Paul Benfield looks at proposals for reform in the National Church Institutions
The Church of England is not a single legal entity, but consists of various inter-related and inter-dependent charities at national, diocesan and parish level. This makes for exceedingly complex governance and, as part of the simplification agenda, it was no surprise that there was a call for a review of governance at national level. In December 2019 the Archbishops, with the support of the House of Bishops, established a Governance Review Group:
to review the effectiveness of the governance structures, processes and activities for and across the national functions of the Church of England, and to make recommendations to the Archbishops for possible changes to improve the functioning and effectiveness of those structures and relationships.
The Group was chaired by Bishop Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds. The membership changed during the course of its work, but at various times included two suffragan bishops and eight lay people. The lay people included the First and Third Church Estates Commissioners, a former member of the Archbishops’ Council, and the Vice Chancellor and Principal of Christ Church Canterbury University. In 2021 it consulted various focus groups of which I, as a member of the General Synod House of Clergy Standing Committee, was a part. Its report was published in September 2021.
The Group reviewed the existing complicated arrangements for governance in the Church of England which involve seven separate but interdependent bodies – the Pensions Board, the Church Commissioners, the National Society for Promoting Religious Education, the Archbishops’ Council, Lambeth Palace, Bishopthorpe Palace and Church of England Central Services. Added to this are the General Synod and the House of Bishops. The latter body is not clear about its role. Legally it is one of the three houses of General Synod (consisting of all diocesan bishops and some elected suffragans) with prescribed legal functions dealing with doctrine and liturgy and the making of rules and regulations. In fact, almost every major matter comes before the House and, as we saw in the pandemic, it sought to issue instructions or guidance to people and parishes over which it had no authority.
The Review suggests that the House should confine its role to what is legally prescribed and other matters requiring episcopal consideration should come before the College of Bishops i.e. all serving bishops. The College would elect 12 of its members to form a Board of Bishops to work with the national governance bodies. The functions of lead bishops for particular topics (for example safeguarding or disability) should be clarified with clear role descriptions.
Working simultaneously (but independently) with the Governance Group is a Task Group chaired by the Bishop of Ely looking at how the episcopate of the Church of England might be reshaped to fit its current context. The report of the Task Group has not been published, though it has been circulated to members of the House of Bishops and some other interested parties. It seems to me that it is impossible to decide on what the governance role of bishops or the role of lead bishops should be until it has been decided what bishops are. Are they guardians and teachers of the apostolic faith and shepherds of the flock, are they managers, are they agents for change, or a combination or all three? Why does the lead spokesperson on, say, disability need to be a bishop? The fact that these two groups have been working away independently does not seem sensible.
It is proposed that there should be a new body of trustees called Church of England National Services which could carry out most national functions for the Church of England. The Church Commissioners would remain to oversee the management of the Church’s historic endowment and the amount of money which can be distributed, but most other functions, for example in relation to pastoral re-organization, would move over to the new trustee body.
The Pensions Board would remain an independent body, overseen by the Pensions Regulator. The National Society, which supports schools, would remain given its legal links with the Church in Wales.
The General Synod was not within the Review’s terms of reference but its role came up frequently in consultations. The Group points out that though Synod’s legislative role is clear its other functions are not.
The General Synod sets the budget of just one of the NCIs, elects board members to some but not all of them, receives annual reports from some but not all of them, and can pass motions ‘calling upon’ any of them to do things which it cannot necessarily enforce. Neither is Synod the governance body for the NCIs; they are registered charities subject to separate regulation of their governance.
The Group propose that further works is needed on the functions of General Synod.
One of the recommendations which has caused the most comment on social media is the creation of a nominations committee. This ‘should establish a community of diverse, appropriately skilled and appropriately knowledgeable people from which panels would be convened to oversee appointments and ensure eligibility for election’. In other words you can only be appointed or elected to any body if you are the right sort of person!
The Review notes that something similar already exists in the Pensions Board where before standing for election members of a pensions scheme must have demonstrated to a small committee that they have the necessary ‘skills and experience’ to be a pensions trustee, which is a requirement of the Pensions Regulator. However, the Group’s recommendations go far further by introducing diversity It says that the Nominations Committee ‘should have as a priority to increase the diversity of membership of these boards and committees’.
The present-day Church of England leadership has an obsession with diversity – as though the lack of it is the only thing which is preventing numerical and spiritual growth. The Review says:
While the Terms of Reference given to the Review Group do not explicitly mention diversity, we believe it is a fundamental part of our work. We note that the Church has over the years produced numerous reports on issues of diversity and inclusion, but the national governance bodies are still a long way away from reflecting the wider Church, or society as a whole, in terms of their membership. Inclusiveness is inseparable from good governance.
Fr Paul Benfield is Chairman of
the Catholic Group on General Synod.
Commenting on the report’s launch, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York said: ‘This review responds to major societal changes, including the need for the Church of England to be “A Church for All People”. The Church of England’s national governance structures must be accountable to and transparent for all the parishes and worshipping communities which they support, to build trust and so the Church can fulfil its mission in the 21st Century. Better governance should enable the Church at every level to be more agile in decision making, and responsive to the pastoral and missional needs of local and regional communities.’
The proposals will be discussed by governance bodies and then go to the General Synod for debate. It is intended to be presented at the November session, the first of the quinquennium, when the new Synod first meets, then a take-note debate in February 2022. If the Synod refuses to take note, then the report will essentially be thrown out along with its proposals. Inherent to this is the view that “the Church cannot fix governance problems without addressing flaws in the synodical system” and reform of the General Synod itself is also required, even though this was not specifically within the Governance Review Group’s terms of reference. Instead, it has commented on the need for “serious attention” in synodical reform.
The General Synod was established in 1969 to be a legislative body for the Church of England. It functions as a parliament but is not a national governing body. The NCIs themselves are largely independent and function as registered charities subject to the Charity Commission’s governance requirements and regulation. Furthermore, the report remarks how “it is noticeable that there is less and less interest amongst Synod members in transacting legislation… Legislative debates (the main function of General Synod) are generally poorly attended.”
There is also robust challenge. “We consider that there is a lack of clarity about the role of General Synod and issues with its perception which need to be resolved as well as the potential for Synod to perform a greater role in scrutinising national Church activities. All these issues should be addressed in order for national Church governance to operate effectively.” It remains to be seen how the new Synod will receive this report and engage with its proposals.