Choosing Diocesan Bishops in the Church of England

The operation of the Crown Appointments Commission, now renamed the Crown Nominations Commission, is being revised. A Review Group published a report in mid-2001. This was debated in General Synod in July 2001, and my report of the debate is at the end of this article. By November 2003 some of the changes had been introduced, and the main ones are included below. Further changes remain to be made, and will be added when they come into effect.

Another major change is the Prime Minister's decision in 2007 to always accept the CNC's first choice. In 2019 the CNC rules cahnged again; only one name is submitted to the Prime Minister and the CNC is not required to choose a second name, although it may choose optionally chhose a second as a reserve.

Changes to the composition of the CNC were made in 2022.

There is an official Briefing for members of Vacancy in See Committees prepared by the the Archbishops’ Secretary for Appointments in November 2009. It was last updated in January 2020.

Stages in the process

A see becomes vacant by the death, translation or retirement of the diocesan bishop. The process of finding a successor can start as soon as it is known that a vacancy is about to arise. Except for the diocese in Europe (where the Crown plays no part) the following procedure is followed. In the case of the Diocese in Europe the same procedure is followed except that the nomination goes to the Bishop of London.

I Nomination

Vacancy-in-see committee; secretaries' consultation in the diocese

Each diocese has a vacancy-in-see committee composed as follows.

Voting members of the Diocesan Vacancy-in-See Committee
ex officio all suffragan bishops, and full-time assistant bishops
    who are members of the diocesan House of Bishops
the dean of the cathedral (or a member of the cathedral
    chapter if the dean is unable to serve)
two of the archdeacons of the diocese
the diocesan members of General Synod's House of
the diocesan members of General Synod's House of Laity
the chairs of the diocesan Houses of Clergy and Laity
elected two clergy elected by the Diocesan House of Clergy
two lay persons elected by the Diocesan House of Laity
A diocese can decide to have more elected members if this
    is necessary to ensure balanced representation between
    clergy and laity, and between archdeaconries.
nominated members The Bishop's Council of the diocese may nominate up to
    four additional members to represent a special interest
    in the diocese.
Non-Voting member
secretary either the diocesan registrar or diocesan secretary

The committee is a standing committee of the diocese, always in existence so that it can meet as soon as a vacancy arises. The chair of the committee is chosen by the Bishop's Council of the diocese from among the voting members of the committee.

When it is known that a new bishop will be required for the diocese, this committee meets. It has two tasks. The first is to prepare a Statement of Needs for the diocese. This is rather like a parish profile and describes the diocese, the job and the hopes for the new bishop. The second task is to elect six of its members to join the Crown Nominations Commission (see below). The committee can also, if it wishes, suggest names of people to be considered as the future bishop. From autumn 2003 the committee has been required to hold at least two meetings.

Attending the meetings of the vacancy-in-see committee will be two people who have a very important part in the process. They are the Archbishops' secretary for appointments and the Prime Minister's appointments secretary for senior ecclesiastical appointments. The two appointments secretaries also consult widely within the diocese, both within the Church of England, and more widely with ecumenical partners, other denominations, local government, civic authorities, etc. A summary of their consultations will form part of the information provided to the Crown Nominations Commission.

From 2003, vacancies have been announced in the Church press. The announcement includes the dates of meetings of both the vacancy-in-see Committee and the Crown Nominations Commission. The appointments secretaries now include a public meeting in their consultations within the diocese. The dates of the CNC meetings are also published here.

Crown Nominations Commission produces two names

The Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) was set up in 1977 and its job is to nominate one person to become the new bishop. The commission was called the Crown Appointments Commission (CAC) until autumn 2003. The members of the CNC are:

voting members of the Crown Nominations Commission
ex officio Archbishop of Canterbury
Archbishop of York
elected members three members of the House of Clergy of General Synod
three members of the House of Laity of General Synod
six members of the relevant vacancy-in-see committee
non-voting members
ex officio the Prime Minister's Appointments Secretary for senior ecclesiastical appointments
the Archbishops' Secretary for Appointments

The number of members elected by the vacancy-in-see committee was increased from four to six with effect from autumn 2003. At least three of these six members must be lay people. In July 2008 General Synod amended the rules so that no more than one of the bishop's senior staff (ie the suffragan and assistant bishops, the archdeacons and the dean of the cathedral) may be elected.

There are slightly different arrangements when the CNC is considering the archiepiscopal sees of Canterbury and York (see below). A list of the current members can be found here.

The Crown Nominations Commission meets on two occasions for each vacancy and is chaired by the Archbishop in whose province the vacancy exists. The Archbishops' secretary for appointments acts as secretary of the CNC and provides most of the information to the CNC about potential candidates. Starting from 2003 extra information, which has not been filtered by the appointments secretaries, has been provided to CNC members by the Archbishops' secretary. Candidates are interviewed at the second CNC meeting. There are more details of this in the Briefing for members of Vacancy in See Committees.

The CNC produces two names for the future bishop which it places in order of preference. After the meeting the Archbishop sends the names to the Prime Minister. As indicated above it is understood that the Prime Minister will always accept the CNC's first choice. If for any reason this first choice candidate is unable to take up the role, the second choice candidate becomes the Church's nomination.

Update [July 2019]
General Synod changed its standing orders so that the CNC is no longer required to choose a second name, although it may do so if it wishes. Only the first name is submitted to the Prime Minister. The second name, if there is one, is held in reserve in case the first name becomes unavailable.

Update [January 2023]
From 2022 the lay and clergy central membrs of the CNC are elected as six pairs. For each episcopal vacancy the two members of each pair decide between themselves which one will serve for that vacancy.

Procedures for Archiepiscopal vacancies

When the CNC considers vacancies in the sees of Canterbury or York the chair is taken by a extra, fifteenth voting member. This person must be an actual communicant lay member of the Church of England and is appointed by the Prime Minister (for Canterbury) or the Appointments Committee of the Church of England (for York). This lay chair is responsible for forwarding the CNC's two names to the Prime Minister.

A retiring Archbishop is not allowed to serve on the CNC when it is considering an archiepiscopal vacancy; he or she is replaced by a bishop elected by the House of Bishops. The other Archbishop may choose not to attend, and then the House of Bishops elects a replacement for him/her also.

Where the CNC considers a vacancy in the see of Canterbury one of the members of the Primates Meeting of the Anglican Communion elected by the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates Meeting of the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Consultative Council is a voting member of the Commission and the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion is invited to be a non-voting member.

Update [January 2023]
General Synod voted in 2022 to change the compostion of the Canterbury CNC. The diocesan vacancy-in-see committee will now elect only three members of the CNC. Instead of one member of the Primates meeting there will be five representatives of other Churches of the Anglican Communion,
(a) with one person to be chosen from each of the five regions of the Anglican Communion (and, for this purpose, the Europe region includes the provinces of the British Isles other than England),
(b) with those chosen to include at least one primate, at least one priest or deacon and at least one actual communicant lay person,
(c) with at least two of those chosen to be male and at least two to be female, and
(d) with a majority of those chosen to be persons whose ethnicity is commonly referred to as “Global Majority Heritage.

The Prime Minister receives the name submitted by the CNC

The Prime Minister asks the CNC's nominee if he or she is willing to become the new bishop. He or she may of course decline and then the Prime Minister has to ask the CNC for the name of its second choice.

[Prior to 2008 the CNC sent two names to the Prime Minister, possibly in order of preference. The PM either chose one of these or asked the CNC for two more names. This is known to have happened at least once in recent times, when neither of the CNC's two original names was chosen.]

Nomination by the Crown

The first stage of the process is now completed as the King nominates (on his Prime Minister's advice) the person who is to be the new bishop. A public announcement of who is to be the new bishop is now made.

II The person nominated becomes bishop of the diocese

Election by the college of canons of the cathedral

The King now instructs the College of Canons of the cathedral of the vacant see to meet and elect a new bishop. He also tells them who to elect, and the College is required by Statute to elect his nominee.

Confirmation of the election by or on behalf of the metropolitan of the province; the spiritualities of the see are restored

A provincial ceremony is then held to confirm the election. The bishop-elect becomes the diocesan bishop at this point, even if he or she is not yet consecrated. It is this confirmation of election that commits to him or her 'the care, government and administration of the Spirituals of the said Bishopric'.

III The bishop takes up office

Consecration (if not already in episcopal orders)

If the new bishop is not yet in bishop's orders he or she is consecrated shortly after the confirmation of his election.

Homage; the temporalities are restored

The new bishop pays homage to the King and in return receives the temporalities of his or her see from him. These would once have included the episcopal residence and estates, but these are all now vested in the Church Commissioners. The only temporalities now administered by the Crown during a vacancy in the see are the patronages of livings of which the bishop is patron by virtue of his or her see.

This is the text of the oath made by the new bishop when he or she pays homage to the King.

I A.B.
having been elected, confirmed and consecrated
Bishop of C.
do hereby declare
that Your Majesty is the only supreme governor
of this your realm
in spiritual and ecclesiastical things
as well as in temporal
and that no foreign prelate or potentate
has any jurisdiction within this realm
and I acknowledge that I hold the said bishopric
as well the spiritualities as the temporalities thereof
only of Your Majesty
and for the same temporalities I do my homage
presently to Your Majesty
so help me God.
God save King Charles

Enthronement (installation)

Finally the diocese can hold a grand, but largely symbolic, enthronement service in the cathedral.

Peter Owen
9 January 2002
revised 11 January 2002
revised 4 November 2003
revised 16 February 2006
revised 3 July 2007
revised 17 August 2008
revised 4 July 2010
revised 6 July 2010
revised 2 October 2010
revised 14 February 2012
revised 16 April 2012
revised 3 December 2017
revised 23 January 2023
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Review of the Crown Appointments Commission

The operation of the Crown Appointments Commission is currently under review. The following is my report of a debate at General Synod in July 2001, extracted from my article on Anglicans Online.

Choosing Bishops

Diocesan bishops in the Church of England (except for the bishop of Gibraltar in Europe) are chosen by the Crown; in practice this means the Prime Minister. Under a system agreed in 1976, he chooses from a list of two given to him by a synodical body, the Crown Appointments Commission (although in one recent case he first asked the commission for more names). In 1998 Synod set up a group to review the procedure, and their report Working with the Spirit: choosing diocesan bishops was recently published.

Baroness Perry of Southwark, who chaired the review group, introduced a debate on the report by saying: "Like most of those who wrote to us, we believe that the overall shape of the system is right for our situation. However, we have to face the fact that there is widespread unease about important aspects of how the system operates." The most widely held concern was about the information at the Commission's disposal, which largely comprises selective summaries of unattributed references. The system gave a great deal of power to the secretaries (who prepare the summaries) and to diocesan bishops (who are the only people allowed to put names on the Preferment List, from which most candidates are drawn). There is also concern that diocesan bishops are being chosen from a limited range of people; in the last five years 17 out of 19 choices were, or had been, suffragan bishops.

The review group recommended that a Senior Appointments List of potential candidates for all senior appointments should replace the Preferment List, that diocesan bishops and others could propose names for the list, and that those on the list should be asked for a personal statement. The Commission should be given consistent, attributed and unedited information on candidates, although it should not conduct interviews of candidates. It should be renamed the Episcopal Nominations Commission to reflect its role more accurately; for example there are many Crown appointments for which it is not responsible.

In the debate, speakers were broadly in favour of the recommendations. Several with experience of serving on the Commission confirmed the criticisms of its procedures. Some thought the proposals went too far, others not far enough. The motion before the Synod asked the Appointments Committee to appoint a steering group to follow up the recommendations, and this was passed overwhelmingly.

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