THE archaic, “highly complex and fragmented” governance of the Church of England should be simplified to avoid repeating past failures, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, warned the General Synod on Wednesday afternoon.
The Bishop, who chairs the Governance Review Group (GRG), was presenting its first report, which calls for urgent reform of church structures, including of the seven governing bodies known as the National Church Institutions (News, 17 September).
These are the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, the Pensions Board, the offices of the Archbishops at Lambeth and Bishopthorpe, the C of E central services (finance, IT, legal, HR), and the National Society (which oversees church schools and education in England and Wales).
Furthermore, there were 122 bodies within these institutions. “This was probably not what Jesus had in mind when he commissioned Peter to the task of feeding and growing a Church,” he said. “This does not serve the Church well.”
The Governance Review Group was established by the Archbishops and the House of Bishops before the pandemic. It began its work in August 2020 to review the national structures of the Church and “if appropriate” put forward proposals for reform. It finished its work in July this year.
A previous attempt at simplification, the Turnbull report of 1990, had sought to create a single national council, leaving the Church Commissioners responsible only for managing assets. At the time, though, “vested interests defended their territories. We didn’t grasp the nettle,” Bishop Baines said. “These proposals are more nuanced, in tune with the practical needs of the Church.”
The object was not unification but what the Bishop called a “greater transparency, accountability, simplicity, accessibility, and coherence” to the Church’s governance structures. “The point of the review is to find practical ways in which refocusing the national structures and processes can relieve burdens on the diocesan and parochial to enable local parishes and churches to flourish.”
There were challenges — not because people were obtuse, he said, but “because this is what happens when governing structures grow and develop over time without regular and frequent review and reform” to reflect the world around. In the same way, charity law did not stand still for 25 years.
Every voice that the group had heard in the year-long consultation process had called for urgent reform, he said. The complex structure of boards and committees with sometimes overlapping responsibilities “results in a lack of clarity and decision-making, in poor engagement in consensus building and in effective policy implementation, and weak accountability to the wider Church. . . Apart from that, it’s brilliant,” he joked.
There were too many instances when the current structure had failed, Bishop Baines continued. He cited failure to implement work to church buildings mandated by the Synod; miscommunications between governing bodies on ministry planning; and “perhaps most devastatingly, a failure over decades by the Church’s governance bodies to grip safeguarding and protect the most vulnerable.” These could have been avoided or mitigated, he said.
IN ITS report, the group recommends a reduction in the number of NCIs by merging most of the functions into a single charitable body, established under charitable law, with a diverse board of trustees, provisionally named Church of England National Services.
It was decided that the management of the Church’s historic assets should remain independent, however, he said. “The C of E Pensions Board; the National Society; and the new Independent Safeguarding Board have to remain independent, since they have separate arrangements for their governance and oversight which would be difficult to unravel at this point.” This might be revisited at a later stage.
Vision and strategy required more unity, Bishop Baines said, therefore the GRG had proposed a “bonfire of the committees”: a reduction of the number of boards and committees at national level to the “minimum number” needed, to save time, money, and energy. “Servicing seven governing bodies, the Church parliament and 122 committees is expensive,” he said, and much of this was paid for by the dioceses through the parish share.
The GRG also recommended an elected board of bishops in order to involve members of the College of Bishops in national decision-making. There should also be a review of the role of “lead bishop” on various issues — if such a position were to continue, a job description should be drawn up of the expected contributions and demands.
Further recommendations included a nominations committee to ensure “true diversity of membership. . . The fault line in church cultures is trust — even when, most of the time, churchmanship and tradition do not apply.”
MORE radical was the suggestion of synodical reform. Of the hundreds of people who took part in focus groups during the consultation process, Bishop Baines said that “almost without exception, what we heard was that Synod was seen as being out of touch, factional, dominated by parties, and not representative of the concerns of the parish and the local church.”
He asked the Synod: “What kind of General Synod does the Church of England need for the future?” He urged members to come up with constructive alternatives if they did not approve of the current proposals.
He appreciated that further thinking and more detail was needed, but urged the Synod not to let history repeat itself. “Don’t let these proposals be torn apart by interest groups without thinking of the wider group of the Church. You have the opportunity as a Synod to support the Church to build a coherent governance structure at national level.”
QUESTIONS came thick and fast. In answer to Luke Appleton (Exeter), Bishop Baines said: “We can’t duck questions of when accurate representation doesn’t give you the skills and experience required by charity law.” To Canon Lisa Battye (Manchester), who asked about the proposed board of bishops: “The House of Bishops has accrued to itself over time a lot of fingers in pies where it doesn’t need to have a finger in the pie.”
To Deborah McIsaac (Salisbury), he said: “Checks and balances will be the stress-test of any proposals. You need on any board an ‘outside eye’ that isn’t enculturated, to ask the questions people on a board have got not used to asking.”
To the Ven. Mark Ireland (Blackburn), asking about potential loss of clergy and lay voicesm he said: “At some point we have to say we trust those we appoint to act in good faith, and we learn as we go.”
To Canon Bruce Bryant-Scott (Europe), who asked whether there was consideration of “letting go of the Constantinian chains of establishment”, Bishop Baines said: “If we were simply setting up the governance of a Church, there is genuinely nothing like the Church of England. You have to take this uniqueness and deal with it.
“We didn’t look at disestablishment. Our agenda was big enough. I don’t think establishment is simply about prestige and power: it brings with it a missional obligation. It’s not a bit of a jolly. We take it as a massive obligation, and sometimes a big burden.”