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Taking the shears to a thicket of regulations

by
28 October 2016

Tim Wyatt reports on Simplification’s purpose, and its effect so far

GEOFF CRAWFORD

Debate: Bishop Broadbent speaks about the Draft Mission and Pastoral etc. (Amendment) Measure, at the General Synod in London, last February

Debate: Bishop Broadbent speaks about the Draft Mission and Pastoral etc. (Amendment) Measure, at the General Synod in London, last February

IT WOULD be fair to say that the Simplification strand of the Renewal and Reform programme is decidedly less glamorous, and on the whole less contentious, than the rest of the project.

But the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, who has been leading the initiative to reduce the amount of regulation in the life of the Church of England, has always insisted that the work is no less essential.

During a debate in the General Synod in February on the first tranche of the Simplification proposals, Bishop Broadbent said that, while it was a “slightly strange element” in Renewal and Reform, it was still vital. “If we are, prayerfully and in dependence on the work of the Spirit, to reverse decline, to renew our Church, and to remove blockages that prevent a flexible and imaginative approach to grass-roots mission and ministry, then something needs to be done to make our legislative framework a whole lot more fit for purpose,” he said.

The Simplification programme was launched at the beginning of last year, when a report by Bishop Broadbent’s task group was published (News, 14 January 2015). Their remit was to work out how the Church of England’s canons, legislation, regulations, and procedures were hindering mission and growth; and then set out proposals to deregulate and simplify any such constraints. Primarily through consultation with dioceses and others, a list of rules and regulations considered unwieldy or cumbersome would be drawn up, and then they would be either abolished or simplified.

Being a Church of law was not in itself a bad thing, Bishop Broadbent said at the time; indeed, the C of E’s legal framework had prevented its “sliding into sectarianism and irresponsibility”. But, over time, the thicket of rules, canons, and regulations that had grown up had become defensive, overly prescriptive, and bureaucratic. It was time for a spring-clean. The task group’s mission, simply put, was to “identify the essential . . . and eliminate the rest”, Bishop Broadbent said.

 

EIGHTEEN months later, how much pruning has taken place? While there have been some completed projects, the bulk of the task group’s work has been to put wheels in motion on a wide range of measures, most of which will take several more years before coming to fruition.

In a progress report released this month, Bishop Broadbent explained what had been achieved so far, what was under way, and what remained to be considered.

The main elements that have already made progress are amendments to regulations on ecclesiastical offices, and a draft Measure that has received first consideration in the Synod.

Regulations on ecclesiastical offices have been amended to allow for interim posts for up to three years, and to extend a curacy if a priest cannot find a post after three years. Self-supporting ministers are now also no longer required to procure a doctor’s note when they are off work through illness.

A Draft Mission and Pastoral etc. (Amendment) Measure seeks to allow bishops a simpler method of pastoral reorganisation, as in creating a new archdeaconry or abolishing a team ministry (Synod, 26 February). It would also streamline consultation on such orders or new pastoral schemes, reduce the compensation paid to clergy who lose their posts through reorganisation, and simplify the process of creating a Bishop’s Mission Order (BMO).

Finally, a motion approving in principle the creation of a new Enabling Measure — sometimes known as a Henry VIII clause — has been carried (Synod, 26 February). Such a Measure would give the Synod the power to amend existing legislation rapidly without the full synodical procedure as at present.

 

THE list of projects completed is shorter than the list of reforms and deregulation which Bishop Broadbent’s group has set its sights on.

On this second list are proposed amendments to canon law which include relaxing the requirement for regular worship in churches in sparsely populated benefices; more flexibility in deploying clergy outside a traditional parish position; and broadening the definitions of who can be licensed and deployed as a lay minister.

They also involve loosening the rules on priests’ ministering outside their normal parish to cover temporarily for other clergy, and removing the requirement that archdeacons, deans, and residentiary canons complete six years in holy orders before appointment.

Changes to the Church Representation Rules, electoral rolls, rules on annual church meetings, and deanery or diocesan synods are also being explored, with a view to making governance more adaptable to local conditions.

To reduce the bureaucracy during an interregnum, the task group is looking into abolishing sequestration — whereby during a vacancy in a parish, the churchwardens and area dean take over control of fees and finances as temporary trustees.

The period of time before the right of presentation lapses from a church’s patrons to the Archbishop will be extended to 12 months; and elements of the legislation on team ministries which are now thought to be over-prescriptive will be culled.

Finally, the Council for Christian Unity is also planning a substantial redrafting of the legislation and canons relating to ecumenical relations.

A handful of issues were thought to be useful, but best handled by others within the Church. For instance, diocesan chancellors have been given the task of considering how to resolve better the question what is seemly in a churchyard. Also, the Ministry of Justice has been asked to look at the question of marriage banns in churches in a benefice. Third, a revision of canon law to relax the rules on clerical vesture during the time of divine service has been taken up by individuals in the Synod as a private member’s motion, and is now on its way through (Synod, 15 July).

 

THE task group also decided against tackling other issues that arose during their consultation. More changes to the Faculty Jurisdiction rules were ruled out, to allow time for the relatively new framework to bed in. Allowing deaneries to become legal entities was rejected, as were suggestions that a new position of honorary archdeacon be created.

The ministry of area deans would be better left to local discretion rather than formally codified, Bishop Broadbent’s group concluded.

Finally, lay presidency at the eucharist was considered to be outside the Simplification group’s remit, as were requested changes to liturgy, health and safety, and safeguarding.

 

BISHOP BROADBENT said last week that his group had consciously decided to push some things through quickly, to build momentum and prove that meaningful reform was possible. “It was important to get some early achievements so people could see you can change things,” he said.

A key aim was to strip away the bulwarks and defensiveness of church legislation, which, he said, was commonly defined in terms of how to stop people doing things. In particular, the changes made to allow for interim ministries and making BMOs easier should be very helpful, he said.

While many of the individual reforms were small, each would chip away at creating a new culture and flexibility in the C of E, he suggested. Making church-plants, network churches, and BMOs more straightforward would help the Church break out of a rigid parochial model, and accept that the future will involve a “mixed economy”.

“What we mustn’t do is lose our C of E heritage; what we must do is be much lighter on our feet,” he said: bishops must hold together a more diverse and even fragmented Church, while allowing for innovation and creativity in mission. “It is always ‘both and’ — a mixed economy.”

Given the difficulties that the Government had faced whenever it tried to streamline rules and deregulate, he was quietly proud, he admitted, of having achieved tangible results in a Church bound up with centuries of complex laws.

There has, however, been some resistance to his proposals. On occasions, opponents of specific challenges have sought to rally opposition in the Synod, or amend the proposals.

One flashpoint was the compensation paid to clergy who found that their position had been abolished during pastoral reorganisation. The existing rules meant that a priest who refused to find a new post elsewhere could claim substantial compensation, and stay until the mandatory retirement age of 70.

The Revd Christopher Robinson, of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich diocese, was among those in the Synod to decry the changes as weakening an incumbent’s right to remain in post “as long as they liked”. The Synod declined to accept this argument, however, and the changes were voted through.

Others have expressed scepticism about the whole Simplification agenda. In the Synod at York, in July, the Revd Andrew Gray (Norwich) warned that the railways and inner cities had been “gutted” because power had gone unchecked. The Church must not allow the same to happen. “[There is a] subtext that legislation is some worthless ephemera from a bygone era, getting in the way of agile organisation. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

This time, it was the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, who weighed in. Yes, the law could guide and help the Church, but those who put their whole trust in legislation were acting as though “Jesus never died and rose again”, he said.

 

IN HIS paper on progress so far, Bishop Broadbent noted that the last time the C of E began a wholesale process of legislative reform was during the 1950s, under Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher. After the publication of the magisterial report Towards the Conversion of England, to spend a decade immersed in canon-law reform had been a “missed opportunity”, Bishop Broadbent said.

Simplification must not be seen as an end in itself, therefore. “If we were only doing this, then I would be worried, because we would be rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic,” he said. But within the context of the whole Renewal and Reform programme, Simplification was “fixing all the stuff under the bonnet which at the moment isn’t running properly”; so that the more important work on redistributing money to mission and boosting numbers of clergy could take place.

But what do those whose work is tied up with the C of E’s rules and regulations make of the changes, both completed and proposed? Archdeacons take on much of the burden of the Church’s bureaucracy, and several said that Bishop Broadbent’s reforms would be a godsend. According to the Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller, the Church’s rules and regulations often meant that things took longer than they needed to, and sometimes prevented progress at all.

The Archdeacon of Gloucester, the Ven. Jackie Searle, agreed, and said that the task group’s work was “essential”. “The work that’s already been done is going down extremely well, and, looking at the recent paper, I’m fully agreed with the direction of travel,” she said this month.

Indeed, for the Archdeacon of Stow and Lindsey, the Ven. Mark Steadman, the deregulation had not gone far enough. “The Church has got to be fit for living out the gospel, and sometimes our law and regulations get in the way of doing that. It’s not going far enough at the moment.”

The archdeacons particularly welcomed the new freedom to appoint clergy on an interim basis, and the simplified process for setting up non-parochial churches through BMOs. “There’s an incredulity in the rest of the world that we make a decision about employing somebody, and that is it for 30 years. There’s no checking in,” Archdeacon Miller said. Having the choice to appoint a priest temporarily was a huge step forward.

Setting up new churches to serve new housing estates was vital in the diocese of Gloucester, Archdeacon Searle explained, but the previously cumbersome procedure for BMOs meant that it often took too long, if at all.

“Simplification will enable us to put in place a BMO without having to go down the whole pastoral-reorganisation route,” she said. “I love the idea that everybody in this country has a parish that they live in, and a parish priest, and I don’t want to lose that; but, in the world we live in,f we are a much more networked culture, and the Church needs to be able to be responsive.”

This was a theme picked up by Archdeacon Steadman. A one-size-fits-all approach was no longer good enough, he said. It was a mistake to assume that the needs of rural and inner-city could be met by the same structures: “We need to enable our contexts to drive our mission a bit more.”

 

MURMURS about episcopal power-grabs do occasionally ripple through the clergy during discussions about Simplification, but the Revd Pete Hobson, who chairs Church of England Clergy Advocates (CECA), suggested that the rank and file supported deregulation on the whole. Priests were as concerned about cumbersome and outdated laws as archdeacons and bishops were, he said last week. “The role of a minister is to help the spread of the gospel, and the inherited structures seem now to stand in the way of that.”

In particular, changing some of the canons and relaxing the rules on the frequency of worship in small parishes would be welcomed by priests, he said: many of the rules in Bishop Broadbent’s sights were not observed, anyway.

While personal priorities for reform and simplification would differ from priest to priest, they all just “want to get on with the job”.

That did not mean that there were no worries about losing safeguards in the rush towards greater flexibility, Mr Hobson said. About one in ten priests in the C of E was a member of CECA, and its helpline received about six or seven calls a week from clerics who had problems, many to do with the misuse of power by those in higher office, he said. “The power that archdeacons and bishops have needs to be properly exercised, but that’s not always the case.” In a Church with a tradition of deference for those in authority, it was vital that checks and balances were not abandoned.

“Yes, I think bishops and archdeacons have a difficult job, and should be encouraged to do it. Yes, I think the traditional freehold rights of incumbents belong to an age that’s long gone. But, as we move into a new age, we need to be sure that the Church treats the clergy whom it effectively employs fairly.”

CECA had been closely scrutinising the work of the Simplification group, and, behind the scenes, had been “constructively” liaising with it about some of the proposals to ensure that the clergy had the “proper protection”.

 

ALL three archdeacons said that they understood fears about bishops’ being given freer rein, and incumbents’ losing their protections and rights.

People did not want their archdeacons or bishops to make decisions about their churches without consultation, and any leadership worth its salt would involve consultation, Archdeacon Searle said. But the change required by Renewal and Reform would involve trust, and building better relationships between the grass-roots and the hierarchy.

Archdeacon Steadman agreed. “There is a need for trust in each other, and a need to be humble together under God, and to realise that we are trying to work for the same aim — to see the Church grow, and the gospel proclaimed, and the nation transformed. That might mean we need to be brave enough to step outside some of our comfort zones.”

Anything Bishop Broadbent and his team could do to ensure that all the clergy could spend more time doing what they were ordained to do, and less time doing administration, could only be a good thing, he concluded.

Echoing Bishop Broadbent’s words, Archdeacon Miller said that it was a case of “both, and”. “A mixed economy is a really good word for it. It doesn’t mean that one replaces the other,” he said.

“I think there is a proxy debate out there sometimes: ‘Get your tanks off my lawn, Archdeacon.’” But, in reality, better relationships and maintaining sensible checks and balances could surmount these suspicions. Good rules acted as buoys rather than fences. Instead of having prescriptive laws that fenced the Church in, the rules should become permissive, like buoys in the sea. “‘Here are rocks: sail here and you will sink, but otherwise you can go wherever you like.’ The rules are here to permit us to get on with the mission of God’s Church.”

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