John Stanley wonders if the Church of England is being true to its own better nature

THE CHURCH’S consideration of the Turnbull proposals over the next year will bring us to a watershed. These proposals will take us down a road from which there will be no turning back. We shall be setting the course of the Church for a generation to come and I, with other members of Synod, will be praying much about the decisions we will be taking in November 1997.

Synod has chosen the route of legislation and I am sure that that is right; it will allow other voices to be heard and I would read that as a mark of our confidence in what we are seeking to do. The process is clear and open and that is to be welcomed. The second progress report from the Steering Group, which was presented to Synod last November, is welcome both for much of what it says and also because it demonstrated that the Steering Group is still listening. I also welcome the reference of the proposals to the dioceses – the fundamental changes to the central structures of the Church which are proposed need to carry the whole Church, so there should be an opportunity for dioceses to make a formal response.

I hope that dioceses will consult deaneries and parishes, for in the longer term, they too will feel the effects of these proposals which will inevitably change the culture of the Church. My perception is that there is a growing awareness of the changes that are being proposed and of their consequences. However, I am not sure that the dioceses will welcome all the changes and so we must not assume that they will fall in behind them like a well behaved poodle. I am sure they will have a mind of their own.

The report that Synod considered filled out some of the details that were lacking in the earlier progress report, and that was helpful. It gave a clearer picture of the mind of the Steering Group, but I have to say that there are some areas in which no further light has been shed; in other areas they are picking up, almost as novel, things that are already happening or should be!

For instance the Steering Group envisage the Archbishop’s Council seeking to identify further (central) activities that could be more effectively handled at Diocesan level – the concept of subsidiarity. This has, as they say, been going on for some years, with or without the Measure. I am sure it will continue in any event, because this is how the Church of England is, and the Synod would not have it otherwise. We are not a centralised Church and, God willing, never will be.

The report discusses enhancing the Synodical system, and that too is to be welcomed. Anything that makes us more effective whether in General Synod or in our dioceses must be good. However when we read that “our discussions have suggested that there may also be ways in which the General Synod could become more effective as a channel of communication with the dioceses”, the context hints strongly that what is meant is a channel of communication for the Archbishop’s Council. At that point I find myself becoming a little twitchy and afraid that, suitably downgraded, that is what General Synod might become.

I am concerned too about the paragraph which reads: “The Turnbull Report proposed that the finance committee should include six members elected by the dioceses. We envisage that membership drawn from the dioceses (whether through the inclusion of General Synod members or by other means) would also be appropriate in other areas.” I fear that we could be entering Quangoland, or as a speaker in the Synod debate said, “another layer of bureaucracy.” I would really want the proposals spelt out in some detail before I would buy them. Reading between the lines of the progress report, there would appear to be an intention to diminish the role and authority of the General Synod, and I would want to resist that.

There is nothing in the comments on information, communication, consultation and diocesan networks that we should not be doing and could not do now. But my real concern is what role it is envisaged that General Synod will have in the government of the Church. It seems to me that by stripping the Synod of its Standing Committee it immediately transforms it into a reactive body or a talking shop, not unlike the old diocesan conferences.

The first progress report said, “while legislation will normally be introduced by the Council, the Synod will retain its legislative initiative.” But how is this to be achieved without a Standing Committee? Will the Synod be able to instruct the Council in the same way that it currently instructs its Standing Committee? I see no hint of that in the documents that have been published to date.

I can see the relationship of the Council to the Synod, but not that of the Synod to the Council. This would seem to be a very big transfer of power and authority. We are told that this is done to enable the Council to fulfil its remit which the report describes as “to think, plan and act strategically, considering policy and resource matters together, with an overview of the Church as a whole.” The Report comments that, “the Church would as a result be better able to respond nationally to the challenges of mission that lie ahead and to the needs of dioceses and parishes.” Who could want less? But it is not clear how this can be achieved without turning the Church into an entirely different animal.

I think that the next sentence sits uneasily in sequence, and again I quote, “However, if we sought to achieve greater coherence by establishing a hierarchical form of control, we would be acting contrary to Anglican ecclesiological principles of consultation and consent ….” For more than a decade we have had from our secular government the rhetoric of decentralisation accompanying the process of centralisation. It seems to me that we are faced here with the same sort of rhetoric and process. Please show me I am wrong.

Some of us were at York Minister in November for the ordination of the Bishop of Chester and the Bishop of Warrington. The Dean of Manchester, in a vintage sermon, reminded us that the centre of the Church of England lies at its circumference. That may be a source of frustration to those, like myself as Prolocutor, who are deemed to be in the place of power, but it is in my judgement our strength. Long may it continue.

John Stanley is a member of the General Synod. He is Prolocutor of the Convocation of York – Chairman of the House of Clergy (Northern Province)