William Paley reflects on the underlying assumptions of the Turnbull Report
HE ARCHBISHOPS’ Commission on the Organisation of the Church of England, chaired by the Bishop of Durham, the Rt. Revd Michael Turnbull has issued a report recommending widespread changes in the central government of the Church of England. The Commission was set up in the wake of the widely publicised mismanagement of church funds by the Church Commissioners. Less alarming than the huge losses themselves was the fact that a few individuals were able to speculate with borrowed money, and with no clear channels of responsibility. The structure of the Church Commission is revealed as cumbersome and the lines of responsibility complex. Clearly changes are called for.
Perhaps the first thing to note are the terms of reference and the composition of the Commission. It was set up `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’. Of its thirteen members one was a woman and there was no parish priest. Six of the thirteen are listed as being `former’ something or other, mostly company directors. Together with an `emeritus’ provost, these retired dinosaurs constitute a majority of the Commission. It is hardly surprising that some of their ideas might not unfairly be called `outdated’.
The report concludes that the financial and resource management of the Church of England should be rationalised and centralised in the hands of a National Council, which would, in some unspecified way be ‘accountable’ to the General Synod and to the House of Bishops. It would effectively take over the functions of the Central Board of Finance, the Pensions Board, the Policy Committee and the Standing Committee of the General Synod, the Advisory Board for Ministry, the Boards of Education and Social Responsibility. The Church Commission would remain as a body for managing the historic assets of the Church, but be shorn of its other functions.
The Council, as proposed, would have seventeen members. Of these, ten would be either appointed by or nominated by the Archbishops. No wonder the Bishop of Oxford suggested that it should be called ‘the Archbishop’s Council (The Door, November 1995. `Archbishops” would be more accurate). This proposed Council would put enormous power into the hands of two men.
Accountability The Report insists that the proposed Council would be `accountable’ but this concept, as used in management and organisation theory on the one hand and in political and constitutional theory on the other is highly ambiguous. It makes its debut on page one and reappears a number of times in the course of the Report. Its role is manifestly to reassure doubters. The proposed Council, we are told, should see itself as operating ‘within a framework of accountability’, which means `people must be trusted to get on with the job and be given the means to do so” (p. 51). While `accountable’ to the General Synod, it is not to be `subordinate to it’ (p. 44). Rank and file church people have a right to expect’ those executing responsibilities at the national level to be accountable, yet we need ultimately to be ready to trust those who use their gifts faithfully in the furtherance of the gospel’ (p. 43; my itals). If we trust these executives `ultimately’, what need is there for accountability? It is precisely because our trust in such people is limited, that we expect them to be accountable. The model assumed by the Commission is that of plebiscitary democracy, but with a difference. `1n a democracy’, Max Weber wrote,
‘the people choose a leader in whom they trust. Then the chosen leader says, “Now shut up and obey me”. People and party are then no longer free to interfere in his business …. Later the people can sit in judgment. If the leader has made mistakes – to the gallows with him.’
The difference between Weber’s democracy and the submissions of the Turnbull Commission is that there is no effective day of judgement in the latter’s proposals.
The Report envisages the proposed Council being ‘accountable’ to the General Synod; but what does this accountability involve? We read that effective accountability involves giving people clear responsibility for doing a job, the means with which to do it, and `holding them to account’ for the result (p. 55). But what does holding them to account involve? Does it mean the power to sack them and replace them? Should the General Synod be given the power to fire the archbishops? Perhaps, but this is not recommended by the Commission.
The nearest the Report comes to saying what it means by accountability is that the Synod must be able `to question, to seek and obtain information and to express opinions’ (p. 67); so important is this that it is twice repeated in the Report (pp. 70 and 123). To express
opinions is in no sense an aspect of accountability. The editor of The Times and the Vicar of Queen Camel are a able to express opinions, which may indeed influence, perhaps ‘decisively’, the formation of policy; this does not mean that the proposed Council will be accountable to them. To answer questions about how the Council conducts its affairs, providing honest and full information, is manifestly relevant to its accountability. But if it goes no further than this, it is the very weakest sort of accountability what Geoffrey Marshall calls the thinner type of ‘explanatory accountability’.
ff the kind of freedom of action envisaged , the Commission is to be given to the proposed Council, surely a more substantial kind of accountability is called for. This has been called `executive accountability’. `The principle of executive accountability’, Kingman Brewster has written. `Is the price which must be paid for the exercise of executive discretion’. This kind of executive responsibility must require the possibility of replacing the whole or part of the Council. When we say (as we used to in the days before Michael Howard) that ministers of the Crown are accountable for matters over which they exercise direct executive control, we mean that Parliament can secure their resignation when things go seriously and culpably wrong. If we say that a Member of Parliament is accountable to his constituents we mean (among other things) that at the dissolution of Parliament they can decline to re-elect him or her. That the MP may not wish to be re-elected reminds us that with even the more substantial concept of accountability the extent of control exercised is limited.
The concept of accountability is in fact part of an ideology of `representation’, which sees the role of ordinary church members as essentially passive. They elect representatives every five years, otherwise they keep quiet and do as they are told. As Rousseau pointed out, the British are free only every five years. What is needed is a church whose members participate in decisions which affect them at the local level. This brings us on to the idea of ‘subsidiarity’.
Subsidiary function The Report refers to the principle of subsidiarity, according to which no task is performed by a `higher’ (i.e. more general body) which can adequately be performed by a ‘lower’ (i.e. more local) body. In political theory it is opposed to the omnicompetence of the state. It is a concept which recently emerged into prominence in Britain, in the context of the debate about British relations with the European Union. Mr. John Major adopted it , but seemed to have thought that it applied only to
Brussels’ and Westminster – restricting the power of the former in favour of the latter. But the principle of subsidiarity goes on to state that things which can better be done by Birmingham should be decided in Birmingham, and things better done by the subdivisions of the city should be left to local bodies to decide.
The Latin word subsidiarius generally denotes help given when needed. Subsidiarii cohortes, were the forces that could be called on to help when the main force could not fulfil its task unaided. So in Catholic social teaching it was stipulated that when the local body cannot deal with a matter on its own, a more general body is expected to give assistance by taking over those particular tasks. Johannes Messener, states that `the subsidiarity principle means the decentralizing of competence and of authority’. There is little real evidence that the Commission wishes to devolve power to the dioceses and parishes. Despite the statement at `the role of the centre in finance is largely default mechanism which comes into play when “subsidiarity” fails’, clearly the financial tail wags the ecclesiastical dog. The reason given, for example, why decisions about redundant churches have to taken ‘at the centre’ is ‘national financial arrangements’ (p. 37). It does not occur to the Commission that these financial arrangements might be changed.
Subsidiarity suggests that there are inbuilt limits to the power, and competence of the centre. It may indeed be the case that such a structure inhibits quick and decisive action. The Report observes that under the present structure many people can stop things happen ing but that few can make things happen (p. 25). What the Commission means is not ‘make things happen’ but ‘effect changes’. Perhaps, however, it is a good thing that this is so. With power concentrated such changes can be rapidly implemented, but with power dispersed there is strength elsewhere, particularly the case of a church, whose proper role is not to respond to the latest fashions, in management theory or anything else, but to proclaim a gospel which is – in its essence – unchanging. o
The prayer used to begin each meeting of the Commission is highly significant in the language employed. The one quality ascribed to God is that of `sovereign power’, an unscriptural concept of dubious validity. It is, in its primary reference, political or legal and, in England especially, sovereignty carries strong suggestions of absolutism and of arbitrary rule. It is associated with a tradition going back through the legal theorist John Austin to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Yet Christians believe that, in Christ, God is revealed as a god of love, justice and of mercy who calls us not slaves but friends. The connotations of arbitrary domination, however, suggested by the use of the term sovereignty appear to have inspired the Commission in much of its thinking on power in the church.
A successful firm? The Report assumes that the Church o
England is an organisation, whose job is to be successful. Its success is indicated largely in terns of numerical and financial growth. The Report solemnly declares that `effectiveness and efficiency cannot be measured only in managerial terms; by its nature the gospel of love is sometimes extravagant’ (p. 15). Indeed, but what does this imply? The Report seems to drawn no consequences from this pious sentiment. We are continually being told by church authorities that numbers don’t matter. Very well, but why in that case are parish priests required to fill in numbers of Easter communicants, Christmas communicants, weekly communicants? Why does the church publish statistics about electoral rolls? The counting of membership is condemned in the Bible as a serious sin. When Satan provoked king David to number the people he was rebuked by God and punished. It was sinful because it signified a lack of faith in God. The note of panic running through the Report, and the rather menacing suggestion that the proposals must be swallowed whole rather than chewed, indicates a similar lack of faith.
For the Archbishops’ Commission, the Church of England is, like a chain of fast food stores, to `present itself as an open, inclusive, attractive church’. (p. 39) To what extent a body which preaches the Cross of Christ has any chance of achieving this end is questionable. Its gospel is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews. The gate is narrow and few will enter. The disciples of Jesus are warned that they will face persecution and other hardships. Yet the Commission expects the church to be attractive – one huge ‘nine o’clock service’. (The Archdeacon of Sheffield who promoted this service was of course a member of the Turnbull Commission.)
The purpose of the church is to preach the good news of Christ’s kingdom. It is not to see itself as getting bitter and bigger until somehow or other it is transformed into the kingdom. The church must be viewed, not as part of God’s `original’ Creation, but as a remedy for the Fall. It is not an end in itself, but a body destined to disappear. Perhaps it is possible to trace the errors of the Report to a single sentence: `the Church is also firmly part of God’s good creation’ (p. 3,). The church is indeed established by God, but not as part of his good creation. It is a means by which humankind may be saved from the results of the Fall. It is a pilgrim church. When the church is being truly itself it will remain a small body; Christians are the dough that leavens, the salt that savours. The Report reflects a kind of liberal Protestant high churchism, and is light years away from a truly catholic understanding of the church. It is what is produced when liberal evangelical bishops eat prayer breakfasts with conservative evangelical businessmen. It is a churchcentred rather than a kingdom centred theology which inspires the Commission. Its f vision (if this is the right word) is this-
worldly rather than otherworldly. The eschatological perspective is missing.
The true mission of the church is not `service to the community’ (p. I I ). It exists rather to challenge the very foundation upon which `the community’ is based. The job of the church is not to provide attractive religious ‘services’, but to proclaim the justice and judgment of God, pointing to other and radically different standards from those of `the community’. `He has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.’
Vision I have asserted that the Report is this-worldly and lacks an eschatological perspective; but is this fair’? It frequently speaks of `vision’. It is, we are told, the particular role of the House of Bishops to develop (with the assistance of the proposed Council) `a vision for the broad direction of the Church’ (p.40).
The term `vision’ has in recent years had an interesting history. It used to be a religious concept, such as the vision of God’s glory in Isaiah 6 or the vision of the great cosmic battle seen by St. John the Divine on the isle of Patmos. The term was then taken over by organisation theory, its meaning was changed in a crucial way, and in recent years it has been re-imported by the church in its new form. So suffragan bishops today talk of `creating a vision’ for the parish and the present Report refers similarly to ‘developing a vision’ (pp. 40, 70, 75,120, 122). The very essence of a vision, in the earlier sense, is that it is not created or developed by us but received. Despite `the theology of the gracious gift’ (p. 7), proclaimed in the early sections of the Report, the vision developed by the House of Bishops `at regular intervals’ (p. 122) – is to be part of a sharply focused and purposeful role: not much room for gracious gift here! It is fascinating to imagine Ezekiel saying to himself `O dear, it’s Thursday I MUST get on and develop my vision’. The vision, developed and articulated by the Bishops, would then be debated by the Synod and handed over to the proposed Council. which would work out `strategies and resources for translating the vision into action’ (p.122)
The Church desperately needs a vision, for without it we perish, but to think we can have one to order, at regular intervals, is grossly to misunderstand the nature of the vision we need. After the proposed stages for the vision, any life would have been beaten out of it and the only intelligent response would be to ‘drop the dead donkey.
Archdeacon Paley, a recently deceased Trinidadian Macaw, was a well known commentator on Church affairs. His carer, the late David Nicholls, encouraged him to publish this article originally as Jubilee Discussion Paper 108