FEW ARE CHOSEN – Part III

Robbie Low concludes his investigation of appointments

 

IN MY OCTOBER article on the Crown Appointments Commission (CAC) I outlined the importance of the Episcopal task and the process by which men were selected for it in the Church of England.

In my second article (December) I examined, in the light of the evidence at my disposal from participants in the work of the CAC, some of the failings of the system and suggested ways in which it might be reformed.

In this, the final article in the series, I want to look at one or two other areas of the process, possible improvements and the unhappy consequences which regularly flow from the failure to reform the system radically.

AN EXAMPLE

A diocese whose representatives were rather keen on a particular candidate were surprised to be told that the candidate had met with a clerical veto (its source undisclosed). The Appointments Secretary went on to explain that "it doesn't much matter which See a person goes to - there's not much to choose between Norwich, Portsmouth and Sheffield"! The disappointed candidate would simply be shunted into one of the other vacancies.

Meanwhile a new bishop in another part of the country was busy clearing the decks of his diocese. He was determined to be rid of the personally pleasant but utterly ineffectual suffragan and highly recommended him to the then Archbishops and the Commission. The man, who had already failed dismally at two senior jobs, was appointed to the unsuspecting diocese. He went on to import a protégé of his to a suffragancy and two now very senior men in the Church of England to Archdeaconry and Cathedral. The protégé's expertise in episcopacy extended to festooning his new house with purple (bathroom suites in that colour need to be specially ordered) while the other two indulged in a legendary rivalry and animosity which will probably see them both through to retirement.

The divisions and damage caused to the diocese have proved difficult to repair and all because the CAC had been used, in Hugh Montefiore's memorable phrase about unwanted clergy, to "chuck dead cats over your neighbour's wall".

The story, given to me by a representative of that unhappy diocesan committee and confirmed by well-placed current diocesan sources, contains within it some grave indications of what can go wrong. Note that the process of veto (in this case applied to a much better candidate than the successful one) can be used to eliminate any but the blandest and least contentious offerings. I recall a conversation a year or two back with one of our leading feminists and doughtiest opponents. She had just sat on the CAC for her diocese and was incandescent.

THE BLAND LEADING THE BLAND

"Anyone with any character", she blazed, "was eliminated. It was a triumph for mediocrity." She went on at some length to expound her views on how a church with such a process of delivering leadership could not readily anticipate a revival of its morale or fortunes.

The words of the Appointments Secretary are a considerable giveaway. If "it doesn't much matter which See a person goes to", why is there all this elaborate hokum of "consultation" and "diocesan profiles" and "requirements"? What his careless slip revealed is that there is a list of agreed papabile - men who will be Diocesans - and the CAC is simply an exercise of smoke and mirrors while those men are shoe-horned into whichever diocese will have them.

What is very clear from reading through the many letters received is that men keep appearing as "suitable" for widely differing dioceses until they get one. No wonder there doesn't seem to be much difference between Norwich, Portsmouth or Sheffield!

What we see is a system working, not for the interests of the Gospel and the Church but for the careers of a favoured few within it. One of my correspondents was horrified to overhear the then Archbishops, on his CAC, in conversation.

"We must find a job for poor Fred Smith."

"Yes, he could go here but, if they won't have him, Newchester is coming up next month."

Forewarned and horrified by the prospect of "Fred Smith" the diocesan representative privately galvanised his fellows and thwarted the Archbishops. "Fred Smith" duly got "Newchester" diocese the following month where he is performing predictably as feared.

DEALING WITH FAILURE

There is another little discussed problem. How do you deal with persistent failure at senior level? The answer is, almost without exception, to offer him a promotion or a senior post of equivalent status. Fresh from wrecking one diocese, cathedral, college, he is let loose on the next unsuspecting institution - accompanied, of course, by glowing references.

The Church is not the only institution to suffer from this problem but most healthy and successful institutions take steps to minimise it. What is clear from example after example in my correspondence is that the consequences of bad appointments are long-lasting, severe and biblical ('unto the third and fourth generation') and that their subsequent internal appointments can utterly transform the nature and tradition of the diocese. Since 1992 this has been even more acute because the division on party lines has seen faithful catholic dioceses readily rewarded with a iconoclasts seemingly less determined on building the Kingdom than on eliminating "the opposition". The way in which this has come about is a subject in itself, but it brings me on to the area of the Appointment Secretaries.

NOT ENTIRELY CIVIL SERVANTS

These are the political appointees of the Prime Minister and Archbishop respectively. They are, generally, career civil servants in church and state and their position is unchallenged. Because their brief is supposedly impartial their background is seldom questioned. After all they simply garner the information and count the votes, don't they?

Well, not quite. In a process in which information is power and precious little information is given, they hold the key position. And they enjoy it. I remember encountering one of them at a consecration a few years ago and he told me excitedly,

"Do you realise by the time I retire I shall have appointed almost every bishop in the land!?"

He was scarcely exaggerating. One of my correspondents, unaware of my experience, told me that this same man had tried to impress her by tipping the winner early on the first day before discussions even began. "You just watch X", he boasted. He apparently knew the result already, and wish to emphasise his power.

In one highly contentious appointment information was withheld - information which would have produced an instant veto on the "preferred" candidate of the Secretaries. When privately challenged, much later, on this sleight of hand, the culpable secretary told another infuriated correspondent that this had been his "party trick".

INFORMATION IS POWER

The handling of the information is crucial. It is assumed by a good number of my correspondents, including some of the most experienced, that the Secretaries and Archbishops meet up beforehand to scan the field and plan a strategy. These are the men who will enter the room knowing the candidates. Almost all diocesan bishops are drawn from suffragans, archdeacons or academics. Only two parish priests have made it to diocesan in the last 40 appointments (both of these men with substantial academic jobs on their CVs)

The Appointment Secretaries' use of the information on the candidates is central to the outcome. The other members of CAC may know a few names vaguely and without detail. The diocesan representatives - ordinary clergy and laity especially - may know nothing. The references, from the diocesan bishop, may be just an excerpt from a full piece. A man who disagrees with present diocesan government is unlikely to get a warm review, however disastrous the present policies of his diocese may be and however good his track record. But it is not even a simple as that. Out of these brief notes and the Secretaries' researches will emerge a pretty thin picture. All you will really know, for the most part, is whether the Secretary thinks he is "a good thing". You can ask questions but they must be specific. One rural diocese wanting, quite literally, to make sure they did not get a vegetarian or a hunt protester, asked about a candidate's experience of rural ministry. The answer was that the man always served as a priest in cities. Enough said; his detractors won the day.

Now the truth about that candidate was that he was born in the country and grew up on a farm and maintained close links with his parents and his home village throughout his life. If the Secretaries knew that, they deliberately withheld it. If they did not, then a thorough CV, proper references and an interview would have put them straight.

IGNORANCE WITHOUT BLISS

Of course they do not simply appear deficient on positive information about orthodox candidates. They turn out to be remarkably ignorant of negative information about liberal candidates. Take the recent case of Michael Langridge's appointment to Exeter diocese.

In a highly sensitive area the Secretaries did not inform the rest of the committee that the candidate's wife was training to be a priest. This is not to argue for or against Langridge as a man or as a bishop; but why did the committee not have this vital information? Did the Secretaries really not know this highly significant fact about the man's life? It wasn't a secret. If they did know they are culpable. If they did not, they are incompetent. It was cold comfort for the catholics in that diocese to have Archbishops pleading innocence and ignorance as they have done as each successive catholic diocese has been handed to liberal government.

THROUGH THE NET

More troubling than the Langridge (to whom no blame attaches) affair have been other appointments in which it would be both unkind and unnecessary to mention names. How did a man with a criminal record slip through unnoticed? Several bishops with notorious records of homosexual promiscuity? The bishop whose wife was having a heterosexual affair and the bishop whose wife is involved with a lesbian? The bishop with a history of mental instability and a bishop with such a disastrous diocesan track record that it wasn't even discussed at his CAC?

Did these secretaries really not know any of the above when many others did? It seems, frankly, incredible. But, if they did not, then the argument for proper CV, references and interview becomes unanswerable. After all if the above men were parish priests they would be on the urgent pastoral care list, not down for preferment.

The selection of information and strategic silence is a commonplace comment among the correspondence. What passes for information is often no more than hearsay, anecdote and gossip. They echo, almost to a man a correspondent to The Church Times in 1997 who wrote:

"I know of no other organisation, incorporated or not, which would adopt an entirely secret procedure, rely on anecdotal evidence, fail to interview the candidate, and then hope that both the candidate and the Prime Minister will support the recommendation."

But the role of the secretaries is even more powerful than the conduct of the actual meeting. From the day when the Diocesan Vacancy in See Committee (VSC) first meets, their delicate touch is on the tiller. A diocese that had a more conservative VSC was commended to use STV ( single transferable vote) to maximise the chance of minority (i.e. liberal ) representation in the final four representatives for the CAC. A diocese with a liberal majority was commended to straightforward majority voting to give a "clear picture". (STV is in the regulations.)

The Secretarial researches among the dignitaries, county set and industrialists are simply to give authority to their "objective" overview - in contrast with the "parochial" view of the diocesan representatives. Several correspondents recall being told by the secretaries that making their own suggestions of candidates "is not always helpful at this stage". Of course it's allowed but..... "it makes life more complicated later". To the innocent new boy VSC member with his usual Anglican deference, it can seem good advice. It is just not correct.

One diocese, heavily rural, asked for a man with a substantial parish ministry experience and some of that rural. The Secretary replied that a bishop could "always seek advice from an appropriate person on aspects of parish ministry if and when required". The VSC felt "the democratic process recede”? and were immensely disappointed but not surprised when an academic was appointed.

"They had obviously decided to give him the job. The rest was window-dressing", commented one.

MEN OF PRAYER

As with too many clergy jobs, the spiritual seems to be given a low priority by the professionals. In my experience of parish interviews the lay folk ask the questions about God, spirituality, prayer, call and vision. The senior clergy, all too often, want to know if you can bodge a few odd parishes together and pay the quota. So it was no surprise to me to find a favourite refrain of one Secretary to the VSCs to be : "Don't ask for a man of prayer - that's assumed". If only it could be.

Indeed spirituality does not seem to play a great part in the proceedings. Far from prayer and fasting (Jesus preferred method of choosing disciples), meals are good and filling and, apart from an ad hoc introduction from the chairman, the prayer is no more than a priest would put in on a normal day. But there is little to pray over. Synod members who have done VSC and CAC duty comment on the libraries they need to read for Synodical duties and the utter paucity of material and information at CAC. Most seem to leave perplexed, baffled even angered on reflection at the whole process. Being loyal Anglicans, of course they do not discuss it with others but it all bubbles out in the correspondence.

Nor does the Secretaries' influence end with their control of the information. They are the men who count the votes! You may remember that the field is whittled down by a series of rapid voting - putting people in order and then eliminating the man with least. It is a curious way to proceed and the sheer number and speed of votes caused several correspondents to describe it as "ridiculous" and "confusing". Each set of votes is counted by the Secretaries. While none of my correspondents question the integrity of the secretaries in the voting procedure, the degree of unhappiness expressed about their power, demeanour and apparent control of the process left some with a distinct uneasiness about their unsupervised activities. The successive Secretaries are seen as men of liberal to very liberal persuasion, and the influence on appointments as predictable. The politicisation of the Church in its post 1992 schism gave greater power to the liberals and confirmed and accelerated the well-established trend.

THE POLITICS OF POLITICS

Even more serious is the politicisation of the Church in society. Curiously for their 18 years in power the Conservative Party did nothing to correct the Callaghan reforms. The Thatcher government appeared to accept that the Church was now the Labour Party at prayer and, with a couple of notable exceptions, agreed to a never-ending imposition of careerist liberals with only a rare and token doctrinal conservative and then only if he had taken a Trappist vow of silence on contentious issues. The most notable exception in those years was the near farcical veto of Jim Thompson (now Bath and Wells) for Birmingham and his replacement by his close friend and fellow socialist and theological liberal, Mark Santer. Whoever was advising Ma Thatcher must have been very economical with the truth. Such senior Conservatives as I was in touch with were disappointed by the products but either indifferent to or baffled by the system that churned them out. Either way it was a serious neglect.

The last three years have seen a quickening of the pace of politicisation. The present government has implemented more constitutional change in its brief life than those of the previous century combined and the implications for the church are considerable. As the Prime Minister and several of its key players are churchgoers, it is taking a much more active interest than its predecessors. As its theological and moral stance on issues of family, gender, sexuality and life issues are about as far removed from orthodoxy as it is possible to get, the chances of a serious heavyweight vocal, campaigning doctrinal conservative making the bench are extremely remote. The personal preferences of the Prime Minister seem to be much more influential and the Secretaries' role in the obtaining the required results absolutely pivotal.

ARCHBISHOPS AT WORK

The residual power of the Archbishops in all this can only be guessed at, but they cannot disclaim responsibility for the results of a committee which they chair. A clue to their potency or lack of it, may be gleaned from the final evidence of diocesan appointments. In the Northern Province David Hope has presided over two moderate liberal evangelical preferments and a clutch of four appointments of men notable for their hostility to orthodoxy. In the South George Carey has an almost equally unenviable record.

The question must arise, how well-informed are they? If their information was good then why, for example, did Hope not make it clear that Wharton, an extreme liberal, was unsuitable for Newcastle and avoid the subsequent long running row and repair job? Why did Carey not do the same over Selby's extraordinary appointment to Worcester?

How could it come about that, on two other well-known contentious appointments an Archbishop could plead ignorance and inevitability. Of the first, when challenged, the Chairman Archbishop denied that he had been in possession of vital information. In the second case, the Chairman Archbishop repeated to all who would listen, that there was “no alternative” to this man. Given this man's subsequent track record if there really was no alternative to him, it is probably time for the Church of England seriously to contemplate closure and the dispersal of its assets to an organisation that is more committed to the gospel.

The tragedy is that the Archbishop in question was probably telling the truth. Not that there weren’t a hundred better men to do the job, but rather that procedures are so deeply befouled at every level that, on the second day of the committee, one is all too often left, courtesy of the system and the Secretaries, to choose between “Desperate” and “Grim”.

DANGEROUS TIMES

We live in difficult, and, in a very few years, potentially dangerous times for the Christian faith in the West. In England, our numbers and our finances are in serious decline. The morale and education of the clergy is very poor. The doctrinal and moral probity of the church is approaching one of those unwelcome historical troughs. Our evangelism is often divided between the non-existent and the gimmicky, with little of real substance to challenge the world. The prevailing ecclesiastical ethos is terrified of being boldly counter cultural. The laity have been subjected to forty years of bewildering, and often unnecessary, change, retrenchment and loss, disposal and reorganisation of their parishes, liturgies, sanctuaries and assets. In the midst of all of this it has been easy to overlook the growing crisis of the episcopate. Anglicans have always been too ready to accept it as the culmination of a career structure for clergy who like that sort of thing. Yet every organisation – school, hospital, business, army, nation – cannot indefinitely sustain itself with a system for raising up and developing leadership that is materially incompetent or corrupt and spiritually neutered.

The Turnbull reforms, Common Worship, women priests, nor any of the other much vaunted “?reforms” or “life savers” will bring salvation to the CofE. The advent of a serious New Testament attitude to the episcopate, its discernment, selection and consecration will not, in itself, bring revival – that is God’s gift – but it will demonstrate a church that is serious about its task and provide a leadership capable of inspiring its people and the nation.

The Crown Appointments Commission has proved itself so deeply flawed as to have justifiably lost the confidence of the church. Whatever comes in its place must have a transparency and integrity which is perceived to be wholly lacking at present.

The apostolic succession cannot be reduced to an old pals act or Buggin’s turn. On a human level such practice is doomed to failure and in divine terms it is a blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban's

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