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Synod backs drafting of legislation to reform Church’s national institutions

10 July 2023

Sam Atkins/Church Times

AN ATTEMPT to reform the Church of England’s governance took a step forward on Sunday evening when the General Synod backed proposals for an overhaul of the national institutions.

The National Governance Reform project has been under way for several years. Its latest report (News, 7 July) received an overwhelming vote of support from Synod members, although some had move amendments related to concerns about specific areas.

The proposals include reducing the national church institutions (NCIs) from seven to four, and replacing the Archbishops’ Council structure with a new charity: Church of England National Services (CENS). There would be a thinning out of the committees, boards, and commissions, and an attempt to provide clearer lines of accountability for national teams, and less duplication of work.

Sir David Lidington, the former government minister who chairs the National Governance Reform project board, said that the current “bureaucratic tangle” hindered effective leadership, and posed a reputational risk.

There was also a desperate need to uproot an administrative culture that he described as “Machiavellian”. “I have been personally shocked by the depth of resentment and mistrust that pervades organisations within the Church,” he said.

The proposals include a standing synodical scrutiny committee, which would meet outside the Synod’s regular meetings to examine the work of CENS.

Most speakers welcomed the proposals, but some raised questions about the oversight of cathedrals, which, it was proposed, would be transferred from a Church Commissioners’ committee to CENS.

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, backed the proposals but warned against a desire for too much neatness. The Church was more like an “organism” than an “organisation”, he said, and it would never be “neat or streamlined” as it evolved to meet the changing needs of the country that it served.

Dr Ian Johnston (Portsmouth) sought to amend the motion to avoid welcoming one particular recommendation, concerning synodical scrutiny.

This would slow down the process, said the mover of the motion, the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, resisting the amendment. A range of scrutiny options had been laid out in the report, which could help to rebuild trust between the Synod and Church House.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, warned that the proposals were not yet ready, and criticised the suggestion of a scrutiny committee.

But Jayne Ozanne (Oxford), a former Archbishops’ Council member, backed the amendment. the Synod represented the grass-roots of the Church and must not be kept to one side, she argued.

The amendment fell, but a second amendment was carried. It directed that more than half the members of CENS should be elected or appointed from the Synod. The initial proposals had suggested that six of the 15 would be from the Synod.

A final amendment from Rebecca Chapman (Southwark) aimed at delaying legislation to implement the report until each of the 17 recommendations had been debated and approved separately at the next Synod group of sessions in November. This was vital to clarifying the Synod’s view, she argued.

But Bishop Watson strongly resisted this. The legislative process would, he said, allow plenty of time for that kind of line-by-line scrutiny, and anything else would further delay the project. He also cautioned against “salami-slicing” of the reforms, pulling apart something that functioned as a coherent package.

The amendment was lost.

The issue of mistrust between parts of the NCIs came up repeatedly. The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, recalled from personal experience the last attempt at governance reform in the 1990s, which, he said, died “the death of a thousand amendments” because vested interests had battled to secure their positions in the institution.

Instead, he urged Synod members to be courageous and simply to choose to trust one another. A culture of trust was not something that could emerge out of thin air: “Trust is a choice. It develops as we do the work together.”

This idea was echoed by the chair of the finance committee, John Spence (Archbishops’ Council). He told the Synod that, when he had begun losing his eyesight 30 years ago, he had decided that he simply had to trust his fellow humans and ”very rarely had that ever proved to be misplaced.” He urged members to put aside their misgivings and move forward together.

The motion welcoming the report and its recommendations and requesting draft legislation was carried as amended by 328-17, with ten recorded abstentions.

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