According to the latest ‘scoop’ from the Daily Telegraph, Dr Jeffrey John has now been “blocked” from becoming the next Bishop of Southwark — a report which suggests either that the current sessions of the Crown Nominations Commission include their own ‘Deep Cantor’ or that someone is, to use the vernacular, ‘having a laugh’ feeding stories to the press.
In this regard, a couple of points need to be made.
First, I am not aware — though I am open to correction — that either the Commission or “senior Church figures” can ‘block’ the appointment of someone as a bishop, since this lies directly in the gift of the Crown.
It is worth remembering that the protocol regarding episcopal appointments, whereby the Commission puts forward preferred names for consideration, was brought into existence in 1976 on the personal initiative of the then-Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan. Prior to that, the final choice of bishops was made by the Prime Minister alone, acting on the advice of his Appointments Secretary. The background can be read in Colin Buchanan’s Cut the Connection, whilst the Church Times website carries from September 1960 an entire letter from David Stephens, the Appointments Secretary to Harold MacMillan, which gives a fascinating insight into how these things used to work.
The recommendations of the Nominations Commission are, therefore, just that, and it is strongly rumoured that past Prime Ministers (including — it is said — both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair) have indeed rejected names that were put forward. By the same token (though it might now cause a constitutional crisis of its own), I imagine it is theoretically possible that the Prime Minister could revert to the old system and simply nominate a candidate of his own choice.
All this is simply by way of saying that speculation seems to be abounding not merely about names but about processes.
The second point is that the proceedings of the Commission are (supposedly) confidential. There is therefore no way of really knowing what has been said — if anything at all. Even if someone has been speaking to journalists, these stories presumably cannot reliably be cross-checked. There is no doubt that there has been considerable speculation. There is at least a chance that there has also been deliberate manipulation. The best policy from this point forward regarding specific names is doubtless a studied silence: “Hear a rumour, squash a rumour.”
What this does raise, however, is a serious question about how so-called ‘preferment’ operates in the Church of England. Wikipedia is not wrong when it describes the appointment of bishops as “a somewhat convoluted process, reflecting the church’s traditional tendency towards compromise and ad hoc solutions, traditional ambiguity between hierarchy and democracy, and traditional role as a semi-autonomous state church.”
As is often the case in the Church of England, it is also a process which maintains the appearance of quiet dignity whilst concealing the political shenanigans which are inevitably involved. Despite the election of some members of the Commission, disproportionate influence is repeatedly wielded by the same individuals, and whilst confidentiality is meant to avoid just the sort of brouhaha we have seen in the past few days, it means the final choice is somewhat foisted on dioceses, rather than being given their due consideration in advance.
One result is a stream of rather ‘clone-ish’ candidates. Given that Anglican clergy tend to have a similar personality type anyway, I am sure this is even more so for bishops. Even my wife (not given to ecclesio-political enthusiasm) burst out once, “Why are they all the same?”
Perhaps, given the choice, Southwark generally would have gone for Jeffrey John, and perhaps this would have been an unwise decision. Given the current state of the Church of England, however, I cannot say when it comes to the appointments process this is a case of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It would be a good outcome, in my view, if what all this actually led to was a review of the ‘appointers’, rather than the just ‘appointees’.
John P RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
8 July 2010
8 July 2010