General Synod: A Primer

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Members of the 41st General Synod, in Richmond Hill, Ont., wait their turn to speak July 11, 2016. Photo: Art Babych

More than 350 Anglicans from across Canada—delegates, partners, invited guests, displayers, volunteers and observers—will gather July 10-16 in Vancouver for the 42nd General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. While there, delegates will consider resolutions affecting the whole church.

General Synod is the highest governing body in the church. Although the Anglican Church of Canada is a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, it has final authority over its own affairs. It can pass, alter and strike down its own laws—or, in church parlance, canons.

The General Synod meets every three years, unless otherwise determined by Council of General Synod (CoGS), provided such meetings are not more than five years apart.

Who Is General Synod?

General Synod is composed of clergy and lay delegates—who are elected at the diocesan synods of every diocese in the Anglican Church of Canada—and the church’s bishops.

These delegates are divided into three orders: the Order of Laity, the Order of Clergy and the Order of Bishops. The Order of Bishops includes the primate; provincial metropolitans; diocesan bishops; coadjutor and suffragan bishops; assistant bishops who have been designated by the synod/executive of their dioceses and who exercise episcopal duties within those dioceses; the Bishop Ordinary to the Canadian Forces; and the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop.

While members are elected at diocesan synods, they are not considered to be their representatives; they are free to vote however they choose.

General Synod also includes several voting officers: president and chairperson (the primate); prolocutor; deputy prolocutor; general secretary; and chancellor. The treasurer is able to participate in discussions but may not vote.

How does General Synod create and change its canons?

The General Synod is a legislative body, which means it has the power to draft, change and enact laws through a process of voting.

For a canon to be changed, a resolution must be submitted to the general secretary of the church. CoGS, a committee of General Synod, a diocese or an individual delegate can initiate a motion.

When a resolution comes before synod, it must be moved and seconded before debate can begin. The mover is given five minutes to introduce the motion, after which each member has a chance to speak on the matter for up to three minutes. Resolutions that come before the synod may be voted upon, but they can also be amended, postponed (to a specific time or indefinitely), referred for study, tabled (ending discussion without decision) or voted upon clause by clause.

Some matters of business only require a simple majority, while a vote to approve or change a canon requires a two-thirds majority in each order (lay, clergy and bishops). If the canon deals with doctrine, worship or discipline, it must be voted on in two consecutive synods before the change can take effect. However, even in the case of simple majority votes, if six members ask for a vote by orders, the synod must vote by orders.

If a motion is defeated, another motion dealing with the same issue can only be brought to the floor of synod if two-thirds of the members vote to allow it. If the motion has to do with a canon, however, it must await the next General Synod.

What about the voting error in 2016?

In 2016, General Synod received international media attention when an error occurred during voting on a first reading of changes to the marriage canon. At first, it appeared General Synod rejected the measure—but closer examination revealed it had passed.

“The error in recording the vote on Resolution A051-r2 came as a result of an error of classification,” says Archdeacon Michael Thompson, general secretary of General Synod. “I was listed among the lay members, rather than among the clergy.”

The result: Thompson’s positive vote was recorded among the laity, where the resolution passed by a substantial margin above the two-thirds required.  “As it turns out, its re-classification as a result of a re-examination of the print-out of the vote meant that the two-thirds margin was realized in the clergy vote, and the resolution was passed at first reading.”

The general secretary says the problem became apparent when members of the clergy reported that their votes, cast in favour of the resolution, were not reported. “This came to light when the synod voted to request immediate disclosure of the record of the vote. In reviewing that record, the mis-classification of my vote was discovered, and the further question of unrecorded positive votes became moot.”

Steps have been taken to avoid this kind of error in Vancouver, Thompson says. “In 2019, the company we have engaged has assured us that they will create a process by which members can confirm that their vote has been recorded,” he says. “In addition, electronic voting will be audited by an external reviewer. The credentials committee has been asked to exercise vigilance with respect to the listing of members by order.”

With thanks to André Forget for his work in 2016, “A General Synod explainer,” the foundation upon which this article was built.

Correction notice: Contrary to a previous version of this article, the vice-chancellor is not a member of General Synod.

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Matthew Townsend
Matthew Townsend has worked in editorial, journalistic, and web development roles with a variety of organizations, including the The Living Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, NY, and the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida. He is a member of Episcopal Communicators and has consulted with a variety of ecumenical organizations, including Atlantic School of Theology, the Presbyterian Endowment Network, and the Associated Church Press.

6 COMMENTS

  1. There is an error in the above precis.
    “Many people who attend meetings are confused by motions and the rules concerning them. The most common misconception is that a motion requires only two things to be debatable, a mover and a seconder. Overlooked is the third and most vital element, acceptance by the Chair. For example, a motion would be unacceptable if it concerned some business beyond the authority of the meeting.
    “Acceptance is what makes a motion a formal part of the meeting, and only after acceptance by the Chair does it become debatable. Once a motion is accepted it becomes the property of the meeting.” Call to Order, Meeting Rules and Procedures for Non-profit Organizations, Herb Perry. 1984

  2. Dear David,

    Thanks for this comment. I do not believe there is an error in the article—I reached out to David Jones, Q.C., chancellor of General Synod, with your comment, and he replied with the following:

    General Synod uses the Rules of Order and Procedure contained in the Handbook, supplemented by Kerr & King’s Procedures for Meetings and Organizations (2nd ed.). We do not use Perry (or Roberts Rules of Order). Although there is considerable similarity among all of the authorities on procedure, there are some differences.

    Our Rules do not contain a general requirement of a positive act or step of acceptance of a motion by the presiding officer; it is usually implicit in moving on to debate. However, the presiding officer does have the ability to make a determination about whether a motion is in order, and a member can also always raise that question; and ultimately General Synod as a whole would determine any appeal from the presiding officer’s ruling.

    Once a motion has been properly moved and seconded, it becomes the property of the assembly, and cannot be withdrawn without the consent of General Synod: Rule 16 d).

    In addition, the presiding officer has a general discretion about which speaker to recognize, and when.

    Rule 16 g) does give the presiding officer discretion not to accept a motion that debate be closed if the presiding officer is of the opinion that the motion to close debate is an abuse of the rules or would deny members of the synod an adequate opportunity for discussion.

    So: I do not think the description in the Journal is inaccurate, but it is made in the context of all of our particular rules, including the role of the presiding officer.

    • Hello Mr. Townsend: I was reacting to the sentence :”when a resolution comes before synod it must be moved and seconded before it can be debated”. I am quite surprised by the Chancellor’s response. so, the rules we follow do not require a positive act “by the presiding officer”? So, a motion becomes debatable if it is “properly moved and seconded”? That assumes the mover and the seconder are well intentioned persons, and are acting without malevolent intentions!!!!My complaint with the resolutions brought before General Synod is their foucs on procedures and process. For example, the resolution by Ms. Bull, I forget the number, C003?. (GS 2013) it read “That this Synod direct the Council of General Synod to prepare a future motion that would…….” That resolution was a most peculiar one, it was manipulative (focusing on proceduralism), and it lacked any statement of a Christian belief or principle. I have come to the conclusion General Synods are not being properly “chaired”, and I believe the “chairman” or the “presiding officer” ought to have real authority.

  3. It is striking how often the word “vote” appears in the text, to the point where one might be forgiven for thinking that was the main or only purpose of a synod. If that were so, it would be a lot cheaper to stay home and have a series of electronic referenda. But a synod is called so that representatives of the church (and yes, they are representatives) can come together to worship, pray, discern, deliberate, even argue with one another, so that we can respond to God’s call and participate in God’s mission as a body.

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