The Bishop of Willesden the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent gives a forthright assessment of the failings of General Synod and the workings of other National Church Institutions

A few Synod hours down the line from your first entry into the debating chamber of General Synod, you begin to ask yourself questions, ‘Who runs this place? How does the business we are discussing get on the agenda? And what is it here for?’

In my view, those questions need to be addressed urgently and with a coherence greater than we have managed thus far. Time is running out for the National Church Institutions.

The ‘who runs this place?’ issue was meant to have been addressed in the report Working as One Body, but is still unresolved. The new Archbishops’ Council and the House of Bishops Standing Committee are about to have another go at sorting this out. Who makes policy, determines the agenda, sets priorities?

Setting the agenda

Of course, what happens when there is a policy vacuum is that the civil servants take over, putting control of the agenda in the hands of those who work in Church House. Inevitable really, and hard to resist. Here is an example. A Council works for months on a report. The report is submitted to the Archbishops’ Council and the Business Committee for inclusion on the Synod agenda. Neither body can see any particular reason why it should be discussed, but there is no policy framework for keeping the item off the agenda. Special pleading then sets in (‘We’ve spent so much time on this…’). The outcome? The Synod ends up discussing a report which only a few enthusiasts are interested in and which will make not a whit of difference to the mission of God. Worse still, the motion accompanying the report refers it to the dioceses…

The notorious Hind Report, product of Ministry Division apparatchiks and the CME ‘give us a job’ industry, scraped its way through Synod and has now become the policy of the Church of England simply because nobody had the power or the balls to say ‘no’ to it at any stage in its journey.

But all this is merely symptomatic of a deeper malaise, which is this. Although the National Church Institutions have over the years performed an invaluable task in serving the work of the Church of England at a national level, enabling the interface between church and governmental institutions and developing policies for the whole Church, we have now moved into a new era, where we need to ask some fundamental questions.

Time for a change?

Is the present organization defensible? As a member of the Steering Committee for the National Institutions Measure, I was disappointed that the Church Commissioners chose to fight a rearguard action to preserve their territory. As a result of this defensiveness, it has taken longer than it might have done for us to move to national conditions of service and joined-up ways of working.

It has also meant that more fundamental questions about our modus operandi have not been addressed. In the context of shrinking resources at diocesan, deanery and parish levels, can a case still be made for the current national level of provision? Is there a sense in which the slowness of the process at national level has meant that we have still not really moved on from an old way of working into a new way of working?

Secondly, and more fundamentally, is the committee culture any longer the way the church should be working? Society is now moving away from the old bureaucracies to networks of relationships and slimmed-down forms of governance. Much of the way that General Synod and the National Institutions operate is predicated on a modernist worldview and old ways of being church that have little resonance with emerging generations of Christians. The possibility of participation in the synodical process by people under the age of 30 looks very slight.

Structure and cost

Thirdly, can we justify a structure of boards, committees and supporting agencies that is based on a 1970s or 1980s culture? Local government has largely abolished its committees and moved to cabinet government. The Diocese of London has rid itself of all its boards and committees, except for those which have to exist for statutory reasons, with no discernable detriment to the mission of the church in London. What rationale is there for continuing at NCI level structures and departments that no longer exist at diocesan level?

Finally, many would want to argue that the current level of provision is no longer affordable. The Diocese of London has made the case strongly in a time of financial cutback, where Church Commissioners’ monies are no longer available and the parishes have to bear the costs of clergy and services, that it cannot continue to justify the costs of an unreformed National Church Institutions structure, and simply will not pay for it in the future.

Proactive reform

In relation to the boards and councils of the National Church Institutions, I would like to see us asking:

Do they add value to the work of the church at a national level? In what ways? Do they further, rather than complicate or obstruct, the mission of the church? (If the policy decisions made by the boards and councils over the past two years were to be analysed, what definitive effect have they made on mission in the Church and in the world?)

Do the boards and councils do anything more than provide a plausibility structure and point of reference for the departments who serve them? Is there a culture of symbiotic cosiness between officers and members, and does the interaction of board members with those who report to them actually make any real difference?

If we were starting from scratch, would we really want to invent this board or this committee?

Does the board or council produce work and reports that are remembered and referred to again two to three years after their publication? (It is arguable that the majority of church reports are merely fodder for Synod to discuss and make no impact at all on the church at large. The glorious exception to this is Mission Shaped Church which, by its out-performance of other reports, seems to show that if a report really has some use and integrity it will be given wider currency in the church – and acted upon.)

The world, or society, and the church have changed. Are we prepared to undertake a radical reform of what we deliver at NCI level as a proactive exercise, before the climate of change overtakes us and forces us to a more unconsidered and unplanned pattern of service reductions based purely on financial considerations?