Playing the game

Gerry O’Brien takes another look at the future of the CAC

Democracy is a delicate flower. It is politically correct to flaunt your democratic credentials and to wax lyrical about power to the people and all that – particularly if the elected representatives are not doing anything particularly controversial. But woe betide the electorate if they elect someone of whom we disapprove– like a BNP councillor for example, and woe betide the legislature if they support a proposal of which we disapprove.

Cautionary Tale?

Some years ago there was an interesting Diocesan Synod Motion from Manchester diocese that came before the General Synod. They wanted to remove non-church attending residents from parish electoral rolls. If your parish is anything like ours, I doubt that you will be expecting a rush of people in a month or so’s time to add their names to your electoral roll, so one was naturally intrigued to know what the devious Mancunians had been up to.

Apparently it was all down to one parish where the incumbent had had a spat with his youth group, and as a result the PCC had, at his behest, banned the youth group from the church hall. Most clergy would probably give their right arms to have a thriving youth group in the parish, but obviously there was within the Diocese of Manchester at least one clergyman who was very difficult to please.

It seems that things went quiet for a few months, but in the spring there was a rush of teenagers all wanting to join the electoral roll. When it came to the AGM the young people turned out in force and all the members of the PCC were voted off – to be replaced by members of the recently evicted youth group. The new PCC voted at its first meeting to rescind the ban on the youth club using the church hall – and then all the teenage PCC members promptly resigned.

Well, the Diocesan Synod was appalled. I mean we all want young people to be involved in Church Government – provided, of course, they don’t try and change anything. So the Diocesan Synod solemnly passed its motion to ensure that nothing of the sort ever happened again, and the motion duly came before the General Synod. Fortunately, at Westminster, wiser counsels prevailed and Synod was not prepared to change the rules nationally on the basis of a little escapade in one parish in Manchester.

Key Amendments

And so the spotlight turns on the Business Committee of the Archbishops’ Council. Last October the General Synod was debating proposals to reform the workings of the Crown Appointments Commission (CAC), which selects names of candidates for vacant sees which the Prime Minister is invited to submit to the Queen. Over the years there has been widespread frustration with the supposed impenetrable secrecy of the workings of the CAC and its practice (in these days almost unbelievable) of nominating people who have not applied for the post and haven’t even been interviewed. Indeed in some cases the nominees may be unknown to some of the selectors save for an A4 sheet of unattributed comments.

By the time the debate was adjourned in October, Synod had agreed on two key amendments, the effects of which could be far reaching. One was to interview candidates before discussing their merits, and another was to have eight (rather than four) diocesan representatives to join the eight permanent members of the CAC.

The Establishment is unlikely to be pleased by these developments, which clearly represent a significant shift of power away from smoke-filled rooms back to the dioceses and the grass roots. It is therefore not entirely improbable that the Business Committee may have come under some pressure to find some procedural device to undo what Synod has done.


Since I am writing this article before the results of the Business Committee’s deliberations are revealed with the publication of the agenda for Synod’s February Group of Sessions, I can only speculate on what the outcome may be. However, by the time this piece is published the agenda will be out and the Business Committee’s conclusions will be public.

Grasping issues

It may be that they take the view that in a democratic institution we have to respect the views of elected representatives, whose job it is to research the issues, understand what is at stake and to deliver a judgement on behalf of those they represent. We may find that the agenda will allow the debate to resume from the point at which it was adjourned, which is what the Chairman of the original debate led Synod to expect would happen at the time of the adjournment.

Assuming this is the case, there is still the possibility that the House of Bishops might try to vote all the proposals down in a vote by houses at the end of the debate. One dares to hope though, that they might hesitate to confront the Synod in such a way.

On the other hand, the Business Committee may have come under pressure from the siren voices of the Establishment who would probably argue that Synod members had not grasped the implications of the votes in October. The familiar arguments may have been trotted out that members were confused by the various amendments on the order paper. There may even have been suggestions that Synod was most unwise to come to the (wrong) conclusion that it did and that votes should be taken again so that Synod can have another opportunity to come to the ‘right’ answer. There must be some obscure standing orders (or even a suspension of standing orders) that could be invoked to permit this.

Blow for democracy

Synod has struck a blow for democracy by its decisions in October. It has approved proposals to make the process of appointing bishops far more open and transparent, sweeping away the obfuscation, secrecy and suspicion that surrounds the present arrangements. We have proposed treating potential bishops as mature and competent individuals who could cope with applying for posts and not being appointed – as we all have to do in secular life. We have agreed that nominating people you haven’t met is unlikely to produce a more satisfactory outcome than nominating people you have met. We have proposed devolving more of the selection process to dioceses – which after all, have to live with the results of the appointment.

When we see February’s agenda, I fervently hope we will be pleasantly surprised and find the Business Committee has backed Synod’s aspirations – and that no-one is planning to play ducks and drakes with standing orders to inhibit the passage of these long overdue reforms.


Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod with no ambitions to become a member of the House of Bishops.

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