It was one of those moments on Monday afternoon where I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing at General Synod. It was like there was an elephant sitting in the chamber and everyone was pretending to ignore it, because they weren’t sure that others could see it.
The odd bishop popped up and said smoothly and reassuringly that there wasn’t anything to worry about, and that the non-existent elephant wasn’t in danger of trampling anyone to death. The elephant of course was called ”˜disestablishment’, and the debate was on a report on senior church appointments, many of the recommendations of which had already been derailed by Gordon Brown’s announcement last week that he will relinquish the Prime Minister’s role in the appointment of diocesan bishops and other posts.
The Archbishop of York’s first reaction to Gordon Brown’s statement last week was to welcome its fulfillment of a 1974 General Synod motion which called for the Church to have the decisive role in Church appointments. In 1976, a compromise was reached between the Church and the then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, in the creation of the modern system for Crown Appointments. The Church from thenceforth would submit two names to the Prime Minister in priority order, and the Prime Minister had the freedom to choose one of those names, or ask the Church for more. There was no call by General Synod back then in 1974 for an absolute end to a Prime Ministerial role in Crown Appointments.
With the Archbishop of Canterbury on holiday, Archbishop Sentamu’s unseemly haste to welcome the Green Paper may come to be seen as a defining moment in Church/State relations. Any development in relations between Church and State should be the subject of much greater consultation than a presidential edict by a new Prime Minister who is simply trying to make his mark. And it must be said that although the Prime Minister’s announcement was made in a statement on a Green Paper, the period for consultation concerns the details rather than the principle itself. Synod members were told in no uncertain terms, that given the nature of the announcement and the welcome of the Archbishop of York the matter was a fait
However once Gordon Brown made his bid the Church of England should have done more than to simply welcome it. It should have reminded the Prime Minister that in his hands lies one aspect of the Royal Prerogative which has worked as a system of Crown Appointments serving both Church and State well. To give up this ”˜patronage’ over Crown Appointments in such a cavalier way is not to reduce the power of the executive but to increase it, because it suggests that the power to remake the relationship between Church and State lies in the hands
of the Prime Minister alone.
Furthermore, the only reason Callaghan decided to retain a ”˜veto’ in 1976 was because of the specific role of the Lords Spiritual in the Second Chamber. As Lords reform proceeds
it will no longer be possible to point to a link between Church and State as a reason for retaining the Lords Spiritual. The best we can expect now is for a vastly reduced bench
of bishops in the House of Lords. So it was ghastly to see Synod representatives totally wrong-footed by the Green Paper, and disconcerted in the face of government determination to re-write the Church/State relationship on its own. Worst of all was to see Bishops and church leaders co-opted by the government to announce and reassure Synod members that government policy in no way intended disestablishment.
Bishop John Gladwin, from his privileged position as an adviser to Jack Straw on Lords reform, stated that Her Majesty’s government had no wish to see either its Green Paper announcement or House of Lords reform ”˜enmeshed in disestablishment’. “This is evolutionary reform,” he suggested, “We should welcome the transparency that this move by government represents.”
However I remember Bishop Gladwin and others uttering similar reassurances that Civil Partnerships did not make gay marriage. Even then they were wrong-footed by a government which was announcing in press releases that wedding bells were due to ring out for same-sex couples when civil partnerships came into force. It may well be that this move to hand over
Crown Appointments to the Church of England is the right thing, however this was not the widespread view only a few weeks ago. In the Pilling report, ”˜Talent and Calling’ which the Synod debated on Monday, the Prime Minister’s active role was being praised.
“The removal of this patronage [in Crown Appointments] and the downgrading of the Downing Streets Appointments Office which would inevitably follow, would mark a further stage in the disengagement of Church and State in England and it is quite possible that it might in turn prompt further changes and accelerate a process of disestablishment.” It is the ultimate capitulation by the Church to state that point of view one week in an important internal report, and then to meekly roll over the next after a Prime Ministerial announcement. It is inconceivable that so many leaders in the Church of England have so enthusiastically changed their minds, as to now welcome the disengagement of the state from the church.
The coded dismay among Synod members was over the loss of the valuable skills of the Downing Street Appointments Secretary. Yet such civil servants, however gifted, come and go, it is the principle that remains. Any steps to alter the Church and State relationship should be a matter of negotiation between Parliament, the Crown and the Church of England. Gordon Brown and leaders of the Church of England have betrayed this principle.
–This appears in the Church of England Newspaper July, 13, 2007, edition, page 16