The Prime Minister’s Appointments Secretary And Episcopal Appointments

My recent post on Tony Blair and the Bishopric of Liverpool has highlighted the role of the Prime Minister’s Appointments Secretary in the process of choosing bishops. Blair’s Appointments Secretary, John Holroyd, clearly played an active role in influencing Blair’s thinking on the various candidates. Was that appropriate? Well, the answer is complicated.

It’s clear that the Church and Downing Street developed divergent understandings of how the appointment process set up by James Callaghan was supposed to work. While Callaghan explicitly stated that the Prime Minister needed a real element of choice in the selection of bishops, the Church seems to have viewed this as constitutional pedantry. After all, the impetus for setting up the Crown Appointments Commission was a July 1974 resolution of the General Synod calling for the Church to have “the decisive voice in the appointment of diocesan bishops.” The resolution went on to say that:

[I]t would be desirable that a small body, representative of the vacant diocese and of the wider Church, should choose a suitable person for appointment to that diocese and for the name to be submitted to the Sovereign.[1]

Matthew Flinders has suggested that the Church may have assumed that Downing Street would treat diocesan bishoprics like suffragan bishoprics. With suffragan bishoprics, there was a longstanding convention that the Prime Minister always submitted the diocesan bishop’s first choice to the Queen.[2] However, it didn’t take long for Downing Street to disabuse the Church of that assumption. In 1981, Margaret Thatcher went with the CAC’s second choice, Graham Leonard, for the Bishopric of London instead of John Habgood. This provoked some controversy, with the Church Times arguing that “[t]he Prime Minister may have observed the letter of this particular law, but she surely defied its spirit.[3]

The appointment of Peter Ball as Bishop of Gloucester sheds light on how Downing Street viewed its role in the process of selecting bishops (I am grateful to one of my readers, David Lamming, for drawing my attention to this material). Robin Catford was John Major’s Appointments Secretary, and his memo to Major on the Gloucester vacancy was released as part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Catford enthusiastically encouraged Major to choose Ball even though he was the CAC’s second choice. Although the first candidate received enough votes to be considered a preference vote, Sir Robin told Major that “even a unanimous vote is not binding on you, as you are entirely free to submit either name to The Queen.[4]

Catford devoted almost two full pages of his memo to praising Ball.[5] While this is remarkable enough (and it goes beyond anything Holroyd seems to have done in the Liverpool case), he also advanced a strategic argument for choosing Ball:

It is quite important in maintaining the viability of the present system that you should not always take the first name, especially when the church’s preference is not strongly expressed. This was allowed to happen under Gladstone over the appointment of suffragan bishops, thus establishing a convention which has not now been breached in over a century. Some church people—but by no means all—would like this to happen over diocesan bishops. This will be your 5th such appointment, and so far you have not chosen the second name. I would not advise you to do so simply on that account, but it would be useful on an occasion such as this when there are clearly good grounds for doing so to exercise your limited freedom to act independently.[6]

It’s interesting that, while Catford mentioned the Prime Minister’s right to seek further names from the CAC,[7] he didn’t identify it as a way to preserve the Prime Minister’s discretion. Granted, he clearly wanted Major to choose Ball, but one has to wonder if Catford might not have felt that asking for more names was a riskier proposition than choosing the CAC’s second candidate.

When Lord Carey was asked about this memo during his testimony before the IICSA, he called it “deeply disturbing.[8]” He went on to say “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.[9]” His words echo the letter he wrote to Holroyd regarding the Bishopric of Liverpool in which he alleged that “[Holroyd’s] own personal influence has been too strong.[10]” (Interestingly, like Catford before him, Holroyd seems to have felt that the archiepiscopal ambivalence toward the CAC’s candidates opened the door to Prime Ministerial discretion.)[11]

Lord Carey was not the first one to voice concerns about the Appointments Secretary’s role—indeed, it has been a source of anxiety to people in the Church for many years. When Anthony Bevir assumed the role in 1947, a chaplain to Archbishop Cyril Garbett of York noted Garbett’s fear that Bevir might become a kingmaker.[12] Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury thought that Bevir’s successor, David Stephens, was getting too personally involved in the appointments process; his colleague at York, Michael Ramsey, was of the same view.[13] Perhaps the most emphatic criticism of the Appointments Secretary’s role came from the Rev. Christopher Wansey (who readers may remember as the vicar who tried to claim a seat in the Commons). In an open letter to the newly installed Appointments Secretary, Colin Peterson, he wrote:

The apostolic succession goes through a filing-cabinet presided over by the Secretary for Appointments, for no one who is not filed there has the remotest chance of becoming a bishop. So, in this episcopal garden, it is not the royal gardener who does the planting and transplanting, nor even the gardener’s boy – the Prime Minister. No, it is the gardener’s boy’s boy – your own good self. You are the one and only bishop-maker in the Church of England today. I respectfully ask: ‘Who are you to choose the successor of St Augustine?’[14]

The actions of Catford and Holroyd show that the Appointments Secretary’s influence didn’t evaporate with the establishment of the CAC. But should that really surprise us? Constitutionally speaking, the Prime Minister clearly had discretion when recommending candidates to the Queen, so was it unreasonable for a Downing Street official to help the Prime Minister exercise that discretion properly? If the Appointments Secretary simply forwarded the CAC’s choices to the Prime Minister without comment, it would have arguably reduced Downing Street’s role to that of a rubber stamp (given the many demands on the Prime Minister’s time, it’s doubtful they could adequately evaluate the CAC’s nominees on their own). Whatever the merits of that approach, it would not have been consistent with the process that Callaghan established in 1976. Now one could argue that there’s a distinction between ‘assisting the Prime Minister’ and ‘meddling in church affairs,’ but it’s doubtful if the dividing line can be drawn with precision!

Given Gordon Brown’s changes to the episcopal appointments process, it’s tempting to conclude that these questions are all academic now, and the Prime Minister has finally become nothing more than a constitutional conduit between the Crown Nominations Commission and the Palace. But that assumption may not be entirely accurate. The words of a Downing Street official interviewed for Matthew Flinders’ 2012 article on the Prime Minister’s ecclesiastical patronage may be illuminating. Discussing Blair’s actions with regard to the Bishopric of Liverpool, the official said “through his Appointments Secretary he made clear the sort of person he wanted. That is still open to Prime Ministers today[15]” (emphasis mine).

Indeed, since the Appointments Secretary continues to be involved with the work of the CNC, Downing Street can still influence the process to make sure that the Prime Minister ultimately receives a palatable candidate.[16] Alternatively, there’s no constitutional reason why the Prime Minister couldn’t reject the CNC’s candidate and ask for another one. Some might argue that this is unlikely to happen, but the controversy over last year’s prorogation of Parliament shows that even longstanding conventions can be bent when there is the political will to do so.

The Appointments Secretary and, by extension, the Prime Minister are likely to retain at least some influence over the appointment of bishops as long as the Queen is involved and the process is governed by uncodified rules. From the Church’s perspective, an alternative modeled on the statutory process for selecting Supreme Court justices might be preferable since it would offer a way to limit Downing Street’s influence while still maintaining the requirements of a constitutional monarchy.   

[1] 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), 133-134.

[2] 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. Section 1 of the Vacancies in Suffragan Sees and Other Ecclesiastical Offices Measure 2010 firmed up this convention by removing the need for a diocesan bishop to submit two names to the Queen.

[3] Quoted in Flinders, 799.

[4] Robin Catford to John Major, October 25, 1991, 1.

[5] Catford to Major, October 25, 1991, 4-5.

[6] Catford to Major, October 25, 1991, 5-6.

[7] Catford to Major, October 25, 1991, 5.

[8] IICSA Inquiry Anglican Church Investigation Hearing, July 24, 2018, 46.

[9] IICSA Inquiry Anglican Church Investigation Hearing, July 24, 2018, 47.

[10] George Carey to John Holroyd, June 26, 1997.

[11] See, for example, David Hope to Tony Blair, June 16, 1997.

[12] Podmore, 130.

[13] Podmore, 131.

[14] Quoted in Podmore, 136.

[15] Quoted in Flinders, 799.

[16] I’ve heard anecdotally that this does, in fact, happen.

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