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General Synod digest: Single framework proposed for C of E governance

26 November 2021
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, presents the report of the Governance Review Group

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, presents the report of the Governance Review Group

Governance Review Group report.

THE new General Synod was presented on Wednesday with a report recommending dramatic reform of the Church of England’s governance. It was being broken in gently, with opportunities for questions in advance of a debate scheduled for the February 2022 sessions.

The Governance Review Group (GRG), chaired by the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, was established in December 2019 to review the effectiveness of governance structures, processes, and activities for and across the Church of England, and to recommend changes to improve their functioning and effectiveness.

There are currently seven governance bodies, or National Church Institutions (NCI): Archbishops’ Council; Church Commissioners; Pensions Board; the Offices of the Archbishop at Lambeth and the Archbishop at Bishopthorpe; Church of England Central Services, and the National Society (church schools).

These have spawned 122 sub-committees. “This was probably not what Jesus had in mind when he commissioned Peter to the task of feeding and growing a Church,” the Bishop said, describing the current structures as “complex, many-faced, and top-heavy”. These had grown over time, resulting in a lack of clarity in decision-making, and inconsistency with fast-moving charity law, he told the Synod.

The GRG report presents 17 recommendations, chief of which is to set up a new single framework, Church of England National Services (CENS), established under the Charities Act. Three recommendations relate to bishops: enhancing the position of the College of Bishops; creating an elected Board of Bishops to work on matters of governance and policy; and a review of the post of “lead bishop”.

A minimum number of sub-committees is recommended to serve the CENS. Those that remained, Bishop Baines said, “must have clarity regarding their purpose, level of authority, reporting lines and methods. They should not overstep the powers and remit delegated to them by the governing body to which they are accountable.”

The Turnbull report in the 1990s had recommended creating a single National Council, while the Church Commissioners managed the assets only. He explained, however, that this never progressed. “Vested interests defended their territories. We didn’t grasp the nettle. These recommendations are more nuanced, in tune with the practical needs of the Church.”

The GRG had examined a range of instances in which these fragile structures had failed, including work on church buildings, miscommunications, and “getting a grip “ on safeguarding to protect the most vulnerable. “When the Church nationally faced decisions, these could fall between the gaps in our governing bodies. If we had acted sooner, some of our failings might have been avoided or mitigated.”

Of the CENS proposal, Bishop Baines said that services would be best delivered by a more unified national structure. The Pensions Board, National Society, and new Independent Safeguarding Board should remain as separate independent bodies, and the arrangements for the Church Commissioners’ co-regulation of cathedrals should continue.

A Nominations Committee would sit as one of the sub-committees on the CENS governing body. It should establish, he said, “a community of diverse, appropriately skilled, and appropriately knowledgeable people, from which panels would be convened to oversee appointments and ensure eligibility for election”.

The Bishop acknowledged that present sub-committees were “full of gifted people, but we must have a balance of skills and experience, the best professional skills available. The fault line in church culture is trust, even when, most of the time, the decisions of committees are where issues of churchmanship and tradition do not apply.”

The Synod had not been one of the bodies that the GRG had been asked to review, but it had come up widely in relation to how representative it was of young, UKME, and lay people. It had been deemed by focus groups to be “out of touch, factional, and dominated by parties”. What kind of General Synod did the Church need in the future, the Bishop asked. “It would be wonderful if this Synod could start an honest conversation about this sort of question.”

Times had changed since Turnbull and so had the Church and public expectations of governance standards in the 21st century, he said. More could have been achieved had work continued 30 years ago. “Don’t let history repeat itself. Don’t let these proposals be torn apart by interest groups,” the Bishop concluded.

Questions came thick and fast, many around the proposed Nominations Committee. 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 Debrah 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 Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland (Blackburn), on representation: “At some point we have to say we trust those we appoint to act in good faith, and we learn as we go.”

Canon Mark Bennet (Oxford) said that a true review of governance must also be about accountability.

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) wanted to know the relation between subsidiarity and the proposed new body, but expressed surprise at the quality of the report, “and the warmth I feel towards it”. On subsidiarity, Bishop Baines said that the body should “enable only those things that have to happen at national level to be at national level”.

Karen Czapiewski (Gloucester) wanted to see governance not “in silos” but in joined-up working groups that were properly scrutinised. To Canon Lisa Battye (Manchester), who asked about the proposed board of bishops, Bishop Baines acknowledged: “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.”

Canon Bruce Bryant-Scott (Europe) asked whether “letting go of the Constantinian chains of establishment” and a stop to “grasping on to prestige and power” had been considered. Bishop Baines answered: “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.”

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) reflected that as the Synod was about to elect standing committees in all three Houses, it might be good for these to meet together and “run alongside” the recommendations.

Temitope Taiwo (London), an ordinand and associate pastor, spoke of Bible-study courses with up to 300 young millennials who “understood the Bible but not the Church that was started in it”.

Bishop Baines acknowledged that communicating what happened at the higher levels of the Church was a challenge, “but you can’t just draw a straight line from the Bible to how a Church like this should be governed. There aren’t those lines,” he said. “The next stage of the project is debating how we translate all this into ways that can be understood.”

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