Church of Ireland to decide on slashing size of general synod for first time in 151 years

The Church of Ireland’s annual congress – the general synod – starts today, and high on the agenda is a proposal to significantly shrink the number of delegates.
Stained-glass depictions of Jesus Christ from Rathfriland Church of IrelandStained-glass depictions of Jesus Christ from Rathfriland Church of Ireland
Stained-glass depictions of Jesus Christ from Rathfriland Church of Ireland

The plan is to cut the size of its House of Representatives by 18%, going from 648 members at present down to 534.

A church source told the News Letter that this is believed to be the first such cut to synod numbers since the current system entered existence in 1870.

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The bill proposing the cut does not state the reasons for it, but it is thought to be linked to the decline in the number of Church of Ireland worshippers and ministers over the course of the past several decades.

If agreed, the change will be in stages, with the final figure of 534 being arrived at by the year 2027.

The general synod is effectively like the church’s equivalent of a parliament.

It is made up of two main bodies – the House of Bishops, and the House of Representatives.

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The House of Representatives includes both clergy and non-clergy, who hold their posts for three years.

The numbers per diocese vary dramatically, with the biggest being Connor (32 clergy and 64 lay members) and the smallest being Tuam, Killala and Anchonry (seven clergy and 14 lay members).

This year the synod is meeting via the internet, rather than in person, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The synod-slashing bill will be debated both today and on the last day, Saturday.

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Canon Ian Ellis, a retired former editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette, said: “The question of synodical representation has been under recurring consideration within the Church of Ireland for many years.

“It has been difficult to arrive at a formula that appropriately balances numerical with geographical representation. The proposals coming before the synod this year seem to me to be a reasonable attempt to do this.

“The matter has clearly been very carefully researched and considered.

“Many people, including myself, will be interested to see how the bill fares.

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“Certainly, the general synod has been a very large gathering and members have greatly valued the opportunity to meet so many other fellow synod members from across Ireland. It has been a great meeting point for the church, north and south, east and west.

“I, for one, have always greatly valued the friendships formed over the years with representatives from near and far.”

The past year has seen the church publicly wrestle with the divide between orthodox members and reformers – most obviously in the case of gay / transgender activist and minister Andrew Rawding, who quit his office because he felt the overall church was not transforming quickly enough concerning LGBTQI+ matters.

However, there is no mention of this issue either in the bills being presented, or in the 300-page-thick bundle of annual reports from various parts of the church.

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One item which does stand out however it a promise by the church to “divest from companies involved in fossil fuel extraction by 2022” to reflect its commitment to the environment.

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