Choosing diocesan bishops in the Church of England

As a follow-up to Women in the episcopate: legislation and its adoption, Peter Owen has kindly contributed the following guest post on the process of appointment to vacant Sees.  Peter is a former member of General Synod, is part of the teams that publish Thinking Anglicans and Anglicans Online and has his own web site. He was member of the Liverpool Vacancy in See Committee at the time of the last two vacancies.

This is a summary of the process; for more details see, in particular, the Briefing for Members of Vacancy in See Committees [1]. At the time of writing only men can be bishops so I have referred to then as “he”. I speculate at the end on how soon this will need to be changed to “he or she”.

Key Players

1. Vacancy in See Committee

 This is a standing committee of the diocese. It includes senior clergy (suffragan bishop(s), dean, two archdeacons), the diocesan members of General Synod, the chairs of the diocesan houses of clergy and laity, lay and clergy members elected by the diocesan synod, and up to four members nominated by the bishop’s council.

2. The Crown Nominations Commission

The membership is the two archbishops and three clergy and three laity, elected by STV (single transferable vote) for five-year terms from and by, respectively, the houses of clergy and laity of the General Synod [2]. In addition the vacancy in see committee elects six of its members to join the Commission for the consideration of their particular vacancy.

The membership for vacancies at Canterbury and York is slightly different. An additional lay member is appointed to chair the CNC, and for Canterbury there is also a representative of the Anglican Communion.

 3. The Archbishops’ Secretary for Appointments (ASA) [3] and the Prime Minister’s appointments secretary for senior ecclesiastical appointments.

The ASA, currently Caroline Boddington, is secretary to the CNC. Amongst other tasks she maintains a list of people recommended as suitable for senior appointments by their diocesan bishops. Those recommended are asked to supply a personal statement and the names of three referees.

4. The Prime Minster

5. Her Majesty the Queen, who always takes the advice of her Prime Minister.

The Process

1. The current bishop announces his retirement. This may be several months in advance.

2. The Vacancy in See Committee meets on at least two occasions and (a) prepares a description of the diocese and a Statement of Needs, and (b) elects six of its members to join the Crown Nominations Commission for the consideration of their vacancy. Of these six at least three must be lay, and at most one of the senior clergy may be elected. The committee may, if it wishes, consult within the diocese before preparing the statement of needs. Typically a sub-committee prepares a draft statement before the full committee agrees the final version.

3. In parallel with the proceedings of the Vacancy in See Committee, the two appointments secretaries consult widely in the diocese, both within the Church of England, and more widely with ecumenical partners, other denominations, local government, civic authorities, etc. They also attend the first meeting of the Vacancy in See Committee. A notice of the vacancy in placed in the church press and people can send in comments and suggested names to the appointments secretaries. A summary of these consultations is given to the CNC.

4. The ASA draws up a list of potential candidates. Members of the CNC can ask for other names to be added to the list. There is a deadline for this, which is several weeks before the first CNC meeting.

5. The archbishops prepare a statement setting out the needs of the Church of England as a whole

6. The CNC holds two meetings in private, about a month apart. The meeting is chaired by the archbishop of the province with the vacancy. The Commission also conducts business by correspondence, both before and after the first meeting.

7. At its first meeting the CNC reviews the requirements of the diocese and the national church, and draws up a shortlist of candidates to be interviewed. Typically four people are invited for interview.

8. At the second meeting the shortlisted candidates are interviewed. The CNC then chooses two names to submit to the Prime Minister. Both of the names submitted must receive the support of two-thirds of the members, voting in a secret ballot. Because the six diocesan members are more than a third of the membership they can, if they all vote the same way, effectively veto any candidate. When the two names have been identified, a further vote is taken, again by secret ballot, in order to allow the Commission’s members to express a preference between them. It is this vote which identifies the preferred name.

9. The archbishop sends the two names to the Prime Minister. Both the current and previous PMs have said that they will always choose the CNC’s preferred name. [Note: this was not the case in the case when Peter Ball was chosen by the  Crown appointments Commission as Bishop of Gloucester in November 1991].  

10. The PM asks the CNC’s first preference if he will accept nomination.

11. If he does, he has a medical and DBS check (Disclosure and Barring Service check, previously CRB), the Queen is advised and she formally nominates him to the see. If for any reason he is unable to accept nomination the position is offered to the CNC’s second preference.

12. The public announcement is made typically four to eight weeks after the CNC’s second meeting. Number 10 issues a press release, and the nominee is taken on a public tour of the diocese.

13. The Queen issues instructions to the College of Canons of the cathedral of the vacant see to elect a bishop. She also tells them whom to elect. The College holds its election in private and then announces the result publicly.

14. The election then has to be confirmed by the Archbishop of the Province or by his Vicar-General on his behalf. Once these proceedings have confirmed that everything has been done correctly, the person elected becomes the bishop of the diocese.

15. If the new bishop is not already in episcopal orders he is consecrated shortly after the confirmation of his election.

16. The new bishop pays homage to the Queen. This can only happen when the Queen is in England, and her annual two-month summer stay in Scotland can sometimes cause a delay.

17. Finally the new bishop starts his public ministry with a grand, but largely symbolic, enthronement in the cathedral.


Arrangements are different in the Diocese of Europe, since its bishop is not a crown appointment.


The main constraint on the timetable is the CNC . The Commission fixes dates for six pairs of meetings per year [4], and vacancies are generally allocated to these dates in order of their announcement. At the time of writing the next vacant slot in their timetable is September/October 2015. Although there is nothing to prevent the process starting as soon as a bishop announces his retirement, in practice the early stages are scheduled backwards from the CNC meeting dates.

There are various deadlines for people to suggest names for consideration by the CNC, but the latest of these is the one for members of the CNC itself. In one recent case I understand this was two months before the first CNC meeting. I doubt that names of women would be accepted until they are legally able to become bishops, which will probably be on 17 November 2014.

The next CNC meetings are for St Edmundsbury and Ipswich (11 September and 15/16 October 2014) and Southwell and Nottingham (3 November and 2/3 December 2014), in each case too early to consider women.

The first diocese to have its CNC meetings after 17 November will be Gloucester (8 January and 19/20 February 2015) so it might be possible for women candidates to be considered. If a woman were to be chosen this would not be publicly known before March or April.

The next two dioceses (Oxford and Newcastle) will certainly be able to consider both women and men.

The process for choosing suffragan bishops is completely different [5]. The diocesan bishop makes the choice, although he consults widely. He is largely in control of the timetable. It is quite likely that some diocesans with suffragan vacancies are now moving slowly so that they can consider women candidates. Others may want to fill vacancies as quickly as possible because of the increase in their workload during the vacancy. But the timetable is such that a woman suffragan could be announced before the earliest possibility for a woman diocesan.

Peter Owen


[1] Briefing for Members of Vacancy in See Committees

[2] Membership of the CNC

[3] Archbishops’ Advisers for Appointments and Development

[4] CNC dates

[5] Nomination Process for Suffragan Bishops


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