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Of the Making of Bishops

Postcard from London

The Church of England last week announced a theological review of its Crown Nominations Commission, the body that chooses candidates for appointment to vacant diocesan bishoprics.

Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers begins with a comical episode of bishop selection. Early in the story Archdeacon Theophilus Grantly is on the horns of a dilemma. His father, the Bishop of Barchester, is at death’s door. The archdeacon knows he has the support of the Prime Minister, but the PM’s hold on power in Westminster is eroding fast. A different administration would end the archdeacon’s hopes of preferment. In these circumstances, how should he pray?

Until the 20th century, Trollope’s fiction was not all that far from reality. The Prime Minister had a decisive part in choosing the Church of England’s bishops. Indeed, the early Victorian era has been called “the Prime Minister’s heyday.” The church was often bypassed completely in senior appointments. Lord Palmerston (Henry John Temple, 1855-58 and 1859-65), under the influence of Lord Shaftesbury, saw to an evangelical ascendency. With Benjamin Disraeli in power from 1868, Queen Victoria clawed back a more decisive role. It was entirely possible for a Prime Minister to name a bishop without consulting the archbishops or other church bodies.

The final say in bishop appointments remains the right of the Sovereign. Experts say this signals, symbolically at least, that the choice by the Sovereign is an action of the laity. For strict constitutionalists this apparently carries importance.

How names finally come to the Crown for appointment, however, has been a moving target since the early decades of the 20th century. It is the task of the Prime Minister of the day to put names to the Sovereign. A system gradually evolved in which the Archbishops of Canterbury and York kept lists of candidates deemed suitable for senior appointments, and after consultations with the vacant diocese they would send names to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister put them to the Sovereign for the final decision.

As late as 1974 the Queen was taking an active part, choosing Donald Coggan as Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Michael Ramsey had nominated his former student, Bishop John Howe, who was at the time secretary general of the Anglican Consultative Council.

There was in the inter-war years a conflict with the government about attempts to set up a representative consultative body in the choice of bishops. How decisive should the church’s say be? From a church perspective, there was suspicion that the Prime Minister’s appointments secretary often had too much power as a kingmaker.

In 1976 there at last was agreement between the church and government, but even then it was a compromise. A Crown Nominations Commission was set up. The church would have preferred to choose its bishops. But Prime Minister James Callaghan insisted that since 27 diocesan bishops were by constitution voting members of the House of Lords, the Prime Minister should retain a right of veto. He would put two names before the Sovereign in priority order, but reserve the right to ask for other names should any of the church’s nominees be thought unacceptable. The secretary general of the Anglican Consultative Council enjoyed observer status when the body chose an Archbishop of Canterbury.

When a diocese is vacant there is a panel with a standing national committee working alongside a diocesan vacancy-in-see committee. Rarely has a choice by this body been overturned. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is understood to have rejected the left-leaning James Thompson as Bishop of Birmingham.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown (2007-10), son of a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, made the single change to the system since its inception by requiring the church to offer just one name.

What theological issues will this review committee consider? Without doubt it will revisit the issue of whether the government or the Sovereign should have any part in choosing bishops. Whenever questions concerning the Establishment of the CofE have come before the General Synod in the last three decades, the Synod has always been cautious. Arguments have tended to turn on the notion that you can never predict results if one important strand is removed from a delicate fabric.

The review is unlikely to favor wholesale change, like open elections. Certainly in the last decade the internal processes of the Crown Nominations Commission have become less arcane: it calls for résumés and conducts interviews.

A much-vaunted issue is the kind of bishop to emerge from a process so full of checks and balances, which critics consider a recipe for blandness. One could not, however, argue that the late David Jenkins, the outspoken Bishop of Durham, was in any way a bland bishop. What would it take to make anecdote into firm evidence?

There is certainly a reasonable case for increasing the involvement of the Communion when choosing a future Archbishop of Canterbury.

Prayer-book Therapy: Dementia sufferers often respond well to good memories called up from their past. A report by the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission wants to revive traditional language from the 1662 Prayer Book that many older people learned during childhood.

Dementia is a growing problem in the United Kingdom. An estimated 1.5 million people will face living with it by 2039.

The Rt. Rev. Robert Atwell, Bishop of Exeter, who chairs the Liturgical Commission, is quoted by the Daily Telegraph: “Journeying alongside those living with dementia is a costly business, but hugely important in our society where dementia is on the increase,” said the Rt. Rev. Robert Atwell, who chairs the liturgical commission, in The Telegraph. “Many find that the familiar words of worship and the singing of hymns reach into confusion and unlock the gates of memory.”

The commission, he said, is working in partnership with specialists “to encourage good practice and create resources for dementia-friendly services so that sufferers and carers alike can be assured of God’s love and compassion.”

Tutu’s Volte Face on Euthanasia: The occasion of Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 85th birthday triggered world headlines as the retired primate spoke in support of assisted suicide.

“I have prepared for my death and have made it clear that I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs,” a weepy Tutu told a congregation at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. “I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life’s journey in the manner of my choice.”

Tutu, after being treated for prostate cancer, has been in and out of hospitals in recent months with related infections. “Today, I myself am even closer to the departures hall than arrivals, so to speak, and my thoughts turn to how I would like to be treated when the time comes,” he said.

Vaughan Luck, spokesman for Doctors for Life, responded: “I can’t understand the reasoning behind it and I completely disagree with it.”


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