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Angela Tilby: Archbishops’ Council is too powerful

30 June 2023


The General Synod meets in York, in 2019

The General Synod meets in York, in 2019

THE decision to disband the Church of England’s Independent Safeguarding Board last week was made by the Archbishops’ Council, after the sacking of two of the board’s members whose job was to advocate for survivors of abuse (News, 23 June). The decision has been met by much protest, which included the perfectly reasonable claim that, without the two survivor advocates, the Church of England was “less safe” than it had been.

But perhaps the real question is how the Archbishops’ Council has come to have the authority that it has, as the single most powerful co-ordinating body in the Church of England. This has never been truly clarified in theological or ecclesial terms. These things matter, and it is not surprising that the credibility of the Council has been called into question by its handling of the safeguarding crisis.

It is worth remembering that the Archbishops’ Council is of relatively recent origin. It was brought into being in 1999 by Archbishop George Carey, in a bid for greater centralisation and simplification of the Church’s decision-making. Like a number of his predecessors, Archbishop Carey was instinctively frustrated by the processes of the Church, and looked for a slimmed-down system of governance, which, he believed, would help to refocus the Church on its ministry to the nation.

Today, the Council describes its function as to “coordinate, promote, aid and further the work and mission of the Church of England”. In effect, the Council controls the agenda of the General Synod, sometimes to the point of framing its priorities in such a way as to curtail debate. Synod papers are always passed in advance through the Council’s secretary-general, William Nye, and, some critics claim, are heavily vetted in advance and even steamrollered through the Synod.

All this rather undermines the often-quoted belief that the Church of England is “episcopally led and synodically governed”, as it is proving not easy to reconcile the powers assumed by the Archbishop’s Council with either episcopacy or synodical government.

It is worth remembering that the Church of England is not a legal entity, but, rather, a network of various office-holders, with overlapping functions. The Council’s action last week reveals a shocking peremptoriness, an extraordinary failure to foresee the outrage that has followed. It was painful to hear the Archbishop of York, on Radio 4’s Sunday programme, struggling to explain how survivors’ interests were to be protected when all the current bodies supposed to ensure safeguarding lead back to the Council.

There is a price to pay for trying to simplify the decision-making processes of a Church that claims to be the Church of the nation, led by bishops, governed by the Synod. At its worst, no one feels that they belong, dissident voices are silenced, and some of the most vulnerable feel more unsafe than they did.

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