Church Commissioners
Church of England

Election of Church Commissioners – how best to assess the candidates

The US Mid-Terms are not the only important elections about to be determined this autumn. The voting papers have just been sent out to the members of the Church of England General Synod to elect 13 of the 33 Church Commissioners; the others being appointed for their technical expertise by the Crown or the Archbishops. We are, of course, the Established Church.

The work of the Church Commissioners is hugely important as the CofE website explains.

What will first catch the eye is the substantial investment funds for which these Commissioners hold responsibility, currently valued at some £8.3bn. But what will also leap off the page to anyone trying to maximise a financial return on retirement funds is the impressive annual rate of return achieved – 9.3% over the last 30 years, according to the last Church Commissioners’ Report.

Historically, the Church Commissioners have been true and faithful servants, supporting mission and priestly ministry across all traditions, and doing much charitable work besides, all while using their power in the marketplace to leverage their ethical influence far beyond their own resources. ‘Follow the smart money’ is not a bad investment strategy, and given their history of success, ours is the smart money that others follow.

Plainly, the professional expertise of the appointed Church Commissioners is very high, but those chosen from the General Synod to contribute and oversee the decisions are also important, and I am pleased to report that a wide range of very high-calibre candidates has been nominated in this election.

The same can be said for those seeking election to the rather less racy roles on the General Synod’s Scrutiny Committee, whose members will oversee the complex drafting of our legislation. It may sound dry (and probably is), but it is important work across a variety of areas such as Faculties, Clergy Discipline, Church Representation, and Ecumenical Representation. It is work for which many of us would happily disqualify ourselves with a faint sigh of relief that that particular cup of duty has passed us by.

The voting papers have recently arrived, and I along with Synod colleagues now have the responsibility of deciding how to prioritise the candidates’ competing merits and rank them using the system of Single Transferable Vote. Yet how are we to choose? How can I best discharge my duty on behalf of those who elected me?

Each candidate is allowed but 200 words to set out their stalls for these technical and important roles. With the best will in the world, it is hard for those offering themselves in service to make an effective appeal to those who do not already know them.

There will be some on the ballot whom I know because they are from my Diocese; others I will have come to know through the support they have offered in my area of specific concern – safeguarding and victim support. I might look at who proposes or seconds a candidate, looking for clues about them, but how reliable in this context would that be? Yet others I might know because I caucus with them in one of the various perfectly legitimate groupings of Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, WATCH or Inclusive Church, except, like Groucho Marx, who famously would not belong to any club that had people like him as a member, I remain deliberately independent and unaligned. So many of us will have relatively little to go on as we puzzle over an unnecessary paucity of information by which to make important choices.

I am sure that few of us wish to have to study overly lengthy election addresses, and we ought to applaud the avoidance of paper waste and postage costs, yet if we take seriously the principles of ‘Transparency and Accountability’ with which we regularly season our public utterances, surely important elections such as these call for more than lip service to those important principles?

How much transparency can anyone display within such a tight word-count? What if a candidate has every talent except that of extreme concision? Equally, some who have already served well in the roles are given little opportunity to describe their contributions in so few words.

It may be interesting to see how many do not exercise a vote because they do not feel able to cast informed and competent votes.

The solution is readily at hand. When candidates seek election to the General Synod, we are allowed 1,500 words in which to share what we can offer. We are invited to be transparent and to make ourselves accountable. Our election addresses are then published on Diocesan websites. As we elect people to important roles in the Church, there is no reason why we cannot conveniently publish more substantial election addresses on the Church of England website to enable the electorate to be better informed, the better to serve the Church.

It is a fair, inexpensive, easy and modern solution to a modest but important problem – that of ensuring that our decision-makers are well informed. If I wished to add to the burden of Bishop Pete Broadbent as he struggles to drag the Church of England into the 21st century through the ‘Renewal and Reform’ initiative for which he bears responsibility, I might suggest another working party. Yet that ought to be unnecessary for is it not self evident that this is a cheap and practical improvement and entirely consistent with the objectives of the ‘Renewal and Reform’ agenda?

We have released an optimistic video which explains the vision underpinning ‘Renewal and Reform’: it means “going digital”, “simplifying Church Law” and “using money and resources to resource the future”. I acknowledge that I am advancing a very prosaic suggestion, but surely, using the first objective, the better to select those who will deliver the latter two for us, is both self evident and easily implemented?