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Leader comment: Governance matters

07 July 2023

THERE is a telling observation near the start of the report on the Church’s governance, which will come before the General Synod in the graveyard slot (8.20-10 p.m.) on Sunday. Listing the many inefficiencies, not to mention absurdities, of the present management of the Church of England, the report’s authors note: “This paper itself will have visited at least eight different National Church governance committees ahead of making its way to General Synod.” We are used to hearing from outsiders criticism of how the Church is run. We have seldom read, however, such a concerted attack on the Church’s leadership from within the leadership itself. We say “within”, but we have no more confidence than the authors of the report, the National Church Governance Project Board, that their criticisms will be heeded or their remedies applied. The board describes how authority in the Church is diffused among a wide collection of groups, all of which must review their method of working, and some their very existence, if the Church is to restore the trust in its leadership which, the board says, is fast draining away.

Like the project board, we believe that the individuals, and even the individual committees, involved in governance are generally deserving of trust. But, taken together, these individuals and bodies seem incapable of striking the right balance between too much scrutiny — which contributes to unacceptable delays in important matters such as safeguarding, clergy discipline, or racial justice — and too little, as when vast sums are bestowed on relatively few projects with little in the way of independent, publicly available evaluation.

The danger is that this lack of trust is actively working against any chance of reform. General Synod elections have always been plagued by the manoeuvrings of special-interest groups, but never before have so many members been elected on a ticket to defend parishes against “the hierarchy” as for the present quinquennium. Partly as a consequence of this (but also out of habit), “the hierarchy”, for which read the National Church Institutions (NCIs), has lost trust in the Synod to debate matters fairly or, perversely, with the attention to detail that legislation requires. But neither do elements of the NCIs (the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, the Pensions Board, the C of E Central Services, and the two Archbishops’ establishments) work in ways that suggest that they trust one another.

All this would not matter so much if life in the parishes were proceeding well. But the accounts that we hear of congregations and incumbents at loggerheads, requests for support from the diocese unanswered, benefices enlarged beyond imagining, and so on, are too numerous to discount. When authority is too diffuse or, alternatively, concentrated in bodies not equipped to handle it well, the Church’s ministry suffers. It would be good if Sunday evening brought the start of a healing process, even if surgery is needed.

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