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More heavyweights wanted on the Bishops’ bench

19 January 2018


A DESIRE for more bishops with higher theological degrees has been expressed by the group that is conducting a theological review of how new bishops are chosen by the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC).

Among the recommendations of the report, due to be debated by the General Synod in February, is that meetings of the CNC should start “asking themselves more insistently whether, and how well, a potential bishop has acquired a ‘theological culture’.” It notes that the Lords Spiritual are “sometimes criticised for failing to bring a theological voice to major issues”.

It asks whether, when faced with controversies, bishops will understand their roots in the Church’s history, and whether, when faced with social questions with “strong moral overtones”, bishops will have “the depth of understanding to make a public contribution that will carry significant weight”.

While noting that the House “does not need 40 university theologians”, the group writes: “We should also be glad to see more higher theological degrees in the House of Bishops, but principally for what that would indicate about the intellectual liveliness of the pool from which bishops are drawn.”

It observes that there is now no serving diocesan bishop who has had a career in higher education, which “raises questions about a loss of intellectual depth and seriousness”.

Acknowledging concerns about valuing “transferable management skills in place of the gifts of the Spirit”, it calls for “deeper thought about the character of Christian leadership, how the life of the body of Christ shapes norms for administrative effectiveness and responsibility in its own context”. There need be no tension between spiritual and administrative qualification, it argues.

The report notes that, since 2013, 70 per cent of those nominated to diocesan sees were already bishops, and warns against a “pyramid-conception of institutional seniority”. It prefers a “flatter” structure over the creation of a “cadre of those who cherish expectations of promotion and can think of it in only one way”. The House of Bishops should be responsible for the initial lists sent to CNC, it recommends, in a bid to make them more “broadly based”.

Observing that “internal tensions run high” in the Church, notably concerning the consecration of women bishops, the report warns of twin dangers: of the CNC’s becoming a “theatre of factional struggle”, and of choosing “the false unity offered by candidates who are merely bland and inoffensive”.

The Church “must have the confidence that the nomination of a bishop is not a weapon in anyone’s armoury”, it says.

The report takes a positive view of the structure of the CNC, and praises the confidentiality of the discernment process. But it also refers to “painful points of pressure on its current operations”, and says that more care needs to be taken with regard to representation, noting that, in a diocese with a large presence of BAME ministries, there was no ethnic-minority presence on the CNC.

The Revd Professor Oliver O’Donovan, who chaired the review group, will present the report on the first day of the Synod’s next group of sessions, 8 February, and a take-note debate will follow. Professor O’Donovan discussed the group’s interim findings last year (News, 14 July and 4 August).

Among the recommendations of the report are that the hymn Veni Creator, used at ordinations and “invoking the multiple gifts of the Spirit”, be used at the CNC’s meetings; that different interview styles be considered “to explore the theological capacity” of candidates; that more preparatory work be done by diocesan members and vacancy-in-see committees; and that the chair’s authority be strengthened.

The requirement for secret voting should be removed, because it “appears merely to create a veil of mystery dividing those who need to be able to co-operate more”. Open voting would promote discussion, it says, and might be a “better defence against the temptation to breach confidence”.

Confidentiality, it says, “is imposed on a limited set of proceedings for a definite purpose, and . . . an excessive culture of secrecy can undermine the confidence and trust it hopes to build.”

If its conclusions are accepted, it will be the first time in recent years that the Church has proposed more involvement for the Prime Minister. The report suggests that when, for the archbishopric of York, the CNC is chaired by a communicant lay person, the lay chair’s appointment “might rest with the Prime Minister” rather than with the General Synod’s appointments committee, which “has little experience to enable it to identify a figure with the appropriate profile”.

The PM already appoints the lay chair in the case of the archbishopric of Canterbury.

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