Boards and councils: Revolt against central streamlining

by
15 July 2009

Swinging the lead: the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham

Swinging the lead: the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham

THE SYNOD has thrown out the Baxter group’s proposals to abolish most of the Church’s central boards and councils and replace them with a less formal system revolving around “lead persons” and scrutinised by synodical review groups.

Instead, it wants new proposals tailored to each particular area of responsibility, and involving Synod members in the deliberative process rather than in scrutiny after decisions have already been taken, it decided on Sunday afternoon.

The chairman of the House of Laity, Dr Christina Baxter (South­well & Nottingham), who also chaired the review group, introduced a motion that the Synod would “welcome the further report of the Constitutions Review Group, endorse its recommendations, and invite the Archbishops’ Council and the Stand­ing Orders Committee to take the steps necessary to give effect to those recommendations”.

This motion asked the Synod for “a great leap of imagination and cour­age”, she said. “I would not propose it if I thought it would diminish Synod’s authority and responsibility.” It would bring the working of the Church of England more into line with the intentions of the National Institutions Measure.

The Archbishops’ Council had approved the proposals that had been brought to the Synod. There had been changes from the initial proposals on the way lead persons were appointed to the groups. The way in which ap­pointments were made was specified, and the nature of the groups’ authority made clearer, as well as the next steps if the report was approved.

There would be fewer meetings to prepare for and travel to. Groups could meet electronically, Dr Baxter said. It would make transparent the structures of the Church, and would reflect the legal positions of the Archbishops’ Council, the General Synod, and the House of Bishops.

There would be fewer meetings to prepare for and travel to. Groups could meet electronically, Dr Baxter said. It would make transparent the structures of the Church, and would reflect the legal positions of the Archbishops’ Council, the General Synod, and the House of Bishops.

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These networks could be brought into being “when needed”. The groups could access expert advice, and even bring in members of the Synod without their being permanent members of the groups.

Would it change the General Synod? No and yes, she said. The Synod would still be a legislative body with power to express its views, and budget-support-setting powers. There would be more participation in review groups and working parties.

The Revd Max Osborne (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) said that the present system was confusing. The system of lead people supported by reference groups would be helpful to people who were frustrated by a distant system of synodical govern­ment.

Paul Boyd-Lee (Salisbury) said that the present system was described in the report as complex, costly, con­tentious, and confused. “Com­plex­ity is not a valid reason for change.”

Would the new proposals be less complex? The Council itself had been set up to reduce the disjointedness of these committees. These bodies were answerable to the Synod through the Archbishops’ Council, but the report also said that the new way would be “a slimmer” one. It was unclear where accountability lay.

The vice-chairman of the House of Laity, Dr Philip Giddings (Oxford), spoke to his amendment, which sought to confront the nature and pur­pose of the General Synod. Its pur­pose was to bring together bishops, clergy, and laity in the common task of finding the mind of the Church. It required deliberation, debate, and then decision.

The proposals did not allow for the proper participation of members of all the Houses, he said. They would diminish the quality of the national institutions’ services to Church and nation. The exercise had been done the wrong way round — it should have begun with the work to be done, and then designed the necessary structures.

Boards and councils were not wholly owned subsidiaries of the Archbishops’ Council. They did a variety and complexity of work, and it “beggared belief” that this could be provided by one leader and a support group. He was offering a re-think: policy must be made by all three Houses, and should reflect the diversity and strength of opinion on all issues. “Synod has a choice — participate or be a rubber stamp.”

Canon Professor Anthony Thisel­ton (Southwell & Nottingham) found some merit in the proposals, but believed that the notion of one-model-fits-all for every board and council was not the way forward. He was not convinced of the part that the Synod played in the new proposals.

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The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham, supported the proposals as a significant step towards reshaping the Church for mission. “We are not as fit for purpose as we need to be,” he said. The proposals were about embracing a new sim­plicity — lighter of foot and more flexible in working, which cut out un­necessary complexity — some­thing that was happening already in dio­ceses.

The proposals would release people from attending more meetings than they needed to, and allow them to work less frenetically. They modelled something of what the Church should become — not “a heavy­weight and energy-sapping com­plexity”.

The proposals would release people from attending more meetings than they needed to, and allow them to work less frenetically. They modelled something of what the Church should become — not “a heavy­weight and energy-sapping com­plexity”.

Professor Anthony Berry (Chester) said that there was a danger, in the review groups, of setting up an adversarial situation. “If you parti­cipate in someone else’s volition, it is different from participating in your own authority.”

Canon Anne Stevens (Southwark) said that the default settings of the past were intruding again. People had to be engaged in the process. “You’ve got a synod here. Just learn to use it properly,” she urged.

Gill Morrison (Peterborough) said that it was right to review the work of committees, but it felt as if power was being taken from the Synod and put into the hands of bishops and civil servants.

The Archdeacon of Berkshire, the Ven. Norman Russell (Oxford), re­ported that three of the four clergy representatives elected to the Arch­bishops’ Council were uneasy, and so were two of the lay members. He was open to serious review of how board and councils worked, but it was important for the Synod to continue to elect members to the key bodies that shaped policy. “I don’t believe re­view groups’ meeting after deci­sions have been taken is adequate. There is a huge cost in losing Synod repre­sentation and ownership of what goes on,” he concluded.

Paul Hancock (Liverpool) felt that the motion righted wrongs. There were technical details to be addressed, but he supported it.

The Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, believed passionately that the Synod must ensure the proper repre­sentation of the dioceses and par­ishes. “When I stand up as chair of the Board of Education in the House of Lords, or here, I stand for you and only because of you. . . I have the sheer, bare-faced nerve, because I know that whatever I am saying has passed through a filter of those you have chosen to represent you.” There needed to be a review, but also reflection on what was practical. “You need to ensure your participation is protected.”

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Dr Giddings moved his amend­ment, which replaced all of Dr Baxter’s motion except for the words “That this Synod”. Dr Baxter, re­sponding, assured the Synod that the Archbishops’ Council was “not an evil group of scheming people. Most of us were elected by you.” She urged it to reject the amendment. The details could be refined in a change of standing or­ders, if the proposals were accepted.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, supported the motion. Great improvements had already happened, checks and balances were in place, and nothing would change that. The aim was to remove the complexities of the structure in order to create greater clarity. The motion said that still more work was to be done, but it was a structure that delivered. Dr Giddings was mistaken, he said. “Go with the motion, but ensure in Standing Orders that Synod members are defended.”

Peter Bruinvels (Guildford) was not convinced that real savings would be made, how they would interact with the House of Lords, or how mem­bers would keep in touch with the lead person. It was all too radical, “an over-reaction to the financial situation in the country”.

Dr Giddings’s amendment was carried.

Jane Bisson (Channel Islands) was concerned that the newly appointed councils and groups should be chaired by bishops, adopting a Catholic form of governance. She also feared that members of the Synod might not be able to ask questions of the review panels, except during question time in Synod. “We should be careful we don’t dispose of the Crown jewels, thinking they are only costume jewellery.”

The motion was carried, as amended. It read:

That this Synod:

(a) decline to endorse the proposals set out in GS1737; and

(b) request the Archbishops’ Council, after consultation with the boards and councils concerned, to produce revised proposals which:

(i) provide for the participation of elected Synod members in delibera­tion and policy-formation as well as in scrutiny and accountability; and

(ii) reflect the individual remits and sets of stake-holders of each area of activity.

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