Monday, 14 May 2007

Why Gordon Brown must take care over who appoints the bishops

The good news is that, if he becomes Pime Minister, Gordon Brown will want to surrender some of the control the UK government currently exercises over the appointment of the Church of England's diocesan bishops and cathedral deans.

The bad news is that this power will promptly be snapped up by the existing Anglican hierarchy who have already demonstrated their inadequacy to the task.

How can we be so sure that will be the result? Because the Church of England itself has already signalled as much in the report on the appointments process delivered by Baroness Perry to the General Synod in 2001 (download the pdf file here). Debate on the matter is effectively closed by paragraph 1.44:

"Some of those who have made submissions to us have expressed a wish for an electoral system more comparable with those of other Anglican churches to be adopted in the Church of England. The submissions made to us do not, however, suggest that such a change would enjoy widespread support, nor would we favour such a change. What we have said about vocation in paras 1.19–1.26 above means that we would not be happy with a system which allowed public campaigning by or on behalf of candidates, in which candidates were publicly identified, or in which consideration was restricted to those willing to stand for election and appear before the electors."

Instead, the report proposes that the current turkeys should continue to vote against Christmas. The paragraph continues,

"These factors would not apply to an electoral college system such as those practised in Ireland and Wales, but we do not believe that, at least in the English context, the careful and frank discussion which is possible in a small commission could take place in a meeting of around 50 people."

What happens at the moment, of course, is that an even smaller cabal, largely consisting of people who are part of, or are appointed by, the existing hierarchy, puts forward two names to the Prime Minister of which one is chosen by him and sent to the Queen. This itself is a relative innovation, having been introduced when Jim Callaghan was Prime Minister. Prior to that, the Church had very little say at all.

The system itself is a relic of feudalism - indeed, it is probably the longest-surviving example of living feudalism in the country, if not the world. It is based on the understanding that bishops and clergy are an arm of the state, ruled over by the godly monarch whose authority derives from God alone. The payoff is that the Archbishop gets to crown the king, and provided one accepts the basic thesis, the system makes sense.

The problem is, of course, almost no-one, least of all in the Anglican hierarchy, accepts the thesis. We are all democrats now, except when it comes to running the Church of England.

But of course, as Perry shows, the last thing the hierarchy wants is democracy when it comes to appointing those who will work alongside, and one day replace, them. God forbid that the people who make up the Church should decide who runs it.

Even under the present system, the appointments process is almost entirely controlled by the existing bishops. What happens is this: the Crown Nominations Commission chooses the names that will go forward for so-called 'preferment'. But the hierarchy itself draws up the list of clergy who are suitable candidates. Moreover, most diocesan bishops are appointed from existing suffragans (assistant bishops), and suffragans are appointed by diocesan bishops, so the system is already a self-perpetuating oligarchy.

This might not be such a problem were the system not demonstrably biased despite being allegedly fair. Since the passage of the Measure to allow women priests, for exapmle, fewer and fewer bishops have been appointed from the ranks of those opposed to this, even though the Church of England is supposed to be in a period of 'reception' and even though, legally, a person's position of women's ministry is not supposed to be a factor in deciding their suitability for such appointments. Indeed, I have heard it rumoured (one stage removed from the person concerned) that a potential suffragan was told he simply would not be appointed if he was opposed to women's ordination.

Again, Conservative Evangelicals are almost entirely excluded from the ranks of senior appointments, whether cathedral deans, archdeacons, suffragan bishops or diocesans. At present there are a number of evangelical bishops, though nowhere near in proportion to the number of evangelical laity in parishes, but there is precisely one Conservative Evangelical, namely Wallace Benn, the Bishop of Lewes.

This observation is not simply my opinion or a matter of sour grapes. A year or so back I was at a meeting organised by a charming and sincere Evangelical suffragan bishop where he himself made the observation that Evangelicals generally, and Conservative Evangelicals in particular, are grossly under-represented amongst the English bishops, whereas Liberal Catholics are present (certainly in the wider ranks of the hierarchy) in abundance.

Yet what the Church of England needs more than anything at the moment is direction and leadership in evangelism. Falling church rolls will not be reversed by well-intentioned hopes that things might get better, or by encouraging congregations who do evangelise to see themselves as part of a wider, mixed economy, of congregations which generally don't.

It is past time that the hierarchy of the Church was opened up both to criticism and to the possibility of advance through effort, not just through knowing the right people and fitting in with what is going on.

Gordon Brown may simply want to get rid of what he sees as an inconvenience or an anomaly. We in the Church, however, must not allow him to drop this gift into the lap of those who already have too much power and handle it poorly.

Revd John P Richardson
14 May 2007

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