Monsters in Mitres: The Church of England’s bishops have been corrupted by their absolute power

You cannot bring to book an Anglican bishop. He is accountable to nobody.

You can impeach the President of the United States of America and hold the world’s most powerful man to account. You cannot bring to book an Anglican bishop. He is accountable to nobody. He is lord of his diocese and sovereign of all he surveys. For all the ceaseless chatter about equality from the archbishops and bishops, the ecclesiastical hierarchy is the only institution that remains as feudal and fixed as in the Middle Ages.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) is now stripping naked our episcopal emperors of mitre and muscle as it exposes the glaring abuse of unbridled power exercised with heightened impunity by bishops in the Church of England. The IICSA hearings began on Monday and are being streamed live on the internet. Each hour lays bare revelations of corruption and nepotism. Each witness tells horrific tales of the abuse of power and the power of abuse.

The Archbishop of Canterbury gets the first resounding slap on his wrist in chairman Alexis Jay’s opening remarks. Justin Welby has been a naughty boy. He’s told journalists he would be giving evidence. ‘It is most disappointing that confidential matters were shared by the archbishop in breach of the undertaking,’ says Professor Jay in disapproval of Welby’s cavalier attitude. Further, by casting doubt on Bishop George Bell’s character, despite the findings of Lord Carlile’s review, Welby also demonstrated he was not accountable to a high-profile independent review.

Meanwhile, in a parallel theatre of the absurd, John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, is shamed with a raft of bishops, Peter Burrows (Doncaster), Steven Croft (Oxford), Martyn Snow (Leicester), Glyn Webster (Beverley) and Roy Williamson (Bradford, now retired) by Fr Matt Ineson for covering up his rape by a former Bradford vicar. ‘By lies, by cover-up, the Church of England has gone out of its way to protect them [the bishops],’ he said. Like him, another victim, ‘Gilo’, is calling for an end to what Gilo calls ‘the Society for the Protection of Bishops’.

The hearing quotes a statement from the victims of abuse explicitly indicting the bishops: ‘Many of us have suffered not only the abuse itself but also years of manipulation, blanking and lies by bishops and leaders in the Church of England.’

The most damning statement against bishops is on page 132 of the transcript of the hearing’s opening session: ‘diocesan bishops are not formally accountable to anyone’. Welby is quoted as saying, ‘I have no legal power to direct that bishops take specific action or to dismiss a bishop.’ If diocesan bishops are not accountable to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the frightening conclusion that must be drawn is ‘Who, then, are Welby and Sentamu accountable to?’

The hearing cites a statement from the campaign group Mandate Now: ‘The diocesan bishop is king in his diocese. The power and status of the bishops is hardwired into the culture of the Church of England.’ It quotes a victim abused by a former bishop: ‘The bishop told me he had the power to give me everything I wanted in life and the power to take it all away’. It goes on to note ‘the broader issue of the unaccountable power of bishops in church structures which were conceived in medieval times’.

Most people know Lord Acton’s celebrated aphorism, ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. What most people don’t know is that Acton was referring to bishops. Historian and thinker John Dalberg-Acton was writing to Mandell Creighton, Bishop of London, in 1887.

In the context of the IICSA hearings, Acton’s entire argument to Creighton on the corruption of episcopal power is worth its weight in gold: ‘I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.’

So what makes bishops the most egomaniacal of leaders? Bishops are paid far more than vicars; archbishops receive around £65,000 a year compared with a vicar’s stipend of £24,000 per annum. Inequality? Ha! Twenty-six bishops are given legislative power through seats in the House of Lords and have opportunities to curry favour with politicians.

Bishops still demand to be addressed as ‘Bishop’. The bishop’s mitre and crozier are episcopal totem poles. Bishops are supplied with a generous discretionary fund and with a secretary and chaplain. Most of all, bishops ‘are running multi-million-pound institutions with significant numbers of office holders and employees, as well as a vast number of volunteers’, as the hearing concedes.

Bishops are also the ultimate decision-makers in a diocese. This leads to a culture of ‘inbuilt deference to the bishop’, as social worker Shirley Hosgood reveals to the hearing. Bishops are responsible for clergy appointments. Since the ancient freehold that protected a vicar for life was made redundant, the cleric is at the bishop’s mercy.

Above all, bishops now have the most draconian weapon against clergy – the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), introduced in 2003. An unhealthy proximity to ecclesiastical judges makes it possible for bishops to manipulate the CDM process. So far, to the best of my knowledge, not a single bishop has been found guilty under the CDM, even though a number of CDMs have been brought against bishops.

Lord Acton argues that those seated on thrones of power should not escape justice. ‘You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason,’ he tells Bishop Creighton. ‘I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science.’

So far, the IICSA is exposing the corruption of absolute power in the Church of England. Lamentably, we can’t hang corrupt bishops. Neither can we strangle the last bishop with the entrails of the last politician. We can do far more and pray Mary’s Magnificat that God will ‘pull down the mighty from their thrones and exalt those of humble estate’.


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