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Synod 2: The untold story of the Crown Nominations Commission

Ernest Borgnine in "Red"

The other week, I went to see the new movie Red with a fellow Curate. Enjoyable, silly shtick it was too (what’s not to like about the regal Helen Mirren wielding a .50 calibre machine gun in a ball gown?) However, I digress. I mention it because, halfway through the movie, there is a lovely scene where the CIA’s retired Bruce Willis goes down to a long-forgotten-about vault to consult paper files stewarded by a long-forgotten-about Ernest Borgnine (perfect casting really… I thought he was dead. Seriously… no offence meant but I really thought he had died).

The scene came to my mind today as I sat down to recount the story of the Diocese of Rochester’s Vacancy-in-See Committee and our particular troubles with Synodical elections.

Cast your mind back to 2009 and the resignation of Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali. I guess a Vacancy-in-See Committee is a little bit like Ernest Borgnine in the vaults of the CIA. It is long forgotten and no-one really cares who is on it as long as you have a Bishop – particularly one who has ten years or so till they might retire. It’s in the Diocesan Directory, quietly gathering dust under Ernest Borgnine’s careful stewardship, until it might be needed.

Then, all of a sudden, a Bishop resigns unexpectedly and, suddenly, everyone is rushing down to Ernest’s vaults to find out what happens next and who gets to choose. As the dusty files are lifted and carefully consulted, we discover as a diocese that General Synod representatives sit on the Vacancy-in-See Committee automatically. Oh, and look at that, we have three people from one parish church amongst our General Synod reps. Still following? So, three people from one parish are now on our Vacancy-in-See Committee (ViS).

Still, perhaps it isn’t quite that bad because it is the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) that chooses a new Bishop. However, the ViS gets to send six members to that CNC. So, what happens when our ViS chooses their six? Two of those three General Synod representatives from the same parish church get elected. 33% of our diocesan representatives from one church.

Hopefully, I don’t need to spell out any further how dissatisfactory that situation looked to me in late 2009.

In 2009, since we were encouraged to do so, I wrote to our ViS. My purpose was to highlight what I considered to be a major flaw in the process and to encourage them, for the benefit of our future Bishop’s ministry, to reconsider. I wrote:

“This issue could threaten the validity of the new diocesan bishop in the eyes of his diocese. It would be awful to think that some would express dissent and displeasure from the outset with your choice as a Commission just because of this issue of representation <ED: i.e. over-representation from one church>. We ought as a diocese to have wholehearted trust in this process which, in turn, can enable us to give a wholehearted mandate and full backing to the new diocesan bishop when chosen.”

I received a response that didn’t really take on board my comments, to be honest. Instead, it highlighted that everything had been done above board and by the book. I never doubted that it had been.

My issue was, and still is, that there is a flaw and a loophole in our current process for choosing Bishops. What I’d really like to see is some kind of rule from the Crown Nominations Commission that prevents a ViS nominating more than one person from the same parish church, so that this situation cannot occur in the future.

In the case of the Diocese of Rochester last year, I think the honourable thing would have been for those people that were all from one church to perhaps select only one of their number to be considered in the voting or for one to step down when it became apparent that their colleague would get in.

I want to be clear, as I was in my previous post about Synod, I have no particular argument with the people concerned or with the parish church concerned. My concern and issue is not with the people, but with the principle of the matter. It should not be allowed to happen.

I also want to make it clear that I am fully supportive of Bishop James as our next diocesan Bishop of Rochester. I look forward to getting to know him and working for him and I am quietly optimistic (not knowing him very well at present).

I didn’t blog about this issue at the time, in 2009, since I didn’t want to create problems for our Diocesan ViS committee or for the CNC as they made their deliberations.

However, now that we talk more about the abstract – rather than the particular circumstances of the Diocese of Rochester – wouldn’t this be a sensible loophole to close? Shouldn’t the CNC have a rule that prevents such over-representation from one church?

Mind you, I say it’s a conversation in the abstract… I hope Bishop James is able to stay longer than five years. If he doesn’t, given that we didn’t learn our lesson with Synod elections one iota from 2005, we’ll have another ViS with another over-representation from one parish church on our hands!

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