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General Synod digest: Green light for Reform project plans

14 July 2023
Sam Atkins/Church Times

The floor of the Synod

The floor of the Synod

THE General Synod voted on Sunday evening to move forward with proposals to restructure the Church of England at the national level.

Presenting the proposals, Sir David Lidington, the chair of the National Governance Reform project board, said that he had never previously taken an interest in church governance. But the case for reform was set out starkly in the Governance Review Board’s report, debated last year (Synod, 18 February 2022).

Some church bodies were taking decisions without any legal authority, scrutiny by the Synod was not working well, and “pervading everything a lack of transparency with a plethora of sub-committees and boards and a bureaucratic tangle,” he said. This all posed profound risks to the reputation and competence of the Church. “Things do need to change.”

The challenge facing the Church was not simply administrative, but also cultural. “I have been personally shocked by the depth of resentment and mistrust that pervades organisations within the Church,” Sir David said. Without reform, it would be almost impossible to overcome this mistrust. Clarity about who was responsible for which decisions was essential. The existing culture was repeatedly described as “Machiavellian” and “power plays”, he warned.

The new charity Church of England National Services (CENS) would replace the Archbishops’ Council and be responsible for strategic leadership across the central Church, and for bringing proposals to the Synod. Trustees would be personally responsible in law for the stewardship of large sums, and would be “custodians of the Church’s public reputation”. There would also be a new legal duty to achieve greater diversity in membership of the various boards and committees under CENS.

A new Synod scrutiny committee would also be established to strengthen the oversight powers of the Synod and to examine all decisions taken by trustees and senior staff. This new committee could meet outside the regular Synod sessions and might even resemble parliamentary select committees that specialised in certain areas. Every shake-up of governance was unsettling for staff; so decisions must be taken quickly to end a state of limbo. If Synod members rejected the motion outright, then governance reform would end, despite everyone’s agreement that the status quo was inadequate.

Introducing the debate on the motion, the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, said that, in February 2022, the Synod had asked for extra legislation to be brought foreword on governance, but it had soon become clear that it was too soon to move to legislation, he said. A “very unsatisfactory and truncated debate” in February had meant that it was only now being properly presented to Synod.

Approving the motion would be “far from the end of the story”, and there would be real opportunities for shaping the proposals.

The current structure was “convoluted and complex”, he said, and made for a “lack of clarity and accountability”. The proposals being would not solve everything, but were the first step in forging a more coherent structure, he said.

The Dean of Bristol, the Very Revd Mandy Ford (Southern Deans), strongly backed the proposals because, she said, they were a step towards rebuilding trust in the Church. In her time as interim director for ministry, she had observed sclerotic decision-making in the national church institutions (NCIs). Too much time was wasted, and she welcomed the aim of more clarity on where decisions should be made.

She regretted how long it had taken to consult the College of Deans. There were concerns that the particular contribution of cathedrals to the Church’s vision and strategy might get lost when their oversight was transferred from the Church Commissioners to a CENS sub-committee. She suggested that the project board include a champion for cathedrals from now on, and that language on the importance of cathedrals be placed in the new CENS trust deed.

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, said that the Church was more like an organism than an organisation: it adapted over time to differing circumstances. As a community of witness through history, the Church acquired systems that always needed retooling for the changing times. He welcomed the recognition in the report that the C of E would never be “neat or streamlined”, and he described the report as a “sound foundation to move things forward”.

Lieut. Gen. Robin Brims (Newcastle) also welcomed the report, which, he said, gave the Synod an opportunity to rebuild trust in the Church’s governance and competence. He agreed that the place of cathedrals in the proposals was “not quite right”.

Sam Margrave (Coventry) moved an amendment to the Synod’s response to the report to change it from “confirm” to “welcome”, an to make it clear that there would be future discussion on the details. “Many say the devil is in the detail, but our role in Synod is to look at legislation and find God in the detail,” he said. “It’s just one word, but it’s an important step in saying what we’re doing today.”

Responding, Bishop Watson said that the Project Board “welcomed ‘welcome’”, and was happy to accept the amendment, and it was carried.

Dr Ian Johnston (Portsmouth) then moved his amendment to remove the welcome for one recommendation. “Specific statutory provision should be made so that Synod has comprehensive, timely, and effective oversight of CENS.” Internal oversight in the Church was currently poor. He praised the governance review for making very necessary changes, but CENS would be such a powerful body that it needed equally strong oversight by the Synod. “In a Christian organisation, love transmutes to trust, and vice versa. We need more of it.”

Bishop Watson acknowledged that there was a trust deficit, but said that a range of options for synodical scrutiny had been laid out in the report. He preferred a new synodical scrutiny committee, as suggested by Sir David. But he resisted the amendment because, he said, it would slow down the process of implementing reform. “I can promise Ian that his voice will be heard if we move to the more detailed primary legislative phase of this agenda.”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, welcomed the proposals, but said that they were not yet quite right. The report addressed church architecture but did not have enough on culture, which also needed reform, she said. She backed the idea of CENS, but had concerns about the synodical scrutiny committee, which had appeared only in the past two weeks. The plans had not yet been properly considered and did not appear in the proposed structural diagram, she said.

The Synod was not a parliament, and further and fuller consideration on the relationship between Synod and the NCIs was required. She would not support the amendment, but asked the group to reconsider these plans. The Turnbull report from the 1990s had similar ideas, but had been watered down during its synodical process; history must not be allowed to repeat itself, Bishop Mullally said.

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, said that it was a curious feature of the Church of England that “everyone always thinks that power resides somewhere else”. He could not support the amendment, because it made the proposals “more messy” and would make the whole process “more complex”.

Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) spoke in support of the amendment, and said that it was interesting that two bishops had spoken against it. When there was complexity and mess, a “small cabal ends up guiding everything”, she said. Referring to her past experience as a member of Archbishops’ Council, she said that the Synod was often seen as being to one side, but it should be at the centre, as it “represents the grass-roots”.

Samuel Wilson (Chester) said that it was easy to blame others for the culture of mistrust which had grown within the Church. Synodical structures needed to be re-examined much more broadly, but not as part of the governance-reform process; so he urged members to vote against the amendment.

The amendment was lost.

The next amendment, from Adrian Greenwood (Southwark), pertained to the proposed make-up of the CENS. The amendment stipulated that a majority of CENS should be elected by the Synod, not four out of 15, as proposed by the report. He had personal experience which, he said, validated the analysis of the problems with church governance. He was open-minded about whether Synod members should be elected or appointed to the CENS board, but hoped that, either way, his amendment would strengthen the connection between the two bodies.

Bishop Watson was happy to accept the amendment.

The Revd Dr Bruce Bryant-Scott (Europe) said that, in Canada, the equivalent body was entirely elected from Synod members; and so he backed the amendment. He was, however, “excited” about the main motion and reform proposals. “Simpler, more effective, transparent — what’s not to like?”

The Revd Ross Meikle (Oxford) resisted the amendment, because the Synod could not hold CENS to account if its own members were in a majority on its board.

The amendment was carried.

Clive Billenness (Europe) moved an amendment stipulating that the proposed Audit and Risk Committee within CENS should include two Synod members, elected by the Synod. “We are synodically governed, and I submit it is right if we are represented on this body,” he said. This was comparable to the current provision made for the inclusion of Synod members on the Archbishops’ Council’s Audit Committee.

Bishop Watson said that the Project Board accepted the amendment, and that the inclusion of Synod members in such committees was “a very good way to hold us to account”.

The amendment was carried.

Rebecca Chapman (Southwark) moved an amendment to strike out the part of the motion calling for legislation to be brought to the Synod next February. Instead, it would call on the Synod to consider and approve each recommendation in the report, one at a time, in November. “Tell me what you want, what you really, really want” when it came to governance structures, Ms Chapman told the Synod. The bureaucratic tangle must be thinned out, but the right change was needed. The Synod was being asked to send through 17 separate recommendations in a single vote. Putting each recommendation to the vote and under proper scrutiny would help to clarify the Synod’s view before any legislation was brought. “Good words and intentions are not enough. This is important enough that we should make time for it,” she concluded.

Bishop Watson resisted the amendment “very strongly”, not, he said, because the proposals were perfect, but because the legislative process would already allow plenty of time for that detailed scrutiny. Her amendment would lead to delays and extra costs, he said. He warned against disastrous “salami-slicing” of the reforms: pulling apart something that was actually a coherent package.

Luke Appleton (Exeter) said that there had not been a “huge amount of oxygen in the room” for governance debate in recent Synod meetings, owing to other issues’ dominating attention and the agenda. For this reason, he supported the amendment, as it meant greater accountability.

Professor Roy Faulkner (Leicester) said that many members thought that there had been “gaps” in the development of the proposals, and encouraged the Synod to support his private member’s motion

The amendent was lost by 260-83, with 15 recorded abstentions.

When debate on the main motion, as amended, resumed, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, urged realism. The Turnbull reforms had died a death of a thousand amendments as vested interested had defended their turf. “If we’re going to do this, we have to have a degree of courage,” he said, drawing on his experience of the creation of the diocese of Leeds. Culture was simply the consequence of the decisions made. If you wanted to build trust, you had to choose to start trusting people, he said. “Trust is a choice: it develops as we do the work together.” He spoke as a bishop with three cathedrals and a “trinity of deans” who would endorse Dean Ford’s earlier comments.

Stephen Hogg (Leeds) said that change was always initially experienced as loss. He fully supported the motion, despite the fears from vested interests. Until the recent improvements, he would have voted against the reforms, but now the motion faced head-on the issues preventing change. Indeed, the report was not brave enough: it should call for a fully appointed board with no ex-officio members, he said. Nevertheless, the Synod should vote for the motion, and sort the outcome out, clause by clause.

John Spence (Archbishops’ Council) had hoped that the reforms would be completed before his retirement, which was imminent. He had sat on 14 separate boards. Losing his sight 30 years ago, he had decided to put his trust in his fellow humans, and “very rarely had that ever proved to be misplaced.” He urged Synod members to set aside their misgivings and trust one another to walk together.

The Revd Sonia Barron (Lincoln) supported the motion as amended. As a black woman, she said, she knew that the Church was not as inclusive as it could be; so she strongly backed the proposed diversity charter, as long as it did not become solely “window-dressing”.

Responding to the debate, Bishop Watson thanked the Synod for its theological input and, in particular, contributions on how to rebuild trust. “It’s clear we need to do more work on scrutiny,” he acknowledged.

The motion was carried by 328-17, with ten recorded abstentions.


That this Synod:

  1. welcome the recommendations of the National Church Governance Project Board set out in GS 2307 as the basis for the reform of the National Church Institutions and Governance Structures of the Church of England

(i) except in respect of recommendation 13, where specific provision should be made so that a majority of the members of 2 the CENS board are either elected or appointed from the members of Synod;

(ii) except in respect of recommendation 14, where specific provision should be made so that two members of the Audit and Risk Committee are members of either the House of Laity or the House of Clergy of the General Synod and are jointly elected by the members of those Houses;

2. request the introduction of draft legislation to give effect to the necessary statutory changes for the implementation of these proposals no later than the February 2024 Group of Sessions.

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