A little more than a month after taking office, Tony Blair precipitated a miniature constitutional crisis when he vetoed the Church of England’s nominee for the Bishopric of Liverpool. The incident has largely faded from the public consciousness, but thanks to documents inadvertently released by the Cabinet Office, we can see some of the behind-the-scenes drama of this remarkable event.
Under the Appointment of Bishops Act 1533, the Sovereign formally chooses the archbishops and bishops of the Church of England. Like many of the Crown’s powers, this is now done on the advice of the Prime Minister. Historically, Downing Street often proposed candidates after consulting with senior ecclesiastics, but this was not required. From the 19th century onward, there were repeated calls to give the Church more of a voice in the process. Finally, in 1974, the General Synod resolved that “that the decisive voice in the appointment of diocesan bishops should be that of the Church.”
After discussions between the Church, Downing Street, and the leaders of the main Opposition parties, Prime Minister James Callaghan announced a new process for making episcopal appointments on June 8, 1976. The Church would establish a small standing committee that would become known as the Crown Appointments Commission. It would come up with a shortlist of two names for each vacant see, and the Prime Minister would recommend one of those names to the Queen. But he could choose to forward either of the candidates submitted to him or ask for an entirely new set of names.
Callaghan was very clear that the Prime Minister’s role would not become a formality. “There are, in my view, cogent reasons why the State cannot divest itself from a concern with these appointments of the established Church,” he noted. “The Sovereign must be able to look for advice on a matter of this kind and that must mean, for a constitutional Sovereign, advice from Ministers. The archbishops and some of the bishops sit by right in the House of Lords, and their nomination must therefore remain a matter for the Prime Minister’s concern.”
Callaghan’s successors generally accepted the Crown Appointments Commission’s first choice, though there were exceptions–Margaret Thatcher went with the second name on several occasions. However, Tony Blair appears to have been the first Prime Minister to reject both names and ask for an entirely new slate.
Blair’s involvement in the process began in June 1997. The Crown Appointments Commission had proposed Gavin Reid, Suffragan Bishop of Maidstone in the Diocese of Canterbury, or George Cassidy, Archdeacon of London. In a minute dated June 9, the Prime Minister’s Appointments Secretary, John Holroyd, summarized the candidates. Reid was described as an “out-and-out evangelical,” whose “public pronouncements occasionally lack judgment.” Cassidy, meanwhile, was said to be “middle of the road” and “a tough but fair administrator—too tough for some.” He was also described as “[e]nergetic with good mind, but some lack of ‘bottom.’” Holroyd noted that Reid had received seven votes in the CAC to Cassidy’s five, which he characterized as “no preference.” Consequently, Blair was entitled to ask for additional names.
Holroyd went on to set out the pros and cons of both men. Reid, a suffragan of the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, was said to be the archbishop’s favored choice. But Holroyd argued that Reid had previously been considered unsuited for a diocesan role, and he suggested that the CAC only put Reid on the list because the diocesan representatives “made a pitch for him and, which G Carey backed.”
Cassidy, on the other hand, “would be energetic and get round the diocese.” Holroyd noted that “he can be a little narrow on social issues, but has learnt to be more measured and tolerant as he has experienced the difficulties of London.”
Holroyd argued that asking for additional names choice be risky since the CAC might return with an unsatisfactory candidate, or Archbishop Carey might “cut up rough” at the rejection of the CAC’s nominees. Subject to consultations with the Archbishop of York, David Hope, Holroyd recommended that Blair should recommend Cassidy to the Queen.
A further minute from Holroyd dated June 12 revealed the Appointments Secretary’s evolving view of the situation. He now thought Reid was unsuitable for the job (“he just does not measure up to the requirement or to the job description provided to the CAC by the diocese”), and he stated that Archbishop Hope shared this assessment. And while Cassidy would work hard in the role, Holroyd questioned his suitability for a senior bishopric.
Holroyd had concluded that Blair should ask for an entirely new slate of names. “George Carey said to me last week: ‘the new Prime Minister wouldn’t want to flex his muscles this early, would he?’ But that is not the point. As I see it, it is not a matter of your flexing your muscles, but of pointing out to the CAC, as I tried to do during its meeting, that the candidates offered do not measure up to what you and the diocese require.”
On June 16, Archbishop Hope of York formally transmitted the results of the CAC’s deliberations along with his own assessment of the candidates. After setting out the strengths of both men, Hope noted that some on the Commission had reservations about Reid due to his age and perceived compatibility with the diocese. As for Cassidy, there had been questions about whether Cassidy’s “proper archidiaconal qualities really have the capacity to develop more fully into the qualities needed for this particular episcopal ministry.”
Hope seemed ambivalent toward both men, a fact that Holroyd noted in a minute to Blair dated June 20. He claimed the archbishop was looking to “depress the case for going to Bishop Gavin Reid and also to cast doubt on whether the second name [George Cassidy] is good enough for Liverpool.” He concluded by restating his belief that Blair should ask for a new slate of names. “I have profound doubts about Reid’s suitability and the same sort of doubts as the Archbishop of York about Cassidy. I would be ready to brave a resumed CAC!” At the bottom of this minute, Blair wrote “I am not against Cassidy or Reid but [would?] like more names at least to test the water.”
A few days later, Holroyd communicated Blair’s decision to Archbishop Hope. “At this stage he is not prepared to recommend either of these names to The Queen for appointment as Bishop of Liverpool. As you will, I am sure, understand the Prime Minister wishes to recommend to The Queen someone who will not only meet the perceived needs of the Diocese of Liverpool, but whose present standing or future potential is commensurate with the importance of the See of Liverpool, particularly as demonstrated during the episcopate of Bishop David Sheppard.”
Blair’s decision provoked an angry response from George Carey, who seemed to believe that Holroyd had engaged in some behind-the-scenes manipulation. “I really must express my considerable dismay on learning that the Prime Minister has asked for more names to be considered,” Carey wrote to Holroyd. “I can only surmise that your own personal influence has been too strong.”
“There is always the element of risk and faith attached to any selection of names. No one can be absolutely sure that a Commission will not make the occasional mistake but the Prime Minister (who is not present at the Commission) must rely on the judgment that comes from its Chairman who offers to the Prime Minister his view concerning the two names given,” Carey continued. He went on to demand a private meeting with Blair, emphasizing that he did not want Holroyd to be present. “I don’t expect anyone else to be with us when we [discuss the Liverpool vacancy].”
Holroyd responded to Carey on July 1. “I am sorry that you judge that my role in the Prime Minister’s request for more names for Liverpool has been too prominent. I can assure you of two things: first, that the decision was the Prime Minister’s. Secondly, when he considered the outcome of the Crown Appointments Commission the Prime Minister had before him the Archbishop of York’s letter and supporting material about the two candidates available to the Commission. It was on this basis that he decided to ask for more names.”
By September, news of Blair’s decision to reject the CAC’s initial slate had leaked (see, for example, this story from The Independent). On September 22, Holroyd wrote to Blair to say that “we have been receiving a lot of correspondence from people with in the Church of England supporting your decision to ask…for more names.” Holroyd blamed the Liverpool diocesan representatives on the CAC for the leak, but he assured Blair that most of the correspondence Downing Street had received on the matter was supportive of Blair’s actions.
The CAC would have to meet a further two times before they came up with another pair of candidates, and these were transmitted to Blair in a minute from Holroyd dated February 13, 1998. The new shortlist consisted of Graham James, Suffragan Bishop of St. Germans in the Diocese of Truro, and James Jones, Suffragan Bishop of Hull in the Diocese of York. The CAC’s initial candidates, Bishop Reid and Archdeacon Cassidy, were technically on the table as well, but Holroyd advised Blair to “set them firmly to one side.”
Holroyd’s assessments of both men were complimentary, and he once again claimed that the CAC showed no real preference between the two. James was “a real up-and-comer, who is tough and efficient, but has a nice touch with people.” Holroyd also noted that he was from “the Anglo-catholic [sic] stable.” Jones was “a most energetic area Bishop, who has championed a neglected city.” He was also said to be “very good with the media, and though a clear evangelical, has a wide appeal to clergy and laity.”
Holroyd thought that the Archbishop Hope of York would try to steer Blair toward the more-experienced candidate, Graham James. According to Holroyd, Hope thought that James Jones (who was one of Hope’s own suffragans) “still has something to learn about how he sets priorities and judges people and situations.” But he also claimed that Hope agreed that Jones was the “more exciting personality.”
In Holroyd’s view, the fact that Jones was an evangelical made him a good fit for the Diocese of Liverpool since he was “broad in his own approach and attractive to a broad range of people.” His popularity might also help explain the delay in filling the vacancy, as he would be seen as a find. Holroyd did, however, suggest that, if Jones ended up in Liverpool, he might need an Anglo-Catholic suffragan.
In a handwritten note at the end of the February 13 minute, Tony Blair seemed to be siding with Jones. “Has he any [illegible] in politics or is he basically a well-meaning centre-left typical bishop? If the latter let’s go for him.” In the end Jones was the name that was sent to the Palace, and on April 3, the Queen formally recommended him for election as Bishop of Liverpool.
These documents provide an interesting glimpse at a process that is usually veiled in secrecy. They show that Downing Street was far more involved in the process of selecting bishops than most people might realize. John Holroyd was not afraid to give Tony Blair his own independent assessment of the candidates, nor was he chary about advising Blair to ask for more names. And Blair’s own response to James Jones’ candidacy suggests that a prospective bishop’s political views carried some weight with him.
Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, announced changes to the episcopal appointment process that theoretically ended this sort of backstairs influence. Now, the Crown Nominations Commission (the new name for the CAC) only gives Downing Street one name for each vacant see (though a second is kept in reserve in case the first-choice candidate is unwilling or unable to serve), and in theory at least, that name goes directly to the Queen. But the process is still very much shrouded in secrecy, and it’s fair to wonder if it actually operates in the manner advertised. Indeed, during David Cameron’s time in Downing Street, one of his officials was quoted as saying that, while Cameron wasn’t interested in specific candidates, he nevertheless wanted “bishops who are outward looking, who are going to be part of the Church and his Big Society.” Despite Brown’s new process, one has to wonder if the Prime Minister actually became the disinterested postman that he envisioned.
The full set of documents, including materials that the Cabinet Office released as formal FOIA disclosures after their initial, inadvertent, disclosures can be found here.
 This was not a standard FOIA disclosure. The full story is too convoluted to describe here, but suffice it to say that a Cabinet Office staffer accidentally sent me a bunch of material along with their notice denying my request. Since the horse was already out of the stable, they released some additional material, though it was heavily redacted.
 Colin Podmore, “The choosing of bishops in the Early Church and in the Church of England: an historical survey,” in Working With the Spirit: Choosing Diocesan Bishops in the Church of England, (London: Church House Publishing, 2001), 133.
 Matthew Flinders, “Heaven’s Talent Scout: Prime Ministerial Power, Ecclesiastical Patronage and the Governance of Britain,” The Political Quarterly, vol 83, no. 4 (October-December 2012), 799.
 John Holroyd to Tony Blair, June 9, 1997, 1.
 Holroyd to Blair, June 9, 1997, 2.
 John Holroyd to Tony Blair, June 12, 1997, 1. Curiously, Holroyd earlier claimed that Reid was included on the list at the behest of the Liverpool diocesan representatives on the CAC.
 Holroyd to Blair, June 9, 1997, 1-2.
 Holroyd to Blair, June 9, 1997, 2.
 David Hope to Tony Blair, June 16, 1997, 2-3.
 John Holroyd to Tony Blair, June 20, 1997.
 John Holroyd to David Hope, June 24, 1997.
 George Carey to John Holroyd, June 26, 1997.
 Ibid. It seems he ultimately met with Blair on July 16.
 John Holroyd to George Carey, July 1, 1997.
 John Holroyd to Tony Blair, September 22, 1997, 1.
 Holroyd to Blair, September 22, 1997, 2. Unfortunately, the documents don’t allow us to verify Holroyd’s claim.
 John Holroyd to Tony Blair, February 13, 1998, 2.
 Holroyd to Blair, February 13, 1998, 1.
 Holroyd to Blair, February 13, 1998, 2.
 Holroyd to Blair, February 13, 1998, 3.
 Quoted in Flinders, “Heaven’s Talent Scout,” 799.
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This is not the first occasion on which a Cabinet Office memo has revealed the ‘behind the scenes’ influence of Government advisers.
I’ve just posted the following comment on the Thinking Anglicans website, where there is a post linking to this article:
“This was not the first occasion when the Prime Minister’s Appointments’ Secretary influenced an episcopal appointment decision.
During his evidence to the IICSA ‘Peter Ball case study’ hearing on 24 July 2018 Lord Carey was asked questions about a memo/letter dated 25 October 1991 written by the then PM’s Appointments’ Secretary, Robin Catford, to John Major relating to the vacancy in the see of Gloucester. The memo (only released by the Cabinet Office a week earlier: see IICSA transcript, 24.7.2020, pages 37/21 to 38/4) revealed that Catford was ‘steering’ the Prime Minister to favour the second choice candidate of the Crown Appointments Commission, Peter Ball, then suffragan Bishop of Lewes.
The first choice of the CAC, by a majority of 8-4 as revealed by the memo, was Christopher Mayfield, then suffragan Bishop of Wolverhampton. (The name is redacted in the document as published on the IICSA website, but sufficient information has been left in for it to be quite easy to identify the other candidate. Mayfield later became Bishop of Manchester.)
John Major endorsed the Catford memo in manuscript, “OK – Peter Ball. J 26/10”. The rest, as they say, is history.
George Carey was distinctly unimpressed by Catford’s conduct. In response to questions by counsel to the inquiry, Fiona Scolding QC, he described it as ‘very deeply disturbing’, saying, “I didn’t know this was going on, so very clearly the secretary was influencing the mind of the Prime Minister and going beyond his responsibilities. I find this quite appalling… What should have happened, the Prime Minister should have seen me to go over this letter and then a decision should have been made, and this happened several times with respect to Tony Blair… So, yes, I find this worrying.” (Transcript, 24.7.2020, pages 46/24 to 47/20).
Re the see of Liverpool, there are indications that David Sheppard was not the preferred choice of the then appointments secretary in 1974: Andrew Bradstock says this at page 171 of his magisterial 2019 biography David Sheppard: Batting for the Poor: “Rumours that Sheppard was being considered for Liverpool began circulating in 1974 when Stuart Blanch, the bishop since 1966, was appointed Archbishop of York. Other names were in the frame, but Prime Minister Harold Wilson, a Liverpool MP, was determined to have Sheppard for the diocese. He claimed that he overruled the advice of his appointments secretary and the archbishops, in making the appointment.””
Thank you for that; it’s all fascinating! The fact that both Catford and Holroyd were accused of exceeding their remit raises an interesting question. If the Prime Minister was supposed to have an element of ‘real choice’ when advising the Queen on these matters, is it really that surprising that one of his officials would help him exercise that choice? I suspect that the line between ‘helping the PM make a wise recommendation to the Queen’ and ‘interfering in Church affairs’ is rather thin, and its location depends very much on the viewer’s perspective! Clearly, the Church and Downing Street had *very* different conceptions of how the appointments process was supposed to work.
Thank you, Jason. A couple of corrections to note to my comment: the two references to pages of the IICSA transcript of George Carey’s evidence should be to 24.7.2018 (not 24.7.2020.)
Have you read High and Mitred: A Study of Prime Ministers as Bishop-makers 1837-1977 by Bernard Palmer? If you’re interested in the appointment process for bishops, you might find it interesting.
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