THE party groupings in the General Synod have defended their part in the selection of new diocesan bishops, after the elections for the central members of the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC).
Six members of the General Synod — three from the House of Clergy and three from the Laity — were elected last week by their synodical peers to fill the six spaces for the central members of the CNC, which meets to fill vacancies for diocesan bishops.
A review of the CNC is likely to express concern about how politicised the election has become, but figures from many of the groupings have insisted that the process is broadly working well and should not be altered.
The elected clergy members were: the Revd John Dunnett, general director of CPAS, who chairs the Evangelical Group on the General Synod, who has been re-elected for a second term; Canon Judith Maltby, a church historian at the University of Oxford, also re-elected for another term; and the Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd Dr David Ison.
From the laity, there were elected: Jane Patterson, a surgeon and churchwarden from Sheffield, who has been re-elected; Anthony Archer, a Reader from the diocese of St Albans, who previously served on the CNC from 2005 to 2007; and Christina Baron, a retired university lecturer from the diocese of Bath & Wells.
The winners of the election, which used the single-transferable vote method, will sit on each CNC that meets for the next five years, joining the two Archbishops and six representatives from the diocese where the vacancy has arisen.
There were 22 candidates from the House of Clergy and 17 from the House of Laity, each of whom was invited to write a brief address in an election booklet circulated to all Synod members.
The current system has been in place since the 1970s, but is now under fresh scrutiny by a working group led by Professor Oliver O’Donovan (News, 14 October). It was reviewed by a working group under Baroness Perry in the early 2000s, and changes were made in view of the change in constitutional convention under Gordon Brown, so that the Prime Minister would automatically forward the first choice (of two) to the Crown.
The workings of the CNC have also been in the spotlight since the Sheffield débâcle earlier this year, when a campaign against the nominee for the vacant see, the traditionalist Anglo-Catholic Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, led to his withdrawal (News, 9 March).
Last month during the meeting of the Synod, before the elections had taken place, Professor O’Donovan sketched out some of the conclusions his review had come to having run the rule over the system for selecting the central CNC members (Synod, 14 July).
There were many ways in which the process could be handled poorly, he said. “When members arrive at the CNC with minds already made up, their preferred bishop already selected and in their pocket, then the whole process becomes subverted and very difficult indeed.”
His colleague on the review committee, the Revd Professor Morwenna Ludlow of the University of Exeter, suggested that the part played by organised factions in the Synod could also be problematic.
“We heard moving testimony from several people who voiced the view — with some reason — that their concerns were not being represented by the CNC as well as they could be,” she said.
“There is a possible reason for this: that is, the idea that the CNC should be representative of various groupings in Synod has come to overshadow the idea that the CNC is representative of the whole Church.”
Synod members from the main groupings, however, mostly rejected the idea that party allegiance had unhelpfully taken over the election process.
Mr Dunnett said that the current system was “rigorous and democratic and as such difficult to be negative about”. While it was inevitable that those elected would come from one particular stream of churchmanship, this would be known to the electorate, he suggested. “Those elected to serve on CNC obviously have their own churchmanship/culture . . . which they cannot and should not walk away from. But I have always understood that we are nominating bishops to lead the whole Church not just a part of it.”
It is possible to discern the outlines of some of the candidates’ views: Ms Patterson, for instance, is one of the churchwardens of the prominent conservative Evangelical Christ Church, Fulwood, in Sheffield, and Dr Ison publicly expressed support for same-sex relationships.
Most of the candidates for election, however, do not declare their affiliation with any particular tradition in their brief addresses sent to each elector.
But the Revd Paul Benfield, who chairs the Catholic Group in the Synod, and stood unsuccessfully for election, said that he did not know where some of the new CNC members stood on key issues.
As there were now no traditionalist Catholics among the central CNC members, it was hard to know whether his constituency would be treated fairly, he said.
He also agreed with the analysis of Professor Ludlow: “If you look at the voting results, people tend to vote partly on which group each person comes from.
“They should be open to people of other traditions from their own and to listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, possibly leading them to somebody nobody else had thought of. But I wonder if people do go in with their minds made up.”
That said, it was difficult to envisage another system for selecting central CNC members, Mr Benfield conceded.
Canon Robert Hammond, the member of Affirming Catholicism’s board of directors with a brief for the Synod, said, however, that the system was working well. “I think it’s right that the elected members come from the General Synod. That’s the best way you are going to get broad representative membership,” he said.
Affirming Catholicism as a Synod grouping did not desire and nor did it expect any veto in selecting CNC members or bishops, he said. “We wouldn’t want bishops of one persuasion or not. We were happy with the make-up of the last CNC, and we felt like in the majority of cases the suitable bishop was chosen for that particular diocese.”
Any alternative selection process would struggle to achieve an equivalent balance on the CNC, and, regardless, each member would still belong to a certain tradition, Canon Hammond said.
“The difficulty is: can you ever put churchmanship out of your mind? Everybody comes from a view regardless of whether it is Catholic, middle of the road, or Evangelical.”
This point echoed one also made by Professor Ludlow in her remarks to the Synod. “If an elected member of the CNC comes from a particular grouping, she is likely to come to the task of discernment from a certain perspective; her views will have a certain kind of foundation,” she said.
“Indeed, all people involved in a process of discernment will start from a particular place: that is part of what it is to be human.” The task was to “build out from that foundation”, opening up the discernment process to the Holy Spirit.
Robin Back, who chairs the Open Synod Group, remarked that not everyone on the Synod wanted to vote in accordance with one faction.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he said that his group deliberately did not take a view on the key debates of the day, preferring instead to be a space for “those on General Synod who might regard themselves as rootless or homeless in the sense of not wanting to join any other groups”.
He also admitted, however, that it was “undeniable” that some of those who sought election to the CNC were “seduced” by the idea of promoting their fellow Catholics, Evangelicals, or liberals to the House of Bishops.
Nevertheless, despite agreeing with Professor Ludlow’s critique of the part played by Synod groupings, Mr Back said that he was fairly confident that it would not interfere with the process overall, as the six central CNC members could always be outvoted by the six diocesan representatives, plus the Archbishops.
He was also unconvinced by any suggestion that Synod elections to the CNC should be scrapped. “[The Synod is] the body of people the Church has elected to be responsible for management of the Church,” he said. Removing that responsibility and handing it over to a purely appointed committee of the “great and the good” would not be a good way forward.
Professor O’Donovan’s final review — which is also exploring the theological context of selecting bishops and the responsibility of the Archbishops in “shaping the nature of the episcopate” — is due to be presented to the Synod next year.
One area worth exploring was the balance between the central and diocesan members of each CNC, Fr Benfield suggested. “Are we actually getting the bishops we need, looking at the whole Church?” he asked. “There is an absolute lack of theologians in the House of Bishops — diocesan members might be a little bit wary of appointing someone direct from a theological faculty or whatever.”
This view was shared by Canon Hammond: “It is about applying that into the wider context — trying to understand what the role of a bishop is within the Church rather than just the diocese.”
Mr Back raised the matter of future planning: given that many of the bishops being nominated today would be leading the Church of 20 years’ time, was the CNC able to conceive properly of the kind of leadership that would be required?
After all, by then, “most of the people currently on Synod will be long gone,” he noted.