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General Synod: presentation and debate on Crown Nominations Commission

16 February 2018

Diversity and openness: the Synod considers what is missed when choosing bishops

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Revd Professor Oliver O’Donovan

The Revd Professor Oliver O’Donovan

BEFORE debating the report of the Crown Nominations Commission review group’s proposals on Thursday afternoon, the General Synod received a presentation from the group, led by its chairman, the Revd Professor Oliver O’Donovan (scroll down for full debate).

They had been described as “on the revolutionary side of evolutionary”, which, he presumed, “means, neither bland nor bloody”. The group consisted of eight theologians, but they spoke “with a single mind”, he said.

Two things needed to be understood more clearly about the nomination of bishops, Professor O’Donovan said. First, the work of a diocesan bishop was not to be a “dual role”, half the time concerned with the diocese’s interests, the other half with the interests of the wider Church. “It is a ‘connectional’ or ‘communicative’ role’. . . [The bishop] acts as interpreter, helping each worshipping community to see its concerns reflected in the catholic whole, interpreting parish to parish, the diocese to the wider Church and the wider Church to the diocese.” All this required “a competent theological culture”.

Second, the task of nominating a bishop must ensure three things: the continuity of episcopal ministry as the Church had understood it; the recognition of the bishop by the whole Church; and the employment of the Holy Spirit’s gifts in recognising God’s leading. “The logic of a body like the CNC, as opposed to open synodical election, . . . is that it allows for these gifts to be exercised.

The CNC must exercise discernment, Professor O’Donovan said, about “the next step to be taken”. Its task was not to assess which candidate had been the best archdeacon or parish priest, but which would be the right bishop for the diocese for the next few years. Members of the CNC should “hold their minds open to the possibility of finding a bishop they never thought of”.

The 14 members of the CNC — six central members, six diocesan members, and the two Archbishops — discerned “representatively, which is to say, on behalf of the whole Church”. For this to happen, “it is not enough that it contains the right balance of certain leading categories: women, men, northerners, southerners, ethnic minorities, conservatives, liberals, etc”.

Rather, “to be a successful representative is to have a gift of communication, to be trusted by others whose perspectives one shares, to be able to commend those perspectives effectively to those with different perspectives and to engage with theirs.”

The CNC process would work only with trust, Professor O’Donovan said: “trust of the CNC members in one another, trust of the CNC by the Church and the candidates. Nobody must be able to see the CNC as a power-lever that can be seized in order to control the direction of the Church.”

Moving on to the review group’s recommendations, he said that “there is no one thing that has gone wrong and badly needs putting right. . . It is no one thing that makes the process sometimes . . . difficult: it is the combination of a variety of factors, none of which is beyond modest and sensible correction.”

The review group’s suggestions were as follows:

First, “tackling the culture of excessive secrecy”. The CNC’s work had to take place “within a surrounding wall of confidentiality, which is essential to trust”; but, within that, “candour and openness should prevail as much as possible.” The group had concerns about the secret ballot, which “encourages CNC members to be suspicious of one another”, and arrangements for interview “where candidates are smuggled in and out to stop them meeting other candidates”. It would like to see an open ballot, and candidates “worshipping and eating with the CNC and each other”.

Second, the group recommended “facilitating the contribution of the diocesan members, to ensure they are up to speed when the CNC first convenes”.

Third, a “distinct voice” should be given to the Archbishops. “Bishops, we believe, have a real role, but that role is not to name their successors, but to ensure the continuity of episcopal ministry as the Church understands it.”

The two Archbishops should also make a statement jointly to the rest of the CNC, before it voted, saying that “on the evidence presented all candidates are eligible for consecration and membership of the House of Bishops.”

Third, the group recommended “deepening the representative authenticity of the CNC”, and encouraged “fresh thinking” from the Synod about how the central members were elected.

There were also concerns about representation on the diocesan side. The diocesan vacancy-in-see committee should have a minuted discussion of representation before it proceeded to elect the diocesan members. There was “a perception at large that the central members are elected to pursue party agenda. If that perception is to change, this body needs to tackle the task of electing them in a different way.”

Regarding the composition of the CNC for archiepiscopal sees, the group’s proposals for Canterbury were “broadly in line with others already mooted in this Synod”. For York, the group “should like Standing Orders to secure the convention that the House of Bishops will elect a bishop of the Northern Province”.

Anne Foreman (Exeter) asked why the report seemed to suggest that elevating more women to the episcopate could “hide the need for a wide diversity of gifts”.

Enid Barron (London) had been recently involved in a vacancy-in-see committee, but had been unable to vote for those who would join the CNC, she said, as she had not been not able to attend the meeting where the election took place. Could postal voting be used, she asked.

The Archdeacon of Gloucester, the Ven. Jackie Searle (Gloucester), asked why the report suggested that lists of possible candidates which were given to CNCs should be kept at arm’s length from the strategic leadership-development programme.

A theologian who had assisted Professor O’Donovan, the Revd Professor Jennifer Strawbridge, replied to Mrs Foreman that it was important not to focus on improving gender diversity at the expense of other minorities who remained unrepresented. A postal vote for the diocesan members would prevent the holding of the vote after a debate, and this would be unfortunate.

Canon James Walters, another member of the review group, said that while they were “broadly encouraged” by, and supportive of, the leadership-development programme, they wished to avoid a “pyramidal model”, and fish in the widest pool possible. Hence, they recommended that the whole House of Bishops should prepare the lists of possible candidates, not those running the leadership programme.

The Chairman of the House of Laity, Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham), asked whether the group thought that the vote in the Synod for the central CNC members should be by Houses or by the whole Synod.

Prebendary Stephen Lynas (Bath & Wells) asked whether suffragan as well as diocesan bishops could be chosen to sit during archiepiscopal vacancies.

Sarah Tupling (Deaf Anglicans Together) asked how deaf and disabled people could be involved the process of election and discernment.

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities, Northern Province), another member of the review group, said that he and his colleagues did not wish to prescribe how to reform elections to the CNC. Their suggestions were just to “get the juices flowing”. Furthermore, the bishop elected from the Northern Province during a vacancy in the see or York could be a suffragan, not only a diocesan. The best way for deaf and disabled people to become involved would be to elect them bishops, he argued.

Professor O’Donovan thanked the Synod for the opportunity to present his report, and promised them his prayers and interest as they “set about getting your teeth into the tasks that we have set for you”.


THE Synod then went on to debate the report.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, thanked the group for the “depth of insights they have provided”. The theological and moral weight of their work required that it should be heard, read, marked, learnt, and inwardly digested.

He and the Archbishop of Canterbury were confident that they would “draw riches” by approaching this review as a theological rather than a process one. He thanked those who served as members of CNCs, both at central and diocesan levels. The Church was committed to addressing “painful points of pressure”, and he would listen to Synod members. To reach discernment, it was “essential not to try to know the end from the beginning”; otherwise, they were “likely to miss what God intends us to see”.

The report provided a reminder that the “calling of the Church and the calling of the individuals rest together if vocation is to be truly fulfilled”. CNC members must have trust in one another if candidates were to have trust in it, and must listen to “angles” that were not their own. Synod members should note the reflections on the “oversight role of the Bishop”, which “demands of them to lead with insight and wisdom with a willingness to challenge and to be challenged”.

He turned to the implementation of the recommendations, A number of CNC issues had come together. He mentioned the Sir Philip Mawer review, the Oxford diocesan motion inviting a review of the CNC, and the Archbishops’ Council’s having been invited by the diocese of Canterbury to consider proposals to enable the Synod to “extend the functions of the CNC to include the see of Dover”, and also to reduce the number of diocesan CNC members when it considered the see of Canterbury.

This would require a “cool-head and a compassionate-heart review” before it was considered by the Synod. Professor O’Donovan’s group had reviewed different methods of appointment around the Anglican Communion, and it was reassuring that the report said that the CNC was “capable of serving the Church well” and rested on “responsible theological grounds”.

The central members of the CNC would meet in March to discuss the report, and some of the recommendations from the Mawer review were already implemented. He said that he would welcome additional ideas and suggestions from the floor of the Synod, and that the permanent members of the CNC would report back in July.

The Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd Dr David Ison (Southern Deans), who had chaired the London vacancy-in-see committee, referred to the report’s noting of its failure to recruit a black or minority-ethnic (BAME) CNC member. This had been because, when the 51 members of the committee voted, “they will put first what is most important for them and think that somebody will sort the rest out.”

Voting showed that the majority of members “held as most important either a particular theological position or the representation of women, and did not actually think that BAME representation was necessary or important enough to make it the main priority to vote for”. Provision needed to be made, Dean Ison said, to allow the committee to designate one reserved place in the election of CNC members on the basis of a criterion determined by the diocesan statement of needs, subject to the agreement of the Bishop’s Council and the Archbishop of the province. This would require committee to “decide as well as discuss, and place its responsibility to offer a balanced representation of a diocese in the CNC process”.

Anthony Archer (St Albans) welcomed the report as “applied theology”. His membership of eight CNCs had been very positive, but he was “not proud to be associated with a body that has a reputation to be secretive”. CNC deliberations must take place in the open, and all members should be required to declare how they intended to vote and why.

April Alexander (Southwark), a member of the central CNC until last July, and a member of WATCH, support the proposals, but was concerned about the process in relation to appointing women diocesans. She knew of women who had not been nominated, or did not want their names to go forward. In no nominations were individuals considered without reference to gender.

Canon Jonathan Alderton-Ford (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) said that he would, “with a heavy heart”, vote against the report. The report lost sight of the fact that “each diocese is different.” It was diocesan members who had “to live with the consequences of a poor decision in a way that other members don’t, which is why sometimes they can be quite prickly”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury welcomed the report warmly. It had already been helping recent CNCs in the “powerful and moving” way in which it spoke about discernment. His only quibble was about the make-up of the Canterbury CNC. At the moment, only one person was chosen to represent the 84 million people of the Anglican Communion, and, in his own case, that person had been the Archbishop of Wales, “who is a wonderful man, but may not have entirely represented the global South”. He suggested that one Primate from each of the five regions of the Communion should be elected to represent their Churches.

The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Caroline Spelman MP, noted that one of the most pressing questions from Parliament was about improving diversity among the clergy and the bishops. This needed to go further than offering training to CNC members on unconscious bias, she said. “Fundamentally, people want to see people like themselves in leadership. Diversity improves decision-making, and surely the Church, which has a gospel imperative for inclusion, should do even more to lead by example.”

Dr Nick Land (York) praised the emphasis on the centrality of theological skill among candidates for the episcopate. “It’s not easy to be both a Christlike model of servant leadership and an effective leader or leaders. But this is what we need.” He also welcomed the strengthening of lay authority, particularly during York vacancies.

Dr Michael Todd (Truro) said he had been interviewing and appointing staff since the 1970s, both in lay and religious life. He had now been elected as a diocesan representative on the CNC, and said that his comments in six months might be a “bit different”. Having seen the growth of panel interviewing where pre-prepared questions were used, he said that “the larger the panel, the weaker the interview”. Any “half-decent candidate” could guess questions and prepare answers, which was similar to Prime Minister’s Questions. He urged the Church to look at other ways of interviewing, perhaps sub-panels on particular areas.

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, spoke “only because I think there’s an omission in the report”, which was what happened if someone was called to be a bishop but did not want to be, or would never put himself or herself forward. The CNC needed to be able to call someone even if that person didn’t want it. “We have a system that assumes everyone really wants the job,” and this led to a competitive scenario rather than one of discernment. He asked whether they had “lost something along the way”, which was “How do we provide the space for the possibility of the Holy Spirit wanting to call someone for a post rather than calling someone for an interview?”

Dr Lindsay Newcombe (London) said that in the House of Bishops’ response to the Mawer report, it had said that not nearly enough was done to work out what the settlement meant in practice. She said those who were members of future CNCs should assent to the settlement and the five guiding principles, as well as candidates, as its discernment had validity to the whole Church.

Aiden Hargreaves-Smith (London) warmly welcomed the report, which “reminds us that choosing a bishop is a process of mutual discernment under God”. There was a risk that the CNC produced a list of boxes and “prefers a candidate who can put a little tick in every one rather than . . . being willing to consider seriously the candidates who may not tick every box but have a whopping great tick in one or two. This may be the reason why there is a paucity of academic theologians on the Bench, and a factor in why the House of Bishops is not as diverse as it should be.”

He continued: “It is disappointing that there is no suggestion as to how the deliberations of the CNC might benefit from important perspectives not present amongst its membership. It is not simply an issue about inclusion, but of the credibility of the CNC’s processes and decisions. Given the Church’s frankly appalling record in fostering diversity in senior appointments . . . this is embarrassingly urgent business.”

Andrea Minichiello Williams (Chichester) spoke of the “gospel imperative that is found at the heart of this report” — in particular, that a bishop should be faithful to the gospel and guard the Church’s teaching. “How will we as the Church of Christ ensure that we do not have appointed as bishops those who are openly flouting the teaching of the Bible and the unvarying teaching of the Church down the ages?”

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn (Southern Deans), a member of the CNC for eight years, said: “The thing that always annoyed me was when people wouldn’t leave their tribal branding at door. The CNC is a process of discernment and listening, and we can only do that when we switch off the radio waves of our own tribe. We’re not there to form the Church in our own image, but in Christ’s image, and that will be different in each diocese.”

The Synod voted to take note of the report.

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