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House of Bishops opens its minutes . . . but closes its meetings

19 June 2024

Press and public will still not be admitted, the House has announced

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Members of the House of Bishops during the General Synod meeting in London, in February

Members of the House of Bishops during the General Synod meeting in London, in February

MINUTES taken at meetings of the House of Bishops will now be published routinely, but the public or press will still not be admitted, the House has announced.

A committee led by the Archbishop of York had been examining how the working of the House could be made more transparent, following sustained criticism from members of the other two Houses of the General Synod during last year’s Living in Love and Faith debates.

Multiple members of the Houses of Clergy and Laity accused the bishops of hiding legal advice regarding the Prayers of Love and Faith, and of obscuring disagreements and debates in the House over the gay-blessings policy.

The report produced by the bishops’ transparency group concedes that there was “substantial and reasonable criticism of the way in which the House of Bishops operates”.

Unlike in the Houses of Clergy and Laity, papers produced for the bishops, and the decisions they take, are rarely published, or only in short summary form.

“The result has been a loss of trust in the House of Bishops and its workings from other Houses of Synod and from the wider Church,” the report states. “It is perceived that bishops are insufficiently accountable to the wider Church of England.”

In an effort to overcome this mistrust, full minutes of each meeting of the House of Bishops will now be published, including records of all motions introduced, items discussed, and votes taken.

The minutes will not include a transcript, however, and will record only a summary without attribution of what bishops said during discussions. The individual voting records of each bishop will also not be minuted (partly as votes are typically taken by a show of hands).

They will also be published only after having first been approved by a subsequent meeting of the House, meaning that, in most instances, the minutes will not be publicly available for several months.

Some Synod members had called for the public and press to be allowed into meetings of the House of Bishops, something mandated in the House’s own Standing Orders.

Since the early 1980s, however, all meetings of the House have begun with a first item calling for the House to go into private committee, thereby excluding the press and public. Meetings of the House are no longer routinely publicised in advance.

The transparency group said that it had considered the options of admitting the public as the Standing Orders envisaged, broadcasting the House’s deliberations live online, or admitting only the press, but eventually recommended retaining the current tradition of privacy.

While there was a broader culture of mistrust in the Church of England’s leadership which had to be overcome, “it is also true that achieving trust and good governance requires an element of confidentiality”, the report argues.

If there was “unrestricted admission of the public” to the House’s meetings, transparency would actually be undermined, the bishops argue.

Instead of being “consultative and conversational” in informal debate, members would be aware of public scrutiny, and lapse into speaking not to each other but to audiences beyond the room, in “increasingly performative” ways.

The right balance between openness to build trust, and privacy for honest debate, would be struck by publishing minutes, but abandoning the Standing Order which mandated public access to meetings, which was ignored.

While the House would not commit to publishing every document or paper produced for their meetings, they would, from now on, adopt a policy of “maximum transparency”, and restrict publication only for items with a clear need for confidentiality.

On the issue of legal advice, the transparency report recommends that “the default expectation should be that advice from the Legal Office and other professional advisers is published by the House.”

It also suggests that confidential papers currently stored in the Lambeth Palace Library archives be opened to the public after 20 years in storage, rather than the 30-year rule currently in operation.

Finally, suffragan bishops who are acting as diocesans during a vacancy should be allowed to not only attend and speak at meetings of the House but also vote for the first time, the report recommends. This change, however, will require amendments to the canons, and thus take several years to implement through the synodical procedures.

Read more on this story in this week’s Leader comment here.

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