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Governance plans: it’s the white lines on the pitch, not the game, says Bishop Baines

14 September 2021

Roger Harris

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines

THE report by the Governance Review Group, published on Tuesday, “isn’t a power grab” by the centre: “it’s a simplification and clarification grab”, says the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, who chaired the group.

One of the report’s key proposals is that a new charitable body, the Church of England National Services (CENS), should oversee most of the activities now within the remit of the Church of England Central Services (ChECS) and many of those within that of the Church Commissioners.

It says that the way in which authority is “widely dispersed” in the current governance structure “creates the perfect conditions for duplication, overlaps, underlaps and abdication”.

Speaking on Monday, Bishop Baines emphasised that the proposal was not intended to centralise decision-making, however. “We’ve stressed throughout the report that subsidiarity is a really serious matter,” he said. “So we want to take away from the national what ought to be done in the local, but not have structures that mean that the local can’t actually deal with it. So, this isn’t a power grab: it’s a simplification and clarification grab.”

It had become clear during the consultation phase, he said, that there was a widespread view that reform of the C of E’s governance was needed. “We didn’t speak to anyone who said there isn’t a problem that needs to be solved,” he said.

Asked how the report’s proposal of a single, unified structure equated with the Vision and Strategy plan of a “mixed-ecology” Church (News, 17 November 2020), Bishop Baines replied: “They’re different things: this is about governance. Any body has to have governance that allows it to be legal, accountable, and to facilitate the life [which] the Church is supposed to engage in.”

He went on to employ an analogy from football: “Governance provides the white lines on the pitch, so that other people can go and play the game; and the lines might get shortened, contracted, expanded, and so on. But you can change all the governance in the world and not change the will of the people to play a different game, or to play the same game differently.

“So, whatever we do with governance, whatever goes through in the end, it’s still up to the Church at the local and diocesan level to develop its mixed ecology. But that’s to do with the tactics of the game, rather than where do you put the white lines and who is the referee?”

Governance, he said, was “the structure and framework that enables other things to happen: it doesn’t guarantee it or create it. . .

“So the vision for the Church, which . . . the Archbishop of York’s group has been developing . . . into a strategy: the important point is that the governance structures and mechanisms we have should enable that vision to be realised as effectively as possible, and as accountably as possible, as transparently as possible. . .

“The important thing, and a good question to ask, is: ‘Will the governance structures that we’re commending facilitate the development and implementation of vision? Or will they will they militate against that? Will they create confusion, or the possibility of being distracted by a million different things? Or will they help us focus and be clear, including about the allocation of resource?’”

Bishop Baines said that the group was trying to be careful “not to claim too much. . . This is not about solving the problem of the Church of England, or meeting every challenge of the Church of England. It’s not about the conversion of England. It’s about governance of the body that then has to enable those things, or create those things and enable them to happen.”

But it was important that the C of E’s national governance structures should be comprehensible to people in the parishes, he said, “because if you want to reduce accountability, have a system that people don’t understand. [And] it’s clear that there are people who don’t quite understand the current complexity of the Church.”

The national Church was looking separately at “what can we do nationally to alleviate the burden on the local”, Bishop Baines said. “It’ll be much easier, much simpler to do that sort of thing if you had a simplified governance structure so it’s clear where people sit in it, where decisions are made, how they’re made, and by whom they’re made.”

The report says: “The House of Bishops is not best placed in governance terms or in terms of inclusiveness to occupy the role of a quasi-governance body which it has assumed in recent decades.” It suggests that the Bishops should be reminded that they exist as one of the Houses of the General Synod. Instead, the part played by the College of Bishops should be enhanced.

Bishop Baines said of the proposal: “What we’re saying is, if you’re going to do a reset, let’s push the House of Bishops back to being that, make the College of Bishops — a bishop is a bishop is a bishop, even if they have different functions — the body for doing a lot of the consultation. . . And that will mean an adjustment in how the House and the College are administered.

“So, yes, that would require a change in how they’re resourced. The House would still be responsible in the Synod for doctrine, liturgy, the things that we have to give final approval to anyway. But that would be as part of the synodical structure, not overall for the life of the Church, as it were.”

The report considers the restructuring of other large organisations such as the NHS and one of the Big Four accountancy firms (“We noted some points of equivalence between Big Four accounting firms and the Church of England in terms of their governance structures, where parishes are like member firms, dioceses are the regions, and the national Church is the global practice”).

Bishop Baines said that it was harder to draw lessons from the governance structures of other Churches because “the Church of England is unique because of the establishment”.

“If you look at the Episcopal Church in Scotland, or the Episcopal Church in America, you’re looking at a Church that governs itself. But here we have Parliament; we have the Commissioners’ endowment. . . They’re not comparable, that’s the point.”

While the report suggests that much of the Commissioners’ work is absorbed into the CNES, it recommends that the Commissioners retain control of managing their historic assets. “For example, look at climate change, look at the impact that the Church Commissioners have as a world-renowned brand in getting the fossil-fuel businesses to up their game and change their practices. . .

“You don’t compromise that — that professional global reputation for effectiveness,” Bishop Baines said. “We came to the conclusion in the end, not without a lot of debate and argument, that that element of the Commissioners’ work ought to be retained by a separate body. Then it’s for the single body of the Church to decide what do you do with the money that is raised.

“Now, obviously, there’s going to be a conversation then about, well, does the Commissioners’ body, the asset money-raising element, have any say over how that is deployed? In governance terms, you could answer that yes or no, and argue it both ways. But there’s always going to have to be a synergy in the real world as to what the purpose of the raising of funds is.

“We’ve written what we’ve written in the report, and it’s for the governance bodies, who I’ll be talking to during this month, to raise their questions.”

The report notes that the proposals contained in the 1995 Turnbull report “recommended the establishment of a single executive body (‘a National Council’), yet it was “dismantled during the synodical process, and the current governance structures reflect only aspects of the Turnbull vision”. Was there a danger that the Synod could dilute this report’s proposals in a similar way?

“It will go to the governance bodies and then to the Synod,” Bishop Baines said. There’s a plan to present it to the new Synod in November, leading to a take-note debate in February, “which actually is only about ten weeks later. So it’ll give people time to absorb question, consult, all of that.

“But the short answer is, yes, the Synod could amend it, and maybe it needs to be amended. That’s the point of debate: you learn, you get insights you didn’t have before, you knock it around, you stretch it, you see what works, what doesn’t. But I hope we’ve provided something that is coherent. . .

“We’ve deliberately not gone into absolute detail of how everything would work. Partly we didn’t have the time, but, secondly, that needs to happen in the next stage.”

What if the Synod decided not to take note of the report? “If they refuse to take note, then we’re back to square one: we stay with the governance we have, which has been universally called into question as to whether it’s the most efficient, whether it facilitates or militates against good behaviours, trust, all of that sort of thing.

“So the question won’t go away, even if it’s deemed that this isn’t the solution. In which case, if I was being bloody-minded, I would say, ‘Well, don’t just criticise it — give us an alternative.’”

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