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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 Church of England's legislative body, the synod, meets twice-yearly to discuss issues relating to the running of the national Church. This week delegates will gather in London to hear the latest news on moves to ordain women bishops, as well as debates on religion and the media, and the breakaway Anglican Church in the US. The Archbishop of Canterbury will also address the meeting on Tuesday. 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 - in effect 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. The arrangement exists because the Church of England is the "established" or state Church.

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. In 2008 the controversial decision was made to press ahead with ordaining women bishops, giving only limited concessions to the traditionalists who opposed it.

What's on the agenda this time?

Delegates are looking forward to hearing how the Church plans to implement the introduction of women bishops - once the first one is elected. At issue is the extent to which traditionalists are "protected" from having to serve under a woman bishop.

However, the committee charged with refining the legislation has already admitted that it has not managed to finish its work.

Both supporters and opponents of women bishops are impatient about the delay in finishing the debate.

Relations with Anglicans in North America will be in the spotlight again, with a call for the Church to recognise conservative dioceses in the US, which have broken away from the mainstream Episcopal Church over its liberal approach to homosexuality.

There will also be a proposal calling on the government to help pay the huge cost of maintaining the Church's 12,000 medieval buildings, many of them listed.

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