On Friday 18th January, the Church of England will be burdened with an estimated cost of £38,000 as a result of holding an extraordinary meeting of the House of Laity of General Synod to consider a single issue – a vote of “no confidence” in its chairman, Dr Philip Giddings, called on the basis of his role the vote on women in the episcopate on 20 November 2012. Although the proposer of the motion, Canon Stephen Barney, cites other examples of Dr Giddings’ alleged unsatisfactory performance as Chair of the House of Laity in support of his “no confidence call”, here, these post facto complaints were apparently insufficient to precipitate such action at the time.
With regard to the outcome of the meeting, canon lawyer Fr Stephen Trott notes:
“There is no provision for formal motions of “no confidence” in any officer of the House. Friday’s debate will therefore simply be an expression of opinion, taken by a simple majority of those present to vote. . . . . . . Even if the motion is passed, Dr Giddings can choose to take no notice of it. He could, if he wanted to do so, resign and stand for re-election immediately.”
However, it is difficult to see that Dr Giddings could continue, or command support for re-election if there were to be a significant number supporting the “no confidence” motion.
The formal basis for the meeting, which will be chaired by the Rt. Worshipful Charles George QC, Dean of the Arches, is contained in the papers for the meeting here, here, and here. Unsurprisingly, the prospect of a “no confidence” vote has generated significant media attention in addition to numerous comments in the religion blogosphere, summarized here, here, and here.
In view of the high profile of Friday’s debate, members of the House of Laity might ponder the following:
- What will be achieved by holding this debate?
- Is this a responsible use of Church resources?
- Has the issue been discussed in the parishes/deaneries/dioceses other than between members of the House of Laity? If not, on what basis are the views of these groups to be represented?
- What message is the meeting likely send to those outside the Church (and to those within who were not consulted)?
- How does this fit into the bigger picture of: a] the ordination of women into episcopate; and b] synodical governance?
In his blog, James Townsend suggests
“The debate has the potential to be deeply divisive, and put on display the most un-Christian and unattractive qualities of vengefulness, animosity and contempt. I believe, however, that there is an opportunity to use the debate for constructive purposes – to lay the foundations of a dialogue which will lead to a solution of the wretched problem we face.”
With regard to the first point, an outsider might conclude that the aftermath of the debate on 20th November has already demonstrated elements of these undesirable traits – some might describe the present state of the Church of England as “episcopally led, synodically structured, and factionally divided”.
Whilst constructive debate may provide a short-term way forward, certain underlying problems relating to the governance of the Church remain: the separation of powers, discussed in an earlier post; and the election and role of members of diocesan synods/General Synod, discussed here.
With regard to the latter, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry reported to the House on 6th December 2012 that
“In July 2011 the Synod decided to ask for alternatives to the present electoral system to be further explored. The review group’s report is due to come to the General Synod this coming year, [emphasis added]”.
Given the expected media interest in Friday’s debate, rather than play catch-up as with the House of Bishops’ statement on civil partnerships¸ here, the Church might consider taking control of the agenda and publish interim findings of the review group, so as to further inform the debate.
Following the debate which was described as “often fractious and angry debate”, the motion of no confidence was eventually defeated by 80-47, with 13 abstentions. Subsequently Dr Giddings announced his intention to remain in office, but indicated that he would take “careful advice from colleagues” about how to proceed, and in particular engage in “some kind of debate about what are the expectations of chair and vice chair in matters of this kind”.