Tessa Munt MP intends to gate-crash General Synod on behalf of the Bishop of Bath and Wells
In their wisdom, the Church Commissioners have decided to move the Rt Rev Peter Hancock – the new Bishop of Bath and Wells – out of the medieval Bishop’s Palace and into a property which they say offers greater “privacy” and which is more “conducive to effective ministry and mission”. This has somewhat irked the good people of Wells (not so much the good people of Bath), and their local MP, Tessa Munt, is now on something of a crusade to restore the Bishop to his palace, gardens and moat.
She even put a question to the Prime Minister in last week’s PMQs.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): The Prime Minister is an ex officio Church Commissioner, and he will be aware of the plans to house the new Bishop of Bath and Wells outside the city. Will the Prime Minister do everything in his power to postpone the loss of the bishop’s palace in Wells, which has served perfectly well as the residence of the bishops of Bath and Wells for 800 years?Ms Munt is unusually fractious (for a Liberal Democrat) about this rather prosaic domestic ecclesiastical concern. So restive is she about the matter that she has even started a petition (currently with 1,062 signatures). With an electoral majority of only 800, you may understand why she has suddenly become very troubled about whether or not Anglican bishops should live in palaces. It is an ultra Con-Lib marginal: the Conservatives would be absolutely distraught if they failed to win here. The Prime Minister responded to her question thus:
The Prime Minister: That might well be a question for the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who guides me on these important issues, but I will go away and look into the issue of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. I shall try to put the image of Blackadder out of my mind and to come up with the right answer.It is unfortunate that the Prime Minister should find himself incapable of referring to the Bishop of Bath and Wells without referencing satire. Would he have dealt with a question about mosques and imams with “I just need to get those ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoons out of my mind”? Or to one about cardinals and the Vatican with “I just need to get The Da Vinci Code out of my head”?
But the Church of England is routinely mocked and derided by many in the House of Commons because the vast majority – the Prime Minister included – either do not understand history or they have very little grasp of the importance of spirituality to the nation’s health. Secular-minded politicians see the Church as an inconvenient, anachronistic constitutional appendage which needs amputating to rid the enlightened legislature of its medieval bigoted baggage.
The Bishop’s Palace in Wells dates back to 1206, and it has served bishops well for 800 years. While the Church Commissioners have deemed it unsuitable as an ongoing place of residence, it will remain the working headquarters for the diocese. His Grace would like to point out that the previous Bishop did not inhabit the whole palace: he occupied a modest flat. The Church Commissioners want to move the new Bishop temporarily to a larger detached property while they work with him and the Diocese to identify a permanent property.
His Grace is no fan of commissions or commissioners, be it in selecting bishops, managing assets or presiding over the Continent of Europe. They are distant bureaucratic bodies, generally stuffed with aloof oligarchs who are invariably indifferent and unresponsive to the voices and concerns of the people.
In this case, the Church Commissioners appear to have used an episcopal interregnum to turf a bishop out of his palace and proclaim that it must be so. They talk about the ‘sustainability’ of ministry and mission, and the ‘suitability’ of the accommodation. And there the reasoning stops. It is not clear why a bishop in a palace impinges upon ministry or mission (don’t visitors to palaces rather like them to be occupied?); and neither is it explained why the flat is no longer suitable. The Archbishop of Canterbury, after all, occupies Lambeth Palace; the Archbishop of York lives in Bishopthorpe Palace; and the Supreme Governor occupies quite a few grand palaces and a couple of castles. The people generally prefer these to be functioning historic buildings rather than monuments to an age of opulence and glory.
The Church Commissioners appear to care little for the local community. His Grace says “appears” because the body is made up of sincere and devout Anglicans who undoubtedly do care and are serving the Lord with their administrative gifts as they believe best. They are, however, hindered by certain medieval attitudes and tainted with a tinge of divine right.
The Church is (or ought to be) concerned with community and mission, and these require pastors, teachers, prophets and evangelists. It is for deacons – which is effectively what the Church Commissioners are – to serve as the administrators, organisers, planners, managers and reviewers of ecclesiastical investments (£5.5bn) and other material assets. It might help to know that the Commissioners did not take their decision in a unilateral bureaucratic vacuum: it was decided by a committee of diocesan bishops that the Bishop of Bath and Wells would no longer live in his palace. The Bishoprics and Cathedrals Committee is made up of:
The Third Church Estates Commissioner: Andrew MackieTogether they decided, as Sir Tony Baldry explained to Ms Munt, “that more suitable arrangements could be made for the ministry and living conditions of the new Bishop if he were not to live in the Palace”. In a further parliamentary response, he explained: “the palace is unsuitable because of the number of tourists and a resulting lack of privacy.”
Two Bishops: the Bishop of Birmingham and the Bishop of Warrington
Two Deans: only the Dean of Wakefield patricipated (the Dean of Wells wisely recused himself)
Two clergy: Canon J Haselock and the Revd Mary Bide
Two members of the House of Laity: Jacob Vince and Betty Renshaw.
But none of this, Ms Munt insists, was a problem for the previous bishop, nor is it a problem for countless other people living in palaces or castles which are open to the public.
But she has a majority of 800 to guard.
And her petition is now at 1,083 (yes, it increased by 21 while His Grace has been typing away). She intends to present it to the Synod as it meets next week, though it is not clear how she is going to do this given she won’t even be able to get in the building without a pass. You may disagree with the Church Commissioners’ reason, but please consider that the age of diocesan bishops living in palaces may indeed be at an end, and that may be a good thing for public witness, ministry and mission. After all, even the Pope of Rome has moved into a hostel.
His Grace has received a more detailed exposition of the reasoning from the Church Commissioners, published here for the first time. They are not so pompous, detached and aloof as not to respond to this humble blog:
As the providers of housing for all Diocesan Bishops in the Church of England, the Commissioners consider that the sustainability of the ministry of each bishop to be of crucial importance. This means that every Bishop should be housed appropriately and that their homes are properly places of rest and privacy in the midst of ministries which are increasingly demanding in terms of leadership and management, civic engagement and pastoral support of the whole diocese.Clearly, Ms Munt's 1,090 protestors (still going up) do not agree with the Commissioners on this matter, and the Church of England is apparently divided. The new bishop is (rightly) remaining above the political fray.
In arriving at their decision the Commissioners held two meetings with senior members of the Diocesan leadership team, including Bishop of Taunton, prior to any decision being taken and kept them informed of the progress of the matter through the Bishoprics and Cathedrals Committee and the Board of Governors. We listened carefully to their concerns. The fact that they do not agree with the decision that was ultimately made is not evidence of a lack of consultation.
The provision of housing inevitably involves choices and on occasion making hard unpopular decisions. In recent years similar decisions have been taken in Durham Diocese and Carlisle Diocese. In every case the provision of housing is appropriate to the local context. In Wells, the Bishop’s Palace is currently celebrating record 2013 visitor figures of 61,100; a 39% increase compared to 2012 (44,100 visitors). In addition, 53 events were held at the Palace (an increase on the 47 held in 2012), including festivals, fairs, medieval falconry, outdoor theatre, hands-on workshops and family trails.
The Church Commissioners share with the Palace Trust, who continue to be responsible for the day to day running of the palace, the hope that this increase in visitor numbers and activity will continue in the years to come.
In light of such activity it is right and proper that considerations such as appropriate privacy for any new Bishop are considered and whether it is sustainable for a diocesan bishop and his family to live in the midst of an increasingly busy tourist attraction. The Commissioners believe that it is not. Inevitably such decisions are hard choices and in this instance the Commissioners are aware that their decision has not been popular. It must, however, be balanced against wider considerations, not least where the welfare of those who by virtue of their calling find themselves in demanding positions of responsibility.
The Commissioners believe that by living in the palace, the Bishop will in practice find it very difficult to avoid devoting significant amounts of time to its maintenance, operation and upkeep. The experience of the last bishop bears this point out. It remains the Commissioners’ view that any incoming bishop should not find his ministry restricted in this way before his ministry commences.
The new Bishop played no part in the decision with the consultations with the senior leadership team taking place before the Bishop’s appointment. Going forward, the issue of the Bishop’s housing is not something which should overshadow the Bishop’s ministry. We agree with the Diocese that it would be unhelpful for this issue to be one in which the Bishop himself is expected to become involved.
In the short term, the Commissioners have invested in a property in Crosscombe which they believe will enable the Bishop to carry out his ministry whilst the search continues for a more permanent home. The property was formerly owned by the Diocese and not by the Commissioners, contrary to some media reports. The Diocese sold the property to a purchaser who invested considerably in repairs and upgrades to the property. The Church Commissioners have subsequently completed their purchase of this property. No funds from the Diocese, the monies given by parishioners on a regular basis, were involved in the purchase of the property which will be part of the property portfolio held by the Commissioners for investment purposes.
It may be very boring and is certainly far less entertaining, but is Grace believes that a broad-church Conservative-Anglican via media is eminently possible on this matter, and he exhorts his political compatriots and ecclesiastical brothers and sisters to work on it, for we are concerned with Church mission and a Con-Lib marginal.