*** DEBUG END ***

General Synod digest: Synod ‘gets the train moving’ on plans for institutional reform

18 February 2022
Clive Mear/Church Times

Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) speaks in the debate on governance

Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) speaks in the debate on governance


THE General Synod has invited the Archbishops’ Council to introduce legislation to simplify — and clarify — the governance structures of the national church institutions (NCIs).

Moving the motion, on the Thursday mornng, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, who chairs the review group, reminded the Synod that it had not attempted to reform the governance of the Church of England, but the governance structure of the NCIs.

“Underneath all the complexity of this subject, there is a really simple question,” he said. “How do we best run those functions which the Church needs at national level? . . . A related point is what do we actually mean by ‘running things well’?”

The recommendations were about rationalisation, simplification, and clarification, the Bishop explained. Responses to the review suggested that some people had “caught the whiff of centralisation. I respectfully suggest that the opposite is true. The ultimate goal is to make clearer who makes decisions and how. In the end, it’s about accountability, which depends on both transparency and accessibility.”

Nobody, to date, had suggested that reform was unnecessary, Bishop Baines said; nor had the group got every detail right. “We know that there is more work to do.” The next stage was a listening process.

The Synod was not being asked to “agree to all the specific proposals and recommendations. What we want is for you to affirm the general principles, . . . then to instruct the existing bodies to engage further with the Church and State on the best ways of achieving this vision of a simpler, clearer, more effective, and more accountable governance structure, before instigating draft legislation, which might come before Synod in 2023.”

There was a need to move forward, he emphasised. “Frankly, a package that has been butchered along the way will make the Church no better off, and we’ve made that mistake before. This is why we are again here 25 years later.”

He would be handing over the chair to the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, who would be assisted by a reference group of experienced Synod members.

Nigel Bacon (Lincoln) said that there should be “significant benefits in reforming governance and bringing together the currently separate decision-making entities into the proposed Church of England National Services [CENS]. Being able to discuss all aspects of mission and money together at the same time and in the same room . . . is critical, and there are real opportunities here to improve the quality and velocity of decision-making and also its transparency.” But “The devil will be in the detail, and it’s essential that we get it right if the changes are to be effective and endure.”

He urged those taking on the challenge to “resist any pressure for quick reform”, recognising that “almost always in consolidating organisations there is a tendency to overlay centralised power.” The Church must instead “increase subsidiarity”. His biggest concern was with potential reforms of the Synod, whose role must not be diminished or circumvented, especially in holding the new CENS to account.

Canon Andrew Dotchin (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich), who is on the reference panel, supported the motion. The review would help to remove silo working in the NCIs, he said. “They tend to end up with mission creep, and we find duplication along the way. . . There can be a tendency for workstreams to be self-perpetuating.” As an elector, he tended to vote “for people who think like me, not necessarily those who have the skills. This work will help that not happen.”

Staff at Church House were “run ragged with the system ,and they deserve a better way of working”, he said.

Clare Williams (Norwich) urged that the process of listening should engage meaningfully “with the voices of young people. . . This legislative process will have an effect on the Church into which these young people will grow as leaders.”

The Revd Christopher Blunt (Chester) expressed a “really big nagging doubt” about the “massive shift in decision-making” which, he suggested, was hidden in the report, including the prospect that “the CENS would determine the strategic allocation of resources.” He continued: “Without clarification of that, we would be like the proverbial turkeys voting for Christmas.” The wording should state that the CENS existed “to enact the will of Synod”.

An amendment that thanked the group for its work rather than welcomed it was moved by the Revd Sam Maginnis (Chelmsford). “This is only the starting point of a complex process,” he said. The reforms would go beyond legislation, requiring “an entirely new organisational and financial approach to how our central structures operate”. This could not be “welcomed” without considering non-legislative reforms, including debating the outcome of the next consultation stage, and its legal, structural, and financial implications.

YouTube/Church of EnglandThe Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, who chairs the governance review group

Bishop Baines opposed the amendment, because the Synod was not being limited to legislative engagement. In drafting legislation, “a lot of the stuff gets fleshed out . . . that actually flushes out what is possible, what is desirable”.

Clive Scowen (London) supported the amendment. “‘Welcome’ is a very ambiguous word,” he said. On previous occasions when proposals had been welcomed, he said, “Later, we are told: ‘You have already agreed the principle; you cannot go back on that now.’ I don’t think we are ready to agree the principle of anything at this stage.”

Luke Appleton (Exeter) was also concerned that some of the proposals would lead to “the sidelining or marginalisation of Synod”.

The chair of the Archbishops’ Council’s relatively new legislative-reform committee, Canon Simon Butler (Southwark), said: “Our job on behalf of the Council is to ensure that legislation that comes to this Synod will have been properly consulted on and engaged with, and chief among my concerns is that that this Synod is properly engaged with.” Welcoming the report “does not mean you are rubber-stamping it”, he said.

The amendment was carried narrowly by 162 to 154, with ten recorded abstentions.

A further amendment, requesting that any proposal for the establishment of a Nominations Committee be withdrawn, was moved by Prudence Dailey (Oxford). Such a proposal would “undermine the democratic processes of the Synod and replace them with something that was profoundly technocratic”, she argued. Currently, the review suggested that a nominations panel “should ‘sift’ those wishing to stand in advance of the election to verify that they have the appropriate skills, knowledge, experience, and behaviours to be able to perform their trustee duties responsibly and effectively”.

This, she argued, was “against natural justice”; and “anybody who stands for election ought to be put before the Synod.” Her particular concern was that those who “might be inclined to rock the boat” would be excluded, which, she argued, would impede diversity and action.

Responding, Bishop Baines argued that diversity was not being achieved under the current system. His main point, however, was that the Synod was not being asked to agree to all the report’s recommendations. “When you start to draft the words of things, you begin to work out what is viable, desirable, and what isn’t. You don’t chop off the discussion at this point.”

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North (Northern Suffragans), told the Synod: “We cannot clap Lord Boateng two days ago [News, 11 February] and support this amendment. . . There are too many unheard voices in the C of E. We don’t hear the voices of working-class people, of UKME people. We barely hear the voices of those with disabilities. . . Every organisation — political parties, companies, charities — needs to act to ensure that these silenced are heard, and this is a mechanism for doing just that.”

Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) recalled being on the Synod that had looked at the 1995 Turnbull report, which had created the current structure of the NCIs. He was “worried about the anxiety of the chamber on this”, given that any proposals would not be implemented until at least January 2024, and possibly a year later. Concerns were being brought too soon, he said. “Let the train take up a bit of speed.”

Supporting the amendment, Debbie Buggs (London) asked: “Do we want the middle-class behaviours that make this such a middle-class gathering?” She feared that the recommendation would lead to making the appointments process “blander, more bureaucratic, more technocratic”.

The amendment was lost by 124 to 119, with 24 recorded abstentions.

Another amendment was moved by Mr Maginnis which, instead of inviting the Archbishops’ Council to introduce legislation for consideration by the Synod, would invite the Council to “bring forward a further report and proposals for consideration by this Synod”.

Bishop Baines again resisted the amendment: many of the assumptions outlined were flawed, he said. “Why is there an assumption here that the Synod wouldn’t be fully involved in the process? The whole point is that the Synod is fully involved. . . It’s the drafting of legislation that forces the issues and flesh out the contradictions and the gaps. . . We need to get the train moving.”

Supporting the amendment, the Revd Marcus Walker (London) said that the report was part of the Emerging Church process, of which many other elements had not been brought before the Synod: for example, the leaked report on reforming the episcopate (News, 11 February). If effected, this would “change the entire shape of the Church. . . We as a Synod should be able to see the whole way in which the future of our Church is being mapped out, and decide accordingly.” The train analogy suggested that some people knew where it was going; the Synod did not, he said.

The Bishop of Ripon, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley (Northern Suffragans), resisted the amendment. “We are being asked today to show our support for the direction of travel, anticipating that aspects of this support in the future will speak to and involve the Synod’s function.” The Synod could “cause death by a thousand amendments. Please let it not be that.”

A member of the new governance review board, Alison Coulter (Winchester), assured the Synod that its part was “to write this legislation. It will not be too late, because you will be doing it.”

Another member, Canon Kate Wharton (Liverpool), said: “The process must start if things are to change. Perhaps there is a question here of trust and accountability. We are not called to be distrustful, but to interrogate, discuss, and to discern through a process.”

The Revd Daniel Valentine (Manchester), a former lawyer and a member of the reference group, said: “How clear it is that much of our house has been built upon the sand: the shifting sand of a lack of accountability, a lack of transparency, abuses of power, and a failure of proper checks and balances. Good governance is a first-order issue.”

The amendment was lost on a show of hands.

Returning to the debate on the motion, as amended, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, reminded the Synod of the “theological character” of the work. The group would be engaged in, in the tradition of Richard Hooker, “ecclesiastical polity. . . Hooker knew that polity doesn’t just drop out of heaven as a blueprint for all times and places. It needs to be contextualised to present conditions. So, he gladly drew on what he could discern of God’s work in the world through the ordering of other institutions and bodies. And so the project group should feel confident in doing so as well, filtering the wisdom of the world through the ecclesiological integrity which the report sets as one of the criteria of the work ahead.”

Joseph Diwakar, who is halfway through his term of office on the Archbishops’ Council, said that it had been “a frustrating and frustrated experience: a feeling of policy, or the execution of policy, falling into the cracks between different NCIs; trustees’ getting the feeling that decisions are made elsewhere, and then rushed to the Council to be rubber-stamped; or even of trustees’ being ignored or shouted out when objections or protests are raised”.

He agreed that there needed to be a balance between representation and expertise. The most powerful feedback had been that “our governance is detached, is unrepresentative, is remote from parishes, is remote from people at the coalface of Christian ministry.”

Responding to the debate, Bishop Baines said: “There are silos in the Church’s governance and what happens when you have silos is that the powermongers play within the cracks. . . That is what this is intended to get beyond.”

The governance review had a big impact on staff at Church House. “They face uncertainty. . . So do the Church Commissioners. This is the beginning of a conversation and process.”

The motion, as amended, was carried in a vote by Houses: Bishops 30 nem. con.; Clergy 126-18, with five recorded abstentions; Laity 110-53, with six recorded abstentions. It read:

That this Synod:
(a) thank the Governance Review Group for its work in preparing the report GS 2239 and its Chair for update note GS 2249;
(b) invite the Archbishops’ Council and the Church Commissioners to engage with stakeholders in the Church and State on the report’s recommendations; and
(c) invite the Archbishops’ Council, in the light of the outcome of that engagement, to introduce legislation for consideration by this Synod to give effect to proposals that involve legislative change.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Forthcoming Events


Church Times Month

March 2024

For the whole of March, Church Times is offering completely FREE online access, so you can share stories without a paywall.

We are also asking our readers to spread the news of the Church Times among their friends, acquaintances, and fellow churchgoers (and non-churchgoers).

Find out more


Keeping faith in Journalism: a Church Times Webinar

11 March 2024 | 6pm GMT

An expert panel discusses trust between the media and the public

Online Tickets available


Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Welcome to the Church Times


You are able to read this for FREE as part of Church Times Promotional Month, where for the whole of March, we are offering unlimited web access to the newspaper.

From next month to explore the Church Times website fully, you will need to sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers will return to only being able to read four articles for free each month.