Richard Turnbull reviews the current position of the National Institutions Measure, welcomes amendments, but calls us to vigilance

AS THE NATIONAL Institutions Measure weaves and winds its way through the intricacies of the Synodical legislative process there is the danger that, in the rush to ensure that the detailed provisions are properly reviewed and the numerous constituencies consulted, the issues of fundamental principle may be lost from sight.

What started life as a report from a Working Party has become a large, slightly unwieldy, even remote “national institutions” measure. The very name of the legislation should sound a certain warning bell for us. What are these so-called “national institutions”? Well, they seem to include the Standing Committee of the General Synod, the Church Commissioners, the Central Board of Finance and the various Boards and Councils of the Synod – a wide variety of bodies, deriving from different historical foundations, with somewhat different purposes and various constitutions.

The whole lot is to be flattened under the auspices of this centralised Archbishops’ Council. I do not express an opinion here as to the propriety of these proposed reforms; I simply want to call us back to the questions of principle that we face. What is the most appropriate organisational structure for the effective delivery of the gospel message of Jesus Christ by the Church of England? In what way is the Archbishops’ Council to be appointed, directed and held to account for its actions on behalf of the Church? How is the reasonable expectation that reform will lead to slimmed down and less centralised structure to be realised?

It is erroneous to suppose that structural reform necessarily enhances the ministry of the gospel. In the 1830s the Church of England was undergoing extensive reform, pioneered by the Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield. Yet Blomfield opposed, with vigour, the foundation and the ministry of the London City Mission and the Church Pastoral Aid Society. Although he later retracted his opposition, the principle is worth noting. Reform and reformers do not necessarily advance the gospel.

Let us address the question of accountability. In order to be effective there must be a clearly defined relationship between the bodies concerned. The proposals are perhaps at their strongest in that the reform of the plethora of central church bodies is designed to bring clarity to the relationship between the Synod, as the legislative assembly and the Archbishops’ Council, the executive power. However accountability also involves mechanisms to put the theory into practice; effective scrutiny is an essential component of accountability. Specifics are important.

How then does the National Institutions Measure deal with this crucial area? To enhance the elected representation of Synod on the Archbishops’ Council is only a partial response and carries with it the danger of confusing representation with accountability. One only has to reflect on the relationship under the British constitution of the Government (the executive) to Parliament (the legislature) to realise that dual membership is no guarantee of effective accountability. What is needed is a clear system of checks and balances that allows the leadership to lead, but holds that leadership to proper account for its actions.

Some key questions then are: 1 How is the Council to be constituted and how are changes to be effected? 2 Where does initiative lie? 3 What ability is there to effect change, whether in policy proposals, strategic direction or legislative measures?

The balance between ex-officio, appointed and Synodically elected members of the Council has changed during the process of consultation and development. However the first clause of the Measure proposes that any resolution of Synod amending that composition must carry the agreement of the Archbishops. This is a confusing provision. At first sight it suggests a veto. If that were so, then it would clearly represent a significant weighting in favour, not just of the executive power, but of the two senior members of the Council. However, this provision does not prevent formal amendment by Measure. Similarly, in the case of agreement between all concerned, it provides a simple route for amendment without recourse to the full legislative process.

The problem with the clause, which may be one of perception, is nevertheless that it clouds the clear relationship between Council and Synod which the Measure has established. It leaves open the possibility that the Archbishops could block any amendment to the composition of the Council, even if the proposal enjoyed the support of the majority of Synod. I do not comment here on what is the most desirable mechanism for achieving change, rather I point out the dangerous precedent which this clause would establish. Perception is important, and the impression left is of the executive leadership possessing executive power over the composition of the executive body.

The prime initiative in terms of legislation and policy proposals would, it seems, pass from the Synod to the Council. Although this assists in the clarification of the relationship between the two bodies, the effect is that the Synod changes from being a proactive, initiating assembly to a reactive body. The original draft measure proposed that the initiating power over legislation would lie with the officers of the Council. Subsequent modifications have shifted the power to either the Archbishop’s Council or the Synod’s Business Committee.

More clouds gather here. Where is control of the legislative timetable to lie? What is to be the relationship between the Council and the Business Committee? How are differences to be resolved? How is the proper right of the Council to have its legislative proposals introduced to be protected whilst also maintaining the independence of the Synod, essential of course to effective scrutiny and accountability? The Synod needs to maintain some measure of independence and control over the time-tabling and introduction of legislation to ensure that the proper rights of private members, diocesan synods and other aspects of the Synod’s business are maintained in proper proportion and the impression is not given of a Synod being subsumed by the Council.

Neither the ability to control nor the ability to dictate can be said to form part of any reasonable process of accountability. However the ability to effect amendment and change is central to any such system. Synod would have the ability to question Council representatives and consider reports of past activities and interim decisions, but those with executive power are rarely troubled by the reporting of the past. The Revision Committee have, however, adopted the substance of a proposal from myself that reports to Synod should include any decisions taken as to future work. Although likely to be imperfect, it should help focus the mind of both Council and Synod on the future strategy rather than past reporting. All such reports, although not submitted for Synodical approval, could be subjected to following motions, if members wished Synod to draw attention to particular aspects. Hence, in this way, Synod can have some influence, albeit limited, on both past reporting and future strategy.

It would be churlish in the extreme to suggest that the Revision Committee has done anything other than improve the Measure in a number of ways, indeed in significant ways. However questions still remain and members of Synod will need to be ever vigilant to ensure that the proper processes of accountability are not lost, but rather enhanced, as Synod debates the later stages of this legislation. We should be grateful for much of the increased clarity, especially the sharper definition of the relationship between executive and legislative bodies. Nevertheless, in the light of that clarity, it is also essential for certain elements of the Synod’s own rights and responsibilities to be enshrined and protected. Failure to do so would mean that the fears of a centralised structure, indeed a powerful centre, insufficiently held to account and insufficiently reduced in size and scope, would be sadly realised.

Richard Turnbull is Curate of Highfield Church, Southampton and represents the Diocese of Winchester on the General Synod.



TURNBULL, TO BE, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer …. ” (with apologies to W. Shakespeare)

What a question! We are told that the Archbishops’ Council proposed by Turnbull is not about central control because that is undesirable and impossible to do. Someone once said that “controlling bishops is like herding cats”! So if it is not about control, what is Turnbull about? That, in the words of the Bard again, is the question.

Is it really about coherence, and an overview of opportunities, as has been said? Is it really about mission and not management? Will it really lead to more effective service of the gospel? Will the laity know less about what happens in the Church of England than they do now? How will the proposed new Council really serve others in the Church? Why cannot General Synod fulfil these roles? What is to prevent it degenerating into a hierarchical form of control, a “Star Chamber”, perhaps?

Any committee or council is often perceived by those not its members as being in control, whatever the reality. Think about PCCs. Sometimes they may even seem to control the Vicar. Deanery Synods may not appear to have control over anything and much the same could be said of Diocesan Synods, but what about the Diocesan Agenda Sub-committees? What about the Deanery Chapter meetings? What about Bishops’ Councils? Members of these committees are perceived to be part of the hierarchy, those special people ‘in the know’. It does not seem so bad if the members are elected, but co-opted? Oh dear!

As the newly-elected Chairman of the House of Laity of the Diocese of Wakefield, I am well aware of the feelings of those who think that I am now ‘on a higher plane’ and that I have been ‘elevated’. Fears that I may know something that others do not know, or that I may have the ear of someone important are very real. I can do my best to alleviate those fears and worries by getting to know other lay members of the Diocesan Synod, by entertaining them informally, for example. I can inform them about what is happening, and ask for their opinions and suggestions. Accountability is a big issue, and I realise that I have an extremely important role.

But could members of the proposed Archbishops’ Council do that? They would inevitably be less accessible to ordinary churchgoers, and would inevitably be set apart from the rest of us. Is it likely that they would be able to listen to folk in the Church? The General Synod would still exist, but what for? Would it not just be a sounding board, or worse, a rubber stamp? We have been told that Synod would have power to accept, reject or amend policy proposals from the Council, but how could that actually happen? How could it possibly happen if Synod were to be fed a diet of apparently well-formed, “ready-to-serve” decisions?

Yes, change is inevitable. If we stand still, we do not get anywhere, but neither do we want to set off on the wrong path. So it is essential to discover where we actually are, and where we would like to go. We need to do more thinking, more consulting with and questioning those in our parishes, the person-in-the-pew, those working at the grass roots of the Church, so that they do not feel left out and marginalised. How could the Turnbull proposals possibly achieve this? That’s what I should like to know.

But, as well as asking the questions, we must listen to the answers. What are the people in the parishes really saying to us? Why are they saying it? We may possibly lose this personal touch if we start to run the Church like a business. More importantly, we lose sight of Christ. It is so easy for Church leaders to forget that not everyone knows as much as they do about the internal workings. Spectators can often get frustrated, or they may lose interest, or they may just leave. We need to be seen to be involving more people. Again, the question is, will the proposed new Council be able to do this?

Of course this opening up of Church procedures, politics and government does not make life any easier at first. But what did Shakespeare ask, “whether ’tis nobler …. to suffer”? Discontent, distrust, dis-ease, disappointment, disagreement and disquiet will not evaporate overnight. But the experience could eventually be a liberating one. These negatives will be replaced by positives, having more loyal disciples, greater discernment, new discoveries and fairer work distribution. More people will be involved. We need to work as a team, with everyone relying on each other, and knowing where each fits in, having appropriate training, encouraging one another.

So, to go back to the question, “Turnbull, to be or not to be?” Change is difficult to accept unless the vision for that change has been made crystal clear. Have we a clear enough vision now in the Church of England? Yes, we know the present situation is not satisfactory, but will the proposed one be any better? I don’t claim to have the answers, but I do ask the questions!

Mary Judkins is Chairman of the House of Laity of the Diocese of Wakefield. She is also a member of the General Synod.



Turnbull and the homosexuality debate.

“Madam Chairman, would you order a vote by houses?” So enquired the Bishop of Leicester. “I will, if twenty five members stand in their places,” she replied. At which point two ranks of purple rose as if on command. “Oh!” cried the General Synod – and many members dissolved into laughter (which is no way to treat a drill sergeant and his squad). “Wasn’t it good,” said a member of Synod later, “to see the House of Bishops uniting to give us a lead?”

Well, was it? That rather depends on the kind of lead they proffered. Under the Turnbull proposals, the House of Bishops “would exercise its leadership by developing …. a vision for the broad direction of the Church”. Was their lead up to and including the July debate on Issues in Human Sexuality visionary?

This important question underlies the draft National Institutions Measure, which Synod is now revising. In June, the third progress report welcomed a discussion document (GS Misc 491) reflecting on the role of bishops in our Church’s governance. The Archbishop of York’s group, which wrote it, sees the House of Bishops as able “to offer collective leadership and teaching on a variety of issues”. Sometimes, “a common mind may not be possible”, nevertheless “the House is well placed to develop a strategic plan for the Church’s mission”.

How has all this panned out in relation to homosexuality? And what might be the implications for the advisory role of the House of Bishops in relation to the proposed Archbishops’ Council?

In 1987 Tony Higton put forward a private member’s motion about sexual morality. His motion was extensively reworded by an amendment from the Bishop of Chester – a piece of episcopal leadership which the Synod supported with a 98% vote.

In 1991 the Bishops published Issues in Human Sexuality. In their introduction, they cite as “a landmark” the 1979 Report “Homosexual Relationships”. This was neither adopted nor endorsed by the Board of Social Responsibility, which had commissioned it. The Bishops also describe the (unpublished but much-leaked) 1989 BSR Working Party “Osborne Report” as “substantial and valuable”. How then did the Bishops regard Synod’s 1987 resolution?

They ignored it until page 35. Only when discussing personal commitment did they note: “Hence the stress laid in statements such as the motion passed by General Synod in 1987 on what are called “genital acts”.” And that was all they said.

This was not the only motion ignored by the House of Bishops. In 1988 I proposed and the House of Laity resolved: “That this House welcomes recent moves by members of the House of Bishops to reaffirm our Church’s Biblical discipline in matters of sexual morality and requests the House of Bishops to issue a corporate statement of their policy.” Seven years later the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote that Issues in Human Sexuality “may be taken” as a response to the House of Laity resolution.

But when the Bishops met at Liverpool in June, their embargoed note to all other members of Synod (promptly printed by The Guardian) was more positive. Synod’s 1987 motion was “a clear affirmation of the Church’s traditional teaching”. It “continues on the record”.

In themselves such comments were most encouraging. However the Bishops also wrote that any attempt to alter that position would be ‘premature’. The Synod debate would be valuable if it were without “an attempt to force the present Synod to take a final stance on the issue”. Any amendments would be likely to obscure what the Bishops believed to be “right for the Church at the present time”. There was a provisionality about these comments, attenuating what the Bishops put elsewhere. Any liberal bishop could agree that Synod’s 1987 motion affirmed the Church’s traditional teaching and continues on the record.

In the actual debate the following month at York, Synod warmly received speeches from the two Archbishops. What they said was both traditionally orthodox and pastorally sympathetic. Moreover, in a speech late in the debate, Dr Christina Baxter, the Chairman of the House of Laity, encouraged the Synod to take their lead seriously. Perhaps Synod’s willingness to trust the Archbishops led to a final majority vote of some three quarters (up from two-thirds against the amendments.

But if this were true of the Synod, it is doubtful if it held unanimously of the House of Bishops. The Archdeacon of Wandsworth’s motion selectively quoted the Archbishop of Canterbury that Issues in Human Sexuality was not “the last word on the subject” Out of context, that phrase has been taken by different people to imply quite different things. Had the House of Bishops unanimously supported the Archbishops, it could have tabled an amendment of its own. But opposing all amendments was the maximum around which the House of Bishops seemed able to unite.

Which leads us back to Turnbull. Did all this amount to “a vision for the broad direction of the Church”? Did it offer an example of “collective leadership and teaching”? Does it form part of developing “a strategic plan for the Church’s mission”? It is not self-evident that it did or does.

One possible response would be that this was rather a case of “a common mind” not being possible. Collegiality, said the Archbishop of York’s Group, enables bishops “while expressing differences, to hold them within the wider unity of the Church. However the House of Bishops has not publicly acknowledged any such differences.

Instead, the House’s collegiality has puzzled those of a view more traditionally orthodox than that of the consensus. Yet dissenters (say supporters of the LGCM celebration at Southwark Cathedral) have expressed themselves more freely. But the formal unanimity of the House of Bishops pretends that unity prevails.

What kind of visionary leadership is this? It is, of course, fair to argue that in some contexts achieving a working consensus might be the essence of visionary leadership. For example, minimising churchmanship differences so as to further the Gospel in the Decade of Evangelism would seem very constructive. Uniting around mission helps to place other issues in perspective.

But as the Archbishop of Canterbury said in July, “It is no good pretending that opposition to, and acceptance of, homosexual practice are reconcilable options”

“We are left,” he said, “with the question not only of what is God’s will but what do we do as members of the Church when we disagree about what God’s will is?”

We begin by acknowledging any disagreement as a fact. If the House of Bishops wants to give a visionary lead, it cannot do so by sounding an unclear call.

Geoffrey Locke is Chairman of the Evangelical Group of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Lichfield