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Q&A: The general synod

General Synod meets at Church House, London, in February 2005
The synod is no stranger to debating controversial issues
The Archbishop of Canterbury is expected to use his address to the Church of England general synod to respond to the row over his Sharia law comments. Here is a brief guide to a body that often finds itself under the spotlight.

What is a synod?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an assembly of the clergy of a particular church, nation, province, or diocese, sometimes with representatives of the laity, to discuss and decide ecclesiastical affairs.

So what is the general synod?

The national assembly of the Church of England - effectively its parliament. Established in 1970, it replaced the Church Assembly and continues a tradition of synodical government dating from medieval times.

Is there anything unusual about it?

It is the only body with powers delegated from parliament to pass so-called "measures" which are incorporated into English law. They have the full force and effect of an act of parliament and can apply to any Church-related matter.

How does the process work?

MPs and peers can vote to agree or reject a measure, but cannot amend it. Once agreed by both houses of parliament, it goes for Royal Assent and becomes law.

Who attends the synod and how often does it meet?

There are 482 members divided into three houses: bishops, clergy, laity. Lay members are the largest element and are elected by dioceses.

Each synod is elected for five years. It meets in February at Church House in Westminster and in July at the University of York, for up to five days each time. A third meeting is sometimes held in London in November.

What does it do?

It debates church business, relations with other churches, and topical issues. It also elects some members to the Archbishops' Council.

Have there been any controversial synods?

In 1992 the general synod voted to ordain women priests by a margin of just two votes. In 1993 it passed the Act of Synod setting up an official structure to enable parishes to refuse women's ministry. Recent meetings have been dominated by rows over the Church's attitude to homosexuality.

What's on the agenda this time?

Before the storm over sharia law, Dr Williams was expected to tackle issues facing the Anglican Communion in the run-up to the forthcoming Lambeth Conference, including problems faced by the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe.

Other issues up for debate include government plans to extend detention without charge of terrorist suspects, mental health services, and policy on casinos.

Terms of service for clergy and plans for limiting the prime minister's say over senior Church of England appointments will be also be discussed along with the Anglican Covenant, which proposes a new structure for dealing with disputes within the worldwide church - such as the row over gay priests.

Are there any innovations this year?

Electronic voting will be in operation for the first time, with electronic key pads used when more than a show of hands is required.

Can the synod censure the archbishop?

No. It would be for an individual to make a complaint by writing to Lambeth Palace.

It would then go to a diocesan registrar to consider whether to proceed under the terms of the Clergy Discipline Measure. It is highly unlikely Dr Williams' comments would be regarded as serious enough for a complaint to be upheld.

The synod has powers to hold emergency debates but these are rare.

Williams 'shocked' at Sharia row
08 Feb 08 |  UK Politics

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