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Opinion: Radical changes need the General Synod’s scrutiny

30 June 2023

If trust in the C of E is to be rebuilt, members should be allowed to debate the governance proposals in detail, says Rebecca Chapman

ANOTHER summer meeting of the General Synod approaches; and friends have begun asking about the agenda. But, this time, the awkward questions are not about the Church and sexuality, but about the other “s” word on everyone’s lips: safeguarding. They are full of questions about the Independent Safeguarding Board, how the Archbishops’ Council works, how on earth we got here, and how we stop it happening again. There are no easy answers.

At the heart of the complicated mess unfolding around the Independent Safeguarding Board and the Archbishops’ Council is the issue of governance: the structures that we have for corporate authority and accountability. We knew that our system of governance was, at best, creaking critically.

The past few weeks have shown that change is desperately needed. In 2021, the report of the Governance Review Group noted “governance shortcomings, inefficient ways of working, lengthy decision-making processes and a lack of clarity about accountability” (News, 17 September 2021). It regarded “the Church’s failings on Safeguarding as the most tragic example of the human cost of governance failure that could be imagined”.

Significant simplification of church governance was suggested: the creation of a new charity, the Church of England National Services (CENS), which could integrate the functions of the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners (excluding investments), Church of England Central Services, and some activities of the Office of the Archbishops.

These are huge changes that would create a single national charitable body. Yet, in February, the Synod had practically no time to debate those proposals before the debate was adjourned, because the Living in Love and Faith debate had overrun (Synod, 17 February).

The devil is indeed often in the detail — and much of that detail has yet to be tied down in the current recommendations (GS 2307). We do not know how potentially powerful CENS sub-committees will be chosen, or the new CENS Nominations Committee — proposed despite the existence of a functioning elected Appointments Committee that already serves in the appointment of trustees (of theological colleges). Will this array of proposed new committees be appointed or elected, and by whom? And why does that matter?

IT MATTERS because we should pay attention to power. In reflecting on the current structures and the recommendations that we are being asked to confirm for the future, we might do worse than to consider Tony Benn’s five questions for people in power: What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?

A huge amount of work has gone into the governance report and its proposed recommendations. Much of it is good, including clear separation of roles and rationalising the work of the national bodies.

A few fundamental flaws remain, however, particularly in respect of this issue of paying attention to power. There is, frustratingly, much that is unclear, even as the Synod is asked to vote on the concepts en bloc. The CENS must be clearer that it will not mark its own homework; we cannot have another body with rubber-stamping, and “trustees being ignored or shouted out when objections or protests are raised”, as Joseph Diwakar, in the General Synod in February of last year (Synod, 18 February 2022), described his experience of the Archbishops’ Council.

In the Church, the issue of trust is now ubiquitous. It is talked about in councils and committees, synods, and bishops’ meetings. “Trust” appears more than 30 times in the governance report’s 68 pages. We are told that “building trust must start now,” and that renewed trust will “improve the relationship between the NCIs and the General Synod”. Synod Questions display a “lack of trust exhibited on all sides”. The Archbishop of York told Radio 4’s Sunday programme this week that “trust is something that has to be earned. In the end, it’s not about things I say to you. It’s about what we do as a Church.”

If trust is about the actions of us all, then transparency and openness for us all must surely come first. And, if the Synod is to put its trust in these recommendations to reform national church governance, then the Synod itself should surely be trusted to vote on them individually. We must be able to choose real changes, and the right changes, proactively.

FOR anyone who has lamented current church governance, seeing the pain and prevarication caused by this latest safeguarding débâcle, the time has come to move from lament to action on this issue. The whole Church should be able to see how the sausage gets made. As mistrust is rife, let things not be discussed or decided behind closed doors. The Synod should not waste precious time together on presentations that members could watch online. Let it, instead, be trusted to debate, discern, and implement through voting — both on our past failures, as we reflect on safeguarding, and as we look to the future.

If these opportunities are not offered, the Synod must scrutinise the standing orders, while holding in mind “Ask and it shall be given unto you” — which might be said whether petitioning our Lord, or the chair in a debate, or even archbishops, with their power to add items to the agenda. . .

Rebecca Chapman is a General Synod member for Southwark diocese.

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