Cloak and Dagger

THE WHOLE THING is a bit like a John le Carré novel – the secrecy, the intrigue, the mystery. Like the Ku Klux Klan, no one knows when they are to meet. Like Freemasons they are sworn to confidentiality. In their hands lies the fate of many men, but the men whose attributes and qualities they discuss never know whether they even merited a mention. The SAS Officers’ Mess doesn’t do it like this. The Committee of the Carlton Club doesn’t function this way. MI5 and MI6 wouldn’t operate on this basis. So where is this cloak and dagger derring-do to be found? Well actually, it’s the Crown Appointments Commission.

So it was all the more surprising to find that somebody had leaked some of their recent deliberations. A story broke in the national press that the Prime Minister had declined to recommend either of the two names offered to him as the next Bishop of Liverpool. A flurry of speculation sought to identify the “bishop who was friendly with the Archbishop of Canterbury” (aren’t they all?) and an Archdeacon from the South East of England, whose names had apparently failed to gain Prime Ministerial favour.

The list of suspects is fairly short. Only the twelve members of the CAC and perhaps a secretary or two would know which names were considered, and which names were sent forward to No.10. Who could have broken ranks and breached confidentiality in such a spectacular way? Was it an Archbishop, incensed that the Prime Minister’s black ball had been found in the bag? Was it one of the four representatives from Liverpool diocese, who reputedly had seen their favoured candidates eliminated earlier in the proceedings? Was it a traditionalist frustrated that yet again the two names on offer were both from the other integrity? Perhaps we shall never know.

If any of this is true, and the Prime Minister has indeed declined to forward one of the two names to Her Majesty, one thing can be said and that is that he was perfectly entitled to do so. That is his right, under the legislation. Well informed sources tell me that previous Prime Ministers exercised their right not to forward names, but in the cloak and dagger world where you are not supposed to know anything – we shall never know for sure. My sources may simply have been extracting a pint out of me for a graphic piece of fiction.

What would be intolerable would be to have two candidates rejected simply because they are (or were reputedly) Evangelicals, or because their politics were deemed to be old Labour rather than new Labour. What have churchmanship and politics to do with a candidate’s ability to discharge the duties of Episcopal office in a Church which is national and comprehensive? On the other hand, how could the candidates have been rejected for say a lack of spirituality if the PM had not met either of them?

It would be reassuring to know the grounds on which the PM’s veto was invoked. There could be perfectly good reasons, but if they are not made public how can we judge? The reasons could be quite specious, but if they are – we shall never know. As it is, one is left to speculate whether the grounds were spiritual, political, managerial, well-meaning or confrontational. However the secrecy in which they are shrouded inevitably breeds suspicion and distrust.

Anthony Archer, writing in the CEN, described the process by which Episcopal appointments are made as “deeply flawed and unsatisfactory”. Drawing on his considerable experience in management selection and recruitment he wrote, “I know of no other organisation, incorporated or not, which would adopt an entirely secret procedure, rely on anecdotal evidence, fail to interview the candidate and then hope that, in the case of the CAC, both the Prime Minister and the candidate will support the recommendation.”

It is worthy of note that the Bridge Report observes that the STV method of voting works best when there are at least three candidates to be elected. If only one candidate is to be elected, the system ensures that inevitably he will be everybody’s least worst choice. It is well known that the CAC eliminates possible candidates for a bishopric, one at a time, by a succession of STV ballots – so small wonder that we have such an unexceptional team in the House of Bishops.

The Crown Appointments Commission is crying out for reform and for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of the Nation and even for the sake of the Church of England, Synod must address this as a matter of urgency. Not that we should be panicked into hasty decisions.

Siren voices will be heard telling us that we should place everything in the hands of the Archbishops, which would exacerbate the concentration of Archiepiscopal power which the National Institutions Measure is seeking to create. It would surely be a mistake to do that, even if some would say it was no worse than the present system since the last Archbishop of Canterbury is widely credited with securing the appointment of many like-minded candidates – even with the CAC.

Some might advocate a system whereby dioceses elect their bishops, as happens in many provinces of the Anglican communion. But who would want to see a media razzmatazz orchestrated by a Peter Mandelson clone every time a diocese fell vacant?

The New Testament records that lots were drawn to find a twelfth apostle to replace Judas Iscariot, but it doesn’t commend the practice, and there is no scriptural record of any repetition.

Some might be content to have an on-going Prime Ministerial role, provided the veil of secrecy could be lifted from the whole process.

It may sound naive and simplistic to say that we all want men holding Episcopal office who are chosen and called of God. There must surely be someone who can devise a procedure which will deliver this modest objective?

Gerry O’Brien is a member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.