Thinking Anglicans

Governing the Church

St. Francis did it in his own inimitable style. Faced with trying to discern God’s will at a crossroads he invited his companion to whirl round on the spot until he fell down. The direction in which his body lay was the one Francis took.

Pausing a moment to imagine a Church of England where General Synod was replaced by “Spin the Archbishop”, I want to pose the question of how the church should structure its decision making in order to seek God’s will.

There is a timeliness in asking. Nationally the Church of England must come up with a process that determines whether and how women might be admitted as bishops. Next month the Primates from around the world meet to give their response to the Windsor Report. Last week the ECUSA bishops reminded us all that their decision making structures give greater weight to the views of laity and priests than many other Anglican Churches.

Having signed up to the simple mantra “synodically governed — episcopally led”, I’m beginning to feel we need to think deeper. Are we holding to a model of decision-making fashioned according to the principles of committee government, but living in an era when both theory and best practice have moved well beyond it. Good governance is increasingly built around smaller bodies whose members are expected to weigh a range of viewpoints rather than to press the case of a particular consistency. Individual governors take lead responsibility for aspects of work. Boards concentrate their energies on the key “Mission-critical” issues and devolve other decisions to more subordinate levels. Ironically it is exactly what the Archbishops’ Council should be equipped to deliver — if only it had been given a more appropriate remit.

Alongside governance theory I would also like to lay some theological criticism. A Christian entity that claims the right to determine direction has to be corporately rooted in Christ. In my own Diocese our Synod and Bishop’s Council meetings have improved in direct proportion to the extent that they come together in worship. It is not enough to be individually devout. Decisions need to be taken in a community that is striving to form itself as the Body of Christ through corporate prayer, worship, study of scripture and fellowship. And I suspect that just as there is a size above which a congregation no longer functions as a single body, so too for a council or synod.

Lastly, and I hope still in the domain of theology, I want to raise the importance of trust. Decision making bodies lose their legitimacy once those on whose behalf they function cease to trust them. More positively the baptismal liturgy emphasises that our relationship with God is characterised by belief and trust. Historically democratic governance structures were justified on the basis that the ballot box maximises trust by allowing the greatest number to give or withdraw their confidence. This is not a place to begin a general critique of democracy in the 21st century; but it is important to recognise that democracy is not a “good thing” in itself — rather a means to achieving greater trust in some instances.

So as both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion struggle with some momentous decisions I want to follow the hints in the Windsor Report and suggest that at the top of the agenda should not be “what” we decide but “how” we decide. And to press that the characteristics we are looking for in a good decision making process are the adoption of best practice, corporate holiness and the maximisation of trust.

All three of which are less obviously present in our current mechanisms than they were in St. Francis’s dizzy brother.

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Yes we need perennially to review the way we are governed. And it is time for the Church of England to do so – indeed, it probably now has the capacity to do so for the first time in its history. The blueprint of the present structures was thrashed out in the 1850s, with relatively minor tinkering since. Some suggestions: 1) Turn the CofE into a membership organization in which members may – solely by right of membership – have a direct voice in its governance. 2) Elect bishops. This is hardly radical in Anglican terms. If the electorate included… Read more »