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Church of England looking at how it chooses its bishops

Church of England looking at how it chooses its bishops

In a Church of England Synod discussion on the workings of the Crown Nominations Commission, Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, suggested that the Primates of the Anglican Communion should have a larger role in deciding future Archbishops of Canterbury.


The Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) is the body responsible for making recommendations for appointments to bishoprics in the Church of England (CoE). Appointments of bishops in the Church of England are made by the Queen, as Supreme Governor of the Church, who acts on the advice of the CNC.


The commission is usually chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury or York, dependent upon the province of the vacancy. Its membership includes central members nominated by the General Synod, and diocesan members, nominated by the diocese in which the vacancy occurs. In the case of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the CNC is chaired by an independent lay member of the Church of England, appointed by the British Prime Minister. Additionally, a Primate of the Anglican Communion is selected to join the Commission.


The subject of the “take note” debate, essentially a presentation, was a theological review of the Church of England’s process for selecting bishops undertaken by Professor Oliver O’Donovan (Emeritus, University of Edinburgh).  The review, three years in the making, is titled Discerning in Obedience.


The review judged that the CNC works well, but acknowledges there are “painful points of pressure” which need to be addressed.

“Our view of the overall structure of the CNC process is positive. It is capable of serving the church well, even in a stormy setting. It has already acquired a considerable tradition of practical wisdom. It is built on good practices of consultation that evolved under the aegis of the Prime Ministers, as well as on historical understandings of the role of the laity in church appointments. Though as a whole it is unique to the Church of England, it contains many elements in common with procedures of other churches of the Anglican Communion.  It can call upon the most generous service from lay Christians who bring impressive gifts and experience to bear on the task. We shall undertake to show that it rests on responsible theological grounds, and that we may and should have confidence that God will speak to us through its means. Yet there are painful points of pressure on its current operations, and these need to be addressed effectively.”


In their conclusion, one of the key pressure points highlighted by the reviewers was the issue of representation.  They are concerned that the breadth of voices needing to be heard in selecting a bishop are largely silenced.  In speaking of the appointment of diocesan bishops they noted;

“It is important that the central diocesan administration should not be the only voice to be heard on the CNC (5.13)… We also think that there should be the same equal balance of clergy and laity as is required among the central members.”


In looking at the selection of the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, they also felt the balance of representation was off;

“Thirdly, in interpreting the nomination of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in the same context, we noted that the role of the Lay Chair is an important link between the church and the wider political society, as befits a role with a high national profile. We suggested that the appointment of the Lay Chair for York, and not only for Canterbury, might rest with the Prime Minister (5.21).

We also noted that the House of Bishops needs to have stable representation in the nomination of an Archbishop and proposed tighter arrangements for this: that on the CNC for York the Archbishop of Canterbury should continue to have a position ex officio, with the other episcopal position reserved for a bishop of the Northern province elected by the whole House of Bishops; on the CNC for Canterbury the two episcopal seats should be chosen by election by the whole House of Bishops, one to come from the Northern, the other from the Southern province (5.20). We also observed that diocesan representation on the CNC for Canterbury is out of proportion, and favoured the proposal to reduce diocesan representation to one lay and one clerical member (5.19).”


They also recommended more more collegiality and more transparency in the proceedings of the CNC, eliminating secrecy in voting and calling upon the Archbishops, as chairs of the CNC to;

(a) to relax the atmosphere of secrecy around CNC proceedings, except as is necessary to preserve confidences entrusted to them and to avoid publicity that would impede its work or hurt the dignity of the Crown Nomination (6.4). We have argued that confidentiality is imposed on a limited set of proceedings for a definite purpose, and that an excessive culture of secrecy can undermine the confidence and trust it hopes to build (2.14)

(b) to experiment with bringing candidates invited for interview together with the Commission to share in the Eucharist and a common meal. (6.3)

(c) to consider ways in which the interview process might be more imaginatively organised, to enable fuller interaction between candidates and Commission members (6.3)


In his response, Welby suggested that along with the reduction of diocesan representation, representation from across the Anglican Communion, in the person of representative primates, should be increased.  He said that the current constitution of the CNC when choosing the Archbishop of Canterbury “doesn’t, at the moment, reflect the full balance of the Anglican Communion.”


He further added that; “The work of the Archbishop in the Anglican Communion is quite demanding and quite extensive. The representative of the . . . other members of the Anglican Communion – about 90 per cent from the Global South – when I was interviewed was the Archbishop of Wales [Barry Morgan] who is a wonderful man who did a wonderful job as Archbishop of Wales, but may not have entirely represented the Global South.”


He said such increased representation would lead to “a balanced and diverse representation of the entire Anglican Communion.”


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Professor Christopher Seitz

The Anglican Communion wanted to think of itself as catholic, which implied a measure of catholicity (shared belief and practice) across the globe. With this was the idea of a Mother See. Rootedness in the BCP, which in the 1662 version was actually shared throughout the GS, for example. Independent canon law and institutional polity, including in the case of the CofE, establishment. This was all good so long as there were no major issues — major because those in the communion declared them so. It appears shared idea has timed out. One suspects that the independent polity is soon to be independent theology and practice. Welby looks like he’d like to do something about this but I believe it is too late. Our global reality will look like the reformed churches.

The Reverend Doctor Ellen Marie Barrett

What could possibly go wrong? This is one of those ideas out of Lambeth that pays lip-service to diversity, but opens up the possibility of a whole new front in the Anglican Wars and further splintering within the already fractured ‘Communion’, never mind the chaotic and largely directionless C of E. I pray for the ABC and the worldwide Anglican family, but I also thank God that ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of Scotland.’

Cynthia Katsarelis

The other elements of change to the CNC may be reasonable. However, Welby’s call to allow representation, especially from the “Global South” in the nomination of the ABC is a formula for the end of Anglicanism – which rejected a Pope or foreign religious powers interfering with local religious sensibilities. Much of the Global South is hostile to women’s ordination. Remember how KJS was treated at Anglican events? Let alone SSM. This would ensure that there is no female ABC or ABY in the foreseeable future. It is a way to force extreme conservativism on CoE’s liberal majority for generations to come. CoE is already out-of-step with England’s sensibilities on equality. This idea is not driven by differing theologies on divorce or lay eucharist (Australia). It’s how to enshrine global homophobia. It’s disgusting. There’s already an ACC and a Secretary General. That’s how a communion should operate, not with coercive overseers.

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