Speaking of bishops, accountability, and governance

Okay I admit it: I am a bit of a nerd and a geek when it comes to governance. I can’t help it, for when I worked in industry it was drummed into me again and again that directors are governors and agents and, as such, should be prepared to be held account through rigorous systems of governance. Governance should not be something left to the compliance officer, it should instead be part of the oxygen that every senior leader breathes. All leaders and future leaders should be tutored in governance. It should be the first module on any senior leadership curriculum!

Governance and leadership are coterminous for, where there is poor governance, there can ultimately be no long-term and sustainable leadership, because governance is the art of keeping an organisation, institution, or body, fit and healthy. Institutions can recover from poor strategy, but rarely from poor governance. The result of poor strategy is redeemable whereas the consequence of poor governance is frequently terminal. Strategy’s concern is ‘success,’ which we all know is, in reality, fleeting and contingent. Governance’s concern is reputation and trust. If any organisation wants to flourish over the long-term good governance isn’t an option, rather an obligation. Nothing will undermine the credibility of an organisation, or an individual governor, more critically than poor governance.

Yet, paradoxically, most ‘leaders’ seem to shy away from governance. The reason that ‘leaders’ seek to subcontract, or even ignore and ride roughshod over governance, is because it seems at first sight as though it is designed to slow things down, to get in the way of vision, to be overly managerial, and, as many contemporary ‘leaders’ have been (wrongly) taught, leadership and management belong in different boxes.

This again is faulty thinking for good governance is about shared leadership, responsibility, and accountability. From a theological perspective good governance isn’t a million miles away from the notion of the ‘priesthood of all believers.’ This isn’t to say that the executive isn’t important, far from it, or that the development of strategy is everyone’s responsibility, but it is to say that governance is the sense checking, democratic, process through which strategy should be discerned, critiqued, amended, ratified and commissioned. Good governance is underpinned by profoundly theological values.

Governance’s biggest concern is to check the power of the ‘leader,’ or executive. Governance is the process to holding to account the governors. Good governance is always concerned with transparency and integrity. In old-fashioned language good governance seeks to mitigate against ‘moral hazard,’ and in doing so accepts that the group most likely to fall victim to ‘moral hazards’ are the senior leaders.

Moral hazard can be thought of as the propensity, for basic human reasons, of leaders to appropriate too much power, in the belief that in some / many ways the leader is the organization, rather than simply being the stakeholder’s agent. Good governance is, in my view, profoundly Christian because it assumes human fallibility, starting with an acknowledgment that pride and hubris are basic human realities. Good governance therefore seeks to mitigate the pride that always comes before a fall and, as such, really ought to be seen as leadership’s best friend.

In the last few days I have been pondering governance in the Church of England (again). As I have stated on other occasions I think that the Church of England’s standards of governance are pretty woeful. My concern this week has been the place, role and accountability of the bishop (the governor) in the governance system. It looks and feels as though the office of bishop has become increasingly cut adrift from any acceptable model of good corporate governance. I have found it difficult to understand the nature of the bishop’s agency relationships. I know in theory that the bishop exists to serve the diocese (or area) where they are located and, that they also, in many cases, have a secondary and national role, but to who are they actually accountable and what governance systems are in place to act as a check and a balance, and to prevent pride before a fall? It’s not obvious; at least to me.

The prompting for this concern was a radio interview with +Peter Hancock in which he stressed that he was not consulted over the decision to grant P.T.O. to former ++Carey and, that even if he had been he had no authority to do anything other than advise. A diocesan bishop, it seems, has full authority to make any such decisions in their diocese. Can it be right that all decisions are effectively delegated and, that in some situations wider consultation, at the very least, must take place before a decision is made?  I am struggling to think of any other area of institutional life where the governors scope of power is so radically unfettered.

My point is not to judge the decision that my own bishop arrived at, but to question the governance process through which such a decision was made. The governance process, as it stands, seems to cede monarchical levels of authority to the local governor bringing into question what it means (in concrete governance terms) to be the lead bishop for a given issue. It looks at present as though lead bishops cannot really exercise much in the way of leadership. The fact that a diocesan does not have to consult the lead bishop on sensitive issues is a fault line in the governance process. The lead bishop shouldn’t necessarily be given the final say, but they should be consulted. They should, at the very least, be given the equivalent status of a non executive director responsible for chairing one of a corporations major committees.

Good governance shouldn’t just be a top down process, or even a peer to peer process. Instead those who have a direct ‘stake’ (stakeholder theory) should be participants in the overall process. The closest stakeholder group for a bishop is of course the diocese, and yet in some ways the diocese is disenfranchised. It only has a limited role to play in the election of the bishop (and even here it isn’t an election in any meaningful sense) and, in the ongoing evaluation of the bishop. This is extremely odd given that the role of the bishop is, in large part, to serve the interests of the diocese.

Maybe one way that the diocese could be given a greater role, and that the nature of the agency relationship between the bishop of the diocese could be strengthened, is for the diocesan synod to also act as an elector to the nomination? This would, at the very least, help articulate the nature of the bishop’s agency as one nominated by the church to serve the diocese.

I think it is also worth wondering whether a bishop should be appointed for an initial period of say seven years with the diocesan synod being given the authority to extend the term of office by a further period of between three and five years? I am not sure what the right answers are, (and understand that common tenure doesn’t lend itself to fixed term appointments) but I am sure that bishops currently operate in a governance vacuum and that this, in the longer-term, will be to the absolute detriment of episcopal leadership.

The phrase ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’ has always been central to Anglicanism. My worry is that over the last few years our understanding of this genius of a notion has fallen prey to a revisionist ecclesiology, whereby ‘episcopally led, and ‘synodically governed’ have been separated out and treated as two separate and distinct activities. This is not to argue that each and every executive episcopal decision should be placed before synod for approval, for this would be truly constraining, but rather that there must be a synodical process for formally reviewing the ongoing pattern of episcopal decision making. In the absence of such processes episcopally led and synodically governed has no real currency, standing instead as just another contentless catch-phrase or slogan.

My thesis is that episcopally lead and synodically governed should be related and mutually interpretive, a bit like ‘catholic and apostolic.’ If they aren’t I simply cannot see how governance works. If the relationship between the governor and governance is stretched, blurred, or even broken then catastrophe is inevitable. If no corrective processes are in place then poor leadership will become a long-term phenomenon.

The reason for this revisionist ecclesiology may be, probably is, the rise in the cult of the leader. Good governance has tragically come to be seen as an impediment to executive leadership, a way of slowing things down. It may well be true that rigorous systems of governance slow things down, but it may also be true that this is no bad thing. This way of thinking has led to the creation of new groups and bodies such as executive councils, which in many cases exist to get round the perceived ‘problem of governance.’ This revisionist ecclesiology combined with the rise in the cult of the leader and the propensity to regard governance as the enemy of strategy is in dire need of a corrective counter-narrative. Yes strategy and leadership are important, but so is governance.

Maybe one of the most important challenges  facing the Church of England is the re-discovery of what it really means to be ‘episcopally led and synodically governed?’ 






3 thoughts on “Speaking of bishops, accountability, and governance

  1. I fear the ‘abuse cover-up scenario’ will continue to be the normal procedure until we have a bishop prosecuted for hiding the known facts of abuse cases from the appropriate authority — that is, the local police. And, if the bishop is subsequently convicted for failing to report the abuse, then a sentence of imprisonment imposed. This need not be for a long term — just a month in Wormwood Scrubs where he would learn about real life outside the ‘ivory tower’ of living in a bishop’s palace (or the modern-day equivalent).

    If this could happen just once, the ‘cover-up scenario’ would speedily disappear. The situation needs a ‘big stick’ to beat the bishops into dealing with these matters properly. The Church of England seems to act as though the old, mediæval concept of “Benefit of Clergy” still exists !

    Sqn Ldr Alan Birt

  2. Sounds like you’re embracing a Baptist ecclesiology. We take Governance seriously — the Charity Commission are rather insistent on that point and our understanding of the “priesthood of all” is a willingness to participate, decide and to challenge

    • But to participate, decide and challenge requires mechanisms to be in place to allow this to happen effectively. Over the last few years I think there have been several examples that suggest our governance is really rather weak. I also think there has been an erosion in the ability of synods to decide as para structures (bishops councils for instance) have assumed greater executive powers. I would just like episcopally led and synodically governed to be much more effectively coterminous.

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