Robbie Low garners a few flowers along the primrose path to preferment

THE LAST TIME I wrote about the senior appointments in these columns I received a goodly number of supportive letters and telephone calls. To keep the record straight I should add that I also received a letter from a diocesan bishop accusing me of being cowardly and dishonest.

A brief and unproductive correspondence ensued. I was puzzled by the accusation of cowardice. After all to criticise a system and an establishment which, historically, have proved themselves capable of forgiving everything but such lèse majesté, may be technically unwise; but it scarcely merits the white feather.

Similarly to seek to reform an ailing institution, which prides itself on being the most exquisite child of an enormous reformation, is perfectly consistent and hardly merits the weightier charge of dishonesty.

Furthermore, though the conclusions in the piece were my own, the factual content was drawn from a detailed and fully noted interview with one of the appointments secretaries.

My episcopal correspondent later said that his criticism was because I had failed to outline an alternative system. Given that some of the finest minds in the church have been wrestling with this for years I make no apology for not cutting the Gordian knot in that article and I make no promises for this article and its sequels. But it seems timely to return to this issue now for several reasons.

One is that, at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s request, Lady Perry is currently chairing a Review Group into this whole subject

Two is that Southwark diocese (deputy manager, Bishop Colin Buchanan) is proposing a motion to deprive the Prime Minister of his prerogative to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee – the two names on his list. This is a constitutional question of profound significance for the (dis)establishment of the church.

Three is that the present system, as we shall see in this and future articles, has completely altered the balance, humour, and health of the church in this land and has gravely weakened its harmony and its ability in mission.

Four is that we are (apparently and deliberately) being moved towards a management-style, career-structure church which is not a gospel model and has major implications for the prophetic witness and vocational understanding of the priesthood.

Five is that we are probably only a couple of years away from a new Archbishop of Canterbury and the process of discernment by which we got the present one or any of his predecessors or will get his successors is as much a mystery now as the day he (or they) were appointed. This kind of Byzantine politicking does the church and Cranmer’s successor no favours. By comparison the Roman conclave and the voting of incarcerated cardinals or the Serbian Orthodox drawing of Biblical lot is utterly transparent and, more significantly, more, open, perhaps to the divine intervention.

But, before getting into the process and all its ramifications, it is important to remind ourselves what this whole discussion is about. What is a bishop and does it matter who is made one?

The answer to the last part of the question is that in an ideal world, it shouldn’t. Young men should leave seminary full of zeal of the gospel, strengthened with Christian Orthodoxy, and happy to serve, in due course, under John or Peter or Andrew, or any of their contemporaries, praying heartily and above all that the burden of that office should not land on them.

It will come as no surprise to you that we do not live in an ideal world.

On my first day at seminary I was introduced to a man who had transferred from a protestant church quite deliberately because, as he so disarmingly put it, “they don’t have bishops”. A few men knew more about the institution than about the gospel and were noticeable in their final years, in seeking the first post on what I later came to call “the inside track”, the “career” mapped out.

This seemed to me then, as now, a curious form of insanity. As someone who did ten years’ curacy, by choice, and had to be ordered by my diocesan to take an incumbent’s post, I have never quite understood why men get ordained with the clear intention of escaping the major pastoral office at the earliest opportunity. It is a pretty good rule that anyone who wants to be a bishop, probably shouldn’t be one.

But it does matter who is a bishop, not just because of the ambiguity and sinfulness of human condition, but because of what a bishop is.

He is the Shepherd of souls. He is Christ’s care of the church. He is a believer of the Word, the guardian of the tradition, the minister of the sacraments, the sign of unity of God’s people. He wears the flames of the Holy Spirit’s apostolic outpouring on his head and he holds the staff of authority and rescue in his hands. On his lips are the words of blessing and over his heart is the cross of Jesus. His life, his demeanour, his fidelity, his love of his Lord and his people are to be exemplary.

It is a tall order. When he fulfils it, or gives his life trying, he is the beloved disciple resting on the Lord and able to strengthen the church in her trials, persecution and exile.

If he ceases to regard Christ as the Way and the Word as God’s, he goes into the night with the other disciple to trade the things of Christ cheaply for the reasonableness of the world and with devastating consequences for the Body of Christ.

Yes, it matters who is a bishop in the church of Christ.

As he turns to the world he is uniquely placed, even yet in a secular society, to evangelise or to mislead. As he turns to the church his authority can be used to encourage or discourage the things of Christ.


A THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE Sara and I had a lot to do with some years ago. The overseer was a man who, privately, admitted he did not believe in the Trinity. He subsequently appointed a theologian who was, in effect, an atheist. I was subsequently informed by one of his pupils that, “I am a Christian atheist. It is a perfectly respectable intellectual position and the Principal agrees with me.”

He has been wreaking havoc as a parish priest, complete with doctorate, ever since.

A BISHOP, deeply hostile to catholic and evangelical teaching, went out of his way to see his clergy were instructed in the moral rightness of abortion. Shortly thereafter he cancelled the impending appointment of one of the most godly evangelicals of the older generation to a senior post because of his belief in the sanctity of marriage! The message to the clergy was clear – the way up in that diocese was to betray the things of Christ.

In twenty odd years of ministry, sadly such examples are legion.

Yes it matters who is a bishop. Orthodox priests are not envious when bad or inadequate or wrong appointments are made but they are often angry and disappointed for the church. They know that a poor or heterodox bishop is going to mean so much more work for them in defending and propagating the faith. They know that the bonds of loyalty are stretched often to breaking point where they are forced to choose between the bishop and God. Only Satan rejoices at such havoc and such a waste of energy in the church and our human systems, spiritually informed, ought at the very least limit his room for manoeuvre. (As I write, I can think of a dozen bishops who would wonder what I was talking about.)

Yes it matters who a bishop is for the sake of the gospel.

While the New Testament does not entirely clarify the office of a bishop – that is developed and finalised in the early church – the broad outline and requirements are laid down. The first letter to Timothy is usually quoted from Ch. 3: v1-7; but it is not unreasonable to understand the whole letter as a preparation for that calling and marked by an understanding of the dignity and importance of this responsible and dangerous service in a hostile world.

It was to sacrificial and disciplined servanthood that Timothy and others were exhorted; not membership of the Athenaeum and a seat in the House of Lords, county committees and significant dinner parties.

Bill Huebsch, in his accessible summary of Decrees and Declarations of Vatican II (Thomas More Publishing 1997) prefaces the Decree on the Bishop’s Pastoral Office with these words.

“No office in the church has been more troublesome nor any more helpful in the spread of the Gospel than the office of bishop. Moreover none has been so poorly understood.”

There is however an unbroken line of real understanding from Timothy to Ignatius to Cyprian to the Prayer Book to Vatican II, sufficient for us to grasp the essentials.

When we are looking for a bishop (or a parish priest) we look mistakenly for the Archangel Gabriel. We try to be realistic and find the best fellow-sinner who has the perceived gifts and will be faithful. What we forget in all this is that it is to be God’s choice or disaster will follow. Whatever human construct we make for a process of selection it must not obstruct or deny the Holy Ghost.

It would be sensible, at this point in the first article of a series, to look at how our present, and relatively recent, system operates.

In 1976 the Church of England, seeking to take its affairs more into its own hands, approached the Callaghan government to discuss plans for greater self-government. To most members of that administration the Kingdom of Heaven was much more likely to come about through old-fashioned socialism than the C.of E. and who was Bishop of Bath and Wells of infinitely less consequence than the General Secretary of ASLEF (the train drivers’ union for the benefit of the younger reader).

An agreement was reached that the old system of advice, emergence, research, consultation, etc. that enabled even the most atheistic prime minister to choose a series of candidates who, broadly speaking, would represent the several churches of which the C. of E. is composed, would go. In its place would come a Crown Appointments Process so balanced, consultative, synodical and thorough, that, at the end of its massive labours in each diocese, would produce two names (one usually marked “preferred”) for the Prime Minister to “choose” from.

The Crown appointments Commission (CAC) is made up of 14 members. These are:

the two Archbishops who chair the meetings; six elected members of General Synod (3 clerical, 3 lay);
the Prime Minister’s Appointment Secretary (PMAS)
and the Archbishop’s Appointment Secretary (AAS).

These make up the 10 permanent members. All except the secretaries have a vote. (The secretaries, as we shall see, scarcely need one.) The other 4 members are from the diocese and will have been elected by the diocesan vacancy-in-see committee (VSC) of which they were members when the outgoing bishop resigned/retired/died.

When a vacancy occurs the secretaries write to members of VSC to arrange a meeting, The secretaries take “independent” soundings in the diocese and produce a report of diocesan needs. The members of the VSC do the same – usually involving forensic correction and rewrites. The secretaries and the VSC meet. The format of the meeting is usually a talk on procedures and general advice from secretaries, a general discussion of the diocese, geographic, demographic, social factors etc. and a discussion on what sort of chap the next bishop should be. To put all this combined wisdom into a comprehensible form a drafting committee will be formed.

The secretaries will then advise the VSC as to whether to suggest names at the meeting – which it is their perfect right to do – or not; and advise on the method of voting to produce the required members to go forward to the Commission itself and the decisive, top secret meeting.

Once these four representatives have been elected they will be invited, along with the permanent members, to submit names for consideration. These names must be marked “mandatory” or “non-mandatory”. All “mandatory” names must be discussed. In practice the others seldom if ever are.

The CAC convenes in a secret location at 4pm and goes into session. The Archbishop of the Province takes the chair and the secretaries explain the procedure. Before any discussion the members stand and are required to make a solemn vow that they will, for the rest of their lives, never reveal anything of the content of the discussion of the meeting. The committee members have their diocesan description and wanted list for episcopal characteristics. Later they will receive a list for 12-15 candidates (the mandatories) to peruse along with an extract – sometimes only a paragraph – from the candidate’s bishop’s reference.

(The secretaries have much more substantial files and information but these will only be consulted to answer specific questions about a candidate – assuming you know the right question to ask.)

The two reports (VSC’s and the secretaries’) are then discussed, usually with the diocesan reps. being asked to comment first. This will usually take up to Evensong at 6pm, which is followed by supper.

After supper the list of candidates and mini references are distributed. Each reference is read out loud and there follows a discussion of each candidate in turn. Some candidates appear “problem free”, insufficient is known or no particular lobby is out to get them and they go on the clean pile.

Problematic candidates may be eliminated or simply go on the other pile for overnight reflection and reconsideration. Candidates rejected could technically be brought back in the morning; but in practice this never happens.

The second day begins with Communion and breakfast and then a review of the surviving candidates – sometimes a majority survives to this stage.

Then each member is asked to vote, placing all surviving candidates in preferred order. The secretaries take the ballot papers out and count them. The one with the least votes is eliminated. This process is repeated until only one candidate is left. The whole process is then repeated without the successful candidate to produce a second name. These two names have to have the support of eight of the working members.

The secretaries then ask if the Commission wishes the names to be put in order of preference to the Prime Minister. That decision made, the whole show is wrapped up, often by morning coffee time, and the diocesan delegates are left to wonder at the magnificent mystery of it all.

In outline it all sounds remarkably straightforward – as no doubt it did when explained to “Sunny Jim” Callaghan some quarter of a century ago. In practice it is deeply flawed and open to serious misunderstandings or even abuse.

In my next article I shall attempt to outline what some of these problems are, how they work against the wellbeing of the church of God and point to some possible solutions or, at least, improvements.

A few months ago New Directions advertised for people to send in their experiences of this process at every level. I am very grateful to all those who have written or telephoned. Your co-operation has been invaluable in giving a much clearer picture of this process than is available to anyone other than the permanent members of the Crown Appointments Commission.

Your anonymity and that of your diocese will be respected unless you have specifically waived it. Indeed I have not written to thank you all personally in case in years to come, a letter from me be found among your effects and you be denied a decent Anglican burial!

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