House of Representatives the change in totality and spread of the Church of Ireland population has created an imbalance in representation.
This Bill seeks to amend Chapter 1 of the Constitution to achieve the following two aims:
- To preserve the role of synod as a unifying, legislative and representative body for the whole of the Church of Ireland by establishing a proportional and representative formula to allocate seats each triennium.
- To increase the flexibility and functionality of synod as a debating forum and administrative body by reducing synod membership in proportion to the reduced size of the Church of Ireland, thereby allowing for more choice of venue, reduction in costs and giving higher value to synod membership.
The move would reduce the House of Representatives by 117 seats from the current 648 to 531.
The Bill was proposed by Andrew Brannigan and seconded by Canon Alison Calvin.
Archdeacon Andrew Orr opposed the first reading of the Bill. He said that while few would argue that Synod did not need change, if the Bill was passed it would be the most dramatic change to be introduced in the Church of Ireland since 1870 and yet there had only been a few short weeks to consider it. There had been no consultation and it had been dropped on members with the smaller dioceses bearing the brunt, he said. “We have not had the time to scrutinise them or see what the implications will be for any of the dioceses affected. Are we really going to change the governance of the diocese on the hoof, on a whim?” he asked. He suggested that the proposers could come back next year with a proposal, consult with dioceses and let all stakeholders have a say.
Members of Synod voted to allow the Bill to be read.
Mr Brannigan said the lack of change in Synod representation had resulted in an imbalance of representation. Dioceses with extra seats ended up with them because Ireland had changed and the church had not been able to come up with a solution. He said that his proposal was a fair and missional way forward.
“How do we reform a representative system that has become democratically imbalanced?” he asked. He said years of time, energy, reports and finance had been put into proposals which had failed. “It’s time for a new idea,” he said. “Our parishes are the beating heart of the Church of Ireland community … Is it not fair and just that these units of ministry should be recognised in the way we do business?” He said that each seat should be added according to the amount of cures in a diocese.
He said his proposal was simple, fair and valued each cure equally. Some dioceses would lose more seats than others, he conceded. He said the formula would introduce a flexibility of representation and would reduce the size of synod’s House of Representatives.
Contributing to the debate on the principal on reform of Synod, the Archdeacon of Derry, Ven Robert Miller, suggested Mr Brannigan’s proposal was fair and offered a good way forward. It was, he said, a small step towards achieving a more proportionate representation.
The Bishop of Tuam suggested that the Bill may seem reasonable and fair but that there were implications for large parts of the island. He said there was already a 60:40 balance weighted towards the northern dioceses, but – over the last 10 years – there had been a greater attendance from southern dioceses. However, the southern dioceses would lose a far greater number of representatives. He feared that if passed, southern representatives may not feel it would be worth attending as the representation was weighted so heavily against them.
The Archdeacon of Raphoe, Ven David Huss, said he was supporting the Bill because the system proposed was already in place and working well in Raphoe where two thirds of the diocese was in Northern Ireland and one third in the Republic. He said they were represented in proportion in the number of cures and there was a strict two to one balance in representation. He said that people in Raphoe were able to punch above their weight and make their voices heard.
The vote to take the Bill to the next stage and approving the principal of the Bill was passed by members and the debate on amendments will take place on Friday.