Once in a while Synod comes into its own. Generally speaking the Church groans under the weight of its dignitaries and its bureaucracy. Parishes nobly try and get things right, but how often do they feel that the might of the hierarchy is ranged against them? Their every initiative to raise the money to get on with parish ministry is rewarded by a heavy impost of extra quota. They wonder why the Church seems fated to turn even the simplest of things into a dog’s dinner and feel powerless to influence events.
Muffling with Methodists
The Council for Christian Unity spends lots of our money having conversations with all and sundry and is currently engaged in detailed discussions with the Methodists, amongst others. A modest proposal to ask them to address some of our doctrinal differences in the course of these conversations seemed to ruffle a lot of feathers. Many of us who wish the process well are nevertheless not enamoured of the argument that since Anglicanism is now so broad that virtually nothing is excluded, it won’t really matter if the Methodists bring a bit more diversity to the party. One would assume that since John Wesley was an Anglican, his present day followers wouldn’t have too much difficulty agreeing with us about the Scriptures, Creeds, formularies and so on. However, some felt that if there was a doctrine of perfectionism around and Methodists were praying to ‘Our Father and Mother’ it would be worth sorting these matters out before we got enmeshed in the detail of merging our pension funds. The Methodist pension fund, by the way, is reputedly very well funded.
Well, the fox was well and truly in the chicken coop and we were treated to a well-orchestrated next business motion to ensure that we didn’t say anything that the hierarchy didn’t want us to.
It was quite a different story when we came to the debate on implementing some of the proposals arising from Baroness Perry’s report on reforming the Crown Appointments Commission. If you want to know what is right or wrong about the CAC, you can do two things. First, talk to someone who has been involved in one of the meetings to select a diocesan bishop (or more properly to choose two names to forward to the Prime Minister). Second, look at the 43 diocesan bishops the CAC has produced and judge the system by its results.
Tuesday afternoon’s debate on proposals to reform the procedures of the Crown Appointments Commission started off in a fairly low key way. Professor Michael Clarke introduced the report and after suitable pleasantries Synod entirely predictably voted to take note of the report.
It was then that the fun began. The Revd Paul Collier from Southwark moved an amendment to the main motion (to implement the proposals) asking that the candidates to be considered should be interviewed before the Commission decided which names to forward to the Prime Minister. No-one was able to come up with any comparable post where candidates were appointed without interview. Some took the view that interviews were not a particularly reliable view of sorting the wheat from the chaff, but the consensus seemed to be that not interviewing candidates was less likely to lead to a satisfactory outcome. In particular, it was felt that if a candidate was well known to some members of the Commission, but not known to others, (a very likely scenario) then the members of the Commission could hardly enter into a debate on the merits of the candidate on equal terms. The motion was put – and carried.
Next in the fray was Dr Philip Giddings from Oxford. He wanted the Commission to vote (as the original Perry Report had recommended) positively for the candidates that members favoured rather than negatively against those they liked least. If you have ever voted in an STV election with say seven or eight candidates, you will know that you probably have a strong preference for the candidates you put as number one and number two, but by the time you get to number 7 or 8 you are probably not too bothered which order you put them in. It seemed a sensible proposal but when it was put to the vote the show of hands was evenly balanced so the Chairman ordered a count of the whole Synod.
We held our hands in the air for what seemed an interminable time and eventually the Chairman announced the vote was so close he would order a division through the doors. So the division bells rang and we trooped through the doors. When we returned we found the amendment had been lost by 188 votes to 192. That was a real shame, but hopefully the follow-up group may think better of their proposal before it comes back to Synod for further debate.
The next amendment, from Professor Clarke himself, was to rename the Commission the Crown Nominations Commission rather than the Crown Appointments Commission. This was passed with little debate and then we moved on to an amendment from Stephen Trott (Peterborough).
The CAC (or CNC as we will have to call it) consists of the two Archbishops, six members of the General Synod and four representatives of the diocese where the vacancy has occurred. Stephen Trott wanted to include eight rather than four people from the diocese. There seemed to be a great deal of sympathy for this piece of democratization and again the vote was close. A count was inconclusive, so it was through the doors again and lo and behold the amendment was duly carried by 197 votes to 180.
With Synod in high spirits and the operation of the CNC now undergoing the kind of radical surgery that could spell the end of the oligarchic system of the past, you could almost hear the alarm bells ringing. The platform was in disarray and the panic buttons were being pressed.
Before we knew it the adjournment was being proposed. We couldn’t even agree that on a show of hands so it was through the doors again. I can’t ever remember a division of the whole Synod just to decide whether we adjourn or not. It soon became apparent that many people weren’t at all clear whether we were adjourning debate on Stephen Trott’s amendment, the amendment he was trying to amend or the main motion. Having voted by 226 to 153 to adjourn, it all became a bit academic since Professor Clarke, realizing the debate had now run out of time said that he didn’t intend to bring forward the rest of his proposals anyway.
More of the same?
So where do we go from here? Will the powers that be accept that Synod, on behalf of Church members everywhere, is demanding a radical reappraisal of the procedure for nominating diocesan bishops? I wonder, I really do. Something inside me has just a sneaking suspicion that when we return in February somebody will be telling us that we have all been naughty boys and girls and that we should now backtrack and let the proposals through in their original form. Who knows, even as I write the House of Bishops may be planning another of their Mexican Wave performances to thwart the wishes of the ordinary church members we represent.
On the other hand wiser counsels may prevail and there may be an acceptance that the Church is its parishes and its people – and not just its dignitaries. Will the voice of the ordinary worshipper prevail?
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.