The Church of England’s general synod — its parliament — descended into chaos this month as long-running disputes, arguments and complaints against the archbishops of Canterbury and York exploded. It was described by one of its members as the most fractious ever. In a Religion Media Centre briefing, we brought together members of the synod and commentators to analyse what happened and what it says about the state of the CofE

The Church of England’s general synod is a law-making body, with elected representatives, governed by complex rules and operating like parliament, with motions, amendments, and voting.

Its meeting in York in July 2023 was a watershed moment. Francis Martin, a Church Times journalist who reported throughout, told the briefing: “Fractious is a good word to describe it. I think there was a lot of frustration as well that contributed to it.

“Members pointed out that the agenda had almost too much substance, but there was very little for members to actually decide. They were hearing a lot, they were able to ask questions, but there was very limited amount they could actually do. There were a few debates but it was mainly presentations.”

He said the phrase often heard was that synod was being managed, principally by the Archbishops’ Council, a body of 20 members set up as a separate charity, led by the two archbishops and a secretary-general, which has executive responsibility for strategic thinking and scrutinising the work of national church institutions. Their role was a cause for concern.

Those who attended the five-day gathering in York, were already deeply divided. They came with irreconcilable divisions over same-sex marriage, and there was an outcry after two members of the Independent Safeguarding Board — Jasvinder Sanghera and Steve Reeves — were sacked by the Archbishops’ Council, only two weeks before synod met.

It was this that caused the extraordinary scenes on the afternoon of Sunday 9 July. The agenda included a presentation by four members of the Archbishops’ Council to explain what happened. They sat on the stage and read prepared comments. But the two sacked members were sitting in the gallery with their supporters, including survivors, and they disputed the facts.

Several attempts were made by synod members to give them the right of reply and allow them to speak. Synod was paused for 25 minutes while the chairwoman sought advice and chose a way forward, as bishops and synod members lobbied her and the Archbishop of York, the Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell, ran up to the gallery to liaise with the sacked members.

They were allowed to speak. But the loss of control, challenge to authority, weight of complaint and anger at the difficulty in allowing someone to address the synod highlighted the fundamental weakness in the governance of the Church of England, according to the Rev Marcus Walker, rector of Great St Bartholomew in the City of London.

He told the briefing that the church was being run by “sofa government”, a term coined by critics of Tony Blair’s administration, when decisions were taken informally.

“Sofa government exists right at the top of the Archbishops’ Council. There’s a whole series of plans that it wants to get through, and it just works out the best way to do it. And of course, the frustration is that you don’t have the opportunity to challenge or quite often to speak against them.”

Fr Walker told the briefing that the way in which synod was managed had brought about “the total collapse of trust”. Synod was regarded as a threat. Formal questions were highly managed and often there was not even an opportunity to challenge.

He said there was a curious unity across many of the different factions, with both the progressives and traditionalists equally frustrated with the way in which synod was being managed.

Frustration set in, he said, when synod members knew they had a responsibility but there was no mechanism to do anything about it, such as allowing the two sacked safeguarding board members to speak.

Synod member Jayne Ozanne agreed, believing there was a “cabal at the top” and frustration that synod was unable to give its voice. Added to this was a chaotic structure leaving a disparate understanding of authority in the church, with bishops as well as the Archbishop’s Council. She said the Council was too big, had too great an agenda and, members —though well meaning — were not experts.

“If you add on to that the divides in the church between the progressives and the conservatives, and the lack of trust between those two, you’ve got an absolute pressure cooker,” she said.

Andrew Carey, editor of the Church of England Newspaper, who has been reporting synod for decades, said: “Disputes between the church authorities and general synod have always been there. There have been debacles, skirmishes and atrocities along the way over the years, with reports rejected and archbishops defeated.

“But I think there is something about sofa government, there’s something about manipulation that is much more recent.”

He feared things could get worse in November when the bishops came back with the wording for prayers of blessing for same-sex couples. He also hoped there would be more respect for general synod members in debates and that they would stand up for themselves.

Professor Helen King, who is serving on the general synod for a second term, sees the process now as “a hideous game”, agreeing that it had become so political that it no longer worked. Factions spoke to “ridiculous amendments” as a means of point-scoring to further their cause, and those interventions “were somehow weaponised to be about the prayers of love and faith. And I don’t think that’s helpful,” she said.

Debbie Buggs, one of the volunteers to chair the synod and member of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, an evangelical church in the City of London, said there was no cabal when it came to chairing proceedings. It was a matter of judgment and a thankless task.

Her frustration with the synod process was the urge to move towards decisions when a substantial minority was against, such as in the vote to allow same-sex marriage blessings. She was in that minority.

“It’s almost like you’ve got a parliament with a completely ineffective opposition,” she said. People sharing her beliefs were seeking proper provision, for example having bishops who agree with them and pastoral care for people in their group.

She said the wrangling over wording of the blessings showed that there was a lot more work to do. It was as if the bishops were recognising “that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew”.

Commentators have been trying to decide how significant this July’s synod is for the future governance of the church. The Rev Stephen Parsons, from Surviving Church, told the briefing that “something gave”. 

He said the ordinary voice was heard and the power that had controlled the agenda stood back. Deference to the authority of the bishops had been openly challenged and undermined and things would not be quite the same again. The integrity of the institution had been challenged.

Simon Sarmiento, from the Thinking Anglicans website, said there were questions over staffing levels. He wondered why the fractured relationship with the Independent Safeguarding Board members had been allowed to go on so long, and what this said about the management of Church House, the CofE’s headquarters, where long-serving staff have retired, taking with them the corporate memory.

Clive Billenness, a member of the Archbishops’ Council’s audit committee, was quick to defend Church House staff, saying they were overworked and under pressure. He thought one of the problems at the heart of the disquiet was church structure, because there were 42 dioceses, each a separate charity. It was like “trying to run Tesco’s with 42 regional offices”.

Andrew Graystone, who is an advocate for survivors of clergy abuse, said the church structures were chaotic and this was bad for safeguarding. “The model of safeguarding in the Church of England doesn’t work for a number of reasons,” he said. “One is because the church is so disparate in its authority. It’s made up of hundreds, probably thousands of individual charities.

“Each diocese, each cathedral, each parish church, is a charity. The Archbishops’ Council is a separate charity. And that gives deniability to every bit of the church. Every bit can say, ‘Well, it’s not my responsibility. It’s someone else’s’.”

Read it all at The Religion Media Centre