Winchester prepared to bounce bullying bishop

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Sex scandals in the Church cause proper revulsion. Financial scandals make people angry. But alongside the abuse of sex and money, misusing power causes deep distress. The abuse of power in the church, while a more subtle corruption of Christian life, is equally scandalous. It is all the worse when it is caused by a bishop and used either as a political weapon in an institution, or against vulnerable people within it.

Bullying sounds like it belongs in the schoolyard. But in the life of the Church it represents a scandalous inversion of everything the incarnation of Jesus stood for. His self-emptying and vulnerable humility is the far flung opposite of the psychological brutalising and manipulation.

This abuse of power and the perversion of Christian humility becomes correspondingly more dangerous and destructive the more senior a clergyman is. The DNA of episcopacy is the care of the wounded, the vulnerable and the lost, in the name of both Christ and his apostles. So far from being practitioners of power, they were all martyred before they passed on the charism of their office. 

It is worse again when the Church as an institution connives at the bullying by pretending it isn’t happened and lacking the courage to tell the truth about it and confront it. Recently the churches have tried desperately to catch up after a long history of lamentable failure to protect the vulnerable from predators. They have fallen prey to the temptation to think that the louder the proclaim their safeguarding virtues, the more this acts as a kind of insurance against past or present failure. 

A recent mechanism for exercising disproportionate power has become the Non-Disclosure Agreement, NDA. These are gagging orders. The strong bind them on the weak to restrain them from telling the truth about the issue of conflict. One might imagine that in the Church, where the Jesus we adore and worship embodies Truth, such mechanisms would be less likely to be used than elsewhere. But not in Anglican Diocese of Winchester. And it is here that the safeguarding chickens have come home to roost. 

Rumours of heavy handedness at the heart of the diocese have long troubled the wider church. There was circumstantial evidence that between 30 and 40 people had been silenced about the treatment they had received at the hands of the diocese. Answering on behalf of the Bishop Winchester at a recent Diocesan Synod, the diocesan chief executive, strongly denied the bishop had ever imposed an NDA on anyone. This caused enormous surprise. But it turned out to be a question of a rose by any other name would still have thorns that could wound and maim. When asked in a supplementary question if the diocese used ‘confidentiality agreements’ it turned out that they had. Many times. This disingenuity was the tip of a much larger iceberg, and the pent up anger produced by what was felt to be years of bullying, broke the surface. An assistant bishop, David Williams, accompanied by a group of brave but anxious clergy and determined lay officials, have confronted their diocesan bishop to tell him that they no longer have confidence in the way he has exercised his office.

The Rt Rev’d Tim Dakin has been ‘invited’ to step back for a period of time while the governance of the diocese is given more thought to. If he does not, the Diocesan Synod will produce a vote of no confidence in him.

These are all polite Anglican euphemisms of course. He is being invited to take stock of this distress and misery, and to resign. If he ignores this plea, the implication is that the full story of his alleged heavy handedness with his clergy will be told in public.

The trouble is that there is no mechanism in the Church of England to sack a bishop. As it happens several attempts to make bishop Dakin accountable for his over-muscular actions have been launched. They have involved bringing what is called a CDM, a disciplinary complaint against him. But the upper organisation of the Church closed ranks against what were seen as presumptuous trouble-makers. Only rank and file clergy get hit or threatened with CDM’s. Bishops have proved immune. All the safeguarding rhetoric the C of E has indulged in proved to be cosmetic icing of the thinnest kind, when it came to safeguarding clergy and laity against episcopal bullying.

In a signifiant change, it appears that Lambeth Palace is no longer protecting Dakin. Bishop Williams could not have made his stand without the agreement of Archbishop Welby. I’m not sure if it is a strength or a weakness of Justin Welby that he sometimes ‘gets there in the end’. The glass half-full people will praise him for grasping the issue at long last. The half-empty people will lament that so much damage has been done before he caught up with what was going on.

Lambeth Palace have come to realise that the widespread revolt against bishop Dakin is too serious to continue offering that episcopal immunity they have provided until now.

Perhaps even they have realised there comes a point where they can no longer defend the indefensible. For the victims of the sexual abuse and manipulation of Jonathan Fletcher and John Smyth, it will come as no surprise that Lambeth Palace has grasped the seriousness of an abusive situation so late in the day. And they above all, could be forgiven for being sceptical about whether the church has the courage to act in defence of the abused.     

I have some personal interest in this matter, and I ought to declare the reasons I find myself taking a more than usual interest in the rebellion of clergy and laity against their bishop in the Diocese of Winchester.  

This is not just a scandal that alleges bullying. It has implications about an institution’s reflexes to cover up scandal rather than deal with it.  I had spent some time in the past giving thought to how bishops and the church might be made more accountable to each other.

Once upon a time, a long while ago, I was asked to apply for the post of Archbishops’ Secretary to the House of Bishops; a post which involved  ‘bishop-minding’ theologically and pastorally. Before the interviews, I phoned round a number of bishops I knew well, to ask them what they needed from the post holder. The responses took me by surprise. The levels of dysfunctionality and personal pain were high, ranging from having given up praying, -no longer even knowing how to pray in this new mode of being – to total break-down of relations with the respective cathedral dean and chapter, or senior archdeacons. They needed a theological, psychological and administrative trouble-shooter with more than the usual skills.

But the institution of the Church needed something from them too. It needed some level of accountability.  The influence they were required to wield was going to involve a complex mixture of living out the faith inspirationally, exercising good judgements with appointments, talent spotting inspirational clergy, matching people with places for their ministry, reading the signs of the times and making the best use of limited resources.  Throwing their weight around and abusing their power would destroy the integrity their office was based on.

However, the process of appointment left a serious disconnect between the bishops selected and the priests and people the office of bishop was there to define, resource and enrich. Too often appointments were made to satisfy the party politicking of a complex organisation where liberal and conservative catholics, progressives and liberal and conservative evangelicals all struggled for the upper hand.

There were indeed ways of making the appointments system better tailored to the needs of a diocese, but this is not the place to pursue them. However it was clear then as it is now, that at the heart of the problem lay the accountability of the episcopate.

The appointing committee of four, two of whom were married to each other, (an odd format for a high powered interviewing committee and one that flew in the face of best practice and corporate accountability itself) found the idea of episcopal accountability too daunting. They decided on that occasion not to appoint a candidate but to turn to a firm of consultants instead.

The problem didn’t go away.

My interest moved from the theoretical to the personal. I became both a bystander and then a small participant in what is becoming one of the more serious safeguarding issues in the Church of England’s recent history. The fact that it been about the abuse of power rather than sex, doesn’t diminish its significance.

Bringing me up to date with the anger and dismay that had erupted in the Diocese of Winchester, a correspondent who is a parish priest there who wrote to me, asking to be kept anonymous until the Dakin affair was resolved, and describing a touch of what they had experienced: 

“I think he thought he was god; one chapter meeting in 2018 was frankly sinister: “I know what’s going on in your parishes; nothing happens in this diocese unless I sign it off” – arrogant.”

There was form for this.

One of the first public crises of the Dakin episcopate took place in the Channel Islands. It provided the first indication there was something seriously wrong. The islands were annexed to the Diocese of Winchester in the sixteenth century whilst remaining part of a separate constitutional identity beyond England and later the United Kingdom. They had a separate system of Canon law, and the Dean was a Crown, not a diocesan appointment.

It was about ten weeks after I arrived in a small parish on the south eastern tip of the tiny island of Jersey, that I opened my emails one morning, and discovered that the Bishop had suddenly and unilaterally suspended the Dean. What shocked me more than the suspension was the fact that in telling what had been done the bishop set out to mislead us by not telling the truth.  I’ve known Anglican bishops do a wide variety of irresponsible and unpleasant things, (as well as kind, clever and competent things) but never before had one actually lied to me (in an email.)

The detailed circumstances of what led to the breakdown of relations between the Channel Islands and Tim Dakin would be tedious to repeat here, but there are a few important matters that have an obvious and ominous bearing on the scandal that has erupted within the diocese of Winchester.

It took place on the island of Jersey in 2012. A complaint had been made to the Dean, Robert Key, that a Churchwarden had inappropriately hugged his tenant who had every right to expect better behaviour from him. When the matter did not proceed to the satisfaction of the complainant she brought allegations against the Dean to the Diocesan bishop. The situation was complicated by the fact that she had replicated the circumstances on two previous occasions in two different places with two different older men, which made it a less conventional safeguarding episode. The bishop’s response was to use the occasion to launch a full scale investigation run by a psychotherapist called Jan Korris.

Having promised to consult the Dean on receipt of the report, the bishop instead broke his promise to the Dean and placed it immediately on the internet and in the public domain claiming that safeguarding protocol required it. The complainant was understandably unhappy that all her emails and many of her personal details had been placed in full public view ‘for safeguarding purposes’. It didn’t seem to involve safeguarding her, and not unreasonably she thought she had a good claim for safeguarding to be about her. She began  to complain vigorously about bishop Dakin’s behaviour as well as that of the Dean.

Having broken his undertaking to the Dean (and his duty of care to the complainant) the bishop then illegally suspended the Dean with immediate effect. The problem was that because the Dean was appointed by the Crown, the bishop had no power to do it.

The Korris report, publicly available, far from presenting a professionally competent report on a serious matter, read instead like a woefully inept hit-job on the Dean. Why that should be, nobody yet knows, but it was a very strange document indeed. A reader with only a slightly suspicious frame of mind, could easily be tempted into thinking that it had been commissioned solely for that purpose.

The fact that he was operating beyond his legal powers did not seem to worry Tim Dakin. Indeed he was later to give an order the Dean telling him that if his oath of allegiance to the Crown and the ecclesiastical Court on Jersey ever conflicted with what the Bishop told him to do, he must break his oath and do whatever Dakin requested of him. Here is a flavour of the episcopal threat:-

“Moreover, in any case in which you take the view that you are required by local law to disobey me, or defy my requests, you may not elect to follow the local law rather than fulfil your duty of obedience to me.  Whatever the local law may seek to impose on you, you may not agree to follow it where my lawful requirements require you to do otherwise. In the case of the Ecclesiastical Court, you should understand that it is principally my court in which you exercise jurisdiction on my behalf. The suggestion that you can set up your duties to it in opposition to me is misguided.”

The Proctor (senior lawyer) of the Royal Ecclesiastical Court in Jersey, which had its own separate canon law dating back hundreds of years, brought a CDM against the bishop in the light of this bullying threat. He complained to the Archbishop of Canterbury that the Bishop of Winchester had not bothered to find out what the law actually said. He wrote:

“The Bishop’s statement is disgraceful and dangerous. It is an incitement to the Dean to break the law of Jersey where the Bishop is unable to accept such law and the law of Jersey conflicts with the Bishop’s requirements.    It would be perverse to suggest that the Oath of Obedience to the Bishop of Winchester demanded by the Canon Law of Jersey  could be consistent with a requirement on the Dean to break the law of the jurisdiction where he holds office under the Crown.”

His complaint was ruled inadmissible. No one seemed much bothered that the Bishop of Winchester had told the Dean he had to break the law of the jurisdiction he lived in if the bishop chose to tell him to.

Just after the crisis broke, a meeting of all the laity in the Jersey Synod took place. After some discussion they mandated me to approach Lambeth Palace with a view to finding some diplomatic solution that allowed everyone to keep face.  I met the Archbishop’s senior staff informally on the evening of his consecration in Canterbury.

The meeting didn’t go quite as I expected. Canon Porter his (Anabaptist) chief of staff, brought in as an expert in negotiation and mediation, provided a pithy and direct response to  my succinct synopsis and suggestions. 

“Why don’t you just f**k off back to Jersey. There is no way the Archbishop will do anything other than circle the wagons around the bishop of Winchester to defend him. We are not going to lose a diocesan bishop to you lot.”

It wasn’t that I was surprised at the language used. Street patois had been de rigeur in both Bermondsey where I began my work for the church, and amongst my more recent university colleagues. I just didn’t expect to hear it from senior staff at Lambeth Palace in a context where the wellbeing of the Church was so obviously threatened.

I tried to remain as polite as I could and explained that I didn’t think they had grasped the seriousness of the situation, which had the potential to erupt into a full scale diplomatic incident and even jeopardise the relationship of the Channel Islands to the Diocese of Winchester. (They were moved to the oversight of Canterbury shortly afterwards in 2014.)

A few weeks later I was at the Church’s General Synod. I arranged to sit down and discuss the issues with Tim Dakin, as good manners, best practice and the New Testament advise.

I suggested that our responsibilities to the reputation of the Church required us to all to exercise some measure of humility and generosity to each other as well as use our intelligence to find a compromise. He stared at me unblinkingly as I spoke and as I suggested possible ways forward. The longer he stared, the more I began to think he was trying to intimidate me. “What a strange and ill-judged thing to do” I thought with that running commentary voice that we all have in the back of our heads.” Finally speaking through gritted teeth and with a forced grimace, he said “I’ll see you out.”

I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant by it, but I guessed what he wanted to imply was that “I’ll be here longer than you will.”

His next move was to call in a judge, Dame Heather Steel.  He published what most people found to be a threatening double page spread in the Island newspaper, announcing an enquiry by Dame Heather, and inviting any laity who had any information for him to make it available to the enquiry. He promised to publish the findings of the enquiry as soon as it was completed. The tone was threatening, autocratic and inappropriate. People on the island, both in and out of the Church were taken aback by it. The only comfort was the promise that the truth would be uncovered and fully told. Only it wasn’t.

It was another episcopal untruth. He supressed the report, claiming that ‘safeguarding considerations’ forced him to do so, but never explaining what they were. The First minister of the Island, the Lieutenant Governor, and the whole Christian community made strenuous representations to Dakin, Lambeth Palace, and anyone who might listen to get it released. They failed. Dakin maintained complete and unassailable control. It was clearly not in his interest to publish the truth, so he didn’t.

It was becoming obvious to most people that the real threat to safeguarding in the church was Tim Dakin himself.

Whatever Dakin had reported about the matter to Lambeth Palace had the effect of persuading the Archbishop to take the airwaves to publicly denounce the Dean of Jersey as the main malefactor in the crisis.

It took a while for enough of the truth to finally filter back to Lambeth Palace, at which point in 2016, Archbishop Welby found himself having to humiliate himself by performing a volte-face and issuing a public apology to the Dean the for the “enormous personal stress, hurt and uncertainty” that the he and his wife had suffered at Dakin’s hands. Not even the Archbishop of Canterbury was safe from the fall out that these broken promises created. 

In any other organisation, this would have been the last straw, and someone occupying as senior position as Dakin acting in as damaging, dangerous and incompetent way as he did, would have been either fired or side-lined somewhere he could do less harm. But not the Church of England.

How did this situation arise? On the island of Jersey, some of the senior executives in both Government and Church found themselves asking that question. How can someone so insensitive to the basic culture of parish life, who lacked any background experience of the Church, have been appointed to a senior bishopric?

Elements of potential scandal began to emerge that have not had satisfactory answers. The ingredients of the scandal were a damaging misuse of organisational power, a very odd CV that raised questions about the legitimacy of his ordination and training that have never been accounted for, and the problem of unaccountable and inscrutable patronage behind the scenes in the Church of England.

A problematic and strangely unconventional tale unfolded. 

His ordination had supposedly taken place in Kenya, but no one could find any record of it. When the Jersey authorities wrote to the Cathedral in Nairobi where it was supposed to have taken place asking for the details, (which in all Anglican dioceses are supposed to be publicly available) they received no reply. 

Even odder, the curacy in the Cathedral which the records show, also suggest that it happened a year after he was ordained, rather than being a place he was ordained to, as canon law requires. It has the awkward implication of a retrospective legitimisation. 

When the Jersey authorities asked whether a thorough vetting procedure and an appropriate selection process had taken place, no evidence of the normal protocol emerged. No one knows where or how Tim Dakin was selected for ordination, and perhaps just as alarmingly, where or whether he was trained as an Anglican priest.

The records show that he gained a BA from the University of Plymouth. He went from there to Kings College London where he achieved an MA in 1987. This is where the obscurity sets in. There is no record of what he was doing during the next six years between 1987 and 1993. He dropped hints that he arrived in Oxford to do postgraduate research. But no one knows where or what, and if it’s true, Oxford declined to offer him any qualifications. It is a bit unusual to spend five years doing academic work, if that’s what he did, and come out of it at the end empty-handed. It’s not an accomplishment. It rings alarm bells. All the more so when the records are unnecessarily obscure. 

Almost all bishops have some experience of serving in a parish during their lifetime. But not in this case. Instead, Dakin appeared to have inherited his first post from his father. His father had been the Principal of a para-church training school called Bishop Carlile College in Nairobi. It belonged to the Church Army, and was an institution that trained lay evangelists. Mr Dakin senior resigned and the young and mysteriously ordained son, Tim took over from him. No one openly accused him of nepotism, but there was some serious discomfort that he appeared to have obtained his first job on the back of such a blatant family connection.

At this point the first signs of Dakin’s managerial technique emerge. The reports suggest that he fired all the staff at Carlile College, and then rehired some and not others. It’s true there are rare occasions when faced with a failing organisation some kind of radical surgery for the employees is required. But if that is not the case, it can look like a way of cleansing the place from anyone who doesn’t agree with you or is not beholden to you.

Alarm bells should have rung when on being appointed General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society in 2000, Dakin employed exactly the same technique. The reminiscences of those who worked at CMS talk of blood on the floor, and fear and anxiety among the employees as Dakin sacked and re-hired. This begins to look less like a dramatic solution to an institutional crisis and more like a one-trick-pony. Worse, it’s what sociopaths are prone to do.

If these accounts are true, how did someone whose institutional background was so idiosyncratically unsuited to exercising pastoral responsibility and care, become appointed to one of the most senior bishoprics on the Church of England?

He clearly was not suited by temperament, experience or skill base. He had no pastoral track record; in fact no track record of any kind on the Church of England itself. 

Was there someone at the heart  of the Church’s power structures who took Dakin under their wing as a protégé to make up for his merit and experience deficit? Those who would like to believe that Dakin was appointed solely on experience and merit would need to be reassured that the Third Estates Commissioner, (a role of some influence) who became President of the Church Missionary Society, one of the closest friends of a former Archbishop’s wife, using Lambeth Palace as a pied-à-terre, and also Time Dakin’s godmother, did not lobby on behalf of her godchild. One would like to believe that such connections don’t replace real qualifications of character and achievement, or cover up defects of character at the cost of the requisite competence needed to fulfil the role.

The rumblings of anxiety and discontent in the diocese of Winchester have broken surface in a way that is without precedent in the Church of England. The attempts to hide the use and abuse of NDA’s gagging wounded clergy by calling them confidentiality agreements has backfired and caused widespread anger that appears to be turning into a fun scale diocesan revolt. 

A recent email from inside the diocese claims 

“His bullying tactics on dozens of people is a disgrace – I know of at least two people, one of whom is known to you, who have said they are still too traumatised to make witness statements about him.”

It may be that Bishop Dakin decides that the loss of trust in his episcopacy by those he was appointed to serve, love, inspire and protect is not something that would trouble him sufficiently to resign. If that turns out to one the case he then he will be faced with a motion of no confidence from his Synod expressed in these words:

“Winchester Diocesan Synod 24 June 2021

Motion under Rule 24A

‘This diocesan synod has no confidence in the leadership of the diocesan bishop, The Right Reverend Doctor Timothy Dakin, and believes there are four key areas of concern which need addressing:

a) Under the diocesan bishop’s leadership, the current forms of governance and financial management have become unfit for purpose, and fail to provide transparency and proper accountability. Synod is routinely given neither the necessary information to fulfil its responsibilities, nor any opportunity for open discussion and debate. 

b) The national Church is committed to fostering a culture that is open, transparent, accountable and safe. We do not have confidence in the diocesan bishop to set this culture or to lead by example, due to allegations of poor behaviour and mistreatment on his part of a number of individuals.

c) Many unanswered questions remain about the breakdown in the governance relationship between Jersey and Winchester, from 2012 to the Channel Islands’ transfer to Salisbury diocese in 2020. As the Steel Report has been suppressed, we believe that in the interests of transparency the legal basis for its non-disclosure should be revisited, and appropriate lessons learned for the future.d) For the flourishing of the people of God in Winchester Diocese, we need a diocesan bishop who is visible and relational, who encourages and communicates with laity and clergy alike, is a focus of unity and a ‘shepherd of Christ’s flock’. We do not believe the diocesan bishop is able to provide this.’ “

The diocese of Winchester has run out of money. The financial scrutiny that must follows Dakin’s troubled episcopacy will follow once management is in different hands. The system which has until now mean that no bishop has been accountable under the Clergy Disciplinary Measure because church lawyers have simply ruled attempts to make them accountable as lacking the necessary standing in law, must be replaced by one that works.

No bishop should be able to imagine that he can get around the general revulsion in the wider church against gagging the clergy with whom he has fallen out and using NDA’s by simply calling them something different.

The self-serving reflex at the heart of the institution based at Lambeth Palace, which has continued to deny justice and help to the victims of abuse who have broken cover, needs to be reset. The Archbishop of Canterbury would engender greater confidence in his own office if he put his mind to modifying the historic conventions that allow bishops to be untouchable however poorly they perform their role, even if it comes at the cost of spending less time writing prefaces in books pushing transgenderism and trying to implement the anti-Christian philosophies of secular wokery. Bringing the Church up to date should take the form of reforming its historical structures so that models of medieval princedom that provide no protection against sociopathic tendencies are replaced by workable structures that furnish accountability. 

The house of bishops as a whole need to bring sufficient pressure to bear to ensure that resignation is a requirement not an option.

Discreet, hidden, self-serving, tribal, institutional or family patronage needs to be brought out into the fresh air of public scrutiny so that the chances of a candidate being appointed lacking experience, credibility, character, training, a demonstrable track-record and the requisite skills for a post, is significantly reduced.

The abuse of power in the church as an organisation needs to be taken as seriously as a safeguarding issues as do sexual and fiscal misdemeanours.