Comments: Elections Review Group - part 1

I was amused by the fax point. Email I could have understood...

Posted by Richard Gillin at Thursday, 20 June 2013 at 2:15pm BST


I think it's more than a little dangerous to propose abolishing the university seats, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are peculiar jurisdictions. Among other things, that means that pastoral statements from bishops are not binding on either clergy or laity who are among the "Chancellor, Masters and Scholars" of either university. That independence from the bishops is enshrined in public law (Order in Council of 21st June 1636), and since 2005, it has been of some practical importance in creating a pair of havens where it is possible for civil partnership blessings to take place. To make clergy in the universities dependent on the possession of a bishop's licence for their ability to participate in House of Clergy elections undermines that independence by the back door.

Secondly, and relatedly, when an ordained person in one of those two universities holds a bishop's licence, it always creates a potential conflict of interest, at least for those who take the Oath of Canonical Obedience seriously. This is because of a difference in wording between the Oath as it appears in the ordination ceremony and the oath as it is adminstered during licensing. The oath at licensing is taken to "the Lord Bishop of C and his successors", whereas the oath at ordination is taken to "my ordinary". For anyone who is among the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of one of the two universities, "my ordinary" is not a bishop, but the Chancellor of the University [*].

Thirdly, if one includes the laity, it is not at all true to say that the constituencies are "very small". The total number of people among the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge, for example, is around a quarter of a million (almost all of them in the "Masters" category by virtue of holding an MA), so if anything, the peculiar is rather under-represented by having just one seat in one house of General Synod.

[*] or, for those in the handful of colleges that are peculiars in their own right, the head of house of the college.

Posted by Feria at Friday, 21 June 2013 at 11:31pm BST

The constituencies for the university seats may be large, but the point the Business Committee makes is that the actual electorate is both tiny and in some cases even unknown. If the seats aren't abolished, there certainly needs to be some radical reform.

Posted by Helen at Saturday, 22 June 2013 at 3:25pm BST

Dear Helen,

I think the position I've persuaded myself into (having not thought very much about this before last night) is that Cambridge University (and presumably, by analogy, Oxford University too) ought to have a seat in the House of Laity as well as its existing seat in the House of Clergy. In that case, the electorate would be the full quarter of a million or so people I mentioned, not just the thirty people to whom GS 1901 alludes.

Posted by Feria at Saturday, 22 June 2013 at 8:19pm BST

Pace Feria, I am not sure that it is correct that the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the two universities are outside the jurisidiction of the Bishops of Oxford and Ely. A couple of Oxford colleges chapels are considered to still be under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Lincoln, but the rest are certainly under the ecclesiasitical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Oxford. (Rule of thumb: who consecrated the college chapel? In all cases it will probably have been the diocesan bishop)

I think that Cambridge college chaplains are licensed by the Bishop of Ely.

As for lay members of the universities, most of us are resident electors in other dioceses -- and it would be somewhat iniquitous to give us votes in two constituencies. Such things were abolished for parliamentary elections in the 1940s.

Posted by Simon Kershaw at Saturday, 22 June 2013 at 8:58pm BST


Simon: 'I am not sure that it is correct that the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the two universities are outside the jurisidiction of the Bishops of Oxford and Ely'

They are indeed - confirmation in modern times can be found in P. Barber, 1995, _Ecclesiastical Law Journal_ *3*(16):299-312. As I said, the legislation governing this is an Order in Council of 21st June 1636, the relevant clause of which is:

'on the behalf of both Universities, that though they were to be visited by the Archbishop and his successors, yet that they should not be visited by the Bishop of the diocese, or Archdeacon, but should perpetually remain free and exempt from the visitation and jurisdiction of the Bishop and Archdeacon of the places where they are.'

(the next couple of clauses place some limitations on the Archbishop's right to visit as well).

Simon: 'I think that Cambridge college chaplains are licensed by the Bishop of Ely.'

Certainly some of them are, and as I said above, it creates the potential for a conflict of interest.

'As for lay members of the universities, most of us are resident electors in other dioceses -- and it would be somewhat iniquitous to give us votes in two constituencies.'

I think "most" is a considerable exaggeration. (Apart from anything else, if "most" of the Oxford and Cambridge Masters were on the electoral rolls in the dioceses, we'd form about 20% of the total CofE lay electorate, because, as we've been discussing on another thread, the electoral rolls in the dioceses are generally so incomplete.)

Nevertheless, you're correct to say that, if the peculiar universities did get representation in the House of Laity, it would be quite wrong for the same layperson to be registered as an elector both in their peculiar university and in a diocese.

Posted by Feria at Saturday, 22 June 2013 at 11:50pm BST

It seems rather bizarre to me to retain separate representation for Oxford and Cambridge universities and abolish it for the rest! Do we still live in the nineteenth century?

Posted by Helen at Sunday, 23 June 2013 at 11:27pm BST

Helen: 'Do we still live in the nineteenth century?'

You've rumbled me. Yes, I am rather inclined to regard the period between 1829 and 1865 (after the emancipation of Catholics, before the removal of the Oath of Supremacy from the public consecration service for bishops) as a golden age for Church governance [although as we know, it wasn't at all a golden age for social justice, nor for popular democracy].

But on a more serious note: a special position in the electoral system for Oxford and Cambridge follows naturally from basing the electoral system on dioceses, because Oxford and Cambridge are the two universities that are, by law, outside the dioceses.

If you want a theological justification for those universities in particular to be outside the diocesan system in the first place, I guess it's rooted in the purpose of the episcopacy. To the best of my understanding, the reason we have an episcopacy is that the unbroken apostolic succession provides a "chain of trust", analogous to those used in modern digital security. The chain goes all the way back to "root certificate authorities" provided by Polycarp's generation of bishops, who were in personal communication with the authors of the New Testament. Therefore, they were in a position to confirm that the books of the New Testament really were written by the people by whom they purport to be written.

Oxford and Cambridge Universities can short-circuit the need for this "chain of trust" by their possession of ancient manuscripts. (I suppose that increasingly, as the universities and others scan their ancient manuscripts and make them available online, we're _all_ becoming able to short-circuit the need for the "chain of trust".)

Posted by Feria at Monday, 24 June 2013 at 10:24pm BST
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