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General Synod: Debate on the Future use of the Church Commissioners' Funds- Archbishop's remarks

Wednesday 11th February 2004

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the General Synod in London.

Mr Chairman: there are bad reasons for endorsing this report and there are bad reasons for opposing it. And I'd like to try and get those out of the way at the start.

A bad reason for supporting it is that it looks seductively easy to put on one side of the equation the costs of bishops and cathedrals, and on the other the cost of exciting new mission initiatives. And there maybe those who like to think that the future of the Church lies in a revolutionary programme which does not conclude until the last bishop's gardener has been strangled with the entrails of the last minor canon.

Equally there might be those who oppose this on the grounds that they see in it a sinister Stalinist plot to introduce five-year plans into the Church of England with a gulag at the far end of it for those who do not meet their obligations. Let's clear those out of the way and try to consider the real merits and the real problems of this report.

Here is a very, very challenging – a very carefully thought out – piece of imaginative projection. We are asked to take note; we are not asked to place a tick at the end of every sentence. And that is of the first importance here because we need to distinguish principle and prescription.

In the discussion of this matter in the House of Bishops there was very clear agreement indeed about three fundamental principles. The principle of transparency and accountability at every level and in everybody of the Church: Commissioners, dioceses, Synod for that matter, and it's hard to see that anyone could disagree with that as an imperative. There was complete agreement about the priority for a proper level of flexibility in deploying imaginatively our financial resources to support mission and to nurture growth – not simply to sustain existing patterns, let alone to manage decline. And there was complete agreement about the priority of the equitable sharing of resources – surely a fundamental biblical principle in the life of any church.

Now if you look at paragraph 76 of the report, you will see that these three priorities broadly correspond to the sort of thing outlined in b), e) and f) of that paragraph. The problems arise more with a), c), and d). And the points that arose, particularly in the House of Bishops discussion about these, were along the following lines.

The first is a very strong sense to which the Bishops are obviously committed, and to which I hope Anglicans are committed as a whole. But the principle focus for mission is that family of local congregations gathered around a bishop who is primarily an evangelist and an inspirer of evangelism in others. That is where effective mission and evangelism begins. And a fine phrase was used by one member of the working party, that the proposals were really designed to help bishops and dioceses 'back their hunches' in local initiatives, and I want to hang onto that phrase because I think it is a very useful one. But, if you grant that, the distinction between means and ends as has been put before you is not quite as simple as it first appears. A bishop, in council in his diocese, is engaged not simply in defining ends but also in managing means, in making some of the micro decisions about how schemes are implemented. And bishops who are active in local strategy in that way are not, as you might say simply an alternative to mission spending, they are part of it. So the means-ends distinction can be a little bit more complicated than it seems; the bishop-mission distinction, which just occasionally lurks around the edges of this discussion needs some challenging too.

Second, there's a question about the practicability of the proposals as they stand. I hear and understand what the First Commissioner has said about urgency, and I entirely share the sense, as I said yesterday, that we stand at a moment where very important decisions are open to us to make. Yet we have to face the fact that under the new proposals, if implemented as they stand, we could find ourselves in a situation where the very goals we want to promote are subverted by the destabilising of effective existing local initiatives. Suddenly a revolution in the management and resourcing of a diocese, which has been working hard and in a costly way to co-ordinate and take forward its own mission; that can have a very bad impact practically and, as was pointed out in one of our discussions among the bishops, it could also have simple financial implications. It may not be just a question of transferring a fixed set of costs from the centre to the diocese; a diocese may have employment policies and salary levels whose effect is, in fact, to increase the bill. That needs to be thought about very carefully.

And it relates to the third substantive point here. We are in a situation where quite obviously motivation, morale and trust are crucial in the life of our Church. The Bishop of London has said more than once that we are not longer as the Church of England a public utility, we are a voluntary body. Voluntary bodies depend on sound motivation, on high morale, on vital levels of trust between people and institutions. And that delicate balance can be upset if, as I say, the complicated work done locally about budgeting and planning is suddenly destabilised by new costs – which is why I'm glad to see the following motion from Dr Campbell on the order paper for this morning.

So no dispute about the three fundamental principles and priorities. No dispute about a need for coherence in financial strategy; but a real concern which I hope the Synod will take very, very seriously – a real concern that we may find ourselves moving towards means which actually subvert the ends we have in mind.

As you know I'm an old fashioned moralist and I was always taught that the coherence, the moral coherence as well as the practical coherence of means and ends is part of proper ethical discussion. And if the implementation of something like these proposals as they stand has the effect of undermining local initiative, and indeed of compromising that fundamental theological picture of the Church as the families of congregations around a chief pastor and evangelist, the price will be very high in terms of the ends we have in view.

The First Commissioner has challenged us to be practical and I'd just like to conclude very briefly by mentioning some of the things that the House of Bishops in their discussion, have already committed themselves to thinking further about and indeed acting about. There are obvious questions about the cost of Episcopal ministry overall in our church, and the House of Bishops wished to take hold of that question, to look at a number of issues around suffragan bishops and the provision made for them, and to make some serious concrete proposals about that. But only the diocesan bishops, dare I say it, can do that as the co-ordinators of Episcopal ministry within their areas.

We are also committed to continuing what has already begun in terms of a sharing of resources between wealthier and less wealthy dioceses. That is on the table, it's going forward and we are more than eager to continue with that work. There are also already good examples of the pooling of administrative resources between dioceses. Some schemes very far advanced – this is an extremely promising area in precisely that neck of the woods which the Commissioner referred to as the attack on the administrative cost base.

So in conclusion I think we have a very challenging document. If Synod decides to take note of this, it will I hope be in a spirit which affirms strongly the principles and priorities, and which places a very, very large question mark against some of the practical means of implementation.

I hope that this will not be taken as a programme to which we say a blanket yes or no. I've said there are bad reasons for supporting and bad reasons for opposing. We do indeed have a congruence between this and some of the business we discussed yesterday and that is enormously encouraging. But for that to work as we want it to work, on the basis of a soundly theological view of how this Church is ordered under God, we need some further thought, and we need, I would say, a real active collaboration between our various national institutions, a proper conversation. And not perhaps too easily accepting a distinction between those bodies which deal with means and those people who deal with ends. Would that it were so simple; but our Church is not quite like that – it effects and articulates its policy and its vision in a more conversational style. And if that puts before Synod a question about the very theology of Synod itself and its working with Bishops, Commissioners, Archbishops' Council – that I suggest would not be a bad thing. We must, I think, beware of a kind of theological drift in the life of our Church which somehow isolates the different parts of our polity moving us imperceptibly towards a view of Synod, which is simply that of an undifferentiated legislative representative body as opposed to the local sacramental practical and missionary life of congregations – that would be a tragedy. And a theological as well as a practical failure.

So, if we take note, let us do so with that clear sense of how we are distinguishing principle and prescription. But let us express gratitude for the work done and the challenge put to us, because the challenge of this sort is never a waste of time.

Thank you

© Rowan Williams 2004

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