Thursday, 22 November 2012

The statistics of representation

I promised in my last post to say something about the things which are going around the web which I think are unhelpful.

One is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way General Synod operates. How can it be that it voted down something which was overwhelmingly approved by the Dioceses (42 to 44), and which has such significant support in the wider Church? Well the answer is that our representative system doesn't work the way that these questions presuppose.

Yes, they are skewed towards the pressure groups and factionalism that political processes formalize. But how could they not be so? How many Members of Parliament are not members of a pressure group or faction(/party)? And yes, General Synod is skewed towards those with time and resources to be able to attend meetings - but tell me which church council isn't!

Most important to remember, General Synod members are not elected simply to vote in accordance with the views of those who elected them. How are they supposed to know those views? From opinion polls? But how many polls are broken down on a Diocese by Diocese basis? How many include only regular church-goers? Perhaps from the letters they get then? And I'm sure many members do take full account of letters. But these will be not much more representative than the Synod members themselves: the same people who care enough about Church politics to write letters are those who put themselves forward for elections.

No, Synod, members are elected on the basis of having knowledge and experience of the Church, of the Bible, of theology, perhaps even for their known spiritual life. They are, in short, relatively expert in the kind of thing Synod discusses. How many people "in the pews" really understand what Synod was discussing? Or have taken time to familiarize themselves with the theological and biblical arguments on each side? Precious few, I would hazard to guess. And why should they, really? We have representatives to do that stuff for us. Again there is the parallel to MPs (consider how many MPs would vote for the restoration of the death sentence(very few) and what opinion polls tell us of the public's views).

And we should remember that the Diocesan Synods are generally somewhat less expert than General Synods (like local councils to Parliament). Moreover, if the Diocesan Synods had used the same system of 2/3rd majority in each of three houses it would have been passed in 33 of them, rather than 42 of 44. So 25% would have been against, a much larger minority than the debate tends to acknowledge.

Diocesan and General Synod votes cannot be directly compared, of course, because the memberships are different, and they are voting at different stages in a legislative process (so the psychology of members will be different accordingly).

There again, if a survey this year is to be believed, 31% of regular Anglican church-goers want to see women as bishops either never or when there is consensus with other churches. Now since 36% of the House of Laity voted against the Measure, compared to 23% of Clergy and only 6% of Bishops, it turns out that the Laity were more in line with the mind of the Church than the others. I don't suppose anyone is proposing to reform the Houses of Bishops or Clergy to bring them into line.

The Synodical system isn't perfect, and reform may be appropriate. But before we start to make changes, let's make sure we understand what we've got properly.

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