John Habgood maintains that the Preface lacked depth
and was simply wrong about Crown Appointments

WHEN GARRY BENNETT wrote his Crockford Preface he was a member of the Standing Committee of the General Synod during one of its most miserable periods. It was a time when virtually every issue was sucked into the underlying controversy about the proposed ordination of women as priests, when suspicions were rife, and when even the most harmless proposals were scrutinised minutely for anything which might seem to give one side or the other an advantage. The result was almost total paralysis, aided and abetted by some powerful members who constantly pursued their own agendas, to the exasperation of everyone else. I remember dreading the meetings, especially the times when I had to chair them, and I can well understand the frustrations which Garry felt and recorded.

He was right too in his estimate of the Policy Committee, which at that time was little more than a feeder for the Standing Committee, useful for processing some of the detailed work and offering advice – or rather it would have been had not the Standing Committee insisted on doing much of the work again. Larger policy issues were not part of its agenda.

In searching for the true seat of power within the Church of England Garry looked at various alternatives. If it wasn’t the Synod, which was conscious of its own powerlessness, was it the bureaucracy? Derek Pattinson, the then Secretary-General, was let off with a caution. The House of Bishops, we were warned, was increasing its influence. If Garry meant that it was trying to make some more coherent decisions, and give some leadership to the Church at a time of serious division, this was certainly true. The House was to some extent reacting against the very low profile it had adopted in the immediate aftermath of the setting up of synodical government. But all the evidence Garry adduced concerning the power of bishops related entirely to the undoubted influence they exercise in their own dioceses, not to their role within the Synod. Did power, then, reside with the Archbishops? On this point, it seems to me, Garry spoke with two voices. He was highly critical of the lack of leadership. “Dr Runcie and his closest associates are men who have nothing to prevent them following what they think is the wish of the majority of the moment.” Yet, at the same time, much that was amiss with the Church of England was traced to the Archbishops, supposed commitment to something called ‘the liberal establishment’, and their covert manipulations on its behalf.

The truth is that there is no single centre of power within the Church of England, which is far too well provided with checks and balances for anyone or any group to exercise over-riding authority. Garry Bennett was not alone in recognising the deficiencies. The problems at the time were partly structural, and an overhaul of the synodical infrastructure in due course began to alleviate some of them. Boards and Councils were made more accountable to the Synod and a revamped Policy Committee gained some teeth. The Standing Committee, too, discovered that it was possible to tackle differences without histrionics, and its meetings became quite pleasurable. But the changes were not enough. The subsequent appointment of the Turnbull Commission, which included for the first time a review of the role of the Church Commissioners, revealed the need for a much stronger focus of decision-making at national level and, predictably, aroused many fears about more bureaucracy and over-centralisation. The rejection of the Synod Review Group’s proposals to streamline the Synod itself, was true to form.

I believe most of the changes which have taken place, or are in train, would have happened anyway, whatever Garry Bennett had written. Those who had to work the system were well aware of its shortcomings. He did, however, usefully relate frustrations about an unmanageable system to deeper theological questions about the nature of authority in the Church, and in the Anglican communion. The tragedy of his suicide is that he was not there to develop these thoughts within the historical perspective he was uniquely equipped to bring to them. The issues are intractable, and not peculiar to the Church of England. Every church has to wrestle with questions about how to remain faithful to its traditions in times when all the intellectual and social landmarks are changing. Every church faces contradictory demands for greater democracy, autonomy, accountability and stronger, clearer leadership. The paradoxes are in the gospel itself, which on the one hand has to be accepted as given, and on the other has to be reinterpreted afresh by each generation as it tries to make sense of its actual experience. Far from being a prophet crying in the wilderness, as he seemed to suppose, Garry was well respected as an intellectual leader who might help Anglican Catholics escape from their self-imposed isolation – a further reason for genuine sadness about his death.

There were, of course, doubts about whether he could do this. In his lengthy and perceptive preview of the 1988 Lambeth Conference he was strong on analysis but short on positive advice. His only proposal for restoring some coherence to the Anglican Communion was a reconstituted Consultative Council, coupled with ‘a self~denying ordinance by which provinces agree that certain matters shall not be decided locally …’ This was an odd suggestion when one remembers that it was the Consultative Council which gave the green light for the ordination of women, whereas if the matter had been left to the Lambeth Conference it was likely that the bishops would have been more cautious. It was also wildly impractical, as anyone who knows anything about the dynamics of such international gatherings will testify.

His positive suggestions about the Church of England were equally disappointing, and seem to have been added as an afterthought. The Rural Mission, Faith in the City, and Black Anglican Concerns, were all matters which had already occupied the Standing Committee. My recollection, which may be at fault, is that he had previously spoken critically about them all. Furthermore, though they were all important, they had little bearing on the major theological themes which were his real concern.

If the Preface had done no more than explore these themes as they impinged on the Church’s structures and methods, it would have taken an honourable place among other prefaces, and much hurt and pain to individuals and to the Church at large would have been spared. Unfortunately, though, Garry made a terrible mistake in not anticipating how some of his words would be read. Descriptions of Robert Runcie, which would have passed without comment in the rather bitchy atmosphere of a university senior common room, looked quite different on the front page of the Daily Mail. There was an element of bad luck, in that the Preface appeared at a time when the Archbishop of Canterbury was under great pressure from the media and, it was rumoured, from some politicians, with the result that it proved a gift to those who were hoping to unseat him. Now that the denigratory remarks can be seen in perspective it is possible to smile at them. But then they were dynamite, and seem to have induced an intense fear in Garry himself that he would be unmasked.

My own strictures were centred on the description of the workings of the Crown Appointments Commission. When reading the Preface for the first time I found myself agreeing with much of it, amused by some of it, and mildly irritated by its predominantly negative tone. But as the argument gradually began to focus on the bishops as its main target, and then on their method of appointment, I felt that the author (then unknown to me) had gone too far. People can make their own estimates of individual bishops. But if the procedures whereby they are chosen are believed to be unfair, or somehow rigged, a kind of cynicism can develop towards the episcopate as such, with devastating results for an episcopal church.

When Garry wrote his preface he was not a member of the Crown Appointments Commission. The procedures of the Commission are public knowledge, and his description of them was fair. The actual proceedings are strictly confidential because, in their discussion of individual candidates, members of the Commission need to be able to speak with complete frankness, and with the assurance that nothing they say will ever be divulged. Voting is by secret ballot. Garry’s account of the dynamics of the meeting must therefore have been based either on supposition or on hearsay. In effect he charged the Archbishops with manipulating the process.

The topic is still relevant because, as I write this, the Commission is again the subject of public debate – this time on the grounds of long delay. There is nothing sinister or mysterious about delays. Because most of its members are busy people, the Commission’s meetings are planned long in advance. If for any reason an appointment has to be reconsidered, the Commission may find itself locked into a timetable with other dioceses blocking the available slots. The original diocese then has to wait its turn.

My own experience of the Commission over a period of twelve years was that the process is extraordinarily open and unpredictable. I can think of many occasions when my own wishes were frustrated. Even if we had wanted to, it would have been extremely difficult for the Archbishops to manipulate it. In fact I can only recall one occasion when there was any collusion between us, and since it is now public knowledge, no confidence is breached in repeating the story. It concerned the appointment of Timothy Bavin, then Bishop of Johannesburg, a good Catholic candidate, to Portsmouth. He was unknown to everyone on the Commission except Robert Runcie. But what both Archbishops knew, and nobody else could be told, was that his appointment could open the way for Desmond Tutu to succeed him. Fortunately the Commission trusted us. Bavin proved an excellent Bishop of Portsmouth, and Desmond Tutu went to Johannesburg, and thence to Cape Town, with incalculable consequences for the future of South Africa.

The story illustrates the major flaw in the Commission procedures, namely that only on rare occasions is it possible to do any strategic planning. Each Commission is concerned only with one diocese, and there is no mechanism, therefore, for securing the kind of balance in the episcopate, which might be possible if one was planning for it as a whole. An impression of unfairness can thus be created, and can undermine the trust on which the system depends.

This is yet another example of the tension between traditional styles of leadership and democracy. It is the task of a leader to look at the big picture, to think ahead, to be even-handed. and also to accept correction via the democratic process. Democracy is strong in enabling people to be heard, helping them to own what is done in their name, generating new ideas, and giving credibility to acceptable leaders; but it can be erratic in its judgments. There is no simple way of combining the positive qualities, while also giving due weight to tradition. Some words of a Roman Catholic moral theologian seem to me to get the balance right:

“Bishops should be conservative, in the best sense of that word. They should not endorse every fad, or even every theological theory. They should “conserve”, but to do so in a way that fosters faith, they must be vulnerably open and deeply involved in a process of creative and critical absorption. In some, perhaps increasingly many instances, they must take risks, the risks of being tentative, or even quite uncertain and above all being reliant on others in a complex world. Such a process of clarification and settling takes time, patience and courage. Its greatest enemy is ideology, the comfort of being clear. and above all the posture of pure defence of received formulations.”

John Habgood was formerly Archbishop of York.