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Lack of trust is blighting the C of E’s leadership, governance-review body warns

05 July 2023

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, addresses the General Synod in London in February

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, addresses the General Synod in London in February

GOVERNANCE reform is necessary, but on its own will not overcome a culture of mistrust, which is harming the mission of the Church, a new report on governance warns. It is due to be debated by the General Synod on Sunday evening.

Among the 17 recommendations from the National Church Governance Project Board is the creation of a synodical committee to “properly scrutinise national church decisions”, in recognition of the low ebb in the relationship between the national church institutions (NCIs) and the General Synod.

“The levels of mistrust are such that the oversight of the work of the National Church provided by current mechanisms . . . are not perceived as adequate,” the report says. “The Project Board believes that there is a need, at this time, for increased oversight of the National Church Institutions by the Synod.”

Trust is a recurrent theme throughout the 68-page report, National Church Governance Report and Recommendations. The Project Board is chaired by Sir David Lidington, a former Lord High Chancellor, and an “episcopal lead”, the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson.

In their foreword, they describe becoming “more and more convinced that the problems at the heart of National Church governance . . . are both an expression of and contribute to a culture of mistrust which harms the reputation and effectiveness of the Church and diminishes its prophetic voice.

“To overcome a legacy of mistrust will need not only governance and administrative reform, essential though those are, but a sustained commitment to collaborative action and habits of mutual respect by every leader and institution within the Church of England.”

A key aim of the report is to deliver clarity about “which body is accountable for a decision and who else will be engaged in the process”. Despite the creation of a “vast web of committees”, there remains “an underlying lack of trust in decision-making processes and a concern that the same small group of people are making decisions”, the report says.

It notes that there has not been a comprehensive review of the national Church’s governance for 27 years. The 1995 Turnbull report (Working as One Body: The report of the Archbishops’ Commission on the organisation of the Church of England, chaired by the then Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Michael Turnbull) recommended a new national council, “accountable to Synod but not subordinate to it”, replacing the Central Board of Finance, the General Synod’s Standing and Policy Committees, and the Advisory Board of Ministry. This became the Archbishops’ Council, established in 1999.

A central thrust of the Turnbull report was the desire to streamline governance and provide a centre that was “more sharply defined and accountable”. Addressing the Synod in 1995, Bishop Turnbull argued that the Church needed “somewhere where the buck stops”. Leadership was too fragmented and weak, and policy was defined by too many bodies. He spoke of the Church’s needing to work as one body rather than as a “dismembered jellyfish”.

In fact, the number of committees only grew, while concerns voiced at the time about the concentration of power in the Archbishops’ Council have continued to surface (Comment, 30 June). The report now before the Synod notes that, while the Turnbull report envisaged the Archbishops’ Council as the trustee body that would make national policy decisions, “In reality, bishops have continued to play a key role in national decision-making and this has sometimes resulted in confusion as to who is accountable.”

Set to be debated by the Synod on Sunday, the current report builds on the work of the Governance Review Group (GRG), whose report was published in 2021 (News, 14 September 2021). Both reports suggest that there are popular misunderstandings of how the Church of England is governed.

The GRG spoke of a “widespread misconception in the media that General Synod is the Church’s governing body”, and said: “The General Synod sets the budget of just one of the NCIs, elects board members to some but not all of them, receives annual reports from some but not all of them, and can pass motions ‘calling upon’ any of them to do things which it cannot necessarily enforce.”

Yet it was “difficult to conceive of any national initiative — legislative or non-legislative — which could proceed against the will of the General Synod”, despite members’ “waning” interest in legislative matters.

It also suggested that the House of Bishops was “in effect trespassing” on the powers of bodies such as the Church Commissioners’ board of governors and the Archbishops’ Council, given that it had “no statutory legal identity except as a House of Synod”.

For its part, the project board, which first reported to the Synod last year, has suggested that the phrase “episcopally led and synodically governed” represents “a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of both the bishops and the Synod in the life of the Church” — “Bishops are not the only leaders within the Church and nor is it synods alone who govern.” A more accurate description of Anglican polity was “the bishop in Synod”, yet the outworking of this “remains elusive”.

The current report states that the part that bishops play in decision-making at a national level cannot be resolved until there is a full review of synodical governance. It emphasises the leadership exercised by bishops: in Anglican polity, “key policy decisions in the life, mission and ministry of the national Church are taken by our bishops in council together and in the Synod.”

Having rejected an earlier proposal for an elected board of bishops to work with the national bodies on matters of governance and policy, it calls for greater clarity about how the NCIs, the House of Bishops, and the Synod “interface” on these matters. “It would be beneficial to define the role of each body in the making of national policy and to define which matters require the proper exercise of the deliberative function of Synod, both in consultation, and in reaching decisions requiring endorsement or Synodical approval. Clarifying these responsibilities should serve to speed up decision-making and to build trust.”

The call comes against a backdrop of an argument about the extent to which the Church’s Vision and Strategy for the 2020s was properly scrutinised and agreed by the General Synod. The project board suggests that, in future, the vision for the Church should be “set by the House of Bishops” after “wide and prayerful consultation”, and “endorsed” by the Synod. The strategic objectives should also be endorsed by the Synod.

The report evinces sympathy with demands from the Synod for greater transparency and improved opportunities for scrutiny. It describes the Synod as having both legislative and deliberative roles, but also serving as “a forum for holding the national church bodies to account effectively. . . These functions of oversight and scrutiny are of fundamental importance to the questions of trust in the National Church governance structures as a whole.”

Conversations with Synod members suggested that its current powers of oversight and scrutiny were “not functioning well”. When it came to Questions at Synod, for example, “some responses are felt to offer what are perceived as over-careful answers, with a lack of trust exhibited on all sides.”

A report from the Business Committee last year noted “concerns about the tone and atmosphere of Synod Question Time”. Some members felt that the attitude towards those answering questions was “very aggressive and disrespectful”.

The report says that, to perform its legislative and deliberative function effectively, the Synod needs “greater transparency around what decisions have been taken and how”, and that more time and resources need to be devoted to Questions.

It also recommends the creation of a synodical committee, after “strong representations” from members of the Synodical Reference Group for “the equivalent of either a parliamentary select committee or a local authority scrutiny committee”. This would meet outside the twice-yearly Synod meetings, and have the power to “independently examine how specific decisions were taken and make recommendations for future improvement”.

The report makes 17 recommendations in total. It retains the GRG’s original call for “an integrated governance body with a single board of trustees”. This new charity — Church of England National Services (CENS) — would integrate the current functions of the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners (excluding investments), Church of England Central Services, and some of the activities of the offices of the Archbishops.

CENS is described in the report as an “operational delivery body”, which would be “focused on the delivery of the Church’s strategic objectives”, dedicated to “serving and supporting the wider Church through the provision of strategic funding, services, advice, and guidance”. Although it would also have a part to play in “developing policy for approval through the House of Bishops and the General Synod”, the language emphasises service and support.

Debate on Sunday is expected to include scrutiny of the membership model of the CENS board. The proposal is that it be limited to 15 members (the Archbishops’ Council has 19). Like the Archbishops’ Council, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York would be ex-officio members, but all other members would be either elected or appointed (rather than ex officio).

There would be two elected members from each House of the Synod, and seven appointed members (some of whom might also be Synod members). The project board considered not having the Archbishops as members of the CENS board, but concluded that they would then “likely end up acting as de facto trustees”.

Beyond this recommendation, the report makes suggestions for the board’s composition. It should have a majority of lay members, while the chair should be an “appointed and remunerated post and endorsed by the General Synod”. Synod members wishing to stand for election to the CENS board should be required to demonstrate “how they met the specific role criteria, which would then be assessed by an agreed panel. Members not meeting the criteria would not be eligible to stand.”

The balance of appointed and elected positions on governance bodies is also expected to generate debate on Sunday. The report of the GRG concluded that existing elections and nominations processes were “unable to deliver the breadth of skills, experience, backgrounds and knowledge required by modern boards”. It also observed a lack of diversity on governance bodies.

The current report refers to a perception that “the same small group of people are making decisions” — a reference to the fact that, in the bodies that exist under the NCIs (122 in total), through ex-officio roles and other means, the same names often appear.

A theme of the Project Board report now before the Synod is a call for fewer boards and committees, which should be “diverse, inclusive, appropriately skilled to manage the risks faced by the Church of England and promote richer decision-making that more properly reflects the Church and the Nation”. It recommends the formation of a Diversity Charter, with a formal duty on NCIs to report on progress in achieving its aims.

It also recommends that the CENS board establish a governance and nominations committee to oversee the process of appointments to its board and the independent members of its committees. Elected CENS board positions should be “subject to an agreed filter mechanism to ensure members have the necessary skills and experience to serve as a trustee”.

In addition to CENS, the NCIs would include three other bodies, under the proposed reforms: the Church Commissioners, the National Society, and the Pensions Board. While the Commissioners would be focused on delivering strong investment returns, and would determine the amount of funding available to the wider Church, CENS would have responsibility for allocating and disbursing this funding.

If the Synod votes in favour of the motion before it on Sunday, the plan is to have a draft Measure ready for first consideration next February.

The report is not the first mention of a culture of distrust. Last year, concerns were raised about the level of anxiety and distrust present (Comment, 28 February 2022). In February, during a debate adjourned owing to lack of time, Bishop Watson spoke of a “them-and-us” trust deficit in the Church at many levels.

Last year, responses to a consultation on revisions to the Mission and Pastoral Measure prompted warnings of “a perceived lack of transparency and communication”, and the conclusion that “re-establishing relationships and building trust” must be a priority for those leading reforms under the “Emerging Church” programme for the 2020s (News, 28 January 2022).

The authors of the Chote review, which evaluated the Strategic Development Fund, introduced by the Archbishops Council in 2015, wrote of being “struck by a broader lack of trust and unity of purpose for which these schemes seem to serve as a lightning rod” (News, 11 March 2022).

In the years since the Turnbull report was published, the financial context in which parishes, dioceses, and the NCIs operate has shifted. The trigger for the Turnbull commission was the investment hit suffered by the Church Commissioners in the early 1990s. Bishop Turnbull offered the reassurance that “nothing would be done at the centre which dioceses were not prepared to support financially.”

Today, as the Project Board says, the Commissioners are consistently delivering strong investment returns (News, 2 June 2023), while many dioceses battle deficits. In 1991, the Commissioners funded 45 per cent of stipends, while most of the rest was covered by parish giving. By 1999, the Commissioners’ contribution had fallen to 12 per cent. Dioceses are also responsible for post-1998 pensions. Save the Parish is among those calling for the Commissioners to offer a greater level of support for parochial ministry.

While the annual budgets and core apportionments for the funding of the Archbishops’ Council are subject to the Synod’s approval, the Project Board suggests that greater scrutiny should be enabled. It suggests that an independent review of grants allocation should be commissioned each triennium, similar to the 2021 Chote report (News, 10 March 2022), and hints that a review of the apportionment model — whereby the dioceses contribute money to the centre — could be in the offing.

On Saturday, Rebecca Chapman, a lay Synod member for Southwark, and a member of the Synod’s Appointments Committee, welcomed the commitment to increased transparency and accountability in the report. But there was a lack of detail about how new mechanisms for scrutiny would work, she said. It would be important to ensure that the existence of a synodical committee did not “neuter synodical review and oversight”, or place scrutiny in the hands of a smaller group.

The majority of the members of the board of CENS should be elected from the Synod, she argued, but the Archbishops should not be on it. In other large charities, the CEO was not normally on the board of trustees. In the Archbishops’ absence, the chair would be able to lead more effectively.

Above all, she said, the Synod should be able to approve each of the 17 recommendations in turn, and have “a real role in approving the proposals in principle, prior to legislation being drawn up”.

Read more on this story in our Leader comment

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