The Preface excited remarkable interest and controversy. By a longstanding custom, its author was anonymous. However, even in those pre-internet days, anonymity was difficult to maintain in the face of relentless media attention. The then Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, publicly condemned the ‘sourness and vindictiveness’ of the Preface, and the ‘scurrilous charges’ that it supposedly made. Unnerved by the storm of controversy, and threatened with exposure, the author took his own life.
He was subsequently identified as the Reverend Dr Gareth Bennett (1929-1987), Oxford don and priest of the Church of England. His Preface is 40 pages long. It was republished in a posthumous collection of his work, To The Church of England (1988, at pp.189-228), edited by Geoffrey Rowell, a sympathetic colleague. (Bishop Rowell himself died, of natural causes, earlier this year.)
At about the same time, Archbishop Habgood published a more measured assessment of the Preface, in Confessions of a Conservative Liberal (1988, at pp.82-91). However, the tragic denouement of the controversy damaged his reputation, and may even have cost him the succession to St. Augustine’s Chair when it became vacant 3 years later.
Dr Bennett saw his task as the provision of ‘an informed and critical account of the state of the Anglican Communion and the Church of England in particular’ (p.189). Hence the need for anonymity. Anonymity made possible ‘the scrutiny of a writer who is given complete independence’ (p.190).
His essential criticism of ecclesiastical governance was that it fails to enable adequate consultation. Improved consultation will improve the quality of ecclesiastical governance, by making it more cohesive and inclusive.
The Preface identifies 3 specific failures of consultation, within:
(1) the Anglican Communion
(2) the synods of the Church of England and
(3) the Crown Appointments Commission (now called the Crown Nominations Commission), which nominates diocesan bishops to the Crown. It was this that caused all the controversy.
(1) The Anglican Communion
The Preface begins with a survey of the fragmented state of the Anglican Communion. Anglicanism began in England, of course, and the word ‘Anglican’ really means ‘English’. The Church ‘followed the flag’ as the British Empire spread across the globe.
Bennett observed that ‘The Englishness of the Communion is not what it was … with the spread of American influence and the natural desire of African and Asian dioceses to break with their colonial past and develop their own indigenous styles’. The Book of Common Prayer and its derivatives have fallen into ‘virtual disuse’ (p.197), and the new liturgies ‘have distinct doctrinal differences from each other’ (p.198). This prompts the rhetorical question: ‘without its English style what does keep the Communion together?’ (p.197).
Another fragmenting force is the rejection of classical High Anglican theology, which found the Church’s authority in the Bible as this was interpreted in the life and practice of the Early Church (p.191). Theologians now suggest that the authorities of the Early Church are too obscure, happened too long ago, and in too different circumstances, to guide the modern Church (cf p.200). Modern man is therefore condemned ‘[to] live amid the ruins of past doctrinal and ecclesiastical systems, looking to the Scriptures only for themes and apprehensions which may inform [him] … ‘ (pp.200-1).
The existing pan-Anglican consultative bodies are not capable of arresting this process of fragmentation. The Archbishop of Canterbury is no more than ‘an honoured guest’ outside England. The Primates’ Meeting ‘lack[s] the authority to make major recommendations’ (p.203). The ordination of women (still a novelty at that time) has undermined the unifying collegial function of the bishops: ‘the episcopal ministry … the focus of unity, has become a focus for Anglican disunity’ (p.199).
Bennett therefore argued for ‘a reconstituted [Anglican] Consultative Council … to meet more frequently, have an adequate secretariat and the assistance of theologians and experts … there will have to be some self-denying ordinance by which the provinces agree that certain matters should not be decided locally but only after a common mind has been established among the Churches’ (pp.203-4). Thus Churches with very different cultural values would be forced to listen to each other.
This, of course, anticipated the conclusions of the Windsor Report of 2004, which fell flat. Its proposal for a pan-Anglican ‘Council of Advice’ and an ‘Anglican Communion Covenant’ is really a more elaborate version of Bennett’s proposal.
Archbishop Habgood generously described the analysis of the Anglican Communion as the ‘best part’ of the Preface (p.87), though he did not endorse Bennett’s proposal. The failure of the Windsor Report may have vindicated him on this point. Instead, the Archbishop founded his hope for the Communion on a pan-Anglican ‘doctrine commission’ that had recently been established, but this body (if it still exists) has not been conspicuously successful either.
(2) Synodical Government
Bennett was not the first to point out that the House of Laity of the General Synod is not very representative of its constituency. Ordinary churchgoers cannot elect its members, they can only elect those who do. The House of Clergy is more representative, but even there the representative quality is diminished by the large number of ex officio members.
However, his most important point was that the General Synod has very little control of ecclesiastical governance. He observed that, though the House of Commons can vote the government out of office, ‘the General Synod, by contrast, finds itself faced with a government of the Church which is almost wholly independent of it’ (p.212).
The bishops are not accountable to the General Synod in the way that ministers of the secular state are accountable to Parliament. Ministers have to answer parliamentary questions and give evidence to select committees concerning the exercise of their responsibilities. There is no equivalent scrutiny of bishops.
It is true that ecclesiastical legislation (Measures, canons and subordinate legislation) requires the Synod’s approval, but there is not much of this, and it is mostly uncontroversial. Hence ‘most of the debates … are … on reports from various boards or committees … motions … whether passed or amended, lead to no action at all’ (p.212).
The General Synod’s constitution confirms its freedom (of which it takes full advantage) ‘to consider and express [its members’] opinion on any other matters of religious or public interest’ (Synodical Government Measure 1969, sch2(6)(b)). But what does this have to do with the governance of the Church?
Synodical government is a misnomer if the synods do not govern the Church. There is a well-known axiom that the Church of England is ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’. However, Bennett argues that there is little connection between the two: ‘nothing the Synod does has much effect on [the bishops], the administration of their diocese or the work of the leadership group within it’ (p.212).
This explains ‘the irritation which many bishops feel at having to spend so much time at Synod meetings, and their desultory contribution to its debates’ (p.212). And who can blame the bishops for being bored by the General Synod, if its proceedings have so little relevance to their work?
Although Bennett does not make this point, English differ from their Roman Catholic counterparts as well as their secular counterparts in their lack of accountability. Canon 399(1) of the Code of Canon Law 1983 obliges every bishop ‘to present a report to the Supreme Pontiff every 5 years concerning the state of [his] diocese … according to a [standard] form … determined by the Apostolic See’. This form may resemble the articles of enquiry on a visitation.
The bishop presents the report personally on his obligatory ad limina visit to Rome (canon 400(1)). (Apparently, when the bishop appears before the Pope, a map of his diocese is hung up in the papal library, for the Holy Father’s ease of reference.) The bishop receives ‘feedback’, not only from the Pope personally, but also from the various departments of the Roman Curia.
Perhaps if English bishops were required to report regularly, and individually, on their leadership of their dioceses to the General Synod (or the constituent convocations) episcopal leadership and synodical government might become more closely linked. Episcopal interest in synodical proceedings would certainly revive!
Besides the General Synod there are the diocesan synods, but these also lack much constitutional equipment to scrutinise episcopal leadership. The bishop is required ‘to consult with the diocesan synod on matters of general concern and importance’ (1969 Measure, s.4). However, the synod can merely ‘advise the bishop on any matters on which he may consult the synod’.
The Archbishop has an ancient power to visit the bishops and dioceses of his province, to the end ‘that means may be taken thereby for the supply of such things as are lacking and the correction of such things as are amiss’ (canon G5(1)). Archiepiscopal visitations have been held in recent years, but only to particular dioceses or churches, in order ‘to correct and supply the defects of other bishops’ (canon C17(1)). In other words, an archiepiscopal visitation is not a regular, routine review but only occurs when something goes seriously wrong and the local bishop cannot cope.
Every diocesan bishop is now required to submit to a procedure known as ministerial development review, once every 2 years. This review is organised by the Archbishop, who must also organise one for himself (Terms of Service Regulations 2009, reg 18(2)). However, the General Synod is not involved in this, and the review’s conclusions are kept confidential. The requirement was introduced to demonstrate the bishop’s equality (or ‘common tenure’ as it is called) with other ecclesiastical officeholders, who are also required to undergo ministerial development review, not his accountability to Church members.
(3) The Crown Appointments Commission
After criticising inadequate consultation between the bishops and the synods, Bennett controversially proceeded to criticise the consultation process for the nomination of new bishops.
He complained of ‘a virtual exclusion of Anglo-Catholics from episcopal office and a serious under-representation of Evangelicals’ (p.221). He also noted ‘the personal connection of so many appointed with the Archbishop of Canterbury himself’.
Dr Bennett was of the Anglo-Catholic party himself. Moreover, despite a brilliant academic career (including a starred First from Cambridge), ecclesiastical preferment had eluded him. He had to endure the agony of being passed over in favour of men of inferior ability, whose churchmanship was totally at variance with his own. He was therefore vulnerable (as he would surely have realised) to the reproach that his criticism of episcopal appointments was, as Archbishop Habgood carefully explained, ‘an outburst from a disappointed cleric’ (p.83).
Bennett concluded that ‘An Archbishop should have an influence on appointments [but] it is clearly unacceptable that so many are the protégés of one man and reflect his own ecclesiastical outlook’ (p.222). This was represented by Habgood, and the media, as an ‘attack’ on the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Archbishop Habgood justified his harsh words about the Preface by invoking the imperative of confidentiality. ‘The [Crown Appointments] Commission can only do its work properly if its members feel free to discuss the lives and characters of [candidates] with total frankness, and if those who provide information can be similarly satisfied that nothing will be disclosed outside the actual meeting itself’ (p.84).
From this he concluded that a commentator who ‘claimed to write knowledgeably about the Commission … must either be abusing confidence … or … speculating on the basis of gossip’. Either way, the Preface was dishonest. The Archbishop concluded confidently ‘I believe [my criticism] is irrefutable’ (p.84).
It may not be. Does confidentiality mean that knowledgeable, and fair, writing about the Commission is actually impossible? Is the Commission’s work so confidential as to place it above and beyond all criticism?
Of course, the deliberations of the Crown Appointments Commission must be kept confidential, for the reasons identified by Archbishop Habgood. However, the constitution, procedure and membership of the Commission are not, and should not be, confidential. They are open to public comment and scrutiny. And although the deliberations of the Commission are confidential, the outcome of those deliberations (i.e the appointments made as a result of them) is not.
It is not acceptable for a commentator to betray confidences, or make stuff up, and Dr Bennett did neither. But it is acceptable to draw inferences from what is known of the constitution, procedure, membership (including the churchmanship and personalities of the members) and outcomes of the Commission. Indeed any worthwhile commentary must draw such inferences, or it will add nothing to the known facts. Dr Bennett did not betray confidences, nor did he lie. He merely drew inferences from what was publicly known.
The Crown Appointments Commission is served by 2 appointments secretaries: ‘great power rests with the secretaries [because] they compile the list of candidates’ (p.219). The Commission is chaired by the Archbishops, and ‘it is usually not difficult for a chairman to steer enough of [a committee’s] votes in the right direction’ (p.221). The churchmanship of the Archbishops, and of the other Commission members, is known. If no Anglo-Catholic bishops were appointed then the inference is that either no Anglo-Catholic candidates were shortlisted, or a majority of the Commission voted against them.
Of course, inferences can be mistaken. Perhaps the bishops approved by the Commission were not mostly former colleagues and protégés of the Archbishop of Canterbury. (That mistake, at least, should have been easy to correct.) Or perhaps they were simply the best men for the job, and their connection to the Archbishop and lack of Anglo-Catholicism a pure coincidence. Or perhaps lots of Anglo-Catholics were offered bishoprics but turned them down.
Mistaken inferences may well be irritating to those in confidential possession of the true facts. But they are not dishonest. Archbishop Habgood’s criticism of ‘scurrilous charges’ was itself rather scurrilous.
A subsequent nomination of the Crown Appointments Commission suggests that there was some force in Bennett’s criticism. And it was made when Archbishop Habgood was still in office, and still co-chairman of the Commission. A candidate for one of the leading sees had a criminal conviction for indecency. Yet this rather salient fact was not known to the representative members, who then approved the candidate’s nomination in ignorance of his past. (Perhaps this could not happen nowadays, on account of the rigorous ‘safeguarding’ requirements.)