A RADICAL shake-up of the Church of England’s central governance has been proposed by an official review group.
The Governance Review Group’s proposals, released on Tuesday, include scaling back the powers of the House of Bishops to set national policy, and placing most of the activities currently overseen by the Church Commissioners and bodies such as the Archbishops’ Council under the auspices of a single charitable body, the Church of England National Services.
The report says that the “complexity” of the current governance structure “encourages confusion, duplication, and accountability gaps”, and “is not sustainable or suitable for the Church’s future mission”.
Chairing the review group was the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines. He writes in an introduction to the report: “The need for the simplification of the Church of England’s national governance structures has been the single most discussed aspect of our work. Simplicity in the system will help remove duplication, help to identify and fill gaps, clarify where authority and responsibility lies, and aid the execution of tasks.”
He acknowledges, however: “Achieving this simplicity is not going to be simple. One consultee described this exercise as trying to dismantle and reassemble an aircraft in flight.”
The object of the national Church’s governance structure should be to support parishes and dioceses, the review says, “by giving support and resources of various kinds, as opposed to overwhelming and demoralising them by giving them things to do. The Review Group believes that none of this will be achieved without simplifying the national governance structures of the Church. . .
“The Church needs a governance structure that helps it to be lighter, more agile, and more purposeful in fulfilling its ministry to society in the future; one in which the executive functions facilitate rather than burden the local church. The Governance Review Group’s ambition has been to help the Church make its national governance framework more rational and more accountable and also more humane.”
The group was established by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in December 2019, but was unable to meet until August last year, owing to the pandemic. Since then, it has met 16 times. The group’s other members include the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent; the now former First Church Estates Commissioner, Loretta Minghella; as well as Anglicans working in areas such as the Civil Service and in higher education.
The group’s report notes that, despite the commissioning of numerous reports during the past two decades to examine the structure of the National Church Institutions, “there has been no fundamental structural review of the national Church’s governance structures since the publication of the ‘Turnbull Report’ in 1995”.
The 1995 report, Working as One Body, by a commission chaired by Michael Turnbull, then Bishop of Durham, proposed a central church committee. His proposals were “dismantled during the synodical process, and the current governance structures reflect only aspects of the Turnbull vision”, the review group’s report says. This means that “the Church of England still does not have a unified national governance structure or a single focus of decision-making and strategic planning.”
The report depicts an unwieldy and dysfunctional lack of organisation at the national level of the C of E. There remains “a multitude of bodies all seeking to do the Church’s work but with a diverse set of accountabilities, structures and methods. As well as the seven NCIs, there is a proliferation of other statutory and non-statutory committees and other bodies, many of which have no formal powers but develop policy and/or make decisions which then have to be formalised by the relevant statutory bodies. There is no consistency between them in terms of their relationships with their respective formal governance bodies.
“This widely dispersed authority creates the perfect conditions for duplication, overlaps, underlaps and abdication. It is too easy for discussion to circulate without coming to a decision, or to make decisions that are not implemented, or, given the absence of adequate conflict resolution mechanisms, to reach disagreements which turn to criticism and blame.”
Among the examples that it gives is the House of Bishops’ 2020 Pastoral Statement on opposite-sex civil partnerships (News, 31 January 2020), where “poor communication and lack of clarity in delegation allowed a public statement to be made which caused great distress and provoked a public and media backlash, requiring withdrawal and public and ‘internal’ apologies.
“The situation arose in part because of the unusual and unclear position/remit of the House of Bishops in relation to the governing bodies. The Statement had not been discussed with any of the governance bodies and had not therefore been seen through their risk and communications ‘lenses’.”
There exists “considerable confusion” in the C of E “about decision-making authority, a lack of understanding about which decisions different bodies are empowered to make and whether those decisions then carry authority and may be implemented. There needs to be far greater clarity in the Church of England regarding who makes decisions and how those decisions are reached.”
A “constant and recurring theme” that emerged during the review group’s investigations was “uncertainty about the role of bishops within national governance”, the report says.
It continues: “In short, while the members of the House of Bishops are spiritual leaders of the Church of England and are empowered to lead in other ways in their dioceses, the issue of how they lead collectively at national level is complex and contested. This leads to an ambiguity about how far they are accountable for the decisions that they make in the House and how far they are responsible for the implementation of those decisions at national and diocesan level.”
The House of Bishops, the report says, “operates as if it was one of the governing bodies of the Church, discussing matters of finance, policy and administration, despite the fact that the House has no statutory legal identity except as a House of Synod”.
In fact, the report says, the only national bodies that are legally empowered to execute a governance function are the Church Commissioners’ Board of Governors, the Archbishops’ Council, the Church of England Pensions Board, and the Church of England Central Services (ChECS).
None the less, few significant national decisions are made without their being put first to the House of Bishops for comment or approval, the report states. This creates a situation whereby the House of Bishops “is in effect trespassing on the powers which legally belong to” the four governance bodies.
Furthermore, since the House of Bishops comprises only the Archbishops, diocesan bishops, and nine elected suffragans from the Northern and Southern Provinces, this “leaves approximately 64 bishops who are members of the College but not the House excluded from national policy-making by dint of the fact that they are not members of the House”.
The report recommends: “The House of Bishops should focus on the decisions and the activities which are required of it as one of the Houses of General Synod but the role of College of Bishops in the national life of the Church should be enhanced.
“The College of Bishops should elect 12 of its members to form a Board of Bishops to work with the national governance bodies on matters of governance and policy and to elect those to serve on the national governing body.”
It also suggests that there should be a review of the responsibilities of a “lead bishop”.
The report then sets out its central proposal: “that many of the activities of the Church at national level which are currently spread between the different national governance bodies should come under the umbrella of an integrated governance body with a single board of trustees”, tentatively called the Church of England National Services (CENS).
“This body would combine most of the activities currently overseen by the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners and Church of England Central Services. It would also combine within its operations the activities which currently take place under the oversight of the Archbishops’ offices at Lambeth Palace and Bishopthorpe, ensuring that these activities are fully integrated into the overall strategy and operations of the Church of England at national level.”
The new body’s remit would include: enabling the development, communication, and execution of an agreed national vision and strategy for the Church of England; supporting the development of policy on issues where “national consistency is essential”, such as safeguarding, education, standards of training for ordination, and the environment; oversight of an agreed framework for pastoral reorganisation; and determining the best use of resources.
The exact functions and responsibilities should be determined finally in light of the conclusions of the work of the Emerging Church groups, it says.
The CENS “should be supported by the minimum necessary number of sub-committees to ensure its operation, including Risk, Audit, Nominations and Finance and the minimum possible number of others and only to the extent essential”.
It does suggest the creation of a nominations sub-committee, which “should establish a community of diverse, appropriately skilled and appropriately knowledgeable people from which panels would be convened to oversee appointments and ensure eligibility for election”. It would “sift candidates suitable to stand for election to governance bodies”.
Not all the national bodies would be absorbed in the CENS, however. While the CENS would determine how money was distributed, management of assets would remain under the control of the Church Commissioners. This would include decisions about how much income from the Church’s historic endowment “can be sustainably distributed”. The Commissioners should also retain responsibility for the co-regulation of cathedrals, the report says.
The Pensions Board should also “remain a separate independent body under the jurisdiction of the Pensions Regulator”, the report says. The National Society should also continue to exist as a separate governance body, given its links with the Church in Wales.
The report supports the idea of an independent body to be responsible for oversight of the Church’s national safeguarding activities.
The report will now be passed to several church bodies for consideration, beginning with the College of Bishops, which is due meet on 20 September in Oxford.
A presentation about the report will be given to the General Synod in November, during the first group of sessions of the new quinquennium. It will be debated properly at the February 2022 group of sessions, when the Synod will be invited to take note of the report.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a joint statement in support of the report: “This review responds to major societal changes, including the need for the Church of England to be ‘A Church for All People’.
“The Church of England’s national governance structures must be accountable to and transparent for all the parishes and worshipping communities which they support, to build trust and so the Church can fulfil its mission in the 21st century. Better governance should enable the Church at every level to be more agile in decision making, and responsive to the pastoral and missional needs of local and regional communities.”
Read the report here
Read an interview with the Bishop of Leeds here