A Tale of Heads and Tails

by Gerry O’Brien

“My personal impression,” said Alan McLintock, Chairman of the Central Board of Finance, “is that outside the confines of this Synod, Millbank and Church House, there is only a very limited interest in the detail of what is happening. I am not saying this in any spirit of surprise or complaint: indeed, I would be much more surprised if it were otherwise.”

“What I believe our parishioners want,” he continued, “and it is, after all, to them in the final analysis that our efforts are directed – is an organisation which restricts itself to matters which have to be, or can more effectively be, handled at the centre and in which it can have total confidence, so that the real work of the Church, its worship and its mission, can take proper priority of place in the parishes.”

With these commendable sentiments, he introduced the Progress Report on the implementation of the Turnbull Proposals to the General Synod in November last year. Few would disagree with the laudable aim of a small efficient and effective centre for the Church, but will the National Institutions Measure, which is to be offered up to Synod again this November in revised form, deliver what is required? There were voices of concern.

Canon John Stanley, the Prolocutor of the Convocation of York, feared that despite its disclaimer, the Measure was seeking to achieve greater coherence by establishing a hierarchical form of control, and in doing so would be acting contrary to Anglican ecclesiological principles of consultation and consent. He subsequently wrote in New Directions, expressing concern about the proposed abolition of Synod’s Standing Committee.

The Provost of Wakefield, John Allen, was concerned that the PWM agencies should be an integral part of Synodical structures. “The report we have in front of us pushes them right out to the periphery again,” he said. But a more serious criticism was reserved for the flimsy proposals for accountability of the proposed Archbishops’ Council. “Wherever accountability is talked about, it is in terms solely and simply of telling us what the Council is getting up to. Real accountability is about listening to what the people who are representing the real Church are saying to you. Real accountability carries with it the possibility of being dismissed. The (draft) legislation in front of us has a lot about the appointment of the Council but nothing about impeachment, nothing about dismissal, nothing about what happens if you fail in your accountability.”

Dr Philip Giddings, the vice-Chairman of the House of Laity, had two questions. Firstly, would the draft Measure make for more coherence and leadership? Secondly, would it enable the laity’s elected representatives to play their proper role in the governance of the Church? He remained to be convinced on the first question. On the second, he asked, “Under these proposals, what kind of legislature will the General Synod be?” Answering his own question, he mused, “It is very hard not to agree with Canon Stanley’s analysis that it is seen simply as reactive, a sounding board.”

Mrs Pat Harris, vice-Chairman of the Board of Mission, brought the debate back to the theme of mission. “When we look at the details of the (proposed) structures,” she said, “it would appear that the laudable aim to make mission central to the Council’s work will be even more difficult to achieve under the new structures than under the old.”

The Bishop of Ripon, Chairman of the Board of Education, expressed concern about the role of the chairman of the co-ordinating committee, which it is proposed would oversee the Boards of Education, Mission and Social Responsibility and the Council for Christian Unity. He would not speak on behalf of the boards in Synod, the Church at large and in society (since the board chairmen would do so), but he would speak on their behalf at the Archbishop’s Council. In view of the lack of clarity of the proposals as then tabled, the Bishop concurred with Dr Giddings saying, “We need more detail before we are able to give our consent to what is happening.”

The Rev. Richard Turnbull (no relation) was concerned about accountability. “If the total control of the legislative timetable passes from Synod,” he said, “then accountability has a rather hollow ring to it.”

“The progress report said the Synod would have the power to accept, amend or reject policy proposals from the Council – essential safeguards, but I could not find them in the draft Measure. Clauses 4 and 9 seem to me to remove effective initiative and restrict accountability to the budget and past reports. I would point out that the European Parliament has the power to dismiss the European Commission and to reject the budget; but it is largely seen as an ineffectual body. Such draconian measures cannot actually bring about effective scrutiny and control.”

So, has the process which has been grinding on these last nine months taken account of the concerns expressed in Synod? Have we grounds to fear for the future independence of the General Synod?

More worryingly, is there now a real danger that the National Institutions Measure to be placed before Synod in November could turn out to be the master of the Church, rather than its servant?

Gerry O’Brien is a member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.