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Private Eye: David Cameron Seeks to Retain PM’s Veto on Bishops

Private Eye magazine carries an interesting report (1252, p. 8) on Desmond Swayne MP’s recent intervention at a meeting of the Parliamentary Ecclesiastical Committee against a plan to amend the system by which suffragan bishops in the Church of England are appointed. Traditionally (i.e. since the 1970s), the church (in the form of the Crown Appointments Commission), would choose a potential bishop but also submit a second name to the prime minister, giving the PM the right of veto over the first name. Brown, though, announced two years ago that he considered the prime minister should no longer have this power, and he has accepted the first names for appointments as a matter of course.

The committee was meeting to discuss formalising this arrangement in the case of suffragan bishops, who assist diocesan bishops in ministering to larger dioceses, when Swayne raised his unexpected objection – apparently at the behest of David Cameron:

“As the leader of the opposition’s PPS, I did ask him about this today and he is not content that this should be done.” Although the prime minister has always chosen the first of two names submitted to him, “that does not mean that the choice was automatic.”

Swayne was a voice crying in the wilderness; all others present voted in favour.

Cameron’s apparent desire to return to the days of political interference in episcopal appointments will dismay many. There were calls for reform back in 2000:

Canon Christina Baxter…said: “I would be much in favour of removing any political influence from the appointment of bishops.” David McClean, a professor of law at Sheffield University and Ms Baxter’s predecessor as Laity chairman, said: “The intervention of the head of a political party in the appointment of bishops is no longer acceptable.”

The Rev Stephen Trott, a Church Commissioner and member of the Synod, said: “The way the appointment of bishops is organised should be transparent rather than masonic, as it is now. There should be a Church appointments commission free of political interference…”

Tony Blair reportedly used his veto several times, and the Eye recalls Thatcher’s use of the veto to install George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1990. Carey had been chosen as the second name for a strategic reason that backfired; as the Independent recalled in 2002:

One of those names is traditionally a complete outsider, included by the Church’s publicity-shy Crown Appointments Commission to ensure the Prime Minister picks the right candidate.

It does not always work. In 1990 Dr Carey is thought to have been selected as a candidate to push Margaret Thatcher into picking the Most Rev Dr John Habgood, Archbishop of York at the time, whose social views she disliked. But in one of her last acts as Prime Minister she chose Dr Carey, surprising the Church and putting at the heart of the establishment an East End hospital porter’s son who left school at 15.

Not everyone welcomed him and there were plenty of critics who agreed with his description of feeling “dazed and unworthy” when he learnt of the move from his Bath and Wells see to Lambeth Palace.

(NB: I’m giving the Eye a hat-tip despite the fact that the magazine takes stuff from blogs without giving credit)