The Church Commissioners and the Archbishops’ Council

by Philip Jones

It must be admitted that the Church Commissioners do not fit neatly into the two-structure, late mediaeval-late Victorian, constitutional model of the Church which was described elsewhere. 

The Church Commissioners were established as such by the Church Commissioners Measure 1947.    They are the successors of two earlier corporations,

(1) the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and

(2) the Governors of Queen Anne’s Bounty.

The Commissioners still include six senior officeholders of the secular state, the Prime Minister, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord President, the Home Secretary, the Culture Secretary and the Speaker of the House of Commons (Church Commissioners Measure 1947, schedule 1(1) as amended).  Before the National Institutions Measure 1998 there were many more secular officeholders who were ex officio Commissioners. 

There is also a continuing secular influence over the appointment of some other Commissioners.  Two of the three Church Estates Commissioners are appointed by the Crown, the third by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Ecclesiastical Commissioners Act 1850, s.1).  Three more Commissioners are appointed by the Crown, and a further six by the Archbishops jointly.  However, three of these six appointments require consultation with the Lord Mayors of London and York, and the Vice-Chancellors of the ancient universities.  The other Commissioners are all Church appointments.

The Commissioners are an entirely statutory, secular creation, a product of the will of Parliament, and they include secular officeholders.  The Convocations, Church Assembly and the other synods, by contrast, were not created by Parliament, although Parliament subsequently conferred statutory recognition and powers on them.

The Ecclesiastical Commissioners were first established by an Act of 1836 (just before the reign of Queen Victoria).  They therefore predated the revival of the Convocations and the development of modern synodical government.  As its name implies, Queen Anne’s Bounty was the initiative of the Queen herself (who reigned from 1702-1714), but the Governors were incorporated by Act of Parliament.  The primary object of Queen Anne’s Bounty, in accordance with the Queen’s ‘gracious intention’, was ‘augmenting the maintenance of the poor clergy’.

The Act of 1836 which first established the Ecclesiastical Commissioners was precipitated by the reports of two royal commissions.  The recital to the 1836 Act records that these royal commissions were appointed to investigate the state of the Church and make recommendations of structural reform ‘conducive to the efficiency of the Established Church, and to devise the best mode of providing for the cure of souls’. 

The Ecclesiastical Commissioners were established by Parliament to institute structural reform at a time when the secular state still accepted a direct responsibility to support the ecclesiastical state and its cure of souls.  This accounts for the appointment of secular state officeholders as Commissioners. 

According to the 1947 Measure the Church Commissioners, like the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, were established for the purpose of promoting ‘the more efficient and economical administration of the resources of the Church of England’ (recital).

Thus the Commissioners’ functions today remain broadly the same as those for which their two parent bodies were created

(1) structural reform of the Church (now known as pastoral reorganisation) and

(2) maintenance of its ministers.

The original purpose of the Commissioners is well illustrated by the form of consecration of new churches approved by the Convocations in 1712 (shortly before they were suppressed).  The consecration service includes a prayer of thanks for ‘our gracious sovereign and the estates of this realm [i.e Parliament] [who] supply the spiritual wants of thy people, by appointing this and many other churches to be erected and endowed …’ (quoted by Phillimore in Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd edition 1895, at p.1395). 

Thus the Commissioners were the creation of Monarch and Parliament rather than the Church.  They were the means by which Parliament was to ‘supply the spiritual wants’ of the English people.  Just as other public authorities were, and are, established by Parliament to promote education, trade, health and the environment, so the Commissioners were established to promote religion.  They were the nearest equivalent in England to a department or ministry of religion.

Of course, the secular state no longer accepts responsibility for the cure of souls.  This can now be supported only on a voluntary basis, which is the function of modern synodical government.  Certain secular officeholders remain Commissioners, but their involvement in the Commissioners’ work is now virtually non-existent. 

Thus although the Commissioners’ parent bodies were pre-modern, pre-secular creations, the Commissioners have effectively been adopted by, and integrated into, the modern synodical system.

The Archbishops’ Council was created by the National Institutions Measure 1998.  The function of the Council is ‘to co-ordinate, promote, aid and further the work and mission of the Church of England’ (s.1(1).  This function is similar to that of the Commissioners, though even more widely drawn.  Yet although the 1998 Measure created the Council, it did not abolish the Commissioners.

This means that there are now two national authorities dedicated to very similar purposes, one an ecclesiastical body, the other (originally) a secular authority.  The logic behind the creation of the Archbishops’ Council would seem to dictate the eventual abolition of the Commissioners, or their absorption by the Council, but there is little sign of this 14 years after the 1998 Measure was passed.

However, the 1998 Measure makes provision for the transfer of functions exercised by the Commissioners to the Council.  A transfer of functions order is effected by an order of the Archbishops under s.5, subject to the approval of the General Synod.  S.5 expressly permits the transfer of the Commissioners’ responsibilities for pastoral reorganisation of the Church.

Certain functions exercised by the Commissioners may not be transferred under the 1998 Measure.  There are four categories of reserved functions in s.5, the management or ownership of assets vested in the Commissioners, the Commissioners’ dealings with bishops and cathedrals, and their functions concerning Church pensions.