Bishop of Leeds lays groundwork for comprehensive reform of church governance
The archaic, “very complex and fragmented” governance of the Church of England should be simplified to avoid repeating past failures, the Bishop of Leeds, the Reverend Nick Baines, warned at the General Synod on Wednesday afternoon.
The bishop, who chairs the Governance Review Group (GRG), presented his first report, which calls for urgent reform of Church structures, including the seven governing bodies known as National Institutions of the Church (News, September 17).
These are the Council of Archbishops, Church Commissioners, Pension Council, Archbishops of Lambeth and Bishopthorpe Offices, C of E Central Services (Finance, IT, Legal, HR) and National Society (which oversees religious schools and education in England and Wales).
In addition, there were 122 bodies within these institutions. âThis was probably not what Jesus had in mind when he commissioned Peter to nurture and grow a Church,â he said. âIt does not serve the Church well. “
The Governance Review Group was created by the Archbishops and the House of Bishops before the pandemic. It began its work in August 2020 to review the national structures of the Church and “where appropriate” to make proposals for reform. It finished its work in July of this year.
A previous attempt at simplification, the Turnbull Report of 1990, sought to create a single national council, leaving Church commissioners solely responsible for managing assets. At the time, however, âspecial interests were defending their territories. We didn’t get the nettle, âBishop Baines said. âThese proposals are more nuanced, in line with the practical needs of the Church.
The object was not unification but what the bishop called âgreater transparency, accountability, simplicity, accessibility and coherenceâ of the governance structures of the Church. “The purpose of the review is to find practical ways in which the refocusing of national structures and processes can ease the burden on the diocesan and parish to enable parishes and local churches to flourish.”
There were challenges – not because people were obtuse, he said, but âbecause that’s what happens when governance structures grow and develop over time without scrutiny and regular and frequent reform âto reflect the world around us. Likewise, the law on charity has not stood still for 25 years.
Every voice the group had heard during the year-long consultation process called for urgent reform, he said. The complex structure of boards and committees with sometimes overlapping responsibilities “results in a lack of clarity and decision-making, low commitment to consensus building and effective policy implementation, and low responsibility towards the Church at large. . . Other than that, it’s great, âhe joked.
There have been too many instances where the current structure has failed, Bishop Baines continued. He cited the failure of the implementation of works in the church buildings mandated by the Synod; communication problems between governing bodies on ministry planning; and “perhaps most devastatingly, a failure in decades by the governing bodies of the Church to seize the safeguard and protection of the most vulnerable.” These could have been avoided or mitigated, he said.
IN ITS REPORT, the group recommends reducing the number of NCIs by merging most functions into a single charity, established under charitable law, with a diverse board of directors, tentatively named the Church of England National Services.
However, it was decided that the management of the historic assets of the Church should remain independent, he said. âThe Pension Board C de E; the National Society; and the new independent Safeguarding Council must remain independent, as it has separate arrangements for its governance and oversight, which would be difficult to disentangle at this stage. This could be revisited at a later stage.
The vision and strategy needed more unity, Bishop Baines said, which is why the GRG had proposed a “committee bonfire”: a reduction in the number of councils and committees at the national level to “the number minimum “necessary, to save time, money and energy. âServing seven governing bodies, the Church’s parliament and 122 committees is expensive,â he said, and much of that was paid for by the dioceses through the parish share.
The GRG also recommended an elected Council of Bishops to involve members of the College of Bishops in national decision-making. There should also be a review of the role of the âprincipal bishopâ on various issues – if such a position were to continue, a job description should be written with the expected inputs and requirements.
Other recommendations included a nominations committee to ensure “true diversity of membership.” . . The fault line in church cultures is trust – even when, most of the time, church and tradition don’t apply.
MORE radical was the suggestion of synodal reform. Of the hundreds of people who participated in the focus groups during the consultation process, Bishop Baines said that âalmost without exception what we heard was that the Synod was seen as disconnected, divided, dominated by parties and not representative of the concerns of the parish and the local church.
He asked the Synod: âWhat kind of General Synod does the Church of England need for the future? He urged members to come up with constructive alternatives if they did not agree with the current proposals.
He appreciated that further reflection and more details were needed, but urged the Synod not to let history repeat itself. âDon’t let these proposals be torn apart by interest groups without thinking of the larger Church group. As a Synod, you have the opportunity to help the Church build a coherent governance structure at the national level.
QUESTIONS came thick and fast. In response to Luke Appleton (Exeter) Bishop Baines said, “We cannot sidestep questions about when accurate representation does not give you the skills and experience required by charitable law.” TO Canon Lisa Battye (Manchester), who asked about the proposed bishops’ council: “The House of Bishops has built up over time a lot of fingers in pies where it doesn’t need to have a finger in the pie . “
TO Deborah McIsaac (Salisbury) he said: âThe checks and balances will be the stress test of all proposals. You need an âoutside eyeâ on any painting that is not inculturated, to ask questions that people on a painting are not used to asking. “
TO Ven. Mark Ireland (Blackburn), questioning the potential loss of the clergy and the voice of the laity, he said: âAt some point we have to say that we trust those we appoint to act in good faith, and we let’s learn as we go. “
TO Canon Bruce Bryant-Scott (Europe), who asked if there were any plans to âget rid of the Constantinian establishment chains,â said Bishop Baines: âIf we just set up the government of a Church, there is really nothing like the Church of England. You have to take that uniqueness and face it.
âWe haven’t looked at disestablishment. Our agenda was quite extensive. I don’t think establishment is simply a matter of prestige and power: it comes with a missionary obligation. It’s not a bit cheerful. We see this as a massive obligation, and sometimes a big burden. “