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The appointment of Church of England diocesan bishops follows a somewhat convoluted process, reflecting the church's traditional tendency towards compromise and ad hoc solutions, traditional ambiguity between hierarchy and democracy, and traditional role as a semi-autonomous state church. (Suffragan bishops are appointed through a much simpler process, reflecting their status as directly responsible to their diocesan bishop.)

Current procedures

Since 1976, when a bishop dies, retires or moves on and leaves a diocesan bishopric vacant, the process of replacing him involves several stages. The first of these involves the diocesan Vacancy-in-See Committee, composed of:

  • The dean of the diocese's cathedral
  • Two archdeacons
  • The diocese's representative members of the General Synod of the Church of England
  • Members of the diocesan House of Bishops
  • The chairman and two other members of the diocesan House of Clergy
  • The chairman and two other members of the diocesan House of Laity
  • Other members approved by the Bishop's Council

The committee produces a Statement of Needs assessing the needs of the diocese. It then sends this statement to the Crown Nominations Commission (known until 2003 as the "Crown Appointments Commission"), which consists of:

  • The Archbishops of Canterbury and York (in the event of a vacancy in either post, then the House of Bishops elects another bishop to take that Archbishop's place)
  • Three members elected by the General Synod's House of Clergy from within itself
  • Three members elected by the General Synod's House of Laity from itself
  • Six members elected ad hoc by the Vacancy-in-See Committee from itself

Beyond these fourteen voting members, the Prime Minister's appointments secretary and the Archbishops' appointments secretary meet with the commission and help supply it with information on possible candidates. Normally the archbishop in whose province the vacancy lies chairs the commission.

When meeting to nominate an archbishop, the commission is chaired by a fifteenth voting member, who must be an "actual communicant lay member of the Church of England". He or she is appointed by the prime minister (if an Archbishop of Canterbury is being appointed) or by the Church of England Appointments Committee (if an Archbishop of York).

The commission meets several times in secret. The commission then forwards two names to the prime minister, who chooses one of them, or (exceptionally) requests additional names from the commission. In recent memory, the only prime minister who has not accepted the commission's preferred candidate was Margaret Thatcher, who opposed James Lawton Thompson's nomination as Bishop of Birmingham, due to his (perceived) liberal and left-leaning views. If the chosen individual accepts the office, the prime minister advises the Sovereign, who then formally nominates the prime minister's choice. Thereafter, the diocese's College of Canons meets to 'elect' the new bishop. (This stage of the process was mocked by Ralph Waldo Emerson thus: "The King sends the Dean and Canons a congé d'élire, or leave to elect, but also sends them the name of the person whom they are to elect. They go into the Cathedral, chant and pray; and after these invocations invariably find that the dictates of the Holy Ghost agree with the recommendation of the King" [Emerson, English Traits, XIII, 1856].)

Following the election, the new bishop must be confirmed in office. A provincial ceremony takes place where the bishop-elect swears an oath. During the ceremony, the appropriate archbishop confers the spiritualities of the see on the bishop-elect, who then takes office. At a later point, the monarch confers the temporalities of the see, which formerly included vast church estates and the bishop's residence, but which have now become more limited. If the bishop has never previously received consecration as a bishop, he must be consecrated; both the confirmation of election and episcopal consecration (if any) generally take place to suit the archbishop's convenience, that is to say in York Minstermarker for a bishop of the northern province, or, for a bishop of the southern province, in Canterbury Cathedralmarker or one of the great churches or cathedrals in Londonmarker (such as St Paul'smarker or Southwark Cathedralmarker, or Westminster Abbeymarker).

Finally, a symbolic ceremony of installation or enthronement takes place in the bishop's new cathedral, during which he is welcomed by his new diocese and first sits in his cathedra.

Future possibilities

In July 2007, shortly after taking office as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown released a green paper outlining several proposed reforms of the Prime Minister's ability to exercise traditional Royal Prerogative powers. Among these were several which could affect Church of England appointments, including those of diocesan bishops. The proposed scheme would see (in future) a single name emerge from the Crown Nominations Commission, rather than two, which the Prime Minister would simply pass along to the Queen. Furthermore, the role of the Prime Minister's appointments secretary would be reduced or even eliminated.


  1. Report, from the Church Times

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