Robbie Low continues his investigation into the realms of the bizarre

IN MY FIRST ARTICLE on the Crown Appointments Commission (CAC.) (October 2000) I attempted to outline the scriptural understanding of the episcopal task and the actual process by which men were selected to fulfill it in the CofE. The appearance of this, the second article, was delayed by the delightful interruption of having to interview Fr. Andrew Burnham, the new Bishop of Ebbsfleet, whose selection had nothing whatsoever to do with the Crown Appointments Commission.

This month, with help, material, advice and information from those who have participated in the CAC selection procedures, I want to press on and look at what is wrong with this process and possible ways in which it may be reformed to benefit the Church of God.

The flaw in the heart of the appointments system was encapsulated in a question on the order paper of the recent General Synod from a Mrs. Mary Johnston of London diocese. She asked the Secretary General:

“What steps are being taken to dissuade the editor of New Directions, from actively encouraging participants in the various stages of the Crown Appointments process to pass ‘personal reflections’ on their involvement in (sic) Forward in Faith, with the anonymity of the informants guaranteed, in clear breach of their undertaking to keep all such proceedings confidential?”

Assuming Mrs. Johnston, or whoever helped her frame the question, actually meant “to” Forward in Faith, (actually they come to me and no-one else has read them) it is a reasonable question and one to which no answer was given by the Secretary General. It is the experience of the editorial board of this magazine that the establishment, as a policy, never responds to challenges on doctrine, ethics, worship, organization etc but keeps it’s head down until the storm has passed and then carries on with business as usual. The only time there is a response is when they are challenged on the great sacrament of “money” – whether it be in revealing commissioners losses, bishops expenses, or pension deficits. Then, mysteriously, lawyers, phone lines and fax lines are hot before breakfast can be digested.

But let us return to Mrs. Johnston and confidentiality for it is on the abuse of this concept that the, at best, inadequacy and, at worst, corruption of the system hinges.

As a priest I live by an absolute rule of confidentiality. If I am told something, in confidence, in the confessional it remains just that sine die. The day I betray that trust will be the day I resign my orders. That absolute confidentiality, however, does not prevent me from describing, advertising, preaching the sacrament of confession and teaching people how to approach it. The process of this most confidential sacrament is not a secret. The large number of people who have written to me or telephoned on the Appointments issue have well understood the difference and, if they hadn’t, any truly confidential matter would not have appeared in these pages anyway. Indeed what is abundantly clear is that, as you will shortly see, the elected members of Vacancy in See. Committee from the diocese were told nothing that would merit the term confidential. Did a candidate have a criminal record? Was a candidate’s marriage shaky? Had a man been unreliable with personal or parish finances? Such matters were never vouched safe to the selectors. If they discovered them at all it would be after appointment – to their embarrassment and anger. Indeed ‘New Directions’ would usually be in a better position to give such details of the candidates than many of those who have sat through the ‘confidential’ process.

The sad fact is that the blanket of secrecy, for that is what it is, is thrown over the proceedings less to protect the candidates and the selectors than to prevent the victims (the church at large) from having a sensible view of how a very important piece of church government works – or doesn’t.

To give you an idea of how confused and obsessive this secrecy is I offer this example. A senior clergyman was summoned before Lady Perry’s Review Group – set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the express purpose of investigating the Appointments process. The priest was about to go in to give his evidence when he was drawn aside by a church apparatchik and reminded that he was not allowed, by his oath of confidentiality, to tell Perry and Co. anything of his experience of the process! To the delight of Lady Perry and the discomfort of the bishop on the group the priest began his evidence by retailing exactly what had just happened to him pointing out that he felt free to do so because the apparatchik had not told him the warning was “confidential”.

Let us be clear what is happening here then. “Confidentiality” is being used as a smokescreen for a secrecy which is intended to obscure the truth even from the Archbishop’s own inquiry. And it is this confusion of genuine confidentiality with masonic secrecy that permeates and weakens the process at every stage.

Only the most cynical can believe that current system was set up with anything but the best intentions and yet, because by it’s very constitution it has not been subject to scrutiny, it has avoided that transparency which would have lent it the confidence of the church. Good bishops have been denied a credibility which should have been theirs by right and poor candidates have all too often sailed through a system incapable of weeding them out.

The 1976 Callaghan Government Settlement intended, to all intents and purposes, to hand episcopal selections over the church. Effectively it handed it over to the Archbishops and Appointment Secretaries.

By 1990, in spite of the debilitating culture of deference which so frequently disables the CofE, the settlement and the CAC effectively discredited. The Crockfords Preface had criticized the rampant cronyism of Robert Runcie. The subsequent witch hunt had led to the suicide of the author and Dr. Habgood’s part in the affair had ended his chances of Canterbury leaving the way open for an untried and unknown candidate who had scarcely established himself in a diocese. The process for choosing the new Canterbury will be upon us again in a year or so and is likely to be every bit as arcane, opaque and incomprehensible to the church as its previous workings.

But to return to Robert Runcie and the criticism of cronyism. In Runcie’s defense it may be said that it would have taken a saint to have avoided the temptation offered by the system. All of us know people we think are talented and would rather work with. It is not a long step from this benevolent desire to a complete stitch up. Some of the Runcie boys were undoubtedly talented and may have got there anyway. Some were not. Some were disastrous. Whatever the merits or demerits of the individuals who emerged, any priest will tell you that if you run a parish on an old pals act you miss a lot of the talent and you end up running a very small show.

The fact is that the process did not protect either the church or the Archbishop from this temptation and thereby weakened both. Nor should Runcie alone face the charge of cronyism. The 1976 settlement is an open invitation to every bishop, for the names of candidates come from the bishops’ lists. The way in which these work is partial, bizarre and, often arbitrary. Let me explain.

Some bishops put forward a lot of candidates, others few or none. This has little to do with the talent at their disposal. One recently retired bishop told one of our correspondents that he scarcely ever commended anyone because the requisite form took so long to fill in! Another bishop of a huge diocese, packed with talent, couldn’t remember when or whether he had put a name forward. Others are enthusiastic contributors to the preferment process and a steady stream of upwardly mobile clergy from their dioceses appear in the lists.

Since the schism of ’92 it has got even more complicated. A senior traditionalist priest and obvious candidate for the episcopate was told, point blank, by his diocesan that he would never send his name in and would oppose any suggestion of preferment. Another like-minded priest in a liberal diocese was informed that no one of traditional views would ever be recommended for anything. Indeed they were “unemployable”. The scrutiny of spiritual talent is subjective and prejudiced. Not a great help to the church, scarcely an icon of justice and redolent of a sub-christian view of God and His place in all this.

One of the other problems with this list business is that it encourages priests to see their work in terms committees, councils, synods, – places where they will be noticed by the man who writes the list. You will find virtually no candidates coming straight from long term serious successful parish work. Yet these are the very people who know what it is to be a Father in God to the people and understand the real life of the church.

Beyond the list there is, for a select few, the visit to No. 10. Most people are not supposed to know they are on “the list” but some are sent, with their CV, to be interviewed by the Prime Minister’s Appointment Secretary (PMAS). The PMAS will tell them, routinely, that he can’t guarantee them a plum job (bishop or dean) but the reality is that very few will be disappointed. After all when their names come up in discussion the PMAS is in possession of their full self-presentation to bat with (and he knows that the bishop wants this man preferred). For most others he will have a side of A4 including an edited highlight from the Bishop’s reference.

For most candidates, however, they will not officially know they are being considered and neither will anyone else. Real information about the candidates is, therefore, not available. Consider any other post of importance or seniority you are seeking to fill. Now imagine considering a candidate for whom there is no carefully produced curriculum vitae and no detailed references. There is no way of assessing his work and achievements (and failures) and there is no possibility of interviewing him.

In whose interest is this secrecy?

Would it really matter terribly if a man knew he was a candidate and able to present full details and attend an interview? Some may say instantly that they are not interested thank you. Others may be disappointed at the outcome. But all would know that they had been recognized for their qualities. More important than the affirmation or punctured pride of clergy is that the church should see her leaders selected from among her best men. Often the laity know instinctively who would make a good bishop much better than any gathering of clerics.

There is no excuse for retaining a system which would disgrace the appointment of a school caretaker.

A process of open candidacy, full disclosure and interview would be a considerable step forward but there are other problems. Consider the make up of the CAC. itself. The Archbishops are rightly there. But… while there is a thin pretence that the Church chooses her Bishops, there is not the slightest pretence that she chooses her Archbishops. I do not mean it unkindly when I ask, “How on earth did they get there?” Or their predecessors – or shortly, their successors? The ridiculous truth is that, such is the omerta surrounding these matters that they probably don’t know either. Is this a satisfactory or convincing or Christian way to proceed?

Then there are the Prime Ministers and Archbishops Appointments Secretaries – in whose appointment the Church has absolutely no say. Successive Secretaries have treated the process like a personal fiefdom and hugely enjoyed their pivotal role in dispensing more patronage than most of the Archbishops. Their role will come under further scrutiny in next month’s article.

The members of General Synod (6 of them – 3 Clergy, 3 lay) are necessarily a reflection of that body. With 40% of it’s membership unelected (i.e placemen), has the democratic credentials of an 18th century rotten borough. Since the Synod inflicted schism on the church in 1992 this situation has been further aggravated by the huge feminist block vote in the House of Clergy. Any traditionalist clerical candidate for General Synod starts with a national average 15% against him and in favour of liberal candidates. In some diocese there would be over 100 votes automatically against him i.e. the number of women clergy. De facto the huge number of traditionalist women (always more than the feminists could muster) have no say in this matter.

The representation of the clergy members is, therefore unnaturally skewed against conservative or traditionalist candidates. The lay membership, as with the Synod generally, is potentially less biased though, with less experience and institutional knowledge than most of the clergy it is more prone to elect the professional lay synod politician to represent it (currently two lawyers and a peeress – one a member of the Archbishops Council and another the Third Estates Commissioner). They are scarcely representative of the good folk of the parish. Again, like their clerical counterparts and the Archbishops, most of their encounters, if any, with candidates for senior office will be in the tea room or on the floor of Synod or on the various committees on which they sit. The permanent membership of the CAC is representative then of a largely unrepresentative body which, in it’s brief get togethers, has achieved considerable damage over the last decade interspersed with producing lumber rooms full of meaningless legislation and could not, for all its efforts, be justly accused of winning one soul for Christ. So busy is it with the irrelevant and so hamstrung by its inbuilt majorities that it affords itself no time to look in the mirror and count the cost but simply affords the unraveling incompetence of the establishment to operate behind a pretence of democratic process in which no-one is apparently accountable.

Even if all this were not the case the question would still arise as to why General Synod should have six representatives on the CAC – two more that the diocese in question – or, indeed, why it should have any representatives at all. The far too cosy relationship between the ten permanent members clearly militates against the first timers (and only timers) from the diocese. Virtually every communication I have received contains this complaint, many claiming that their presence was no more than window dressing to cover a naked political charade.

Supposing a plucky little diocese had looked at the state of the national church and decided that the one thing it didn’t want was more of the same and wanted to seek the appointment of a proven leader, pastor, preacher etc… who may be uncomfortable for the present bench but first rate for reviving their diocese. It is all too clear from my correspondents that such a suggestion against the permanent majority and the inadequate and manipulated information presented would stand all the chance of the proverbial snowflake in hell.

Which brings me to the “plucky little diocese”. Even here the system is thoroughly weighted in favour of the establishment. An historically catholic diocese, which had endured years of desperately poor episcopal government under a liberal, convened it’s Vacancy in See Committee (VSC) Eight members of the outgoing Bishops staff were on it, all appointed by him, plus two of his key diocesan lay appointees out of a total membership of 21. With only 4 people directly elected to this body it was scarcely surprising that critics of the outgoing regime did not make the report. All the diocesan VSCs. are weighted in favour of the present regime. Only where a bishop has behaved fairly in matters of appointment, a tiny minority in the last decade, will there be any balanced representation. The VSC, when it has met, is responsible for voting 4 of its members on to the CAC. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that, with such heavy weighting in most dioceses, the representatives are more likely to be of the Bishops staff than the poor punter in the pew who pays for them. Everything militates against reform and renewal and revival. As one particularly browned off correspondent put it, “Under the present circumstances the Diocese of Sodom and Gomorrah would always prefer Oscar Wilde to Abraham.” The quest for prophetic witness is wholly absent.

If the VSC is to truly represent the diocese and have a much larger say in whatever process replaces CAC then the dominance of the outgoing government appointees must be overturned.

Would it be so disastrous in lay elections if all electoral roll members were enfranchised and not just those who religiously turn up for the mind numbing, soul sapping experience of being Synod representative. This may well have a dramatic effect because it is clear that ordinary laity much prefer traditional values and traditional clergy. Too many clergy have abandoned that position because their ‘career’ is determined by liberal power brokers rather than the people of God (not to mention God himself).

Would it be too awful if all clergy were enfranchised, those with licenses and permission to officiate, active and retired. After all the successful candidate is going to be their bishop too. Why a man with forty years experience of coal-face ministry should have less say than a one day deacon or a weekend clergy person earning large sums in secular work is both a mystery and an offence.

The VSC only meets after the resignation of the outgoing Bishop and usually not until the Prime Ministers and Archbishops Secretaries are able to be present. Meeting without them is frowned upon though not unheard of. If the above suggested changes were made why should it not meet twice a year throughout an episcopate to keep a watching brief on the diocese’s situation. Then, instead of producing diocesan profiles which waffle on about “the Bishop’s initiatives are flourishing though some need revisiting” and his diocese enjoys “creative, complimentary and collaborative ministry”, a real picture of the life and needs of a diocese might emerge.

You might like to know that the first quote comes from a VSC diocesan report where the outgoing man’s own suffragan privately admitted that he had “brought clergy morale to an all time low”.

The second quote is from another diocese’s early draft where the outgoing bishop was privately described by senior members of his staff as “seemingly incapable of ordinary human contact.” Confidentiality or cover up? Either way, not much to do with Jesus. More next month.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s