POLITICS and power are given by God for the benefit of all and politics “cannot be wished away” in discussions over a new consensus-based approach to electing members to the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) and diocesan Vacancy-in- See (ViSC) Committees, the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Peter Broadbent, told the General Synod on Saturday.
So many Synod members wanted to contribute to the debate that the time limit on speeches had to be curtailed. Bishop Broadbent supported the objectives of the Responsible Representation review and welcomed the increased transparency and greater inclusion of the recommendations (News, 16 April).
But he pondered whether the recommendation of a pairing system in which Synod elected three members of the House of Clergy and three of the House of Laity to the CNC might weaken the experience and influence of elected representatives, give more power to the Archbishops and the Appointments Secretary and even reinforce the model of “mono-episcopacy”.
The recommendations in the review seek to ensure a greater diversity of views, ages, and traditions on the bodies that select and nominate bishops and represent the Church nationally. The membership of the General Synod is acknowledged in the review to be “overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and able-bodied”. The review’s authors declare: ”Our sincere belief is that change is necessary, and if aspects of this report do not make for uncomfortable reading, we shall have failed to convey the strengths of our deliberations.”
They continue: “In the context of synodical elections — from nominations, through voting, to the role of those chosen — too often it seems that partisan views may have weighed more heavily than genuine commitment to the vitality of the whole body of Christ, across its full breadth and legitimate diversity.”
Politics, they say, “becomes destructive when it becomes a factionalism that works to divide the Body. Our reflections also cause us to question the existence of the lay/clergy divide in many of our electoral processes, and specifically in elections to the CNC.”
Aiden Hargreaves-Smith (London), who chaired the review group, said that it had sought a broader theological view of representation. The preferred model was “something which recognises that our identity is in Christ and our membership of the Body of Christ. Candidates should represent that body without distinction, and be credible representatives of the body as a whole.
Church of EnglandAiden Hargreaves-Smith (London), who chaired the CNC review group, introduces its Responsible Representation report
“This is a genuine desire to engage constructively,” he said, observing: “The Church is perhaps too often better at proclaiming diversity than practising it.” It represented trust, accountability, and responsibility in the context of electoral representation, where “we should not only care more for ‘the other’ than for ourselves but live it out in our institutional life.”
Broadening the range of voices was both desirable and necessary, leading to “a genuine openness, attentive listening and waiting on God”. This should frame the vocation of a candidate or elected representative as “a crucial part of our Christian calling, our respect for the Body”.
The challenge was to all synodical bodies to consider how their processes might be rooted in Christian discernment. Mr Hargreaves-Smith proposed working in the context of “liturgical and prayerful consideration together”.
Discernment — waiting on God — was at the heart of it, he said. Openness and frankness should be accepted and valued. “We must guard against labelling and pigeonholing.”.
Some speakers made reference to “entrenched attitudes” and “spoiling behaviour” — phrases that had been used in a 2017 review of the CNC, Discerning in Obedience. Many underlined the difficulties of culture change. But it took a new member, Abigail Ogier (Manchester), in a maiden speech, to remind the Synod of the barriers to diversity.
She said that she detected a genuine wish to improve things; but the time commitment was likely to restrict the pool of candidates to both the General Synod and the CNC. Other factors included the availability of paid leave, family circumstances, and geography. Those with limited disposable income wondered whether all this was “for people like us”.
Joyce Hill (Leeds) observed that candidates for the decision-making bodies were not required to declare whether they had a principled objection to a woman being a diocesan bishop. There was too much room here for “fudge and wiggle,” she said, but her amendment to insert this requirement was lost.
Perhaps influenced by the concerns raised in the discussion, the Synod did vote for an amendment by Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) which suggested that it “receive” rather than “endorse” the recommendations at this stage. This technical change made room for a period of reception so that members could express their reservations without derailing the whole reform process at such an early stage.
The Synod voted 296 for and 18 against the amended motion, with 16 recorded abstentions. It read:
“that this Synod receive the recommendations set out in section 6 of the report Responsible Representation: a review of the electoral processes to the Crown Nominations Commission.”
Summing up, Mr Hargreaves-Smith sought to reassure the Synod that this was “not a central power grab”.