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Church in Wales Governing Body: Bill passed with plea to ‘keep things simple’

15 September 2023

Church in Wales

Electoral College

THE meeting commended a Bill to reform the system of electing the Archbishop of Wales and new bishops. Changes will be made to electoral colleges, the groups of 40 representatives elected in a vacancy to choose the Archbishop and bishops of the Church in Wales.

The task of the working group has been to make provision for the proper equipment and training of electors to undertake the task of discernment. The Bill to Reform the Archbishop’s Electoral College and the Bishops’ Electoral Colleges has developed from previous work in September 2019 (News, 28 April).

Moira Randall (co-opted) introduced the report. She reminded the Governing Body that the present work had been undertaken at a relatively late stage of a long process. The Bill that eventually arose contained proposals that had already been the subject of much deliberation.

Six amendments were to be debated; only one — Amendment 5 — was not recommended for adoption by the Select Committee. It had been concerned that the process was “equitable, fair, and kind”.

The recommended amendments sought a new clause to provide for the process of election in the current vacant bishopric (St Davids) to proceed under the present rules; for each College to publish a copy of the rules under which the election had been made, to emphasise the transparency of the project; and to clarify and make explicit that the preliminary meetings of the Electoral College should be held in private.

All five amendments were carried by a show of hands.

Amendment 5 sought to allow nominations from any two communicant members of the Church in Wales. The Revd Richard Wood (Bangor) said that this was a matter of principle: “Bishops should be called from the Church and by the Church, and the Church should be able to identify who had been given the discernment.”

Ms Randall, on behalf of the Select Committee, said that the committee’s opposition to this was unanimous. The process of determination was “a matter for the elected representatives and Electoral Colleges to decide. It could potentially lead to a very unmanageable shortlist and take up a significant portion of the College’s time.”

Under the current system, a College — comprising the Archbishop and diocesan bishops, with lay and clerical electors from the dioceses — meets for three days, and the preferred candidate has to have a two-thirds majority. If the electors fail to reach a decision, the whole process must start again — something that has led to protracted delays in appointments.

In those circumstances, the new Bill crucially allows for the College to reconvene for a second meeting to be held between 21 and 60 days after the close of the the first, or for the right to fill the vacancy being passed to the Bench of Bishops.

A vote by simple majority is now also an option; no member has a casting vote, and there is no Facilitator. The Electoral College itself, not the Standing Committee, will appoint the shortlisting committee. The Bill includes provision for a video conference, allowing the College to be provided with the nominations and information in advance of its meeting; and for a time of engagement or interview with shortlisted candidates on the first day.

In the debate on Tuesday of last week, the Archdeacon of St Davids, the Ven. Paul Mackness (St Davids), was opposed on the grounds of practicality. He emphasised the need to define properly who was a communicant member, and said that the whole purpose of the Electoral College was to make the nominations.

The Revd Mark Thomas (Swansea & Brecon) strongly supported the amendment, considering the primary function of the Electoral Colleges to be the discernment and identification of potential candidates.

Dr Heather Payne (Llandaff) confessed that she had “sat through some pretty hideous Electoral Colleges. The system we have now allows those elected and the electors to share in the discernment of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, we are dealing with hearsay, gossip, and potentially worse.”

The Revd Peter Ratcliffe (St Davids) supported the amendment. “We are constantly told that everyone’s voice is important. . . Bishops are discerned not by an Electoral College of 40 or so, but by the whole Church,” he said.

The Archdeacon of Llandaff, the Ven. Rod Green (Llandaff), was opposed; there was already scope for the Electoral College to determine itself how the applications were processed.

The amendment was lost by 24-70, with five recorded abstentions.

The Bill now proceeded as amended, introduced by Archdeacon Mackness.“We are much more vocal about failure than success,” he said. “The system has served us well. . . we used to defer to Canterbury in the end. The system never failed to elect when the threat of Canterbury was held over their heads.”

He made reference to the electoral process for the Bishop of Llandaff, in which those who had taken part in Electoral Colleges had been bound by an oath of confidence for life. The majority had held the oath as binding and sacrosanct. But the system was not perfect. Each College set its own rules and could agree them only when in session; so time had been taken up in procedures.

Archdeacon Green seconded. A trial of some of the proposals had been held at an Electoral College, and had proved to be a “full, thorough, and collaborative process. Keep things simple,” he urged.

The motion was carried in vote by Orders: Bishops 5 nem. con.; Clergy 36 nem. con, with three recorded abstentions; and Laity 54-1.

The Archbishop promulgated the Bill.

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