Church of England

A female Bishop of London “to make a statement”?

The Rt Rev’d Dr Richard Chartres retires as Bishop of London in February (he will be greatly missed – ‘Peer Now!’), and according to the Times (..hold loosely..):

Bishop Chartres abstained from appointing women priests despite appearing to support the idea, and his resignation has been viewed as an opportunity to make a statement.

Among the favourites are thought to be the Right Rev Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester; the Right Rev Christine Hardman, the Bishop of Newcastle; the Right Rev Jo Wells, the Bishop of Dorking; and Reverend Vivienne Faull, Dean of York Minster. Another contender long tipped to become a bishop is Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the priest-in-charge at St Mary-at-Hill in central London and chaplain to the Queen.

There is one name on there which..

O, never mind.

This paragraph is perched beneath the headline: ‘Women prepare for a power grab in church, police and BBC’, which carries the opening line: ‘Theresa May is poised to oversee the introduction of women into three key positions of power this year..’

Which may well be the case with the police and the BBC, since the Home Secretary is responsible for appointing the new head of Scotland Yard; and the Culture Secretary has enormous influence over the appointment of the head of the BBC’s new Unitary Board. But the responsibility for choosing the next Bishop of London (and, indeed, all bishops) rests with the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) and them alone.

Since Gordon Brown amended the Constitution, thereby altering (indeed, weakening) the constitutional relationship between the Church of England and the Executive, the Prime Minister and other ministers are no longer advisers, and consequently conduit, to the Crown. Frank Field MP long argued for the Prime Minister’s continued involvement in the process, on the grounds that any attempt to diminish the involvement of the Crown in Church of England appointments would lead to disestablishment by default. However, his argument did not prevail: it is now the task of the CNC to submit the name of a preferred candidate (and a second appointable candidate) to the Prime Minster, who is constitutionally responsible for tendering that advice directly to the Queen. This is no longer the Prime Minister’s advice, but that of the CNC: the Prime Minister’s role has been reduced to that of a postbox. Basically, the Crown Nominations Commissions is advising the Crown; ie, the Crown is advising the Crown. The Prime Minister no longer possesses the unfettered right to advise on ecclesiastical appointments, and so a crucial constitutional ‘check’ or democratic ‘balance’ has been lost.

Jim Callaghan observed as far back as 1976:

There are… cogent reasons why the State cannot divest itself from a concern with these appointments of the Established Church. The Sovereign must be able to look for advice on a matter of this kind and that must mean, for a constitutional Sovereign, advice from Ministers. The Archbishops and some of the bishops sit by right in the House of Lords, and their nomination must therefore remain a matter for the Prime Minister’s concern.

And Professor Vernon Bogdanor wrote in 1995:

In the case of the appointment of archbishops and bishops, there is an even more powerful reason why the prime minister must be the person to proffer advice. It is that the archbishops and the senior bishops sit as of right in the House of Lords. Therefore, for as long as the Church of England remains established and remains an Episcopal church whose archbishops and senior bishops sit in parliament, the State cannot divest itself from its concern with senior appointments…

For as long as there are Bishops in the House of Lords, there are many who believe that their appointment ought to be subject to a degree of political and democratic accountability. But we are where we are, and it is not where the Times suggest we are: Theresa May is in no position to facilitate a “power grab” by any female candidate for Bishop of London; nor will the Prime Minister “oversee” the process in any way which gives her authority to intervene, or even to advise.

Perhaps it is time to consider reforming the ghastly opaque and bureaucratic mechanism by which our bishops are chosen, for God forbid that the next Bishop of London might be chosen “to make a statement” about gender power. The Crown Nominations Commission is composed of learned and experienced individuals, each of whom will have their own proclivities, biases and theological preferences. And each of them will be abundantly aware of the challenges and opportunities that should be taken into account in considering the appointment. If they are not, they shouldn’t be there.

Might it not be a good idea to appoint a Bishop of London who preaches that salvation is to be found in Christ alone; or one who will ‘hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle‘ (2Thess 2:15)? How about one who adheres to the XXXIX Articles? Wouldn’t these be better statements for the new Bishop of London to make than “Hey, look, I’m a woman!”?

Should the CNC choose a woman, she is unlikely to be a female Richard Chartres: the Commission as constituted is a self-perpetuating oligarchy of the theologically liberal and politically left-leaning, and their choice of Bishop will naturally reflect this (Chartres didn’t, after all, make it to Canterbury). Perhaps Gordon Brown knew this in 2007 when he surrendered the Royal Prerogative. Basically, the CNC’s preferred candidate will already be the choice of the Prime Minister and Archbishops’ Secretaries for Appointments, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it – it’s less democratic than a papal conclave.

Of course, Her Majesty the Queen, being the Church’s Supreme Governor, could veto the chosen candidate and instruct the Commission to elect another. But that is not remotely likely.

Nor is it likely that Theresa May will attempt to use the Vacancy in See “to make a statement”.

Frankly, the Scottish Presbyterian Gordon Brown bequeathed the Church of England something of a dog’s breakfast. It is time to reform the reform.