Comment: Let them pick their own bishops

Tony Blair's meddling in Church business could strengthen calls for disestablishment, says Paul Handley
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THE Church of England is worried. The Church of England isn't worried. Until this time last week, only a dozen or so members of the Church of England knew which of those statements was right. Now a dozen or so journalists think they know too.

The reason for the worry (if it exists) is last week's story that Tony Blair had blocked the appointment of the next Bishop of Liverpool because he didn't like the names he'd been given. As a result, when the Liverpool diocese says goodbye to the Right Reverend David Sheppard on Wednesday, it won't know what sort of man might be saying hello in a few months' time. More than that: if Mr Blair is starting to tinker with the conventions, will any English diocese in the future know what sort of man will turn up to knock ceremoniously on its cathedral door?

The Church of England's place at the centre of the nation's life is, like all the surviving parts of the establishment, fixed by conventions and assumptions and very few rules. The Anglican Church sees itself as a spiritual tent which protects the nation. The system for appointing bishops is the single most important of its guy-ropes and Mr Blair's reported actions have given it a nasty tweak.

A Church which began life with Henry VIII can cope with a certain amount of wobble, but this is a critical time. Thanks to the future Supreme Governor (Prince Charles) the word "disestablishment" is cropping up too often.The prospect of political interference in a highly sensitive area of Church of England business will do little to quieten such talk.

Before looking at the damage Mr Blair could be causing, there are one or two things to sort out: first, is the story true? The Crown Appointments Commission (CAC), established in 1977, is one of Church's few remaining enclaves of secrecy. Its 12 members meet at an undisclosed place on an undisclosed evening. They spend the next 48 hours picking over possible candidates for the vacant bishopric, choose two, then leave. What happens next is the intriguing bit. The two names are submitted to the Prime Minister by his appointments secretary. (The CAC is staffed by two secretaries, one working for the Prime Minister, one for the archbishops - strange, but it seems to work.) The names may be presented in the CAC's order of preference or occasionally, if it has none, they come side by side.

The Prime Minister is at liberty to choose whichever name he or she likes or, in theory, can ask the CAC to come up with two more. In practice, the Prime Minister has nearly always rubber-stamped the CAC's choice. The process is secret, but if there had been any consistent interference complaints from the Church would have surfaced. This is what happened in the one case we can be most sure of, when Margaret Thatcher passed over Jim Thompson and chose the second-named candidate, Mark Santer, for the vacancy in Birmingham, believing him (mistakenly) to be the less left- wing of the two. But there has never been a case, so far as we know, of both names being rejected - until now.

The story has the ring of truth. Journalists who phoned Downing Street at the weekend found it was being played down not ruled out: Mr Blair had not rejected the names outright - he had just asked to see the CAC's shortlist. John Holroyd, the Prime Minister's appointments secretary, was away over the weekend. By Monday afternoon, when he was back, Downing Street was saying nothing at all, the usual line with any CAC business. But by then the story was out, and the names of the rejected pair were in circulation: Gavin Reid, the Bishop of Maidstone, thought to be too old at 62; and, with less authority, Pete Broadbent, the Archdeacon of Northolt. Broadbent's rejection would be less than easy to fathom: he is reasonably young, competent, has served on the right committees, and is a former Islington councillor - red down to his shoes. Ah, but perhaps Old Labour say the theorists, not very convincingly.

It is the last bit of speculation which points to the heart of the problem. It is not enough to say, as Tony Sadler, the archbishops' appointments secretary did last Thursday, that Tony Blair has the constitutional right to ask for two more names, for this begs the question on what grounds can he act in this way? In the case of Mrs Thatcher and Birmingham, it seems to have been personal animosity against Thompson (or against the BBC's Today programme, his regular pulpit). Since the process is supposedly secret, can the Church have any confidence that Blair is acting out of any higher motive?

One gloss put on Mr Blair's action is that he is keen to improve the calibre of episcopal appointees. We might all wish the same - just as we would like to improve the calibre of MPs or cricketers. But Mr Blair can only fish his bishops out of the same pool as the Crown Appointments Commission and its net is much bigger than his. Its choices will have been made after a deep trawl. They will also have been made in the context of prayer and holy communion; members of the commission set great store by the influence of the Holy Spirit in their deliberations. Can the same be said of Mr Blair's intervention?

Another suggestion is that he sees Liverpool as an important political appointment, since David Sheppard and Derek Worlock made it such a focus for action with the urban poor. But the extensive consultations conducted by the CAC before it made its choice will have revealed that what Liverpool people want is a much lower-key figure: one who will concentrate on supporting the work of the parishes.

The fact remains that the Church's establishment depends on a very fine balance of power between Church and State. The Church hierarchy recognises that the continuance of bishops in the House of Lords relies, in part, on the Prime Minister having an active hand in their appointment. In return for this and other privileges, it will tolerate some political involvement in appointments. But not much. Even a pro-establishment bishop like Peter Forster, the Bishop of Chester, said he hoped that Mr Blair would excercise his rights "with restraint". Most churchgoers away from the centre of power in, say, the diocese of Liverpool, are less polite. Without any sort of informed debate on the subject, the pressure for disestablishment is growing fast. The Church of England ought to be worried.

Paul Handley is editor of the `Church Times'.

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