Church of England proposes halving of Synod days

16 January 2015

BRENT CLARK

Reviewing National Church Institutions

Reviewing National Church Institutions

MEETINGS of the General Synod could be restricted to a maximum of six days a year under proposals put forward as part of the Archbishops' programme for renewal and reform.

Currently, the Synod is set to meet for nine days a year: five days in York in July; and the rest in London in February and November. But in the report Optimising the Work of the NCIs (National Church Institutions), published today,  three senior church officials say that the "huge" time and cost saved "could be spent on other work for the Kingdom".

The report was prepared by the secretary general of the Archbishops' Council, William Fittall; the secretary to the Church Commissioners, Andrew Brown; and the chief executive of the Church of England Pensions Board, Bernadette Kenny. These organisations are described as the "three main trustee bodies".

"So far as we are aware, the General Synod meets more that any comparable Anglican body in these islands or in the Anglican Communion," they say. "Given the unique role of the Synod as a legislature, which is making public law, we can see, not least at a time of reform, that it needs to continue to meet twice a year (as the law requires); otherwise the gestation period for legislation would be lengthened. But even allowing for the importance of time for deliberation and relationship-building, we seriously question whether [the current number of days] need to be set aside in the diaries of 470 members and many staff every year."

The proposal suggests that the current November meeting for each inauguration of the Synod should remain; but that in each other year the Synod should meet from a Tuesday to Thursday in London in February; and from a Friday afternoon to Monday lunchtime in York. "This will provide an ample allowance for legislation to be dealt with and for other matters to be considered, whether in debates or smaller groups."

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The report suggests a simplified process for enacting legislation through a new "enabling power". This would require primary legislation, in the form of a Measure, but, once passe,d would enable the Synod to bring about other law changes through secondary legislation, such as rules and regulations, which would not need to follow the full legislative process.

"Church legislation remains remarkably prescriptive over-process," the panel said in their report. "The sort of thing that would have been put in parliamentary regulations and even orders when two of us joined Whitehall nearly four decades ago are still being put in measures. Church primary legislation from 1533 to 2003 runs to some 1400 pages in Halsbury's Statutes. As a result, simple reforms such as changing the membership of statutory bodies, modifying appointment processes, streamlining consultation processes and so on generally requires fresh primary legislation that then has to go through the full synodical process and then to Parliament."

The report says that eight separate legal entities make up the NCIs. Besides the three main trustee bodies, there is the Church of England Central Services Company, the National Society, Lambeth Palace Library, and each of the Archbishops in their corporate capacity.

The report highlights areas where similar work with seemingly contradictory aims is carried out by different NCIs. On the question of church buildings, the report asks why there are "two distinct teams, reporting to different member level bodies, sat in different parts of Church House, advising the same dioceses about church buildings: one team to help dioceses keep church buildings open and the other facilitating the closure process initiated by a diocesan bishop".

They say: "We believe that the time has come to step back and ask, without starting from the present division of responsibilities, the key underlying question; namely, 'what functions need to be exercised nationally to advance the mission and ministry of the Church of England through its use and stewardship of church buildings and how might they best be carried out.'"

One area where the report envisages an increase in work is the area of safeguarding. One of the recommendations of the Cahill report, published last October, was that diocesan safeguarding advisers should be part of a new national service. "The recommendation is clearly driven by the perception that this would secure greater independence for the advisers and enable them to escalate issues where, in their professional judgment, they are not being properly handled by a diocesan bishop.

"This recommendation will need to be considered carefully, not least because it raises some serious issues of authority and accountability in a Church which is at one and the same time national, provincial and episcopal."

The report asks whether a similar model should be adopted for other areas, such as human resources and the provision of legal advice.

It says that previous attempts to provide national provision have "not flourished", and that this was "partly because of the ecclesial weight of the diocese and partly because Church House, Westminster, can seem a long way away, even if it has out-posted staff".

The panel say that the report should be considered by the three main trustee bodies and the House of Bishops "alongside the work of the other task groups", and say that its recommendations "should form part of the wider reform programme".

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