QUESTION: “Why do we never get an answer?” *

This blog is normally confined to General Synod matters. I don’t talk about other diocesan issues. But there are around half a dozen Questions about the Bishop’s Palace (where I work) put down for Monday evening. So, in the spirit of bathwellschap – “a (fairly) personal view of Synod by one who is there”, here’s an informed insider’s perspective which may help readers see what the fuss is all about. As ever, I link to relevant places that may give you more info if you want it.

 What’s the fuss about?

Questions in Parliament. A stormy public meeting. Letters in the papers. We are the subject of (national) media and (local) popular attention.  Even today (9 February) an interview with Archdeacon Andy Piggott on today’s BBC Radio 4 Sunday Programme (listen again here – starts about 5 minutes in).

Some commentators have seen this simply as a matter of reflecting the Bishop’s supposed power, status and ecclesiastical history. Opinionated Vicar, for example, says it’s embarrassing to have a bishop in a palace these days. Others see it in terms of heritage and the removal of a potent part of Somerset’s culture. There are others – like this knowledgeable Country Life contributor, John Goodall, who see a Dark Plot to Sell It Off.

Actually, it’s more complex than that. And our dispute-among-friends throws some light on the way the Church Commissioners act on behalf of the wider church – hence the Questions on Monday night. I’ll draw my own conclusions at the end, so skip straight there if you don’t want to be bothered reading the whole post. There’s a good summary of the reverberations from this announcement at Thinking Anglicans. And some comment at Archbishop Cranmer.

New Reader? Start here!

For 800 years (more or less) Bishops of this diocese have lived in and worked from the Bishop’s Palace. Surrounded by a moat with its famous swans, the Palace forms a key part of a more or less complete mediaeval city-centre complex – Palace, Market Square, amazing Cathedral, and the oldest inhabited street in Europe, Vicar’s Close.

In modern times, Bishops have retreated from running the whole Palace site (which extends to 14 acres, including some stunning gardens). Parts have been opened to the public, and there is income from that and from events – particularly wedding receptions.

The Bishop does not really ‘live in a Palace’. His office space (of which more later) is on the ground floor of the North wing; his apartment (4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms) is on the first floor of the same wing. He retains use of the glorious Bishop’s Chapel for his prayers, and he and his family have a very private garden space (accessed through the public areas).

In the tenure of Bishop Peter Price (2002-2013), the Church Commissioners, Heritage Lottery Fund, and other donors both corporate and individual, put together some £5m to fund a Development Project. It’s generally understood that the purpose of this was to relieve the Church Commissioners of the huge financial liabilities of the ancient buildings, watercourses and gardens, and to enable the site to be more open to the public, with modern facilities, interpretation and events.

A separate charity, the Palace Trust, operates this side of things under a Management Agreement with the Commissioners. So there are now hugely improved facilities for visitors – a very decent café/restaurant and shop, a community garden, explanatory trails, audio guides, programmes for children, and a much-improved space for wedding parties. But it was always understood that the living and working base for the Bishop would remain on site – and the Palace Trust have as one of their straplines “Home of the Bishops of Bath and Wells”.

The Commissioners’ Decision

A few days before the announcement of the name of the new Bishop – Bishop Peter Hancock, currently at Basingstoke – the Church Commissioners announced that he would not be living at the Palace. They were buying a house for him elsewhere. (There is a separate saga about this house, which is in the village of Croscombe. It has greatly entertained the Press (nationally and in Somerset), embarrassed the Commissioners, and annoyed locals.)

The original Commissioners’ announcement talked about “sustainability” and “privacy” for the Bishop and his household. Exactly what that meant was never explained, but later explanations have mentioned the number of weddings taking place and the visitor count as factors.

Our Synod Questions are around the decision-making process, not the principle. The Commissioners first spoke in September to the diocesan senior staff team (Suffragan Bishop, Archdeacons, Diocesan Secretary, finance chief, Dean of Women’s Ministry, and bathwellschap. Then they spoke in terms of a possibility: it soon became a recommendation. And by November it went to the Board of Governors, (chaired on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury by the Bishop of London). And that was that.

  • At no time was any financial case (i.e. doing this will save x thousand pounds) presented to the diocese (nor, I understand to the Palace Trust, with whom consultation was minimal).
  • Neither was there any investigation of the knock-ons of a decision – how it might affect the Trust’s reputation locally (they have a very large volunteer corps and a number of significant donors).
  • There was no plan for an alternative use of the vacated apartment  (its location and layout make it practically impossible to let for residential or commercial use).

The diocesan team has stressed continually that they agree with the need to review the appropriateness of the apartment – but that it could not be decided without reference to three factors:

  1. The shared office space and support team (I declare an interest, that includes me) used by the Bishop of Bath and Wells and his suffragan colleague the Bishop of Taunton. Once the Bishop lives off-site the huge synergy and efficiency that this arrangement brings starts to fall apart. And apart from working together, the Bishops like to pray together too. This diocese likes to model ‘no-one alone’ to the clergy, and separating the Bishop’s housing off does not help to do that. On a day-to-day basis, he would see less of his shared team. Simple as that.
  2. The Palace Trust present themselves to visitors as the only working Bishops Palace in the land. It’s not that every visitor is craning their neck to see someone in a purple shirt, but the whole history and ambiance presented to paying visitors is that it is a unique, working Palace. Removing the Bishop removes the raison d’etre of the place and it become another stately home.
  3. The current apartment was designed to give the Bishop and his household privacy. About eleven years ago the Commissioners paid for work to separate out the ‘office space’ and the ‘living space’ by creating the present upstairs apartment and a downstairs office and official entertaining area (using the Bishops Dining Room and Drawing Room. I’m told this work cost about £100,000)

Where are we now?

  • In their private conversations the Commissioners have not been able to convince the diocesan senior staff of good reasons for scrapping the existing arrangements. The senior staff went public about their disquiet two weeks ago.
  • At the public meeting on 25 January, the First Estates Commissioners, Sir Tony Baldry MP was howled down when he repeatedly failed to answer questions from members of the public about the criteria the Commissioners used to make the decision.
  • The Trustees of the Palace Trust have found one of the lodestones of their project is to be removed without any serious discussion with them. Given that the Commissioners put somewhere around a million pounds into the project, that is very strange. They have now expressed their desire to be part of the discussions in a public statement.
  • Oh, and the incoming Bishop does not know where he is going to live.

So Synod Questions will try to get some answers to the key questions that are bothering people in the diocese and beyond. But the whole fiasco raises a bigger question – where is the accountability of the Commissioners? There are two angles – accountability and finance.

Two big issues

On accountability, Sir Tony encouraged the public to believe that the Commissioners are answerable to Parliament through himself, and to the General Synod.He said that dissatisfied locals should take their complaint to Synod , via the diocesan representatives.

But in point of fact, the Commissioners only ever present reports to Synod. We can ask questions, but Synod has no power over them. It holds no purse strings, and merely elects some Board Members without having any control over them. It is a fiction to believe Synod can hold the Commissioners to account in any meaningful way.

And on finance… It is said that the Bishoprics and Cathedrals Committee is having to handle a 30% budget cut at present. Very good, let’s not waste money on Bishops houses and office costs. But by smoke and mirrors, a sum somewhere near three-quarters of a million pounds can be found to buy a Georgian parsonage house at Croscombe. Because that, dear readers, is an investment, not a Bishoprics and Cathedrals Committee expense. And if it’s not suitable (as it is not), well, we treat it as an investment, and just go and buy another house in Wells. If we can find one…

Thus the Committee can make an unconsultative decision with huge repercussions in a diocese; leave a relatively modern apartment empty, and bail themselves out by using finance from another part of the Commissioners funds.

And that’s why everyone is so cross.

We may or may not learn more at Question time on Monday. It starts at 5.30 and you can follow it live on the Church of England media stream.

And finally…

The Archbishops encourage people to pray for General Synod as it meets from Monday to Wednesday this week. I’ll second that – we have other important things to talk about, and I’ll do my best to blog about some of those as the days go on. But look at this and say your prayers please.

* Most of my posts are titled from 60s and 70’s pop songs. This one is yet another old Moody Blues song from 1970…

This entry was posted in 2014: Feb - London and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to QUESTION: “Why do we never get an answer?” *

  1. sijorobinson says:

    Great and sensible blog Stephen! Thanks, Perhaps the debate on appropriate processes rather than medieval ones might move things forwards.

  2. Rosie Inge says:

    This is the best and fullest explanation of why the Church Commissioners have arbitrarily decided that the incoming Bishop of Bath & Wells cannot live in his Palace. Excellent.

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