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Vennells’s 2019 report uncovered Church House ‘turf wars’ concerns

19 January 2024

Criticism was made of gaps in leadership and divided loyalties

Sam Atkins/Church Times

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, speaks at a meeting of the General Synod in York in 2022

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, speaks at a meeting of the General Synod in York in 2022

THE Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, resigned from leading a church-buildings review (CBR), after key recommendations were not implemented, he reported last week.

Systemic issues of culture and governance at Church House, Westminster, were then identified in a lessons-learnt review conducted by the Revd Paula Vennells, the former Post Office chief executive, and this, in turn, prompted a wide-ranging review of governance, currently before the General Synod (News, 7 July 2023).

The chain of events came to light last week, after extracts from Ms Vennells’s review were published online. Questions have now been asked about the decision to commission her as reviewer, given the Horizon scandal (News, 12 January).

She was appointed by the Archbishops to carry out her review in 2019, when she had already resigned as the Post Office’s chief executive. The mediation scheme with sub-postmasters which she had established had collapsed, and a group legal action being heard by the High Court revealed the extent to which they had been victimised by the Post Office.

In her review, Ms Vennells was highly critical of central church management, listing “unstructured ways of working, gaps in leadership and at times poor behaviours”. She also wrote of dysfunction at Church House, Westminster, and identified divided loyalties and power struggles, described by one interviewee as “turf wars”. She called for a “systemic review of governance and underlying processes that work across the different bodies”.

The Church Buildings Review Group published its report in 2015 (News, 16 October 2015). It had been commissioned by the Archbishops’ Council and the Church Commissioners to consider “what functions need to be exercised nationally in relation to the Church of England’s church buildings and how might they best be carried out”. Dr Inge was the lead bishop.

A key recommendation was the creation of a single team at Church House to bring together all staff working on church buildings and cathedrals. This would include work both “championing open and sustainable church buildings” and “handling sensitively and professionally the processes around church closure, including the use and disposal of closed church buildings”.

It noted the existence of a “profusion of statutory bodies”, including the Church Buildings Council (including the Statutory Advisory Committee on Closed and Closing Churches) and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission — both employed by the Archbishops’ Council — and the Church Buildings (Uses & Disposals) Committee under the Church Commissioners.

A single team — to be achieved “within a matter of months” — would “bring expertise together in one place, create new synergies and make it easier to take an overview of relative priorities”.

Another recommendation was the creation of a new commission “to take an oversight of the Church of England’s stewardship of its church buildings and enable a more strategic view to be taken of priorities and resource allocation”.

These were recommendations eight and nine.

In December 2015, the General Synod welcomed the report (News, 4 December 2015) and invited the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, and the Church Buildings Council to “work together on the detailed implementation of the proposals in the report so as to enable the Business Committee, in the case of those proposals which require legislation, to schedule the start of the relevant legislative process by July 2016”.

By 2019, however, recommendations eight and nine had not been implemented. At a meeting that April in Great Missenden, Dr Inge resigned before requesting an internal review of the decisions taken by the Church’s governance bodies.

Ms Vennells was commissioned to carry out the review, and her report was completed in October 2019. She presented it to the House of Bishops the following December, the month when the Post Office agreed a £58-million settlement in the group-action case.

Her brief had been to examine the implementation of the Church Buildings Review and establish “the reasons why some of its recommendations had not been implemented . . . in order to draw any lessons to be learned concerning the working together of the National Church Institutions (NCIs) arising from the work of the NCIs on this review and its implementation”.

While noting that most of the recommendations had been implemented, and describing the CBR as “quality work”, she concluded that eight and nine had not been implemented “because of unstructured ways of working, gaps in leadership and at times poor behaviours”. Every one of her 20 interviewees explained this as a “‘microcosm’ of ways of working and culture across the NCIs, mostly between the Church Commissioners, and the Archbishops’ Council, and sometimes the House of Bishops”.

Her review identified failures in project management, suggesting that it was “difficult to identify any planning and tracking of deliverables, metrics, timelines, milestones, risk management, resource allocation and prioritisation”.

But it also diagnosed a “lack of alignment around a single vision”, and spoke of divided loyalties at Church House, particularly affecting the Archbishops’ Council and the Commissioners.

One interviewee told her: “Church House is not an integrated organisation: [it is an] atrophied bureaucracy which goes deeper than silos; more like turf wars.”

There were accounts of “political and negative discussions behind closed doors and personal attacks behind backs”, with “little check on behaviours”. There were “no meetings where tensions and worries could be discussed jointly, openly and safely”. Leaders were “accustomed to putting niceties of relationships above necessities of dealing with conflict”.

Among the “negative assumptions” brought to meetings was a suspicion that “passive resistance was a planned strategy by Church Commissioner colleagues ‘playing the long game’ to block the new team and commission because it would reduce their authority, and potentially diminish their income from closing churches”.

Concern about the level of power enjoyed by the Commissioners was voiced. They were “spoken about in hushed tones”, Ms Vennells reported, and evidence of their “power base” included higher pay grades, a separate reception desk for their own guests, their own lift, different expense policies, and “a superiority culture, working to their own timescales and priorities”.

Others felt that some members of the Archbishops’ Council and Dr Inge had “no desire to face the reality of a ‘looming crisis’” concerning the Church’s buildings. One person told her: “Twenty to 25 churches close each year; we need to get to ten per cent closed in the next ten years, which is 100 to 150 per year (some would say more) to be sustainable.” Some at the Commissioners felt that more than 1000 closures were needed.

One interviewee suggested that the Commissioners saw “the value of income” generated by church closures: for some dioceses, “it’s very very important [for] balancing books.”

Tensions in attitudes to the C of E’s buildings are a central theme of the review. One person suggested that the Church Buildings Review had attempted to unite two sides: “cold-hearted vs dreamers” or “realists vs visionaries”.

In his account of the events, posted on social media last week, Dr Inge wrote that the CBR had “argued strongly, with a theological underpinnining, that our 16,000 church buildings are a great blessing and should remain open”.

The review had included a 12-page “theological perspective” from Dr Inge, which urged the Church to “recognise the scriptural truth that place is a fundamental category of human and spiritual experience and that churches, operating ‘sacramentally’, can help us to see through the material to the spiritual”.

In her review, Ms Vennells reported on the reception of this section. People given the task of identifying and closing churches, while being “awed by the theological narrative” and endorsing the blessings of church buildings, “noted their work did not feature, which was interpreted by some as unwillingness to face the ‘burdens’ of truth. This uncovered another unspoken view: no one would challenge a bishop on theology.”

She included as a “lesson learnt” a question: “How to speak truth to power and how to hold bishops accountable for their leadership in theology and its influence on strategy and colleague engagement?”

Her chief recommendation was that the NCIs and House of Bishops “put in place a systemic review of governance and underlying processes that work across the different bodies”. The “looming crisis” of church closures required a separate review, she suggested.

“There is now an opportunity to open discussions that could transform leadership, ways of working and behaviours, to deliver the best for parishes engaged in the mission and ministries of the Church.”

In 2020, shortly after Ms Vennells presented her review to the House of Bishops, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, took on the work of a governance review, which went on to warn that the existing structure “encourages confusion, duplication, and accountability gaps . . .

“It is too easy for discussion to circulate without coming to a decision, or to make decisions that are not implemented, or, given the absence of adequate conflict resolution mechanisms, to reach disagreements which turn to criticism and blame.”

Wide-ranging proposals for a radical restructuring were first published the next year (News, 17 September 2021), and included the creation of a new governance body — Church of England National Services — to integrate the current functions of the Archbishops’ Council, the Commissioners (excluding investments), Church of England Central Services, and some of the activities of the offices of the Archbishops.

Last year, the Synod voted to move forward with the proposals (News, 14 July 2023).

This week, a Church House spokesperson said that, over recent years, “huge progress has been made to encourage collaborative working across the national church.” This included “joint working on church buildings” with the teams that support cathedrals and church buildings brought together within the Church Commissioners.

“Two lead bishops — the Bishop of Bristol and the Bishop of Ramsbury — jointly lead on cathedral and church buildings and work closely with our cathedral and church buildings teams, the Third Church Estates Commissioner and the chairs of the Church Buildings Council and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission, to advocate for our church buildings and those who look after them.”

In the years since Dr Inge’s report, the Archbishops’ Council has announced an £11-million Buildings for Mission programme. In November, it allocated £9 million to dioceses, including £2.8 million for the employment of church-buildings support officers (News, 10 November 2023).

Church House also highlighted a successful bid for £14.3 million from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund (News, 13 November 2020).

In 2015, Dr Inge’s report recorded that, nationally, one quarter of the 16,000 churches had a weekly attendance of fewer than 16. Attendance has continued to decline, and with it volunteers to assist in the upkeep of the buildings. The amount distributed to churches from the National Lottery Heritage Fund fell by almost two-thirds between 2017 and 2023 (News, 22 September 2023).

Church closures, however, have not accelerated: since the 1990s, the rate has remained steady at 20-25 per year.

“Festival churches” continue to increase in number — in a recent consultation in the diocese of Lincoln, more than one quarter of the diocese’s churches asked to be categorised as such (Features, 18 March 2022 — and, after a backlash to earlier proposals, new legislation to replace the Mission and Pastoral Measure (2011) suggests the possibility of “breathing space” for churches that might otherwise be earmarked for closure (News, 30 June 2023).

This week, the Second Church Estates Commissioner was asked in Parliament about the part that Ms Vennells played in advising the Commissioners. Apart from the lessons-learnt review, she was invited in 2020 to join the Coordinating Group set up to “continue the work of the Triennium Funding Working Group, and to coordinate certain strands of national work for the Church during the Covid 19 pandemic”. This became the Emerging Church Steering Group, which gave rise to several work streams, including Vision and Strategy.

Ms Vennells also served on the Ethical Investment Advisory Group between March 2019 and her resignation in April 2021 (News, 30 April 2021). A 2016 report to the Synod, Nurturing and Discerning Senior Leaders (News, 15 July 2016), listed her as one of the members of the “teaching faculty” delivering a leadership-development programme for bishops.

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