Robbie Low looks At the Perry Report on the appointment of Bishops.
It was a dull Lenten midweek afternoon a couple of years back. One of those, mercifully rare, committee meetings that draws trustees to the capital had ended early and I had settled myself in a darkened corner of the Atrium with a compensatory tea and bun before re-consigning myself to the grey- faced and unpleasant intimacy of the underground railway. As if from nowhere one of the Archbishop's confidants and advisers appeared at the table, someone whom I had grown to like and respect over the years. We shared news of family and respective work and ministry when suddenly, and apropos absolutely nothing, my colleague in cake demanded, ‘What are we going to do about the suffragans?’
As, to the best of my knowledge, there was nothing I could do about any suffragans, I assumed this was the Royal ‘we’ and awaited clarification.
Did I realise what poor quality they were? I did. Could I imagine how their eventual elevation to diocesans would lead to a terrifying decline in standards on the bench? I pointed out that a decline in the present standard was almost beyond the imagination of the average orthodox mind, but that I followed the train of thought.
And so it went on. Nobody could be in any doubt that ‘we’ were very worried about the prospects for the future leadership of the C.of E. Such mutual concerns, I teased, could be a major a ecumenical bridgehead between the divided parts of our church.
At my companion’s request I outlined some of our major concerns about the operation of the whole Crown Appointments system and our desire for a radically reformed and renewed episcopate.
Would these be written up in New Directions where everyone on the bench and in Synod could read them? I groaned at the prospect of the enormous research that would have to go into such articles but was encouraged to have a go. The results you read (or skipped) in the October, December and January issues, and I'm immensely grateful to all those whose co-operation made the articles possible and thereby, in some small way, enabled us to contribute to the national debate.
The Spirit at work
That debate has now reached the critical next stage with the publication, last month, of the Perry Report - Working with the Spirit: choosing Diocesan Bishops.
The origin of this work lay in a technical motion before General Synod in 1998 which the standing committee amended to commission a complete overview of the appointments system. Baroness Perry of Southwark, at the request of the Archbishops, gathered her team and, over two painstaking years, assembled the evidence on which her recommendations are based.
‘The evidence which we have received’ the Baroness writes, ‘indicates that there is no general demand to change the overall shape of the system. Many respondents have expressed appreciation of the outcome of the process producing their own diocesan bishop’. This charming bit of Anglican politeness and massaging of the bishops’ amour propre is virtually the only concession to the status quo. In the same paragraph she reports ‘widespread unease’ about ‘excessive secrecy’, ‘the quantity and quality of information’ available to selectors, ‘the amount of power.... concentrated in the hands of Secretaries and individual diocesan bishops’, that appointments in recent years ‘have been drawn from too narrow a spectrum of previous appointments, expertise and churchmanship’ and concludes, of these concerns, ‘To varying degrees, we share them all.’ And, I suspect, most of us would say ‘Amen’ to that.
Best kept secret
Before getting into the meat of Lady Perry's proposals it is worth saying, at the outset, that this report is also a jolly good read! There is a thoughtful article by Bishop Nazir-Ali on bishops and the theology of the church's call to them. A fascinating historical survey of how bishops were chosen in the early Church and in the English Church is added by Dr. Colin Podmore, the highly intelligent secretary and one of the CofE's best kept secrets, and a useful appendix on the practice of other churches.
The five substantial chapters reviewing the evidence plus the summary and conclusions are, if I may say so, a model of how to do the job. The committee have listened, reflected, prayed and acted setting out very clearly the ‘why’ of reform, without the rancour of blame, along with a realistic ‘how’ which, while not meeting all criticisms, should make it possible for Christians of all persuasions to form a coalition of confidence in the new proposals.
But, to return to the Suffragan problem...
Lady Perry is rightly alarmed at the narrowness of choice offered the Church. She observes that during the years 1996 to 2000 nearly half the sees of England were filled . Only two of the successful candidates were not already bishops and one of those was an Archdeacon. She acknowledges the argument for planning the succession and the need for experience, but is troubled by the quality of the Episcopal candidates, the number of ‘safe choices’, the power of diocesan bishops to ‘complement’ or ‘clone’ themselves by such appointments. By the time you have eliminated those suffragans who are too new, too old or simply not up to it, you have an effective field of perhaps thirty candidates maximum (for the 19 posts! )and the potential of the rest of the Church is ignored. Besides, a suffragan is a specific calling, and a number two does not often make a great number one. Lady Perry wants the net spread wider.
She has also rumbled the flaw in the ‘preferment list’ - the c.370 names suitable for ‘promotion’. You only get on this list if your diocesan bishop puts you there. Enough said. Being disliked by the diocesan or not sharing his views should not disqualify you, says Lady Perry.
She is also perplexed by the random inefficiency of nomination. One diocese has put forward 25 names, one diocese has offered none. Eleven dioceses have five or less candidates considered suitable for any senior office (remember these lists are not just about bishops, but canons, archdeacons ,deans etc.). This is ‘a degree of variation’ which she considers ‘unacceptable’. The committee is clearly perturbed by the idiosyncrasy of the diocesan bishop. Though they admit that they cannot tell ‘whether all diocesan bishops have succeeded in acting with complete fairness’ they are clear that secret decisions taken by unaccountable diocesans, leaving the priest in ignorance and with no right of appeal are ‘not seen to be fair and transparent’.
ENOCH, SALLY and SAGE
A transparent preferment system would also have the advantage of better, checkable and agreed information put at the disposal of the selectors. To this end the committee recommends that the Crown Appointments Commission be renamed the Episcopal Nominations Commission (ENOCH) to better reflect its task. That there should be one Senior Appointments List (SALLY). Clergy should know if they are on it, and if they are removed from it, and why. Candidates should get on the list through the process of regular episcopal review of their work, and diocesan bishops need proper training to ensure consistency of practice. All candidates will have a reference from their diocesan (sadly still to remain secret) but minorities will also have references from their supervisors (PEV, Superior, University etc.). Flying Bishops will be able to nominate for SALLY!
If a priest feels unjustly denied entry to SALLY he can appeal to the bishop and, if still dissatisfied, to the Archbishop and the Senior Appointments Group (SAGE). This latter group (Archbishop plus 2 from ENOCH) are regularly to review SALLY, chase up inconsistent or non-delivering bishops, and keep the House of Bishops aware of issues arising from the balance and make up of this list.
The committee looks seriously at the plight of minorities and recommends that this is an important consideration at every appointment to restore balance in the Church of England. Of course, the committee acknowledges that someone who has effectively withdrawn from the life of his own diocese would not be a suitable candidate. Quite what Lady Perry would make of a diocese which regards your minority as ‘unemployable’ and your participation in its government as ‘impossible’ is not recorded. Who has withdrawn from whom is a nice point in some parts of the C. of E. Nevertheless we should welcome this acknowledgement that the last decade has been one of injustice and Lady Perry's proposals go as far she reasonably may to begin to redress that. She notes that minority candidates often aren't considered because they don't have senior post experience and they don't have senior post experience because............. they are minority candidates. This won't do and she exhorts the bishops to be less defensively partisan and use all the talents in the church. ENOCH is to have a supervisory role here and identify and address any imbalance in the nomination lists which do not reflect ‘the diversity of the church of which that episcopate is the corporate leadership’. In the light of these welcome findings and proposals it would seem essential to have a guaranteed minority place on ENOCH itself and this will, no doubt, be part of the coming debate.
Some traditionalists (and others too) will find something distasteful in the prospect of a clergyman pursuing his own case for preferment. It is true that there are few things quite as revolting as the sight of naked ambition in a clergyman; but that has never been absent simply because it has been masked. Many will not seek to propose themselves or wish to be proposed but it allows anyone to nominate a good candidate to serve God's people and it does away with the ghastly game of hide and seek and the abuse of power that goes with it. Besides there are, genuinely, men who are called to particular office and, if someone feels called to be Bishop of Sodor and Man (pace Noel) then it is better to have him say so and have that vocation tested rather than watch it go to the next blighter on the list. I suspect that a fairer system will do a lot to relieve the church of the curse of Slopean ambition and, coincidentally, bishops can discover that less manipulative relationships with their clergy and more frank and open encounter will lead, fairly shortly, to greater loyalty, respect and friendship.
It is several years ago now that I suggested to Forward in Faith that the flying bishops should be encouraged to run an ‘open slate’. The PEVs should have a public list of 12 candidates (the Dirty Dozen?) drawn from our best men. Then, when successive appointments were made in formerly catholic dioceses and members of the Crown Appointments Commission claimed that there was ‘no alternative’ to the candidate chosen, people could compare notes and draw their own conclusions. The new openness encouraged by Perry would allow such an idea to be developed in a way that was less confrontational, but would still destroy the old lie that ‘there are no candidates of sufficient quality’ in the traditionalist constituency.
Silly games with secrecy
Information is another winner in this report. Candidates can check their fact sheets and sign them as accurate. They are to provide references and (nice touch) a photograph. Gone are the partial, selective quotes from the Appointments Secretaries' sheets! All the documentation, now substantial and verified, is to be treated as confidential and rightly so. But, with the exception of the diocesan bishops reference, at least a candidate will know that he's been fairly represented.
Members of ENOCH will no longer have to play silly games with secrecy about the time and place of meetings and, if they wish, they are to be at liberty to make their own enquiries about candidates. How many of us school governors wish we had visited the candidate's old school before rashly appointing a paper tiger?
Members of the diocesan Vacancy in See Committees (VSC) will no longer have to guess at their job or be (mis)guided by Secretaries or diocesan dignitaries. On their election they should receive a full briefing document outlining all their duties and responsibilities. They are also at liberty to meet without the Appointments Secretaries, if necessary, and can decide to put forward their own nominations and receive nominations and expressions of interest from potential candidates. The eventual diocesan four that join ENOCH for their vacancy should be as informed as possible and are to be reassured, at every stage, that no nomination can proceed with which they are not happy.
The make up of the VSC is changed slightly. The Bishop's Council can now add four additional members instead of two. This could be positive if it is used, as Perry suggests, to spread the representation in the diocese. On the other hand some ‘one-party state’ dioceses already pack the VSC and need no further encouragement. This is a recommendation that will need very careful definition and supervision if not outright rejection. The governing party in dioceses already have too much power. More is a deeply unattractive prospect.
The role of the Secretaries
When ENOCH meets some of the most offensive aspects of the old CAC will have gone. First of all each vacancy will command two separate meetings. The first will look at national and diocesan needs and all members will be armed with substantial information about all candidates. More time will be given to the discussions, and use of ‘information’ which is not attributable will be out! The iniquitous rule of hearsay and gossip will thereby be severely curtailed. The Secretaries will no longer be the masters of information or able to manipulate it by selective quotation and careful answering. Virtually everyone who has sat on CAC found this a severe weakness in the system and it is right to abolish it.
As long ago as 1974 Fr. Christopher Wansey wrote to the Prime Minister's appointments secretary thus:
‘The Apostolic succession goes through a filing cabinet presided over by the Secretary for Appointments, for no one who is not filed there has the remotest chance of becoming a bishop. So, in this episcopal garden, it is not the royal gardener who does the planting and transplanting, nor even the gardener's boy - the Prime Minister. No, it is the gardener's boy's boy - your goodself. You are the one and only bishop- maker in the Church of England today. I respectfully ask: "Who are you to choose the successor of St Augustine?".’
The first ENOCH meeting will reduce the list to between five and seven candidates. Before the subsequent meeting ,and in the light of what has come out of the first, a member may come up with a potential candidate, previously unconsidered, whose name, exceptionally, may be added. This seems to give a little place for reflection and inspiration and is to be welcomed. The second meeting - candidates will be informed if they appear at this stage and be asked to ensure all the paperwork is up-to-date - will continue the discussion and then members of ENOCH will be balloted (single transferable vote) to reduce the number to three. A small but important detail is that there will be proper printed ballot forms. No more ridiculous hastily scribbled lists trying to put a dozen men in the right order and then repeating this 10 more times as secretaries rush in and out counting and declaring.
At this stage, three names left, each member of ENOCH writes one name down. The one with most votes goes through. The same process happens with the remaining two to get the second name. The two successful names are then voted for again and if one achieves a two-thirds or more majority that preference and margin will be communicated to the Prime Minister.
During this whole process the Archbishop of the Province where the vacancy occurs, Perry suggests, can vacate the chair in favour of his brother Archbishop. Presumably this would enable the concerned Archbishop to take more active part in affecting the outcome. This may be a direct result of the private unhappiness of the Archbishops at the bizarre outcomes of some CAC meetings for which they have been blamed while feeling constrained by the impotency of being in the chair.
One disappointing conclusion of Perry was the rejection of interviews for shortlist candidates. She is concerned about the logistics and that is a fair point but her ‘chief concern ‘ is for those who are ‘frequently considered for several different dioceses before they are finally nominated to a diocesan see’. She reveals that, of eighteen diocesan appointments 1994-97, three men had been considered for one another see, five for three sees and seven for more than four vacancies! Having lifted the lid on this unedifying version of pass the parcel, the committee failed to take one of the measures which would eliminate it. The ability to account for the faith and for yourself is an important part of the public office of the bishop. I cannot for the life of me see how ENOCH would not benefit from such personal encounter and the opportunity to question a man whose task may shortly be to pastor and mission a million souls.
All of these proposals are, of course, subject to Synod debate and approval. Even if they were accepted wholesale it would be a couple of years before the reforms were implemented and, even if this were done wholeheartedly, it would take a decade to begin redressing the injustices and imbalances wrought by the last. By that stage, with the advent of women bishops, it may be academic. But now the report is in it will be interesting to see which, if any, of the bishops begin, at least, to implement the good practice suggested by Lady Perry .
A system is only as good as those who run it and every system can be corrupted . There is, however, little doubt that Lady Perry's team have done much to enable the church to behave in a more godly and honourable way with these reforms. They have, almost wherever possible, opened up the system to account and we can only hope that those called to administer it will respect this opportunity presented for strengthening and healing the church for her care of and mission to the nation.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s
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