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Monday, 6 February 2006

On legislating by walking around - (2) 6Feb2006

The CofE has some marvellously quaint customs. It still (as indeed does Parliament...). Where knowing the numbers is critical - voters go between ‘tellers’ to count them. Yes, that’s right; the whole Synod, one-by-one, exiting through the relevant doors of the chamber, are tallied. Today’s first business was not as the full General Synod, but in (some might argue the more significant bodies) Convocations.

That is the Convocation of the Province of Canterbury. (Or apparently York...: but I don't mean to jest though, as not only was I ordained in the Northern Province, and served two very formative curacies there; I also had a daughter born there, eligible to play in the Yorkshire cricket team. If they only let girls play. And if only she played cricket. And if only they had not now opened up the playing of cricket for ‘God’s own County’s cricket team to almost anyone, or at least almost anyone who can help beat Lancashire: but there I digress from one quaint custom to another.)

So there we are, gathered in the Southern Convocation, with some legislative business to go through. Legislative is making the church law - but in this case, the CofE being ‘established’, it is making the Law of the Land. And in Convocation, voting takes place by voting in ‘houses’ - that is the upper house of clergy, or bishops as we otherwise know them; and the lower house of, er, clergy, voting separately. (There is also another ‘house’, of the not ordained-as-clergy-at-all, or sometimes known as the laity, or perhaps more accurately as the majority of the real church. They, wisely, meet separately so as not to be dragged into too many clericalised discussions. Actually even the lower house of clergy had a chance to dismiss the episcopate when they were done voting, and make some decisions all of our own. Perhaps the General Synod as a whole also ought to meet like that - and decide like that - more often.)

Out of courtesy, or obeisance, or a tradition steeped so long in time we can remember not why: voting in houses in convocation always allows bishops to go first. Now why is that? Is that for them to give us a good lead? Or for us to see which of them are being the naughty bishops, and stepping out on their own? Or to make them all stick together for the sake of the family in front of the kids? The family that prays together stays together? The CofE could certainly do with a good dose of that just now!

So “DECIDE” comes the command, and the lower house also votes. By walking out. Colleagues around me mutter about the waste of time; would a show of hands not do; could there not be some better way; in this day and age...

Well apparently there are better ways. This is the last Synod to take place in the Church House as is in Westminster. On Thursday the Synod - ended - walks out; and on Friday the builders walk in. And held in their hands as they walk in, comes electronic voting. It’s the way forward, don’t you know? Ask the Audience on Millionaire has been doing it for years. Instant results. Bar charts. The scores on the doors. I can see it now. It probably does make sense really.

However a little part of me will be sad. Sad that now even the Synod voting will be rushed through in an instant by an anonymous press of a button. Somehow getting up and walking to where you are going to place your vote - here I stand - being seen to be counted, will be gone when we once more return to the Westminster Synod Chamber. I am sure some version of ‘electronic tracking’ will also be available to legitimate those voting; and possibly to inspect how our votes were cast, should anyone (who? our upper house colleagues?) wish to check up on us.

But the queuing, the chatting to someone on the way, the thinking time, the exercise and leg-stretching, and the necessary and justifiable quaint-ness - will be gone.

Alastair GS101

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