Single Transferable Bishops

NOW THAT THE SEASON of Christmas dinners, Christmas puddings and Christmas cakes has passed and the recollections of a baby in a cattle trough have faded for yet another year, we face in 1999 a renewed imperative to be the Church in a society that has an increasingly individualistic ethic, rather than a corporate one. Looking after number one means, for many of those around us that God doesn’t even come into the frame.

The Church of England, in its present post-Reformation form, was honed in an age when belief in God was assumed and society demanded a corporate ethic and expected conformity to its norms. Times have changed, even if the members of the House of Bishops haven’t noticed, and the new millennium, which will soon be upon us, will challenge us to contend for our faith, not in the circumstances in which we might wish to find ourselves, but in the circumstances in which we are actually placed.

Last month I wrote about serious defects in the procedures by which diocesan bishops are appointed. It is always easy to criticise the present arrangements, but the critic needs to be able to propose a better alternative if he is to be taken seriously. If the Church of England is to be the truly comprehensive church we say we want it to be (even if some of us would draw the boundaries more strictly than others), it would seem to be axiomatic that it should have a comprehensive House of Bishops. As last month’s Synod Insider sought to explain, that is the one thing that the present Crown Appointments Commission is most unlikely to deliver.

I have come to the conclusion that if we could get away from our current mindset, which is heavily influenced by theories of secular management from the 70s and 80s, we might be able to view the task as creating a House of Bishops to lead the Church of England, rather than the appointment of a semi-autonomous Chairman to run a diocese as though it was a wholly owned subsidiary company.

I have spent most of my working life with BT. When I joined it was called Post Office Telephones, but during the course of my career, we split from the Post Office and became British Telecom and subsequently BT. The changes that took place were changes not just of name but of culture too. We inherited civil service grades (Clerical Officers and Higher Executive Officers) and the mindset that goes with such a bureaucracy. We actually had a “Sales” division – which never actually made a sale. Their job consisted of administrating a waiting list. If you wanted a telephone, they told you how long you would have to wait. Engineers cosseted their clockwork telephone exchanges and were reputedly heard to remark from time to time that “this system would work wonderfully if it wasn’t for b***** subscribers.”

Privatisation changed all that. The despised “subs” (subscribers) became customers – those lovely people who did business with us and enabled us to make the money that paid our salaries. You learnt to say a cheerful, “Have a nice day,” because if you didn’t it might not take much for your customer to become an ex-customer. However there was a downside – the family atmosphere of the old firm evaporated. New managers brought in from outside rapidly proceeded to appoint their cronies to top jobs and glass ceilings began to appear everywhere.

Gone was the old civil service Promotion Board, where all suitably qualified staff on one grade were assessed for their suitability for promotion. A panel was formed, and as vacancies arose a senior panellist was appointed. No-one could be promoted simply because his boss eulogised him with a glowing reference. If you were not invited to the Board, you could appeal, and if the Board judged your boss was underselling you, he could be overruled.

At the time we railed against this bureaucratic approach, but little did we suspect that when we saw the oligarchy which came in its wake, we might yearn for the system we once despised.

It seems to me that the fatal weakness of the Crown Appointments Commission, in its present form, is that it makes individual appointments. Use of STV voting as part of its procedures is in reality a hollow sham because if you are only electing one person, the result under STV will be exactly the same as under “first past the post” with a bit of tactical voting.

We need a procedure whereby an Appointments Board actually interviews candidates. It is quite indefensible that candidates can be selected and rejected on the basis of unattributed briefings.

We need to challenge the absurd notion that for a bishop to be the bishop of the whole diocese, he has to be a fairly anodyne liberal catholic. I would have thought that a large number of parishes would be reluctant to welcome any bishop who couldn’t give his wholehearted support to the Lambeth Resolutions. Equally they would probably welcome any bishop who could, regardless of his churchmanship.

Finally, and controversially, I believe we need a procedure that produces a panel of candidates from which forthcoming appointments would be made, rather than a procedure that starts from scratch with each vacancy. Just as STV voting produces a General Synod which reflects the comprehensiveness of the Church of England, so STV voting from an appropriate electorate could produce a panel of potential bishops in whom the laity of the Church of England might have confidence.

J C Ryle, if he were alive today, would doubtless gain one of ten places on a panel. On the other hand, under the present system, it is most unlikely he would be the first name offered to the Prime Minister by the CAC for any diocese.

We do need some pragmatism here. The will of the Holy Spirit is not something discerned exclusively by bishops, clergy or – dare I say it – the CAC. It can equally be discerned by the laity whose financial contributions are increasingly bankrolling the Church of England. A perpetuation of the present oligarchy whereby new bishops are generally drawn from a pool consisting of the personal appointees of existing bishops – producing a House which is at odds with the rest of the Anglican Communion – could encourage parishes to think seriously of quota-capping, and that would be in nobody’s interest.

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