Church of England considers changes in how politicians choose bishops

Posted: Friday, June 01, 2001

LONDON (AP) -- Appointing bishops in the Church of England has long been a process shrouded in secrecy, with the final choice in the hands of politicians. But now there's a chance some small windows could open on the old and complex procedure.

Some proposals may come before the General Synod in July that would fine-tune the system, which technically gives Britain's monarch the ultimate authority in choosing the leaders of the church.

In practice, however, Church of England bishops are selected by the prime minister, whose ''advice'' to the queen or king is always accepted.

''Working with the Spirit,'' a report published May 9, calls for less secrecy in the process, a wider pool of candidates, and giving permission for potential bishops to put themselves forward, rather than quietly waiting for someone else to promote their careers.

''It is important to stress that we are not saying that the system is unfair, weak or ineffective,'' said Baroness Perry of Southwark, who chaired the Crown Appointments Commission Review Group.

''What we are saying is that it needs to be seen to be fair, robust and effective, and that in order to increase confidence in it, the system must be made more open and transparent.''

The review group said that priests should be told whether they were included on the list of potential bishops, and they should be given the opportunity to review and correct information about themselves.

The group said the church was too apt to consider only suffragan, or assistant, bishops for promotion to bishop of one of the church's 44 dioceses. ''It has been suggested to us that ... suffragan bishops are often 'safe choices' rather than people likely to cause trouble, reliable pastors rather than impressive thinkers or prophets,'' the report said.

Church Times, an independent Anglican weekly, saluted the proposals as ''an intelligent response to dissatisfactions that have not developed past the grumbling stage, but threaten to do so.''

''We most welcome the efforts to blow away the fog of secrecy that has polluted areas of the church's central administration,'' the newspaper said.

Roman Catholic bishops are mainly chosen by the church -- by the pope, or in some European dioceses by local church bodies. Vietnam is one of the exceptions, where appointments are negotiated with secular authorities.

It's not surprising that the rule is different in the Church of England, an institution which has had the monarch as its supreme governor ever since King Henry VIII rejected the authority of Rome in the 16th century.

Monarchs asserted their rights to choose bishops long before that -- with Frankish kings taking the lead in the West in the sixth century. In England, the monarch's involvement in appointing bishops was established long before the Norman Conquest.

During the 18th century, the king gave way to the prime minister in actually choosing bishops, although in some cases prime ministers leaned heavily on a churchman for advice. Queen Victoria took a notably close interest in episcopal appointments, but other monarchs were less attentive.

In 1954, the Church Assembly adopted a resolution saying ''the present procedure for submitting advice to the Sovereign is open to objection and should be modified.'' But it didn't propose a new system.

Twenty years later, the General Synod tried to assert the church's right to choose its own bishops, saying that it should have ''the decisive voice.'' But the government of the day, headed by Prime Minister James Callaghan, responded two years later with a firm ''no.''

Callaghan said it was important that the prime minister have a role, because some bishops sit in the House of Lords and vote on legislation.

However, he agreed that the church should be seen to play a greater role in choosing bishops, and the result was the Crown Appointments Commission, a church body created in 1977 to recommend two candidates for each episcopal vacancy.

Candidates are not told that they are being considered, and the names of the two nominees are not released. That upset some observers.

''It seems ludicrous that the church cannot be trusted to choose its own officials,'' Monica Furlong wrote in ''C of E: The State It's In,'' a book published last year.

End Advance

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