19 August 2022

Sydney’s General Synod membership predominance continues in 2022

St Andrew’s Cathedral Sydney. Picture: iStock

By Colin Reilly 

27 April 2022

The list of General Synod members for the 2022 session on the Gold Coast in May has been released. So I ask, who makes up the General Synod and how representative is it? Well, the data shows it is skewed towards those already in positions of authority or influence. And, it is possible the system also favours wealthier diocese. 

The membership is governed by a table attached to the national constitution which provides for all diocesan bishops to be members, and then a number of clerical and lay representatives. 

These representatives are based on a quota system in proportion to the number of clergy in each diocese. There is one representative from the clergy and one lay representative for every twenty clergy who are either incumbents (whether or not stipendiary) or engaged in full-time or near full-time stipendiary ministry. This comes with a proviso that, notwithstanding the quota calculation, every diocese is entitled to at least one clerical and one lay representative as well as its bishop. The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission also nominates an episcopal, two clerical and two lay members.  

Read more: Women, families and same-sex marriage on the agenda for General Synod

The constitution is silent on how each diocese is to select its clerical and lay representatives. 

Based on this, the 2022 General Synod has a total membership entitlement of 250. Three of those positions are currently vacant, two lay in Syndey and one lay Indigenous member. The total number of membership entitlements is 10 lower than the last General Synod in 2017. The proportion of members from the rural dioceses remains the same, at about 22 per cent. But there is now one more diocese with that minimum of three members – its bishop, one clerical, one lay – added to the seven of these existing in 2017. 

Sydney as the largest diocese is now entitled to 73 members compared to 71 in 2017. Melbourne’s share is unchanged with 37 member places in 2022. Sydney is the only diocese to its increase numbers in General Synod in 2022, while Adelaide, Bathurst, Brisbane, Canberra and Goulburn, and Perth have all lost members. 

It could be said that the constitutional formula, with its emphasis on the ability to pay clergy, favours the better off dioceses. If places were allocated according to the number of Anglican dioceses as measured by the census, Sydney would have 47 members (19 per cent), Melbourne would have 29 members, and the rural dioceses 58. 

The gender balance has been slowly changing from 28 per cent female in 2014 to 29 per cent in 2017 and 33 per cent in 2022. At this rate gender parity may be achieved in about 2049. 

Read more: First ever livestream for General Synod

So, how stable is General Synod’s membership?  

Ninety-seven members (or 39 per cent) were not at the 2017 session. Five of the 23 diocesan bishops are new to General Synod, while another nine were clerical members in 2017, and one was translated from Gippsland to Perth. On the other hand, the “father” of General Synod, Dr Robert Tong of Sydney, has been a member since 1981. Twenty-seven members in 2022 began their General Synod service more than twenty years ago – twenty of them lay people. The senior clerk is our Archbishop Philip Freier, who when a member for the now defunct Diocese of Carpentaria in 1987 was the youngest clerical member of General Synod. 

The House of Bishops not only exercises its own authority in the General Synod, it also has influence on some of the members who occupy positions normally appointed by the diocesan bishop. Among the clergy there are 16 assistant bishops and nine cathedral deans. Among the laity there are nine diocesan registrars (or similar positions) and nine who are law officers (chancellor, advocate etc) in the dioceses they represent.  

Fifty of the clerical members are parish priests with a further five assistant clergy, making up 50 per cent of the House of Clergy. In contrast, about 75 per cent of all active clergy are engaged in parish ministry. The defence force and other chaplaincy areas are hardly represented at all. On the other hand, as befits a body seeking to make informed decisions, some six or so clerical members are engaged in theological education. 

So you read in these numbers how the membership of the General Synod is skewed towards those already in positions of authority or influence. This is hardly surprising given the high expectations of the General Synod despite its relatively small influence on day-to-day ministry – our Australian ecclesiology gives a stronger place to the dioceses than other national Anglican churches. Does its composition matter? Perhaps not, but a more representative body might attract more respect. 

Colin Reilly has been a general synod lay representative for Melbourne since 1985. 

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