Alice in Durhamland

The old Synod would never have bought it, says Hugh Craig. But will the new Synod be too green?

A friend of mine once saw the notes of a preacher. At one point he had added in the margin the words “Argument weak, speak loudly’. It is perhaps too early to pass considered judgment on the Report ‘Working as one Body’, published on September 20th: but first impressions are that it speaks loudly to cover its essential weakness.

It has a welcome theological introduction: which would have been stronger if it had something to say about the theology of the Church and that our Lord vested the Church with authority (Matt 18: 17) and not only the bishops or Bishops-in-Synod. But the recommendations have scant acquaintance with the theology which precedes them.

It identifies, quite correctly, the need for a decision-making body, rather than the present diffuse structures. But its solution is depressingly reactionary, though it tries to dress it up as radical: a ‘national council’, consisting of 17 persons, most of them ‘appointed’, and with only two tenuously representing the grass-roots 99% of the church. The laity truly are meant to ‘turn up, pay up and shut up’. They won’t; not for this scheme. It is a genuinely representative elected body that we need. Quite absurdly the Commission seems to think that devolving power to the dioceses, and doing so to the parishes is the same thing!

They claim the House of Bishops is inhibited by the present system from offering leadership. It isn’t, but when it has offered leadership (as it tried to do for instance over marriage), it has shown itself sometimes out of touch. It claims the Synod policy committee was meant to determine priorities and policy (as indeed the infrastructure review intended). But the Archbishop of Canterbury had too full a diary of other engagements always to attend: and their agenda was so constructed as to ensure that their power was not too great. It was not the structure (it rarely is) that was lacking but the will, and the time and the competence. Will the national Council be any different? Indeed what makes the Commission so sure you can do most of the work of the General Synod Standing Committee and the Church Commissioners, and a few other things besides in seven short meetings a year. Not if it is to be done properly. Yet they pile other meetings like the Synod Business Committee on to the Archbishops, already overstretched.

They make much of accountability. We all want that if it means accountability to the Church: but what do the Commissioners mean by it? You are accountable to those who hire and fire you. But the Synod, with its elected membership accountable to the broad mass of the Church through elections is downgraded, and we have an ‘accountable’ Council mostly appointed by the Archbishops, and effectively accountable only toe them. We have a large secretariat, free to be accountable in practice only to the Archbishops and the proposed Secretary General of the National Council.

They dismiss the possibility of the General Synod taking its existing part or more in the executive process: for they call it a Parliament, and add if it is ‘the Church’s Parliament, who or where is its government?’. (p.67) Did I dream it, or was it not set up by the Synodical Government Measure to govern?

But they strip the Synod Standing Committee of its powers and part of its membership, (even its powers to introduce legislation to its own Synod) and they imply that the present boards and councils (with their partly elected members) have little future; though they create four new ones with undisclosed membership. And they come up with a cousin of the proposal decisively rejected at the time of the Infrastructure Review, that the central body should be basically the appointed Chairmen of such Boards, with few or no elected members added.

The Report has been carefully published when it is too late to figure greatly in the current Synod elections: and urges quick decisions from the new Synod. That way the voice of grass-roots laity is largely bye-passed. The old Synod would never have accepted this report: it remains to be seen if the new one is inexperienced enough to do so.

Then there is the Irish dimension. The Commission was triggered by the mistakes of the Church Commissioners over investment. They had been supervised by the 95 Commissioners (of which the Bishops and their appointees formed a majority). So Turnbull strips the Church Commissioners of most of their powers, but not that of investment: and although relieving most of the bishops from being members of the slimmed down Commissioners, the Report otherwise increases their powers: those downgraded had nothing to do with the problem. Such is accountability!

One is tempted to think that the motivation behind the report is an obsession with an out-dated concept of episcopal power, with all the talk of the authority of bishops, of leadership by the House of Bishops, and Bishops-in-Synod. But I wonder. The report talks of avoiding ‘a large centralised bureaucracy’ (p1), then proposes one 450 strong, (the Church House, Commissioners, and Lambeth staffs rolled into one), pointedly ‘servicing’ also the House of Bishops. An idle thought strikes me. If I were a bureaucrat, dreaming of controlling the Church’s structures, isn’t this the organization I might desire? At a time when centralisation is discredited, the Commission in effect proposes more.

The real problem is not mainly structural. We have an educated Church laity, increasingly disenchanted with our leadership. We have a central organisation which fears their opinions and wrongly closes its ears to what they say; so that the laity, wrongly vote with their feet. This is the impasse with which we have to deal, and this report will aggravate not help the problem. Certainly we must work ‘as one body’: but that means giving laity and their representatives their due part.

Hugh Craig is a former member of the Standing Committee of the General Synod and a Church Commissioner.