Stephen Trott considers the Turnbull Report and concludes that things might have been organized better

The Report of the Archbishops’ Commission on the Organisation of the Church of England, chaired by Bishop Michael Turnbull, was published on Wednesday 20 September at a press conference at Lambeth Palace.

The Report stems from the criticism levelled at the central structures of the Church of England, particularly the Church Commissioners, following the catastrophic loss of £800m by the Commissioners which came to light in the summer of 1992. In response to these losses a group set up under the Bishop of Chelmsford, known as the Lambeth Group, made a series of recommendations, one of which was that there should be a review of the Church of England’s “overall organisational structure in the light of its present day activities and requirements.” The Turnbull Commission’s terms of reference were: “To review the machinery for central policy and resource direction in the Church of England, and to make recommendations for improving its effectiveness in supporting the ministry and mission of the Church to the nation as a whole.”

The outcome of the Commission has been awaited for some time, and an up-beat and confident Bishop of Durham introduced his proposals to the press conference as “the most extensive review of its kind that the Church has seen…..we are dealing with nothing less than how the Church at the national level can best organise itself for the next century.” If the proposals made in the Report are carried through in the precise form contained in its proposed Measure, this will certainly be true.

There will be few to disagree with the fundamental principles adopted by the Commission. Again to quote Bishop Turnbull, the intention was “to make quite sure that the centre was not performing functions which could otherwise be done at the level of the parish or the diocese.” Indeed, he was at pains to insist that the Church of England “is managed by the dioceses; it does not have and does not need an omnicompetent centre. Those functions which have to be carried out at the centre must be done in partnership with the dioceses….We want to see fewer committees and less paperwork and clearer structures.”

The Bishop went on further to describe how this would be achieved, by the formation of a new National Council for the Church of England, to be led by the Archbishops. The National Council would “take an overview of the needs and resources of the whole Church, and make sure that at the national level the Church has clear goals, takes the necessary decisions, and gets things done….it would provide leadership, and make sure that policy was made in a purposeful way and that resources were effectively deployed.”

The concept of a simplified national structure will greatly appeal to almost everyone who has had experience of the Church of England’s problems in recent years, particularly the lack of supervision of the Church Commissioners’ activities, which has had such an enervating effect upon every parish and diocese in recent years. Although the Commissioners are theoretically answerable to Parliament, the progressive separation of Church and State since the Commissioners were created in 1947 has seen the Commissioners acquire almost a separate existence of their own.

Under the new system, their number will be greatly reduced, from the present rather anachronistic 95, including such luminaries as the Lord Mayors of London and York, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary. The work of the remaining 15 will come under the supervision of the National Council, and the staffs of Church House and the Church Commissioners will be merged into one central unit. The Report envisages that all will be based together in one building, which is expected to be Church House, Westminster.

So far, full marks to Turnbull. But when one turns to the composition of the proposed new National Council, the cracks begin to appear. It is absolutely essential that the Church gets it right first time; and the National Council itself, as proposed by the Report, will still require considerable adjustment if it is actually to work and achieve Bishop Turnbull’s stated goal, of returning responsibility for the Church to the dioceses and parishes where it belongs. Unless it does so it will actually exacerbate the centralisation of which he rightly complains.

The key problem with the proposals is the composition of the National Council, which will replace the Standing Committee of the General Synod, with its eighteen members elected by General Synod. The National Council will include two bishops, elected by the House of Bishops; the Prolocutors (chairmen) of the Convocations of Canterbury and York; and the chairman and vice-chairman of the House of Laity. That is the limited extent to which the General Synod will elect its representatives in future to what is effectively a system of government by Cabinet.

The Archbishops will sit ex-officio, and be chairman and vice-chairman respectively. The Archbishops will nominate four chairmen of committees, to be appointed by the Synod, to be known as executive chairmen. The Archbishops may nominate up to three more persons for appointment by the Synod. The Council will appoint, as a member, a Secretary General, and will also include the chairman of the Business Committee of the General Synod. A total of up to 17 members, of whom only four will be representatives of the clergy and laity of the Church of England. The present Standing Committee already includes these four, in addition to its elected members, who will disappear under the new arrangements. In effect, the Synod is not to be permitted to elect members of the Council, simply to endorse its decisions.

There is a contradiction here. The model which the Bishop of Durham claims is that of the Bishop-in-Synod: “with leadership by Bishops subject to consultation with, and consent of, the clergy and laity.” The recipe which we are offered is neither episcopal nor democratic. Rather, it embodies some of the less desirable features of the present British constitution, in which a presidential (but unelected) Prime Minister governs by means of a Cabinet which is largely of his own choosing.

Effective decision-making is essential if the Church of England is to make progress in its special role as a national body, which must relate to the people of England as well as to its own members. It has a tremendous burden of responsibility for its vast heritage, of buildings, of clergy, and all the pomp and circumstance of an established church. All this needs to be managed wisely and used to the utmost in the proclamation of the Gospel, in the present Decade of Evangelism and in the coming millennium.

The very fact that there are so many needs and interests at stake requires that as many as possible should be fully and fairly represented at every level of decision-making. The General Synod can only lay a doubtful claim to democracy as things stand: the bishops are not elected; the House of Clergy contains too many ex-officio members and pocket boroughs; the House of Laity is not elected by the laity, but by those who belong to Deanery Synods. Democratic reform of the General Synod will only increase the desire by all parties to be fairly represented on the National Council.

There are also considerable misgivings as to whether the Church of England will want, or benefit from a style of polity in which substantial powers are placed in the hands of just two archbishops. It is the very diffused nature of power in the Church of England which makes it a broad Church. It needs inspiration and leadership, not a body which will combine aspects of papacy and presidency in exercising power.

The theological question has to be asked, what exactly is power, in terms of church leadership? Is it actually a characteristic of ministry as seen in the New Testament, episcopal or otherwise? Is it right that the Church should adopt secular models for its administration? Or should the concept of power be made to disappear altogether, and be replaced with models of pastoral service, based on the diocese and upon the worshipping community?

Of course, the Church has to come to terms somehow with its temporal needs and the practical expressions of its relationship with the people of England. But if this is to be done as a “a culture of service, of sharing, and of mutual trust” (to quote Bishop Turnbull) then it has to be with the consent of the clergy and laity, expressed as a matter of justice in an elected body. And perhaps the time has come to cut that other Gordian knot, and elect our bishops too.

Stephen Trott is Rector of Pitsford with Boughton in the diocese of Peterborough.