Whose hands on whose heads?

It has been said that if J C Ryle were alive today, he would never have become a bishop. Such sentiments would be hard to dispute. Whereas in the past strong minded men of conviction were on occasion appointed as bishops, the system today is hardly likely to deliver a man of stature and distinction. It is not hard to see why.

The Church of England is de facto a comprehensive church. Some see that as a strength and glory in its diversity. Others see it as a weakness and would dearly like to see those with whom they disagree driven out. But we are a broad church and therefore we have to ask ourselves what sort of a bench of bishops would be appropriate.

Now I don’t want to make personal criticisms of members of the House of Bishops, past and present. They are the products of a system of selection and by and large they are good sorts; so if we have misgivings about bishops in general, our dissatisfaction needs to focus on the selection process rather than on the individuals that the process selects.

One does not need great powers of perception to deduce that it is unlikely that the composition of the House of Bishops over the last twenty years has reflected the first preference of the Holy Spirit. It is possible, but hardly plausible, that the Admissions Tutor at Cuddesdon had a special gift for discerning episcopal potential.

It is arguable that the composition of the House of Bishops should reflect the composition of the Church of England, as in say the House of Laity of the General Synod. That has demonstrably not been the case in recent times. Perhaps a third of the House of Laity would own the adjective “conservative” whereas less than ten per cent of the House of Bishops might be so described. On the other hand the number of liberal Catholics in the episcopate is out of all proportion to their strength amongst the laity. It may be that liberal Catholics are the natural party of government, or it may be that churchmanship is not taken into account in the selection process and that in fact the make up of the House of Bishops is a matter of pure serendipity. However you can’t dispute that the churchmanship of the Bishops is growing steadily less reflective of the churchmanship of the main body of the church – the laity.

Senior Church Appointments (GS 1019), published in 1992, looked at the methods of appointing nearly all dignitaries except diocesan bishops. The report basically proposed that the influence of the Church (or rather the powers of patronage of certain Church dignitaries) should be increased at the expense of the influence of the Crown. In a memorandum of dissent, Frank Field MP wrote as follows:

“The present system – operating as it does in secret, dependent on the old boy network, with candidates unaware even that they are being considered and the views of the interested parties channelled through a single person to the Prime Minister – may have been acceptable in Trollope’s time. Today, however, it runs contrary to the commonly held view that appointments should be made in the open, that posts should be advertised, and that the very best use should be made of the talents that are available.”

Our present arrangements for selecting diocesan bishops are embodied in the Crown Appointments Commission, a comparatively recent innovation dating from the late 70s. Questions were asked in General Synod at the time as to how the Commission would produce a balanced House of Bishops rather than a monochrome one. Assurances were given that four members of the Commission from the diocese concerned would ensure that the needs of the diocese were considered and that the eight permanent members would provide “balance”. How this might be achieved was not vouchsafed.

Following a recent private member’s motion, there is now to be a review of the working of the Crown Appointments Commission and it is devoutly to be wished that the outcome will be a pretty radical overhaul. One fears that all we may get is a nod and a wink. Can those who have secured advancement under the presently existing arrangements seriously be expected to advocate other than superficial changes to a system that has served them well?

We have a system that draws from a limited pool of possible candidates – mainly people who have been appointed to their present positions by diocesan bishops (suffragans, deans and archdeacons). Thus diocesan bishops can be reasonably certain that any new recruit to their numbers will be “one of us”.

The four diocesan members of the CAC are selected by their diocese’s Vacancy-in-See Committee. This has often been done by a single transferable vote election in which all the electors are also candidates. The mind boggles at the thought of thirty candidates each receiving one first preference vote – but in fact such a farce is quite likely to produce a team of four consisting of say the suffragan bishop, the Dean, the Chairman of the Board of Finance and the Chairman of the House of Laity – hardly representative of the laity of the diocese

The subsequent process, managed by the Appointments Secretaries (the Archbishop’s and the Prime Minister’s), produces unattributed pen pictures of candidates. It is only necessary to cast one or two aspersions on a candidate’s disposition or approach to ensure that his name is weeded out at an early stage in the process.

There is then the iniquitous process of eliminating candidates one at a time by a succession of STV elections. This ensures that the two names which finally emerge from the process are those that fewest people have voted against – a recipe which almost guarantees the success of anodyne candidates with a low profile.

And finally, if by some mishap a strong minded candidate should survive, he can still be vetoed by the Diocesan four.

Thank goodness we didn’t have a system like this years ago or J C Ryle wouldn’t have stood a chance, and the Church of England would have been the poorer for it.

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