A step towards disestablishment…then secularism…
By granting the Church of England operational independence, the Prime Minister simply abdicates his authority to approve or reject the names proposed by the Crown Nominations Commission. The reason given is that Mr Brown wants his government to be seen as representing ‘all faiths and all cultures’ and not tied significantly to the Church of England. This proposal raises the possibility that he might take steps to remove the right of bishops to take their seats in the House of Lords.
‘Not tied significantly’ is a phrase pregnant with implications, since the tie of the English Church to the English State has been significant indeed. If the tie becomes no more significant than that enjoyed informally by other faiths, it is a moot point as to who will crown the next monarch, and by what authority.
But there is a more concerning issue which underlies this development, and that is quite simply that the existing hierarchy of the Church of England has already demonstrated its inability to choose its leaders. A further concentration of powers will lead simply to a self-perpetuating cabal. The reason there are so few Evangelical Protestants in the Church of England hierarchy is that very few are deemed to be theologically, spiritually, or pastorally in tune with the ‘mainstream’ of Liberal-Catholicism. It is therefore the Liberal-Catholic wing which will dominate all future appointments, and it will ensure that it retains that power. Interestingly, a Synod report of 2001 foresaw these developments:
Some of those who have made submissions to us have expressed a wish for an electoral system more comparable with those of other Anglican churches to be adopted in the Church of England. The submissions made to us do not, however, suggest that such a change would enjoy widespread support, nor would we favour such a change. What we have said about vocation in paras 1.19–1.26 above means that we would not be happy with a system which allowed public campaigning by or on behalf of candidates, in which candidates were publicly identified, or in which consideration was restricted to those willing to stand for election and appear before the electors… These factors would not apply to an electoral college system such as those practised in Ireland and Wales, but we do not believe that, at least in the English context, the careful and frank discussion which is possible in a small commission could take place in a meeting of around 50 people.
At the moment, the Commission consists of people who are part of, or are appointed by, the existing hierarchy. The process of putting two names to the Prime Minister, of which one is chosen by him and sent to the Queen, is a relatively recent innovation made by James Callaghan. Prior to that, the Church had very little input at all. The last thing the oligarchy desires is democracy, especially when it comes to appointing those who will work alongside, and one day replace, them.
In actual fact, the appointments process is already almost entirely controlled by the existing bishops. The Commission draws up the names that will go forward for 'preferment', but the hierarchy itself draws up the list of clergy who are considered to be suitable. Most diocesan bishops are already appointed from existing suffragans, and suffragans are appointed by diocesan bishops. The system is already a self-perpetuating oligarchy. If one takes a view which is contrary to the ‘mainstream’, potential suffragans are simply informed that they are not suitable, or ‘not ready’ for preferment.
Mr Brown may simply want to be rid of an inconvenience or an anachronistic anomaly. Being a Presbyterian Scot, he wouldn’t mind too much at all what befalls the Church of England. But that other meddlesome Scot, Cardinal Keith O’Brien said: ‘I am deeply disappointed at the statement from Gordon Brown. I remain deeply concerned that the Act of Settlement will continue to exist and believe it constitutes state-sponsored sectarianism… I wrote to Gordon Brown in April 2006 following comments he made on the role of the Prime Minister in the selection of Church of England bishops to say that the terms of the Act of Settlement were anachronistic and that it was an outstanding example of bigotry and sectarianism in the United Kingdom…but did not receive a reply.’
Let us hope that the silence is maintained. What, after all, hath Rome to do with Canterbury?