Tuesday 5 October 2010

The appointment of bishops – interviews introduced – is this news?

Behind the scenes all sorts of conversations are taking place amongst those of us dreaming of and working for a Church of England and Anglican Communion in which justice is done, women and LGBT people fully included, and where decisions are made in an adult way in an open process and communicated with clarity. At present in England a culture of secrecy predominates.

The LGBT Anglican Coalition is working creatively in relationship with Inclusive Church and Thinking Anglicans. The focus of our work is varied but there is a great capacity to be generous towards each other and to share dreams, ideas and strategies. We are, at heart, a fellowship of Christians, Anglicans, some with big egos, some with very practical skills, who enjoy working towards a common goal in the context of warm friendship.

That’s an introduction to yet another example of the way in which the Church of England works. It raises further questions about the culture of the Church and the way changes are made and communicated, reinforcing my belief that the whole system needs a dramatic and radical change of ethos. Information about change slides unwillingly into the public arena and often comes to light by sheer chance.

Thanks to Simon Sarmiento and Peter Owen at Thinking Anglicans I’ve learnt a bit more about the processes of the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC).

Simon wondered if I had been referring to Jeffrey John and Southwark in a previous post. Jeffrey certainly knew he had been nominated, says Simon, because everybody nominated nowadays is asked to supply documentation to the commission. Starting last week with the Bradford meeting, those still remaining on the list for the second CNC meeting are asked to attend the CNC for interview. So they definitely know they have been nominated.

I wondered how widespread the knowledge about the change in interviewing practice that started with Bradford is. And I wondered what inadequacies are still in the system.

Peter says he’s not aware that there has been any formal announcement about interviews being introduced. Isn’t it surprising that such a significant change which affects the appointment of new bishops has happened without people really knowing? Those attending interviews will know and the members of the CNC will know. But the current version of the guide to the process (Briefing for Members of Vacancy in See Committees) prepared by the Archbishops' Appointments Secretary that you can download here is dated November 2009 and makes no mention of interviews.

Peter spoke to a member of the CNC who thinks people were told at July's General Synod but Peter (who was there) doesn't recall hearing anything. He says it could have been in a GS Misc paper or a notice that wasn't given to the press; it being somewhat hit or miss which papers are given to the press or put online. The first he knew that interviews had actually started was when he happened to see it mentioned on the Salisbury diocesan website when he was looking for something else.

This whole process highlights what is so wrong about the way the Church of England functions and the way bishops come to be. At present they are nominated, which may or may not be better than being appointed. A committee which meets in secret recommends the nomination following consultation. But the process is not transparent. Bishops are not elected as in the Episcopal Church, and the TEC process is such a novelty for the CofE and the rest Communion that few are aware that in the USA bishops are ELECTED – and meet real, ordinary people in the diocese first, so that the opinions and experience of the people of the diocese can be taken into account.

There are advantages and disadvantages, just as there were when diocesans appointed suffragans with a greater degree of freedom and Prime Ministers were able to impose their will on the process of diocesan appointments. At least back then we got some bishops with strong characters and personalities – but we also got the mavericks.

The second thing that is clearly wrong is the lack of transparency in making changes in the process of appointing bishops. Most of the changes being made in CNC procedures follow from recommendations made in the 2001 Perry report, although the report didn’t think interviews were a good idea. The Church, each diocese, those of us for whom the appointment of bishops matters a lot – women, LGBT clergy and others – need to know when the system has changed and why and how, because it can work to our very serious disadvantage as many supporters of CA have and are finding to their cost.

I wonder who is being best served by the current process. Is it the wider church, the people of the diocese, or is it, as I suspect, those who function within the system with a mindset that needs to control the process and the information that is made available publicly.

Colin Coward

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  1. The Archbishops' Senior Appointments Adviser has now told me that the introduction of interviews was announced by the Archbishop of York at the February meeting of General Synod. I failed to pick this up at the time, and the only excuse I can offer is that Archbishop made his announcement after a lengthy session of legislative business and immediately before lunch!

    I have now published details of the announcement on Thinking Anglicans.

    I would also like to say that it is only the GS Misc papers that are not always issued to the press or put online. The main GS papers are all put online, and the press office are very efficient at supplying the press with paper copies.

  2. Colin, you said 'Bishops are not elected as in the Episcopal Church, and the TEC process is such a novelty for the CofE and the rest Communion that few are aware that in the USA bishops are ELECTED'.

    Is the TEC process such a novelty in the Communion? Here in Canada bishops are also elected, and I had the impression that this was the case in the majority of the Communion. Am I wrong?

  3. Tim, I think, though I'd have to check, that it's quite a small minority of Provinces that elect bishops and it has been a constant annoyance to our TEC friends that England assumes every other Province appoints in the way that England does, in secrecy.