Secrecy and the election of bishops

There has been a lot of comment lately in the British press and media about secrecy. Injunctions against even reporting the fact that there is an injunction relating to the peccadillos of sporting or political (or even media) figures have been taken out, flouted, and rescinded in the face of the world’s scrutiny in Facebook and Twitter. The press has been full of stories bemoaning the loss of freedom of the press (which only applies to those who own one, as the adage says). The morality of a media figure, who is paid to expose the faults, failings, and future plans of politicians and public figures, taking out a so-called superinjunction to prevent the media reporting his name and the fact that he had an affair and thought that he had fathered a child from this affair has been questioned and ridiculed. The media figure (Andrew Marr, a BBC journalist and reporter who took over the prime Sunday morning interview slot from Sir David Frost when the latter decided to hang up his fangs) rescinded the superinjunction due to the pressure.

Yesterday, Andrew Brown writing in The Guardian newspaper revealed that the Very Rev’d Colin Slee, late Dean of Southwark, had written a memorandum before he died recounting some of the machinations behind the appointment of a new Bishop of Southwark. A disclaimer: Southwark is my diocese, the Cathedral is in the Deanery of which I am Lay Chair, and I work together in Diocesan Synod and Bishop’s Council with all the people from Southwark who were involved in this meeting.

The process for appointment to a vacant bishopric in the Church of England is open in parts, but the main event, the actual selection of two names to be forwarded to the Prime Minister, one of which will be passed to the Queen for announcement as the next bishop, is shrouded in secrecy. At the time of the meeting, when Stephen Bates reported on the leak of the Very Rev’d Jeffrey John’s name from the selection meeting, I blogged about the whole thing, and said that I expected more revelations. Well, they have now come, in spades.

One of the members of the Crown Appointments Commission, until his death from pancreatic cancer in November, was Colin Slee, elected to represent the Deans of Cathedrals on that commission. After the selection meeting took place, he was so upset that he wrote a memo about it, reportedly after he was diagnosed and knew that his condition was terminal. His daughter and widow are convinced that the stress of this meeting contributed to his rapid decline, and thus they, in conjunction with The Guardian, released the memo.

It paints an interesting picture of the meeting, held at the Royal Foundation of St. Katherine at Limehouse (in fact, I went to a meeting there last Saturday and we met in the same room in which the selection committee met). The two names that were proposed by the representatives of Southwark Diocese were Jeffrey John, currently Dean of St. Albans, and the Rev’d Nicholas Holtam, then Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square, now Bishop-Designate of Salisbury. Jeffrey John is openly gay, and partnered, but chaste, and Holtam is married to a woman who contracted a marriage when quite young, then divorced, and then met and married him. At the time, this debarred Holtam from selection as a Bishop, although the rules have since been clarified.

Jeffrey John had been appointed Bishop of Reading in Oxford Diocese in 2003, but resigned that appointment before he was consecrated because of opposition from Evangelicals in that Diocese and elsewhere. He had at the time been Canon Theologian of Southwark, and a good friend of both Archbishop Rowan Williams and Dean Colin Slee. There was a huge amount of angst around his resignation, and many people were upset, not least John, his partner, Colin Slee, and the Rt Rev’d Tom Butler, then Bishop of Southwark.

The selection committee met in July, 2010, on the evening of a Diocesan Synod. I recall some of the members of the committee coming into Diocesan Synod late, and noting the strained smiles on their faces. Now I know why.

If you read Brown’s article, you will get all the sordid details of the bullying of the members of the selection committee by the Archbishops, including a visit by the Archbishop of York and several other members of the committee to the men’s room, after which the voting patterns changed. I wonder what they were up to in there.

But all of this is background to my main thesis: the process for selection of Bishops of the Church of England should be changed, and soon. The current process (where representatives of General Synod, representatives selected by the Diocese in question, and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, meet in secret, sworn to secrecy, and choose two names for the Prime Minister) only works if the secrecy part works. The machinations accompanying the appointment can thus be as pleasant as can be, or acrimonious and threatening, as no one who was not at the meeting will know about it. There is no requirement for give-and-take if pressure and lobbying from various factions is conducted in secrecy. I find it odd that the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is so puzzled and troubled by the apparent secrecy of Freemasonry, takes advantage of secrecy to bully and threaten people to vote his way when a bishop is selected.

My proposal is to provide the oxygen of publicity to the process. Let bishops be openly elected by Diocesan Synods, with confirmation by the other Dioceses of the Church of England, then the name submitted to the Queen for the formalities to be preserved.

The process would start, after the declaration of a Bishop that s/he (I am ever hopeful…) is about to retire, with the Vacancy in See committee drawing up a job description with advice from members of the Diocese, and then appointing a Nominations Committee to solicit candidates. A number of candidates would be proposed to a special meeting of Diocesan Synod, and after a dog-and-pony show, Diocesan Synod would elect the new Bishop. Once the election was held, Dioceses would be asked to confirm (or not) the election, and Bishops with jurisdiction would also be asked for their consent. A majority of Dioceses and Bishops would have to consent before the Bishop-elect could be consecrated.

Now I have been told again and again that the mechanisms by which the Episcopal Church governs itself are not in any way applicable to the Church of England. Usually, this comes in a very condescending manner, “Oh, dear, that would never work here.” Well, when I ask why it would never work here, I get no answer at all. The simple declaration that it would not work seems to be enough. There is a sneering tone that even Bishops take when commenting on how the Episcopal Church conducts its affairs, and I am starting to get quite annoyed about it. Bishop Tom was a great sneerer-in-chief when I would speak in meeting and at Diocesan Synod about items like stewardship in US Episcopal Churches. It’s really stupid and short-sighted not to rationally and impartially consider different ways of doing things in the Church.

When people do stoop to commenting on the election of bishops, the main objection seems to be that making the process political lowers the quality of bishops, since only those with political skills get elected. Well, my reaction is: Bushwah! The process now used here is as intensely political as it is in the Episcopal Church; the only difference is that the politics is limited to around 15 people, rather than an entire Church or a Diocese. The quality of Bishops can be as good here with elections as it is now, with selection committees. Elections in the US have produced poor Bishops in several cases. However, selection committees here have produced poor bishops in several cases as well, and seems to militate against outstanding bishops in many ways. Jeffrey John would be an outstanding bishop, but will never be selected while the current system is in place. And while I would hesitate to name those I consider to be poor at bishoping, those familiar with the Church of England will have their own favourite names for that category.

So dear Colin, who was an outstanding personality and a charismatic Dean, and someone who was not afraid in the least of controversy, continues to be controversial from the grave. I do not expect any comment from either Archbishop on these revelations. They will be profoundly embarrassing to everyone who cares, even a little bit, about the future of the Church in England. I hope, but do not expect, that this sordid story will at last move the Church to examine the process of selecting bishops and make changes to bring the light of day and democratic procedures to what is, in a Catholic but Reformed church, a most important post.

One post scriptum: this story will also profoundly affect the Diocese of Southwark and Bishop Christopher. Were I the Bishop, I would be very embarrassed and unnerved by hearing the news that the selection committee from the Diocese, with which I needed to work closely, thought that I was the third- or fourth-rate candidate, and had been bullied into selecting me. The Diocese will also be very upset by this news, but both Bishop Christopher and the Diocese ought to grapple with these facts in order to ensure that the Diocese continues to grow (we are growing!) and thrive.

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