The Church of England has announced a “radical” overhaul of its governance, amid criticism from parishioners that the plans are “a coup by Archbishops to take control of everything”.
Following instruction from the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, has published his findings as to “how to provide more transparent and accountable governance for the Church”, and has concluded that the majority of national governance bodies should be merged.
He recommends that the Church Commissioners – who essentially hold the purse strings for the Church and the Archbishops Council and decide how the Church’s money is spent – should be combined and brought into a single charitable body established by legislation and called Church of England National Services (CENS).
The last time the governance and structure of the Church of England was reviewed was in 1995, with the publication of the Turnbull Report, which recommended the establishment of a single executive body (or a "National Council").
More than 20 years on, the Church of England still does not have a unified national governance structure or a single focus of decision-making and strategic planning.
However, the revitalised proposals have sparked concern among the country’s parishioners who fear that such a consolidation would negatively impact embattled parishes.
Bishops 'wrong people' for the job
A leading campaigner for parishes across the country, who did not want to be named, said: “Simplification is in theory a good idea. But the bishops are the wrong people to do it. Bishops are not suitable to run this kind of body. They are unelected and unaccountable.
“There are already too many bishops and they are unelected, unlike those who sit in the House of Clergy and Laity.
“It’s a coup by the House of Bishops, they want to take control of everything. These are failed middle management kind of people. They should scrap the Archbishops Council and go back to being synodically governed.
“They say they want more transparency and accountability but it looks like more control.”
Concern over rural collapse
The General Synod, the Church’s legislative body, is comprised of the House of Bishops, House of Laity and House of Clergy. All are elected apart from the bishops.
The Telegraph has previously revealed that multiple clergy and laypeople had voiced fears over the "collapse" of the Church of England in rural communities.
A Church document, leaked earlier this year, suggested that the Covid-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for "radical change" within the Church which could result in the loss of the parish church model in a bid to remain "financially sustainable".
Speaking to The Telegraph, the Bishop of Leeds described the reforms as “radical”.
He said: “The whole point of this is to simplify and clarify to increase transparency, accountability and effectiveness within the Church, which was proposed 25 years ago but didn't happen.
“There should be one central body that governs the Church. The ultimate aim is to provide more transparent and accountable governance for the Church at parish, diocesan and national level."
Responding to fears regarding the alleged dismantling of the parish system, he added: “The parish system is not under threat. The parish system is nothing to do with this … If it’s implemented well, it would liberate dioceses and parishes to play a more creative game on the ground.”
Single, controlling body
The main section of the report recommends that most of the existing national governance bodies of the Church of England and their underlying functions should be brought into a single charitable body, the CENS.
The governance for CENS would be carried out by a board of trustees. The report then goes on to make some suggestions regarding the composition of the CENS board and the number and nature of its sub-committees
'A Church for all people'
Following the publication of the report, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York said: “This review responds to major societal changes, including the need for the Church of England to be 'A Church for all people'.
"The Church of England’s national governance structures must be accountable to and transparent for all the parishes and worshipping communities which they support, to build trust and so the Church can fulfil its mission in the 21st Century.
"Better governance should enable the Church at every level to be more agile in decision making, and responsive to the pastoral and missional needs of local and regional communities."
There will be further consultation amongst the Church’s existing governance bodies before the Church as a whole moves towards any potential implementation of all or part of the report.
An overview of the Governance Review Group’s process will be presented to the General Synod at the first meeting of its new term in November.