Reforming Canon 4

The Scottish Episcopal Church has a curious hobby and that hobby is reforming Canon 4.

Now, Canon 4 is the set of rules by which we choose new bishops and from time to time the cry goes up that it is time to reform Canon 4.

There are a limited number of reasons why anyone would want to reform Canon 4. Broadly speaking there’s two reasons – the first of which is that for some reason there’s a feeling held by some people within the church that the wrong person has been elected as a bishop somewhere. The second reason is the feeling that an election process has not gone smoothly and things have been very difficult along the pathway to chosing someone to be the bishop of a diocese.

It has been quite a while since we’ve engaged in trying to reform Canon 4 but right now, we are slap bang in the middle of it. There’s a strong view that the current Canon isn’t working as well as it might. Some, I suspect, do think that the wrong people are ending up as bishops, and few who have had anything to do with the process in recent years would describe it running smoothly in all cases. Indeed, the dioceses where it has seemed to run smoothly have been in the minority.

Last Saturday, the diocese that I’m in carefully considered the latest proposals for Reforming Canon 4 that are on the table at the moment and rejected them by quite decisive majorities.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the process stops here. The freshly proposed canon will still be presented at General Synod in June and be voted on. It will need more than two thirds to agree with it in each of the three houses – clergy, laity and bishops. Last year when it was first read, it didn’t achieve that. It would be fair to say that there is quite some risk that this will not get through its second reading. If that is the case, it will cause quite some upset because a lot of work goes into these things, for which everyone in the church should be grateful.

However, I was pleased that the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway said no last week as I don’t think that what is proposed at the moment is fit for purpose and if we say yes to it, we could be stuck with it for 20 years.

What we decided we wanted to happen was the Faith and Order Board to take another look at it in the light of the concerns that people still have and propose something else next year, building on the work that has already been done.

One big problem in the process being proposed is the idea of confidentiality. It has been proposed that we return to a system where elections are carried out in which the names of those who are being considered are not published and are held in confidence by all those who are involved in the process.

It is a fine idea. However, I’ve not come across anyone at all who thinks that dozens of Scottish Episcopalians (around 150 people in some dioceses) can actually keep such a confidence for weeks on end. One of the reasons for this is that we used to have a closed system and the news of who was being considered always did leak out into the wider church. This is not particularly surprising, for after all, the wider church does have a legitimate interest in who is being considered. Something called the internet has been widely adopted, even by Episcopalians, since then too, making it even more likely that word would get around now about who was being considered.

Many candidates have found it very hard to be named as candidates for the Episcopacy publicly and found the weeks between being named and the election taking place quite tortuous. I’m one of those people. It is horrible to have everyone talking about you.

The cry has gone up that we must keep everything confidential in order to protect the candidates.

This has the best of motives but lots of us think it unrealistic.

From my point of view this could have been sorted out by looking at the election timetable and significantly changing it rather than trying to impose a confidentiality that I don’t think can ever be kept.

Some people (I am amongst them) think that the process of chosing a new bishop should be done by a much smaller group of people than is currently the case. If a smaller “electoral college” was doing the work, I could imagine it being much more likely to be able to keep the confidentiality that we are looking for.

However, if a whole diocesan synod of people are involved, then this seems unrealistic.

The idea of a smaller group of people making the choice does not seem to have widespread support at the moment, which I think is a shame.

From my point of view, it would be better to have either a smaller group which was able to keep confidences or alternatively to have the larger diocesan synod doing it, but that process to be made more rather than less transparent. I think if the diocesan synod is involved this should be a public piece of business. (This is what happens in some other parts of the Anglican Communion – eg the US based Episcopal Church).

I think members of electoral synods would probably behave significantly better than some have done if it was a public meeting that the candidates were present at. I also think that those who are candidates who come from a diocese should retain a vote in the process. It is a strange thing to take away a vote from someone simply because they are a candidate.

The current proposal we have before us is trying to use rules suitable for a small gathering for a bigger gathering and it just won’t work.

The consequence of this for candidates could be even worse than the situation that we currently have. Should an election take place and the names leak out, or even be printed in a newspaper or appear online in a social media post, the only people who would be unable to speak about this – either publicly or privately, would be the candidates. This could result in new cruelties in a system which is already problematic.

There are other things that trouble me about the proposed canon 4 process too. In particular, I’m concerned that the Personnel Committee still have no involvement in the running of the elections.

I have the feeling that the Personnel Committe would manage the interview and election processes significantly more professionally than the current combination of the College of Bishops and local members of the diocese concerned.

Some Episcopal elections have in recent years been conducted incompetently. The church needs to hear that those responsible for these processes will never have anything to do with the election of bishops again. There also needs to be a clear complaints process and all involved need to deal with complaints properly. (This has not always happened).

Incompetently conducted elections have meant candidates being treated cruelly. We need to make that stop and if that means doing some more work on Canon 4 before agreeing a new process then I think we should make the effort to make that happen.

I am aware that the problems that we have seen are not all caused by the current text of the canon. However, any attempt to change the canon should do whatever can be done to make things better.

Canon 4 needs to be revised. What is currently being proposed would probably be an improvement, but only if the electorate was composed of the House of Angels and the House of Saints who could, to the very last cherub, keep schtum when they needed to.

However, we live in the real world and I think we need a real world electoral process that will work properly.

Lots of work has been done already.

However, we’re not there yet.

The current proposals are not yet fit for purpose and should be rejected.

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