SINCE the Synodical Government Measure of 1969, diocesan bishops have been required to consult their diocesan synods “on matters of general importance and concern”. This is what is meant by the oft-repeated phrase that the Church of England is “episcopally led and synodically governed”. Authority lies with the Bishop-in-Synod.
It is alarming, then, that Dr Tim Dakin has stepped back temporarily as Bishop of Winchester in the face of a vote of no confidence in the diocesan synod.
Dr Dakin’s appointment in 2011 was in line with the diocese’s stated priorities for mission and growth. He came with a conservative theology and extensive leadership experience in Uganda and at the Church Mission Society.
He quickly made his mark as a mission-orientated disturber: one whose instinct is to “move fast and break things”. And he broke quite a lot of things. I remember the shiver that we felt in Oxford diocese when we heard of the sacking of the entire Continuing Ministerial Development team. In Winchester, he broke links with southern-based training schemes and developed a bespoke one; started lay training without selection procedures, and made clear his preference for successful mega-churches over declining rural parishes.
Parish clergy found themselves being reprimanded if they failed to achieve targets for growth. A significant proportion of priests in the northern archdeaconry have recently been persuaded to accept voluntary redundancy. Then there was the Channel Islands fiasco, which involved the islands leaving Dr Dakin’s oversight, with a significant loss of income (News, 11 October 2019, 14 February 2020).
Dr Dakin still has supporters, but, even among those who share his theology, there is disquiet at his style. It is no secret that Winchester has become known as “the North Korean diocese”. Whether that is fair or not, the diocese is now split, and the Bishop-in-Synod is unable to function.
The wider Church should reflect on this. For years, we have been fed a panic narrative that Christianity will disappear from this land if we fail to reform and renew. Bishops working synodically have the means to know whether this is true or not. But the narrative of urgent change has shifted the balance towards the episcopate, not least because panic makes leaders intolerant of dissenting voices.
We are used to reformers who express impatience with C of E structures, but forcing through change in a way that disregards the delicate ecology of power and consent actually brings about the collapse of the whole system.
Bishops do not have the authority to pursue their own agendas without listening and consent. For their part, those involved in synodical government must recognise that they, too, bear a responsibility to listen critically and respond creatively — ideally, before things come to such a pass as they have in Winchester. The stand-off there is a warning to the whole Church that, without open government, it can fall into command-and-control episcope, which leads, in turn, to sectarianism.