The Church of England must become more democratic
The mechanism by which the Church of England appoints its archbishops, bishops and suffragan bishops is archaic and convoluted, going back to the Appointments of Bishops Act 1533 and the Suffragan Bishops Act 1534. The 1533 Act enshrined in law that the Sovereign could order cathedral chapters to elect the Sovereign’s nominated cleric on pain of praemunire. That sanction was repealed in 1967, and the Colleges of Canons emerged. This has developed into both clerical and lay involvement while reserving the ultimate decision to the Crown.
The process is now one of committees – the Crown Appointments Commission became the Crown Nominations Commission, consisting of elected clerical and lay members (six members of the General Synod – three clerical and three lay) and six elected members of the diocesan Vacancy in See Committee, along with the Prime Minister’s Appointments Secretary and the Archbishops’ Appointments Secretary (non-voting). When the vacancy concerns Canterbury, the chairman is nominated by the Prime Minister, and the committee is joined by one of the members of the Primates Meeting of the Anglican Communion (voting), elected by Joint Standing Committee of the Primates Meeting of the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Consultative Council. Also invited is the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion (non-voting).
This Vacancy in See Committee elects the diocesan representatives to the CNC. Its ex officio members include all suffragans and stipendiary assistant bishops, the cathedral dean, no more than two archdeacons, any diocesan members of the General Synod, and the chairmen/women of the Houses of Clergy and Laity of the diocesan synod. Elected members may not be fewer than two each of clerical and lay members of the diocesan synod. Further, the diocesan bishop’s council may nominate up to four additional members in order to secure representation of a ‘special interest’ or to ‘improve’ the representative character of the Committee as a whole (yes, really).
This being the second day of the of His Grace’s restoration to the See of Canterbury, he would like to announce that all this fuss and nonsense will cease forthwith. Either we return to a secret conclave of bishops or we let democracy flow like a river. What is unacceptable is the facade of democracy sustained through committees of the elite who may then introduce additional members to ‘improve’ the representative character of that committee.
Give churchgoers the vote. It might not stem the decline, but it would reinvigorate communion and the processes of participation. His Grace is aware that churchgoers are not the same as parishioners, and that this has implications for the nature of establishment, but a degree of democratic accountability would compel bishops and archbishops to focus on ministering to their sheep, instead of chasing after the Guardian-reading goats and indulging disproportionately in Thought-for-the-Day sound-bites on relatively trivial matters of gender and sexuality.
His Grace will turn to reforms to the General Synod in due course. But the only way of repairing the gulf that has grown between the laity and the episcopacy is for the latter to be made more accountable to the former and that means being more in communion. We are not talking about a ballot box at the altar, but of creating an inspirational culture of active participation which renders the episcopacy accountable to the clergy and both more accountable to the laity who are all accountable to God corporately.
Never again can we have a committee which is deadlocked leaving ordinary Anglicans to #prayfortheCNC (which leaves the majority twiddling their thumbs). If the Archbishop of Wales can be elected by an electoral college; if the Pope of Rome can be elected by a Conclave of cardinals; if the Pope of Alexandria can be shortlisted by 2,000 ordinary members of the Coptic Church of Egypt (and the final one selected by a child), it is utterly reasonable (not to say a procedurally imperative) for the bishops and archbishops of the Church of England to be democratically elected.
This would have the effect of binding the laity closer to the clergy and the episcopacy. As democratic politicians know, when the grassroots are involved, they feel valued. When they feel valued, they work better. It’s just love in action, you see. When you ask Anglicans to pray for a secret committee meeting at a secret location, they are blind and directionless, like sheep without a shepherd. When they know for whom they are praying and why, they discern wisely and respond to the shepherd’s voice (or, if necessary, the sheepdog’s growl). Imagine the inspirational prayer, sense of expectation and ‘waiting on God’ if Anglicans had been voting between the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of London and the Bishop of Durham to fill the recent vacancy in the See of Canterbury.
His Grace knows that this ‘modernisation’ won’t go down too well in some corners. But the Early Church upheld the principle of Vox Populi, Vox Dei – the voice of the people is the voice of God. One can better lead a divided church when one is both gifted by God and empowered by God’s people to lead it.