Robbie Low considers and appointments system which consistently fails to deliver

IN THE MIDDLE of last month the Sunday Times broke a story which has major constitutional implications for the church.

The Prime Minister, it claimed, had taken the unprecedented step of rejecting both names offered by the Crown Appointments Commission for Bishop of Liverpool and demanded to see the whole list – rejects and all. To understand the significance of this it is important to know how the appointment system functions.

Since the Reformation, Church and State together have undertaken the task of selecting diocesan bishops. There have been good times and bad times as pendulums have swung and successive governments have shown more or less interest in the power of appointment. Generally speaking the unlikely combination has, at least, generated a fair spread of the views of that much vaunted Anglican comprehensiveness.

In 1976, anxious to control its own affairs more, but without risking disestablishment, the church persuaded the Callaghan government to a compromise. The result was (and is) the Crown Appointments Commission (CAC). Briefly, for the last 20 years this Commission has provided two names to the Prime Minister for him (or her) to choose the first name, with rare exception. How these two names get there is the work of the C.A.C:

The Commission has 14 members – 2 Archbishops, 3 Synod clergy, 3 Synod laity, 4 elected by the diocese under consideration, 2 Appointments Secretaries (Prime Minister’s and Archbishops’).

The first round is done by the Vacancy in See Committee of the diocese who prepare a “statement of needs”. This group contains members of diocesan synod, laity and clergy but also hierarchy and nominated members (suffragan, dean, archdeacon and chairman of the Diocesan Board of Finance). As these gentlemen are not elected and they have a direct say in the future of the clerical representatives it is immediately apparent that criticism of the current regime and any call for radical reappraisal will necessarily be muted.

They then elect four of their members to sit on the C.A.C. This initial meeting is supervised and noted by the two Appointment Secretaries.

Later on they return to the diocese to interview between 100 and 150 selected sources in “church and community” – rural deans, canons, lay chairmen, ecumenical partners, social and civic partners, county worthies etc. The secretaries prepare a report for C.A.C. on the basis of these consultations. But, please note, these reports will be modified to exclude any criticism of the outgoing bishop, organisations and appointees, some of whom may be at the C.A.C. selection conference!

The conference itself is at a retreat house – beginning late afternoon and concluding late the following morning with breaks for worship, food and bed. In the first session the statement of needs and the secretaries’ reports are considered. Diocesan reps are questioned and helped to understand that theirs is only part of the picture. The regular members must look for someone who will “fit in to the wider church as bishops”.

During the second session a long list of names is produced by the secretaries with brief biographical material. By the end of the evening all but 4 or 5 will have been discarded.

This process, by its secretive nature, has no curriculum vitae from the candidate, no references, no interviews. The information is largely from his diocesan bishop and whatever hearsay may be current.

Where do the names come from?

The members of C.A.C. can suggest names and there will certainly be names from the Archbishops and Secretaries who will, in most cases, know more about the candidates than the other members.

The pool of names is provided by the diocesan bishops – they may even send favoured candidates to Downing Street for preliminary interview and to give the secretary a full C.V. for his own use.

The morning session continues, under the chairmanship of the Archbishop of the Province, to discuss the remaining names. Then the voting begins. Each member (except the secretaries) has one vote for each candidate at each stage and the voting is secret. By this method the list is whittled to two and a two thirds majority would make one of those the preferred candidate.

In all this it is worth noting that, even in the initial list of names there are two categories – obligatory and optional. Obligatory is automatically discussed, optional is left to the Archbishop and secretaries to decide whether to even include.

The Prime Minister receives the two names, traditionally chooses the preferred and send his secretary to sound the man out before sending the name on to the Palace.

Thus a new diocesan is born.

What are the problems with this system?

First, and quite simply, it is not delivering the goods. We are not producing inspiring godly men with a track record of preaching, teaching and pastoring. Nor ironically, are we producing great managers – the new buzz word of the modern church. Major pools from which candidates appear are the General Synod – by common consent no guarantor of a man’s spiritual and pastoral worth – and the suffragans who, like bridesmaids, are all too often subconsciously chosen not to outshine the bride.

During her five years on General Synod my wife was always able to tell me who the next bishops would be. No, no-one had breached confidence, she simply noted their unctuous behaviour to potential patrons – and, tragically, she was never wrong. (This is a terrible thing to have to live with in a wife!).

The pool is dependent on the diocesan lists. Some bishops put up a long list – others a few or none! One bishop remarked recently that he seldom put anyone forward because the forms took too long to fill in! The diocesan pool is extremely unlikely to include anyone who is critical of the current regime or its policies and, it goes without saying that an orthodox priest is, by this system, performing miracles to become a rural dean.

You’ll have noted how carefully consultation is arranged. In a diocese, like many run as a one party state, an appointments secretary may hear the odd dissenting voice but that will seem unrepresentative amongst the battalions of placemen and civic and social contacts who will all confirm what a jolly good job the current chap is doing. More of the same please. Even if criticism leaks through, as we have seen, it is removed to avoid embarrassing the placemen who get on to the C.A.C.

It also removes any intelligent assessment of the need for the radical change back to orthodoxy which most dioceses now desperately require. More alarmingly such change is now, de facto, out of the question. While Bonds of Peace insisted that the best man be chosen, orthodox do not get on the lists by and large and, if they ever do, they are struck off because no diocese has asked for someone who won’t ordain women. It is therefore assumed they must want someone who will. But under Bonds of Peace, a diocese can only seek the best man so they cannot make the demand in the first place even were they so minded. Any attempt to get such a request through would meet insuperable opposition from the diocesan placemen who sit on the Vacancy in See and, all too frequently, get to the C.A.C. conference. This is the dreary circular logic that has produced the series of outrageous diocesan appointments in some of the catholic heartlands in the last two or three years.

Many in the orthodox constituency, and now much wider, have referred to the C.A.C. privately, as corrupt. It is not corrupt in the sense that there is co-ordinated jiggery-pokery. Greater political minds than mine have noticed the extraordinary predilection of the Holy Spirit for friends of a former Archbishop but that is not the point. The system is corrupt because it is secretive, inefficient, partial and constitutionally bent towards the status quo and the party in power.

No appointment secretary, however honourable, is proof against such a bad system.

Even with all that said some of the recent appointments have been an utter disgrace – there is no other word.

Like most clergy of my generation, I have watched the best men of energy, vision, gospel, enthusiasm, pastoral heart and commitment to Christ – clear leaders of men – retire largely unused by the church at national or even diocesan level. The damage to morale and decline that follows on poor leadership is incalculable.

Where there is no vision the people perish – the bottom line is that this is costing souls.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s.