Working with the Spirit

The workings of the Crown Appointments Commission have been widely discredited during its quarter century of operation. It has provided the illusion of consultation, the appearance of giving full and thorough consideration to each vacancy as it has arisen and has squared the political circle of allowing ‘the Church’ to choose its own leaders while leaving fairly unfettered the Prime Minister’s powers of patronage.

The workings of the CAC have been shrouded in secrecy. Even the times and places where the CAC meets have been treated as classified information. No doubt the Spirit has been involved, but what sort of Spirit one can only guess. The conclaves in smoke-filled rooms do however seem to have nominated Old Boys of Ripon College, Cuddesdon on a remarkable number of occasions.

The report of a review group, chaired by Baroness Perry of Southwark dropped through my letter box a few weeks ago. It proposes a radical overhaul of the CAC, which is long overdue – and starts by proposing the renaming of the CAC to the Episcopal Nominations Commission, which at least uses the right English words to describe its function of proposing names to the Prime Minister.

Unnerving report

I found the report just a little bit unnerving. So many of the reports we receive from Church House seem to do little more than float along with a liberal tide which is ebbing away from an increasingly conservative Church of England. This report, like a breath of fresh air, is calling for many of the changes that have long been yearned for.

Secrecy and innuendo are to be swept away. For example, there is to be a Senior Appointments List and clergy will actually have the right to know whether their names are on it. The stranglehold enjoyed by existing diocesan bishops will be broken. They will no longer have a near-monopoly of placing candidates in the pool from which appointments can be made. The PEVs for instance will be able to champion the cause of clergy with orthodox beliefs and it will actually be possible for an ordinary mortal to nominate someone for inclusion on the list.

A nominee’s diocesan bishop will still have important input to make, but at least there is some kind of appeal procedure against non-inclusion in the appointments pool. It will no longer be quite so easy to ensure a preference for anodyne ‘company men’. Those on the list will be invited to check the factual information held concerning them and will be told how many names are on the list and how many appointments are likely to be made.

Geographical lottery

The report also notes the geographical preferment lottery that currently exists. Some diocesans are apparently better talent spotters than others. The figures quoted show that thirty five diocesans have nominated no more than 10 of their clergy for consideration for higher office. The other diocesans have nominated anything up to 25 each. The report observes, ‘Some of the differences in the number of nominations per diocese can be explained by the size and type of the dioceses concerned; many cannot. We consider that this degree of variation is unacceptable.’

When it comes to the Commission meeting to consider who to nominate, members will have before them not only the candidate’s nomination form and confidential references, but a statement from the candidate himself. No longer will members have to discuss the qualifications of a candidate they do not know (who does not know he is even being considered) on the basis of unattributed briefings.

There is a refreshing breeze blowing through the review group’s thinking. One recommendation is that ‘The practice whereby the Secretaries read extracts from documents which are not shown to members of the Commission should be discontinued. The principle should be that all candidates should be treated similarly and fairly. If any further information is introduced by anyone during the discussion, it should be attributed.’

Vacancy in See

There are some sensible proposals to prevent Vacancy-in-See Committees holding elections for the ‘diocesan four’ where all members of the Committee are candidates. Forty candidates each receiving one first preference vote does make a mockery of STV! The election of the diocesan four will take place at the end of the Committee’s final meeting and candidates will need to be proposed and seconded by other members of the Committee – with no person allowed to propose or second more than one candidate.

There are some more dodgy proposals buried in the twelve pages of recommendations including one that the Bishop’s Council (which currently is able to add two additional persons to the Vacancy-in-See Committee) should be able to add ‘not more than four’. This is ostensibly to represent special interests, but I hope it is just my suspicious mind that fears this would merely help to tip the voting slightly more in favour of establishment candidates.

Baroness Perry’s report certainly acknowledges the concerns felt that the strength of orthodox believers, and in particular conservative evangelicals, in the church is not reflected in recent Episcopal appointments. The report urges that we should try to ensure that the procedures of the Commission do not perpetuate this imbalance.

However, two major hurdles remain. The first is that the Report could be mauled in Synod and have its teeth drawn. There are plenty of reactionary forces, not least in the House of Bishops, that might perceive the kind of openness called for as a threat. One dares to hope that we won’t be treated to a repeat of the Mexican Wave performance that the House of Bishops put up a few years ago at York. This report deserves a fair wind.

The second hurdle will be whether the members of the Episcopal Nominations Commission can actually make the system work in practice. They could probably go on appointing Old Boys from Cuddesdon until the chariot wheels of the Church of England sink into the sand, if they really have a death wish. Let us pray that renewed procedures may make possible a renewed Episcopate and a renewed and vibrant Church of England.

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