So, what have we learned?
Now, do remember as you read this, bathwellschap is a personal view…
The new Bishop’s housing row made a short, but significant impact on Day 1 of these sessions. The day started with a press statement from the Church Commissioners, recycling points they’ve previously made. Presumably it was issued with an eye to the fact that the Order Paper tonight started with no less than eight Questions about the implications of their decision not to house the next Bishop in the Bishop’s Palace. Maybe they had read my post of yesterday… (If you wonder what this is all about, see here.)
The afternoon was enlivened by Tessa Munt MP presenting her petition with over 2,000 signatures to Andrew Brown, the Commissioners Secretary.
And then at 5.30 came Question Time. Bath and Wells reps had worked with others to ensure eight sharp, clear Questions that demanded straightforward Answers were put on the agenda. As a sign of the public interest, they were taken at the very beginning of the session. Seven were answered by Andrew Mackie, the Third Church Estates Commissioner (who chairs the Cathedrals and Bishoprics Committee). The last one was answered on behalf of the Archbishops – and came up with some very interesting stuff (see below).
Why? How? When?
It became a bit of a bear-pit for Andrew, who had to be told he had given incorrect information, and was pressed hard in supplementary questions. But he gave little ground. However, I noted:
- In telling Tim Hind that there would not be a moratorium on the decision, the language of “the decision will not be revisited” was replaced by “I cannot commit the Board to any particular course of action”. Some might see just a leetle crack in the door here…
- Questioners from other dioceses raised the issue of a lack of open-ness in the Commissioners way of working. This raised gentle murmurs of assent around the floor of Synod. Why can they not deal with diocesan bishops’ housing in the consultative way they do over parish re-organisations under the Pastoral Measure?
- The word ‘debacle’ was used by a questioner: Andrew Mackie said he did not recognise it, but I’m not sure Synod agreed.
- The Answers referred frequently to the supposed ‘privacy’ issue for a resident Bishop. Synod members were a bit confused about that: some think it really matters, others reckon clergy are used to living in the public gaze to some extent.
- Andrew made a valiant defence of Sir Tony Baldry’s performance at the public meeting, but spoiled it by a slightly patronising reference, saying “[Sir Tony] was pleased to attend this public meeting and welcomed the opportunity to engage with local people”. He couldn’t answer my supplementary point: if Sir Tony was so pleased, why did he not come to speak to the locals before the decision was made? I sensed a ripple of support around the chamber on that one.
Commissioners’ spending on Bath & Wells
On money, Andrew revealed the price paid for Croscombe old Rectory was £870,000. Archdeacon Andy Piggott asked if that, plus leaving an apartment empty, plus buying a permanent house was value for money and good stewardship. The answer was pretty woolly, but tried to distinguish between buying houses as an investment and spending the money as a revenue item. Nobody was terribly convinced by that… Andrew twice talked about there being no plans for the empty apartment, though he hinted they would be looking to let it out. There was no opportunity to quiz him about this in the session, but to my mind it reveals once more that someone is not doing their homework, The first floor flat is immediately above the office spaces shared by our two Bishops. It is impossible to get into the flat without going through the office area. So that rules it out for residential letting; or for a small business to go there. There are parking and other issues that would put people off, too. Not to mention the confidentiality issues in having other residents or businesses wandering around the Bishops’ office space.
Unbelievably, Andrew Mackie told me there is no guest suite in the existing apartment. That is simply incorrect, and I am amazed that whoever drafted his text did not know what they were talking about. There are four bedrooms there, and bathroom facilities for guests. He also told Andy Piggott that there was a risk of the Bishop having to oversee the running of the Palace if he lived on site. Andy reminded him that the Palace Trust haver a Chief Executive and Board of Trustees whose job that is.
The eighth question brought out the most interesting news. Representing the Archbishops in their capacity of Presidents of Synod, the Ven Christine Hardman answered a question from Fay Wilson-Rudd about how the wider church can review Commissioners’ decisions. A very detailed answer (one suspects it was not prepared by the same people who drafted Andrew Mackie’s other answers) explained various ways in which the Church central bodies may be held to account. In the case of a diocesan Bishop’s house, it appears that a diocesan Bishop’s Council can ask the Archbishop’s Council to review and investigate a Commissioners decision. The implication is that if that happened, the Commissioners would have to take notice of it. Now, who knew that? And what might Bath and Wells do about it?
Outcomes from tonight
The impact of the whole fifteen minute dialogue is this:
- General Synod members now know all about it, and are aware there is a bigger issue than just where our next Bishop lives. Summing up, I recall a supplementary from someone from Southwark Diocese, who simply asked: if the Commissioners are as open and transparent as Andrew claims, why are all these questions being asked?
- Bath and Wells members wonder if there is some prospect that the response to the ‘debacle’ and public fuss does indicate that the Commissioners may be willing to re-evaluate their decisions. The Board next meets in a fortnight – on 24 February.
- Process nerds are wondering about the implications of the eighth answer. Can the Archbishops Council be invited to review the decision and in some way instruct the Commissioners how to act?
In other news…
Tomorrow Synod returns (mercifully) to what in this blog I have repeatedly called ‘The King’s Great Matter’. It’s a concentrated process to allow the new proposals on women and the episcopate (aka ‘women Bishops’) to be got out to Diocesan Synods this Spring, so the July Synod in York can actually decide. I’ll give some impressions as the day goes on, but in the meantime, there’s a simple audio guide from the ever-clear Bishop of Willesden here.
* Tell me why (I don’t like Mondays): Boomtown Rats, I think – but not really my period.