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Synod members ask: Are bishops smart enough?

27 February 2024

Archbishop Welby fields questions on ‘theological depth’ of the House of Bishops

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Some of the House of Bishops vote during the General Synod held at Church House, Westminster, this week

Some of the House of Bishops vote during the General Synod held at Church House, Westminster, this week

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has defended the “theological depth” present in the House of Bishops, in response to General Synod questions about the criteria used to appoint them.

The questions were triggered by reports — never confirmed by Church House — that the shortlist for the see of London in 2017 had included the former CEO of the Post Office, the Revd Paula Vennells, who served as a non-stipendiary minister for 16 years until stepping back from parish ministry in 2021 (News, 26 April 2021).

The Revd Stephen Corbett (Blackburn) asked: “Can this Synod — and indeed the wider Church — be assured that, in future, one essential criterion for appointment to episcopal —and other senior — office will be that of substantial post-ordination experience at ‘incumbent level’, together with a depth of theological education and training?”

In his response, Archbishop Welby, emphasised the commitment to confidentiality of the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC). He described the Post Office Horizon scandal as “a terrible miscarriage of justice”.

On the question of appointments, he said that bishops were chosen “following a lengthy process of discernment, culminating in a name being submitted to the Crown for approval. . . When candidates without significant parish experience are considered, it is because they offer other comparable and relevant experience.

“In virtually all cases of appointments being made at the moment, parish experience is deemed to be a really important part of the candidate’s ministerial journey, but, from time to time, there will be exceptions.”

The theme was picked up by the Revd Graham Hamilton (Exeter) who asked: “In the light of the report that two bishops with advanced theological qualifications were on the shortlist for consideration as the next Bishop of London, and that neither was appointed, and that both are now no longer on the bench of bishops, having moved to other positions, what review is planned of the theological depth now present in the House of Bishops?”

He was referring to rumours that the then Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, and the then Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, were shortlisted for London. Dr Tomlin is now running the Centre for Cultural Witness at Lambeth Palace, while Dr Cocksworth is Dean of Windsor.

The Archbishop said that candidates were “carefully scrutinised on a wide range of areas, including theological acumen, all of which are taken into account when a nomination is being made. Theological formation and training are themselves very important indeed, but may come in a number of ways. Discernment is a process of combining what is seen in a person’s record and references, heard in interview, and sensed in the working of the Holy Spirit.” There were “no plans to commission a review on the theological depth now present in the House of Bishops”.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesArchbishop Welby addresses the General Synod

In a follow-up question, Mr Hamilton asked if the Archbishop would be “willing to affirm the unique value of deeper theological study for the Church, lest, to misquote Churchill, those that fail to learn from theological history are doomed to repeat its errors, and consider making theological depth one of the national criteria to enable us to have a balanced bench of diocesan bishops?”

The Archbishop replied: “I certainly believe in theological depth and continuing reading. . . In our interview, we explore issues of theological depth as a matter of routine. I would certainly not wish to affirm theological shallowness, but I think the question of theological depth is an imprecise one in many ways. Theological depth might not include church history, but might include a profound understanding of hermeneutics, or deep understanding of the New Testament, but less depth when it came to areas of theodicy. So, if you say ‘must bishops know everything?’ No. If you say ‘must they be able to read intelligently and think intelligently and theologically and scripturally?’ Yes.”

A theological review of the CNC, led by Revd Professor Oliver O’Donovan, was published in 2018 (News, 26 January 2018). It recommended that meetings of the CNC should start “asking themselves more insistently whether, and how well, a potential bishop has acquired a ‘theological culture’”. It noted that the Lords Spiritual were “sometimes criticised for failing to bring a theological voice to major issues”.

It asked whether, when faced with controversies, bishops would understand their roots in the Church’s history, and whether, when faced with social questions with “strong moral overtones”, they would have “the depth of understanding to make a public contribution that will carry significant weight”.

While noting that the House “does not need 40 university theologians”, the review group wrote: “We should also be glad to see more higher theological degrees in the House of Bishops, but principally for what that would indicate about the intellectual liveliness of the pool from which bishops are drawn.”

At that time, there was no serving diocesan bishop who had had a career in higher education, which “raises questions about a loss of intellectual depth and seriousness”.

A Church Times analysis of the current House of Bishops — numbering 36 — suggests that the average number of years in parish ministry, including curacies, stands at a little more than 12 years. Thirteen of the Bishops have doctorates, in theology, church history, and religion. Among them is the new Bishop of Birmingham, Dr Michael Volland, a former Principal of Ridley Hall.

Another General Synod question, from Charles Houston (Hereford), asked whether the CNC for London in 2017 had been aware of the legal action against the Post Office being brought by sub-postmasters. The Archbishop referred to earlier acknowledgement by Church House (News, 2 February) that “more questions should have been asked” about the appropriateness of Ms Vennells’s involvement in committees and working groups, “when more had come to light about the Horizon scandal. We recognise this and will need to reflect on it.”

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