George Austin reveals the arcane antics of the Crown Appointments Commission (in the strictest confidence)

Confidentiality rules, OK? Well, too much really. When I was a member of the Crown Appointments Commission, the Diocesan would comment that when the archdeacon and archbishop were both away and no one knew where they were, it was clear that they had to be at the CAC. So heavily did confidentiality press that I would not even let my wife know where we were meeting.

Until, that is, we met at Oakhill College, where at the end of the first evening my hosts (who were supposed to be in total ignorance of why we were there) asked, ‘Shall we know the name of the new Bishop of St Albans by tomorrow evening?’ And as we moved elsewhere for the Synod Standing Committee meeting which happened to follow, I overheard the Archbishop of Canterbury at breakfast describing how the CAC had just met to put two names forward for St Albans.

But there is a necessary confidentiality, and it would do no one good to know that they had been put forward for this or that diocese (perhaps more than once) and had not been successful. So what can be told? What is easy to learn is that there are eight permanent members (three clergy and three laity elected from and by the General Synod together with the two archbishops). To them are added four from the vacant diocese, making a total, with the two secretaries (who are members, but do not vote), of fourteen It is therefore a different Commission for each diocese, and the change of a third of the voting membership each time does change the dynamic of the group totally and sometimes dramatically.

Each member can send in names for consideration for a particular diocese, though it is hoped by all concerned that no one will send in more than a couple of names at most These may be categorised as ‘mandatory’, in which case they will be on the list which appears before the Commission for that diocese; or they may be ‘discretionary’ and will not appear on the list unless there is a scarcity (which there never was during my time). The secretaries – that is, the Archbishops’ Appointments Secretary and the Prime Minister’s – will then make their enquiries and produce a double-paged reference which will be read out on the first evening of the Commission’s meeting The secretaries also consult widely in the diocese, meeting mayors, lords lieutenant and high sheriffs, town clerks, educationalists, leaders of other denominations, captains of industry, members of Parliament, and others of similar significance to the doctrinal orthodoxy and spiritual leadership of the Church of England. They will also meet rural deans, canons, leading laity and senior staff members within the diocese. From this, a Statement of Needs is drawn up by the secretaries which is set alongside the submission by the diocese. Both documents will have been circulated to members beforehand together with the list of names suggested (though no more than a name and brief c.v.), and will form the basis of the first general discussion, which usually fills the period from tea until evensong on the first evening. After supper, the Commission then considers each name in detail, aided by the references carefully produced by the secretaries. Archbishop Michael Ramsey, writing even before the system was formalised, pointed out a grave danger in this:

“For the knowledge is filtered through the mind of one man (two now, which is better), and no one man is without his prejudices and blind spots.”

But members can challenge details and comments in the references, important not only because the secretaries, being human, will have their own prejudices and preferences, but also it is always possible, particularly in the Church of God to find voices who will denigrate the qualities of colleagues. It is the custom for members not to indicate which name they have added to the list. It is often assumed that the secretaries, while each having a non-voting membership of the Commission, do not have the power to add names to the list. But since names sometimes appear who are unknown to any other members, one can only assume that they have been added by the secretaries, though this is not acknowledged and may represent coyness on the part of the voting members.

By the end of the evening – and for as long as it takes (usually about 10.30 pm) – the list will have been reduced to about five. Less than four is probably too few and more than six certainly too many for the resumed discussion the next day. That day begins with a eucharist, and after breakfast there is a brief resume of the statements of needs and an opportunity to bring back names left out after the previous meeting’s discussion. Members usually recognise that this would be a counterproductive irritant. Then after a further brief consideration of each of the remaining names, the voting begins. The five (if there are five) names am gradually voted down to one, and if two thirds of members are happy for that name to go forward then it will be one of the two names to be sent to the Prime Minister. Then the four unsuccessful names are brought back and reduced in the same way to one. and again that must have two thirds support for it to go forward. The Commission then decides if it wishes to put one of the two names as the preferred name, which it may or may not do. The meeting usually ends with prayer by about 11.00 am.

It was a process for which I developed a deep distaste. It was my practice on returning home always to watch the video of that hilarious episode of Yes, Prime Minister which featured the Commission’s work- I can only say that it ceased to be funny.

George Austin is Archdeacon of York