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Cloaks of secrecy are too threadbare

12 April 2019

Despite a vote in Synod, April Alexander argues that nominating bishops by secret ballot has no place in the C of E

Sam Atkins/Church Times

A former Bishop of Oxford, Bishop John Pritchard, helps to celebrate the day in July 2014 when the Synod approved women bishops

A former Bishop of Oxford, Bishop John Pritchard, helps to celebrate the day in July 2014 when the Synod approved women bishops

IN 2016, the Archbishop of Canterbury commissioned a theological review of the workings of the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC), which nominates diocesan bishops for the Prime Minister to recommend to the Queen for appointment. The review was to cover the years 2012 to 2017, and came in the wake of two failures on the part of the CNC to make appointments, both directly or indirectly related to the issue of the consecration of women.

In addition to these particular cases — Oxford and Sheffield — the CNC’s record on appointing women was poor: in the three years between the passing of the women bishops Measure in 2014 and the end of that CNC’s period of office in 2017, only two women had been appointed diocesans.

The settled will of the Church of England on this matter was clear: of the Five Guiding Principles, the first states: “Now that legislation has been passed to enable women to become bishops the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender” (my emphasis).

Canon Oliver O’Donovan was invited to chair the Archbishop’s review, together with six academics, the secretary-general of the Anglican Communion, and a member of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield. They met 12 times over nine months, and reported in early 2018.

In February this year, the General Synod debated one of the review’s recommendations concerning the final stage of the nomination process, in which the Commission has to achieve a two-thirds majority (ten votes out of 14) in favour of each of the candidates whose names will be presented to the Prime Minister. Then a choice has to be made between them. Standing Orders dictate that the votes shall be “by secret ballot”. The recommendation before the Synod was to delete these words.

The Oxford case (named by the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, and described by Canon O’Donovan) was a particularly egregious example. Under the cloak of secrecy, four people out of the 14 on the Commission refrained from voting. The remaining ten votes were split between the two remaining candidates, both of them outstanding, both of them women. Neither could receive the ten votes required. The CNC had to reconvene, when it nominated a different (male) candidate.


THE CNC is made up of six central members, elected by the General Synod for a five-year term, and six representatives from the diocese with the vacancy. The two Archbishops make up the total of 14.

Time and again during the years 2012 to 2017, it was clear that the selection of even the most impressive female candidates was being blocked. Only two women diocesans were nominated in the first year after the Measure, in 2015, and thereafter no more, even though seven dioceses were considered up to the end of 2017.

Then there was an election of a new CNC. It is striking that, since 2017, three women have been nominated. One speaker declared that the proposal in the Synod was based on an “out-of-date assumption”, without spelling out what this was. The Archbishops “chair things differently now”, he said.

One factor that is different is that there are now only two central members of the six who oppose the consecration of women rather than the three in the previous five years. Much also depends on the diocesan six, and how many of these are opposed to the consecration of women. As in politics, the first requirement is to be able to count.

THERE were many things to regret about the Synod debate in February on lifting the secret ballot. Only 30 minutes were assigned to this and the preceding item between them, and a two-minute time limit was imposed from the start.

Because of the secrecy surrounding the workings of the CNC, for most people present we might just as well have been talking about an appointments process in MI5, for all they knew.

Four of the six members of the central CNC, during the years in question, were invited to speak. Of these, three were opposed to the consecration of women, and all of those supported the retention of secrecy.

Only one, the Dean of Southwark, supported the proposal, and he is also a prominent supporter of the consecration of women. He referred to the secret ballot as “allowing people to say one thing and to do another”: a familiar occurrence to members of the CNC, but a rare insight to those who have not experienced its working directly. Members would frequently either say nothing, or contribute positively to a conversation about a particular candidate; then, in the first round of voting, that candidate — frequently a woman — would be eliminated.

The Dean also remarked that the Church needed to “grow up”, going on to say that no other church appointment was made in this way (a point echoed by the Archbishop of York in his summing up). He suggested that the CNC ought to be able to reach open consensus without voting, as all other interview panels in the Church did.

After this, it was astonishing to hear speaker after speaker reject openness, transparency, and trust in favour of secrecy and obfuscation. Even more astonishing was to see the support that they garnered, particularly in the House of Laity, who opposed the motion by 99 votes to 63.

This was the Synod that, only the day before, had wholeheartedly supported the report of the Pastoral Advisory Group, rejecting “prejudice . . . silence . . . ignorance . . . fear . . . about speaking out . . . hypocrisy . . . inequalities of power”.

“Group think” was also quoted as a risk in debate. Irving L. Janis, who first coined the term in 1972, described group think as a process during which people “strive for consensus in a group”. Many might say that such “striving for consensus” is precisely what the CNC should be doing in its deliberations, but that will necessitate being open about what everyone thinks.

WHAT the Synod seemed to discount was that Canon O’Donovan and the review group had already considered carefully the arguments that were being put up in favour of secrecy.

Their report stated: “These arguments have in common that they treat secrecy as a defence against dysfunction — breach of confidence, the phalanx mentality, etc. We suspect, on the other hand, that the secrecy of the ballot may actually encourage the dysfunctional syndromes it is meant to guard against.

“A culture in which members report their votes, and when appropriate explain them (the Archbishops, no doubt, after everyone else), strikes us as a better defence against excessive influence than secrecy can be. We believe open voting will help to provide a context in which discussion, and not only the casting of votes, receives proper emphasis.”

THE Synod debate was just about the secrecy surrounding the final ballot. Overlooked were the earlier stages of the CNC process, when a long list of 12 or so is whittled down to the four who will be invited for interview. Currently, this is done by a series of “balloon debates” that involve the elimination of one candidate at a time, using, again, a series of secret ballots. The CNC itself could decide to reorder this process without seeking the Synod’s advice.

Equally important is the secrecy involved in election to the CNC. Central members are elected by the General Synod. At present, candidates are under no obligation to declare their persuasions and affiliations.

If there is to be room on the CNC for both those who support the consecration of women and those who oppose it, as the Guiding Principles indicate, it is essential that all candidates declare themselves before an election takes place, probably as part of the nomination process.

Canon O’Donovan is scathing about the election process as it stands, and states: “We feel strongly that the basis of election of central members needs more credibility if the process is to commend itself widely to the Church, and we hope Synod may take an imaginative approach to redesigning it.”

He recommends hustings, which would allow persuasions and affiliations to emerge.

In the mean time, and in the absence of openness, the fact that one half, or even one third, of the central members of a nominations board — together with an indeterminate number of diocesan members — are prepared to block one category of candidate not on the grounds of merit but purely because of gender is enough to raise questions.

If the Church of England “is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender”, it seems hard to justify this built-in hurdle, which applies only to women and not to men.

Lawyers will, no doubt, have a view on whether the Church might have sacrificed relevant exemptions under the Equality Act in admitting women to the episcopate on the basis of Guiding Principle 1, and whether such inequality in the appointment process is still lawful. They might also consider whether there are any human-rights implications.

It is vital that the CNC be above reproach. Dioceses trust it to find the best candidates for them, without bias. Canon O’Donovan refers to the cost and exposure of the process for candidates, and the fact that candidates must trust the CNC. As his report makes clear, members of the CNC must be able to trust each other. An atmosphere of openness is the best way to ensure this.

Under the cloak of secrecy, discrimination can spread. In November 2014, Timothy Allen, who had just served on a CNC as a diocesan representative, set this out starkly in the Synod: “It is not only women who were excluded in a discriminatory and prejudiced way from the House of Bishops. So, too, were — and still are — those gay men who do not hide their sexuality in the closet. Those who are honest and frank enough to live openly in a civil partnership, while behaving in the chaste way required by church law, are, it seems, from all the evidence, de facto excluded from the House of Bishops, even when they are eminently qualified to be a bishop.”

In my experience (at least until 2017), the tactics used over sexuality are identical to those used over gender. Until this nominations process, uniquely secret, is reformed, the Church will be the loser. It should expect what it prays for: the very best appointments, without proviso or caveat.

April Alexander is a member of the General Synod. She was a central member of the CNC 2012-17.

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