The Turnbull Report is before Synod, but Philip Giddings asks, “Is this the right prescription?”

In assessing the Turnbull Report I find it helpful to use a medical analogy. What were the symptoms which led to the setting up of the Commission? Is the Commission’s diagnosis correct? Are its prescriptions likely to cure the disease?

Symptoms The obvious symptom of disease was the investment debacle which led to a serious loss of confidence in our central structures in general, and the Church Commissioners in particular. Many of those involved in the Church’s national structures find them frustrating. There is a widespread desire for firm, consistent and positive leadership at national level. And it is certainly true that our nation needs such leadership from the Church.

But before we swallow Turnbull’s medicine too quickly, we must ask whether the Commission has correctly diagnosed the causes of these symptoms.

Diagnosis Turnbull’s diagnosis is that the fault lies in our structures. The Commission concluded that the Church’s structures of governance need reform because they are fragmented and committee-bound and so prevent coherent decision-making, particularly at national level.

Here some serious questions have to be asked. Are these structural deficiencies the cause of our problems – or are they symptoms of something more fundamental? Much of what the Commission sees as fragmentation is the product of a synodical structure designed to reflect the plural nature of the Church. The Church of England, praise God, is not a monolith. It comprises bishops, clergy and laity. It has two provinces. At national level it is essentially a federation of 44 dioceses: decisions may be taken nationally, but in most cases they have to be implemented in dioceses or parishes. And – because the C of E has always attempted to be a comprehensive church – it contains a wide diversity of views, even on the most fundamental questions of theology and church order.

If comprehensiveness is to be a reality, it must find expression in organisation and structure so that disparate and potentially conflicting interests can live and work together within the one Church. That means checks and balances. And they may mean a somewhat slower pace of decision-making as the price of achieving the necessary consensus. Some may find that slower pace frustrating. Others may wonder whether speed is necessarily a good indicator of the quality of decision-making.

Prescription There is not space here to go into all of Turnbull’s recommendations, so let us concentrate on the main one, which is the establishment of a National Council. Turnbull argues that this new body, with executive powers, would provide the cohesion and strategic leadership which the Church needs. The Council would take over the expenditure powers of the Church Commissioners and, except in regard to the conduct of Synod business, replace the Standing Committee of the General Synod. Because its membership would be personal and largely appointed, rather than representative, it would be able to work as a united body, sharing a corporate responsibility for the mission and well-being of the Church.

Questions Many questions arise here. I will confine myself to five. First, accountability. How would the proposed Council relate to General Synod? Turnbull believes that with members of the Council reporting to, and able to be questioned by, Synod there would be sufficient accountability, particularly since Synod’s legislative powers would remain unimpaired and it would have to approve the Council’s budget. Critics argue that accountability needs to mean more than answerability and ask what would happen if Synod rejects Council proposals? Would there be an impasse like the one that has affected the American Government over the last few months? Others argue that the effect of Turnbull would be to reduce the Synod to little more than a rubber stamp, since it would be very unlikely that the Synod would (dare to) reject what the Council had agreed upon.

Second, representation. The issue here is the lack of elected members on the proposed Council. Turnbull believes that to include the Synod’s officers (the two Prolocutors and the Chairman and Vice-chairman of the House of Laity) is sufficient, particularly as most if not all other Council members will also be members of the Synod. Critics argue that the reduction in the elected element would take us back to pre-Church Assembly days since most of the Council members will be appointed. It is clear that if the Turnbull proposals go ahead, a very heavy representative weight will fall upon the Synod’s officers.

Third, power. There is concern that the proposals concentrate too much power at the centre (some have likened the Council to the Roman curia) and, in particular, in the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury – and who knows who may be Archbishop in future? Turnbull rejects the language of power and prefers to speak of enabling service. Clearly, the character of the appointments made by the Archbishops will be crucial. They will need to find that fine balance between reflecting the breadth of the Church and the likelihood of achieving a common mind on controversial issues.

Fourth, work-load. An important element in Turnbull’s proposals is the appointment of four ‘executive chairmen’ to take responsibility for leadership in the main areas of the Council’s work – resources for ministry, mission resources, heritage and legal services, and finance. These would be part-time, but would take a ‘public leadership role’. Such Boards and Councils as survive would work within these four ‘departments’. This looks unrealistic as the spread of work covered is so great – ‘mission resources’ encompasses the work at present done by three boards (Mission, Education and Social Responsibility) and the Council of Unity. To take a public leadership role on that spread of issues would be very demanding for a full-time person. For a part-timer, particularly a diocesan bishop, it would be impossible. One suspects that this proposal has been driven by the Commission’s desire to keep membership of the proposed Council down to a particular number (17).

Finally, implementation. It is dioceses and parishes that have to implement most decisions. It is essential, therefore, that the decisions made nationally have their consent and, ideally, their commitment. If the National Council’s strategic plans are to become a reality, they will have to be adopted and implemented by the General Synod, the forty-four dioceses and many parishes. As the Church does not have a ‘command economy’, to avoid frustration the national leadership will have to work particularly hard at the task of convincing dioceses who have not been represented in the decision making. And since dioceses will have to pay more under the Turnbull proposals, they may well question whether adding a National Council on top of the General Synod really is the best way to reform our system of governance.

Is there an alternative? Most of us will sympathise with the desire for more effective leadership at national (and indeed diocesan and parish) level. Many are convinced that ‘something must be done’. Is there an alternative to the Turnbull prescription? Or, more realistically, can the Turnbull proposals be modified so that the outcome is both more effective and more acceptable?

If we are to do that, we will need to take more seriously both the positive and negative aspects of the ‘bishop-in-council’ model of which the Turnbull Report makes so much in its early chapters. Those of us who have spent many hours at Bishop’s Council meetings will know that they are not always models of efficient decision-making. Like many corporate bodies, they have difficulties with strategy and co-ordination. Some feel they are used as little more than rubber stamps, with the ‘real decisions’ being taken elsewhere – either the bishop’s staff meeting or the DBF. But where the Bishop’s Council model does work is in bringing together the synodical and episcopal dimensions. This is achieved through the combination of strong synodical representation with the bishop’s staff and other appointees.

It is that aspect of the bishop-in-council model which should be built upon. If something like a national council is to be created its composition needs to be much more like that of the bishop’s council – i.e. it must have a substantial elected element. This is not only because of the importance of representation in a pluralist church, but also because it significantly aids subsequent implementation of decisions.

It may not be practicable to build upon the General Synod Standing Committee as I first thought. But if debate and reflection upon Turnbull does result in the creation of a new central body, it must be a body with strong elected representation if it is to achieve the real purpose of reform. That is, surely, not just to produce national strategies, but to release the energies and gifts of clergy and people up and down the land for the task of serving Church and Nation.

Philip Giddings is Vice-Chairman of the House of Laity of the General Synod and Lay Vice-President of Oxford Diocesan Synod, but writes here in a personal capacity.