Power to the people in the pews

The church will be irrevocably changed if Turnbull's recommendations are followed, says Andrew Brown; The astonishing riddle is that the church has got by without a parliament for so long; Dr Carey believes his leadership is what the church wants and needs to help it move forward
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The Independent Online
The changes to the Church of England recommended by the Turnbull Commission are, in their detail, arcane or blurred. But one thing is clear: the commission's recommendations are a culmination of a massive transfer of power from dead Christians to live ones; and this process will change the nature of the church and so of its establishment.

The dead Christians are those who laid down the laws under which the church understood itself, and who endowed over the centuries the various bodies whose assets were centralised in the Church Commissioners in 1947. Under the weight of the law and of reverence for obscure custom, they drastically limited the ways in which the church could take decisions.

The live Christians are those who are active in the church. Usually that means evangelicals: there is little in the present structure to appeal to those believers who seek the direction that comes from knowing they believe as their forefathers did. This is an astonishing turn-around in any medium-term perspective.

Forty years ago the Church of England seemed secure financially, numerically and in the esteem of the nation; but it was almost incapable of taking any decisions. It took a decade of unremitting effort in the Fifties to bring about a revision of the code of canon law, and the results of that will have been invisible to all outsiders and most of the faithful.

Pressure for reform culminated in the establishment of the General Synod in 1970, which is customarily described as the Church of England's parliament. In many ways it is modelled on Parliament: it makes laws enforceable in the courts; it has standing orders, parties of a sort, and formal debates. But it is a parliament that entails no government. The synod's constitution was designed with great skill to make it almost impossible to take decisions that really matter, and which might upset the equilibrium of the parties within the Church of England.

For two decades this ponderous balance was maintained. The synod, with its labyrinth of boards and committees crammed into the crooked corridors of Church House, presided over by the increasingly camp figure of the secretary-general, began to seem like a younger, less lively version of the House of Lords. Nothing had changed. Nothing could change.

All that was blown to bits by two shocks in 1992. First came the ordination of women priests, a thing that the constitution of the synod might have been designed to prevent, since it drove out hundreds of male priests who could not reconcile the fact of women priests with their fantasy of the Church of England. Then, even more terribly, came the news that the Church Commissioners had lost pounds 800m in property speculation in the late Eighties.

The ordination of women made it clear that the doctrine of priesthood held by the Church of England could develop. It was not bound by the opinion and practice of the Church before the 8th century, as many Anglo- Catholics had believed. Live Christians, voting today, could change all that, and did.

The Church Commissioners' crisis brought into the open the accelerating insufficiency of the church's inherited funds to do much more than meet its pension commitments. Churchgoers already pay, on average, two-thirds of the salaries of their priests. Within the foreseeable future, all the running costs of the church are going to have to be met from the donations of live Christians and not the legacies of dead ones. Though this can certainly be done - and the mechanisms to prevent another disastrous speculation are already in place - getting more money out of today's laity requires them to feel they are in control.

The National Council proposed by Turnbull should gratify that feeling. Here at last is a single body that can decide what the church should be spending and why. It combines elements of synodical government, since all its members will be elected or at least approved by the synod, with a considerable expansion of the powers of patronage enjoyed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who will appoint eight of its 15 members.

There is no doubt that Dr George Carey believes his leadership is what the Church of England both wants and needs to help it forward. The sections of the report that deal with his importance leave no one in any doubt of this. The Archbishop of Canterbury is "Primate of All England and Metropolitan of the Province of Canterbury. He is also the highest ranking national figure after senior members of the Royal Family. He ... has a special relationship with the Royal Family and is a member of the House of Lords. He is regarded as `a vicar to the nation' articulating spiritual and moral guidance to the nation as a whole ... He is one of the world's prominent religious leaders." Dr Carey has also offered the services of his church as an honest broker in Bosnia in a recent speech to the United Nations. In the light of all this, it is difficult to understand how successive General Synods have over-ruled or ignored the leadership offered by archbishops. And yet, until now, they have often done so.

In fact the synod, representing largely the lay activists who actually pay for the whole show, may gain power as a result of the new leadership structure. The synod must approve the budgets that the new leadership structure will propose.

That's for the future, however. No one now knows how the new structure for taking decisions in the Church of England will work in practice nor who will end up with how much real power. The only thing that seems already clear is that the real loser is the House of Bishops, the authority of which comes from generations of the faithful dead. To them is reserved neither strategy nor leadership, merely "vision".

These are quibbles, however. The astonishing riddle at the heart of the Turnbull report is not that the church has decided to acquire a government, but that it got by without one for so long. The answer to that riddle brings us back to dis-establishment. The Church of England, said one member of the commission early in its work, has not had a government "since the Privy Council lost interest in us". When the church broke away from Rome in the 16th century, the king simply took over the English powers of the Pope. In due course these devolved to Parliament, along with the other powers of the crown.

From the mid-19th century on, successive parts of the church's government have broken free of the day-to-day control of an increasingly un-Anglican parliament. Yet none of these new structures was designed to be self- sufficient. All had built into them an implicit assumption that their performance would be co-ordinated by some outside body. Now Turnbull has provided that body. The church no longer needs the state in the organic way it used to. It is better prepared to survive if the state decides it no longer needs the church.