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General Synod: Changes set for governance and safeguarding

12 July 2019

Madeleine Davies, Adam Becket, and Tim Wyatt report from the General Synod in York


Robert Hammond (Chelmsford)

Robert Hammond (Chelmsford)

THE Draft Cathedrals Measure received first consideration on Monday morning.

Introducing the debate, Robert Hammond (Chelmsford) said that the most significant recommendation from the Cathedrals Working Group’s report was the change to cathedral governance, in line with the Charity Commission’s guidelines. The Church Commissioners had allowed for more funding for cathedrals in the next quinquennium, he said.

The change in governance allowed for Chapters to be expanded, including new people concerned with finance and other matters. Another change would be in relation to safeguarding. There was a power in the new legislation specifically for parish church cathedrals to allow them to jettison their parish status should they wish to do so. Cathedrals would come within the definition of “charity” as in the 2017 Charity Commission Act, which would allow cathedrals to become charities and be more accountable to the general public.

The dual recognition from the Charity Commission and the Church Commissioners represented the unique part played by cathedrals in Church and State. The draft Measure also allowed for financial issues to be more carefully regulated. The Charity Commission had important concerns that it expected to be resolved, he said.

The Third Church Estates Commissioner, Dr Eve Poole, had led the implementation of the Cathedrals Working Group report since last year’s General Synod. She had been advised to read the Rule of St Benedict and Barchester Towers in advance of drafting the Measure. The cathedral was “the original resource church”, she said. Cathedrals should not be the only church bodies not accountable to the State.

SAM ATKINS/CHURCH TIMESThe Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn (Southwark), said that he felt a lot less “grumpy” than when he had stood before the Synod in July 2018. This was partly because of the good consultative work done by the working group, he said. He would chair the revision committee, should this Measure be voted through. The Synod should allow for flexibility, he argued. Serious areas of concern were the part played by the vice-chair, the place of cathedral councils, and the idea that bishops could sit on a Chapter while still retaining visitation rights, Dean Nunn said. “None of this is insurmountable.” The closing date for amendments for the revision committee to consider was 5.30 p.m. on 9 August.

Tim Fleming (St Albans) said that good governance was one of the ways in which organisations were judged by the outside world: could they be trusted? He was head of finance at St Albans Cathedral. He offered three potential points for the revision committee: clarity, context, and culture. Clarity, as in the idea of the bishop’s having a seat in the Chapter of a cathedral; context, in the history of the cathedral, but also in the financial aspects; and culture, as he hoped that the Measure would reflect the daily life of a cathedral. “Care is perhaps at the heart of good governance,” he said.

Canon James Allison (Leeds), a member of the Chapter of Wakefield Cathedral, had attended the first cathedrals meeting in Manchester last year, which he had felt intimidated by. “The cathedral life has to be fun . . . and if you can’t have fun in a cathedral, you’re not doing it properly.” There was a need for regulation, without destroying this fun. “Experimentation can lead to growth, but it can also lead to disaster.” Wakefield had had 300 adult baptisms in the past few years, owing to a large number of refugees who were passing through. He suggested that the Chapter of cathedrals were privateers — “who, under orders, could do incredible things”.

The Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Robert Atwell, supported the draft Measure, but questioned the wisdom of the provision relating to bishops’ engagement with Chapters. He wondered whether the very presence of a bishop at Chapter could compromise the visitorial function. It was the Chapter’s responsibility to govern cathedrals, not bishops, he argued: “You can’t legislate for good relationships.” Sometimes bishops had to perform visitations, and a good code of practice would have been helpful at these times, as it would manage expectations and reduce levels of anxiety.

SAM ATKINS/CHURCH TIMESThe Second Church Estates Commissioner, Caroline Spelman MP

The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman MP, said that cathedrals and churches were some of the few places in the country where people felt “a great relationship with a building”, places where “the drama of religious, public, and civic life plays out.” Congregations were increasing, and cathedrals were contributing “vastly” to the local economy and employing hundreds of thousands of people. It was surprising that they had no independent regulator. The days of receiving “substantial support from the Treasury” without questions of accountability were gone.

Carl Hughes (Southwark) spoke, having completed the inquiry at Peterborough Cathedral three years ago, where it had been clear that it was in “significant financial difficulty”, that governance had broken down, and that important financial controls were absent. If the Measure before the Synod had been in place in 2016, that situation would have been “significantly less likely” to arise. The legislation was a “masterful translation” of the working group’s report. Fundamental to it was the separation of governance and management. He urged the Synod not to repeat the mistakes in the 1990s when a Measure that contained similar recommendations had been “substantially revised” by a “cherry-picking” Synod. It had proved to be “not fit for purpose”.

Canon Patricia Hawkins (Lichfield), a residentiary canon of Lichfield Cathedral, would be voting for the Measure to progress, but noted “significant questions” remained, concerning, among other things, the rights and responsibilities of bishops, and conflicts of interest. “We need to pay careful attention to when issues of accountability and responsibility slip over into issues of power and control,” she said. “We are not good at dealing with power issues in church, because, on the whole, we don’t name them.”

Anne Foreman (Exeter) spoke as a member of the Council of Exeter Cathedral. It was a shame to abolish councils, she said. Although there would be an opportunity for cathedrals to establish new councils and committees, they would now be outside the body corporate. How could they continue to serve as “critical friends” to the Chapter?

The Dean of Manchester, the Very Revd Rogers Govender (Northern Deans), broadly welcomed the report, and emphasised that cathedrals had already implemented certain recommendations. He noted that there had been occasions when his bishop had received complaints about decisions that he had taken, such as flying the rainbow flag at the cathedral. Because the Bishop was not a member of the Chapter, he and the Chapter could give independent responses to complaints. He also spoke in favour of retaining cathedral councils.

Sarah Tupling (Deaf Anglicans Together) spoke about the ten million cathedral visitors, who would include people with disabilities and those who spoke languages other than English. She asked the revision committee to make it mandatory that cathedrals be accessible — for example, forbidding cathedrals to show video footage unless it was subtitled.

SAM ATKINS/CHURCH TIMESThe Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull

The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, was particularly concerned about removing councils from “close governance” of the cathedral via the body corporate. She had benefited “enormously” from the voice of senior lay people. Also, the clause stated that the Chapter could vote to exclude the diocesan bishop from a conversation by three-quarters was “rather bizarre”; and there were concerns about how to establish a good relationship with the Charity Commission: cathedrals should be acting now on safeguarding and accountability, to help build trust.

The Revd Neil Patterson (Hereford) wanted to address the likelihood of “many, many amendments”. The draft Measure was “comparatively simple”, drafted in a permissive way. He pleaded with the Synod to “resist the temptation to mangle this legislation as perhaps we did in 1999 by riding our hobby horses all over it”. He was conscious of the “perils of micro-management. . . We cannot legislate for good relationships,” but alongside the legislation there would be a “raft of good-practice guidance” and a peer-review panel.

Alison Coulter (Winchester) agreed that legislation did make good relationships, but suggested that it would be “wonderful” if the words of St Paul about love, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control could be included in the Measure. Second, she would like to see more mention of dioceses and diocesan synods. More thought was needed on the governance model to avoid the danger of clericalism.

Professor Muriel Robinson (Lincoln), a lay canon of Lincoln Cathedral, was reassured by the reference to a duty of care to the congregation. She wondered whether there could be more transparency about the appointment of a vice-chair.

The Vicar General of York, the Rt Worshipful Peter Collier QC, had chaired the cathedral council of York Minster. He was delighted that the Measure enabled cathedrals to establish councils if they wished, but was concerned that these would be sub-committees of Chapters, and that the chair must be a member of the Chapter. He could not understand the rationale for this. As members of the body corporate, councils had been able to serve both as critical friends and as advocates of Chapters.

The draft Measure was referred to the revision committee.

Read full coverage of the General Synod here

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