When will sufficient numbers of bishops wake up to aspects of the inherent corruption and dysfunctionality at the centre of their structure and challenge it fearlessly? Scared of straying away from their herd, they are marshaled into the enclosure and together protect a rickety status quo. Some of them, perhaps even most of them, are awake to the broken culture of which they are a part. But very few have the courage to defy the machinery of central comms or the House of Bishops’ whips and raise their head above the parapet. Current leadership is very low grade but, or rather perhaps because of this, it commands deference and adherence to the hive mind.
Episcopal retirements are celebrated whilst those retiring have been quietly able to bypass any accountability for safeguarding failure. Others are able to maintain silence in the face of repeated questions. And it seems that little has been learnt across the last decade. Bullying, silencing and a special brand of Anglican gangsterism is rife across many dioceses.
The redoubtable ‘Elbows’ Alan as he’s known by some following Welby’s description at IICSA of the Bishop of Buckingham as having uncomfortable elbows – is a kind of wild saint and I imagine bears the marks of much reprimand for having spoken up in alliance with survivors. I spent a day in London with Rosie Harper and Alan Wilson towards the end of last year. We went to the Hogarth exhibition at the Tate to see one of the great satirists and social commentators of English society. Alan is rare amongst the bishops in being unafraid to see as Hogarth did the contradictions of society and its less than noble institutions.
Sadly, the reality is that bishops mostly drink the Kool-Aid and prop up a broken and decaying edifice. So let’s take a closer look at some of them. Jonathan Gibbs, a decent man, will probably be gone sometime this year. Who will follow him? Another who will start with the best of intentions and be quickly ground down and find the structure offers no tangible support. Gibbs will likely end up broken on the wheel of his own ineffectiveness. How can one person hope to change a culture which has little intention of changing more than it has to? One lone figure with nothing more than a secretary up against an army strong in Church House (akas CofE Centre for Cognitive Dissonance) and up against diocesan bishops who can politely ignore him and who know that he will have little awareness of what is going on in their diocese.
I like Jonathan. I think he’s a decent bloke who chose this role with a heart to bring major change, and at first it seemed he might be able to bring seismic change. I suspect he’ll be haunted by the failure of the structure to follow his call. And haunted by the strength of his Church’s ability to row back on changes that have been promised. His predecessor (Peter Hancock) was continually thwarted and misinformed by powerful figures within the structure and relied far too heavily on an NST led by gormlessness, dishonesty and cruelty.
Church House will continue to run rings round Gibbs, just as it has previous Lead bishops. Nye ran EIG rings round Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham. What can Gibbs do? Little. He has no real power to change much. He hasn’t got a loud enough purple shirt and stronger purple shirts can pull rank. He also has to contend with Nye and the creatures of the crypt who run the Church’s dysfunctional safeguarding empire at the centre. They know their status is one of total and protected unaccountability.
What of other safeguarding lead bishops? There’s a team, but one could be forgiven for having forgotten. Debbie Sellin is currently ensconced in an aircraft hangar somewhere in Hampshire, reassembling bits of Winchester and hoping for something vaguely resembling a workable diocese by the end of it. Winchester is likely to take at decade at least to recover from the Dear Leader who wreaked emotional and psychological havoc upon a diocese across a decade.
Viv Faull, Deputy lead bishop, has been completely invisible. It seems the Bishop of Bristol was muzzled by minders following an interesting moment in 2020 when hers was briefly a stand-out voice of courage. I remember various journalists were keen to speak with her following her ‘moment’ but were carefully batted away by the Church House comms walla who largely controls the NST. The team of Bishops has been unable to address the gangsterism of Church House, as we saw in a recent data-breach scandal when the NST and Church House comms threw everyone under the bus in order to protect itself from scrutiny.
Meanwhile elsewhere an Orton-esque farce, Malice in Blunderland, combining cruelty and delinquency in gowns and cassocks continues its long run in Oxford. I gather a sidesman in the Cathedral was recently sacked. His misdemeanor seemed to consist of stating that he missed the Dean. Last year Private Eye reported that dozens of Gideon bibles had been dumped in a skip. They’d been given to the Cathedral Friends who then found themselves and their funds appropriated by current powers at the Cathedral. The Friends didn’t dump the bibles. They were appalled. One imagines the Church’s top hierarchy must be in despair at the Bishop of Oxford’s failure to grasp the nettle of his senior clergy. The Church cannot deal with the rotten borough that is Christ Church College – that is the task of the Regulator and she seems to be biting down hard. But the diocesan must surely have responsibility to bring diocesan gangsterism to book.
What can we expect from Synod this year. There’ll be a continuing procession of soundbites, maybe even further promises. The Bishop of London will doubtless be wheeled out to deliver yet another deeply hypocritical soundbite. The Bishop’s record is questionable. And the culture which surrounded the appalling treatment of Fr Alan Griffin has passed without accountability. The Bishop’s response was more concerned with the coroner’s statement which highlighted the gangsterism in the diocese. And it seemed she wished there had been far less transparency in the coroner’s report.
Promises will continue to be broken. The news cycle is rapid and embarrassment fades fast. There are many good Synod members – but there’s only so much they can do to maintain pressure on this noxious theatre. Nye will go at some stage, and will no doubt leave benighted to be replaced by another Nye. The ringmaster of the quiet gangsterism at the Church’s core regenerates like a Time Lord and is usually drawn from the world of the senior civil service courtier.
The Church’s response to survivors might change in another decade or more. This is a very long arc. Survivors have probably done as well as we can to drive change as hard as we can. All of it has been driven at the expense of survivors. But many of the things survivors were up against five years ago, ten years ago, are still routine. Silencing is still the primary defense of choice deployed by bishops and their protective structures. At least current child protection will change with the introduction of Mandatory Reporting. The big ticket item which will close IICSA we all assume. But once recommended, it’ll take up to five years to grind through the wheels of parliament. Let’s hope various Whitehall departments and their ‘expert’ advisers don’t try to whistle up a counterfeit.
The forces ranged against survivors in the CofE will continue to be monolithic. They always have been. Archbishops Council is divided between the handwringing of its clerics and the shadowy politic of its unaccountable Secretariat. In Church House which many of us believe is twinned with Mordor, the Nye-ocracy is buttressed by an acquiescent and unquestioning NST who cannot dare challenge its paymaster general. I’ve been told of some of the corruption that has taken place within the NST, and have evidence of some myself – but the structure is efficient at air-brushing from history anything it wants to ignore. Nye and his minions operate silencing and a culture of cognitive dissonance to cover their tracks. Bishops like the Bishop of London who have been hoovered up into duplicity follow suit and operate the same silencing. But she is not alone. This is a culture in which silencing is rife.
Those in the machine who know where compromising bodies are buried will be unlikely to talk. They are either too compromised, too fearful to speak out, or their mouths have been stuffed with sterling on leaving. The kingdom of the Secretariat maintains enough semblance of order to appease the anxious clerics. And its unaccountability remains protected by the arch/bishops’ abdication of responsibility to its all encompassing power.
Maggie Atkinson, recently appointed Chair of the Independent Safeguarding Board, will start with the best of independent intentions but is likely to find herself managed into the margins by the machinery of this polite Mordor. Atkinson will doubtless be presented with carefully selected paper clips and reports. Invites will be sent to meet with a wan Archbishop who will be managed by his shadowy consigliere. And so the teetering circus will continue. Atkinson may be the one who can cut through the gangsterism of the senior layer, cut through all the denial and dishonesty, cut through all the failure to repent and to apologise – especially if she arranges to meet with survivors and hears what has been going on across many bad diocesan cultures. But she will need eyes wide open and all her wits about her lest she become another Meg Munn.
Will the cultures of the Church change? Realistically not for another decade at least. Probably two. This arc is long. When did the scandal of corruption and cover-up begin? There was awakening awareness to abuse as far back as the 70s and earlier. This got going in the 80s and 90s. The 1940s are probably the earliest of any recorded material any of us have seen in dioceses. We’re talking a seriously long arc. And the Past Case Review 2 shows little sign of being willing to be more transparent than transparent. It will feature a different brand of whitewash from that deployed in the original PCR. Its whitewash will be applied much more carefully of course. But we’ll see deployment of restriction in the remit to protect failure, protect hierarchy, protect retiring bishops. Why should anyone expect the culture to change overnight? PCR2 is likely to attract critical and damaging headlines all over again. The Church has not learnt that anything less than a total opening up of the books will further add to the damage already sustained.
Will the NST improve? It’s regressed significantly in recent years in my view. I remember when I first met Melissa Caslake in York – and said her secret weapon would be ‘resigning power’. She left a little over a year later unable to effect change, but with a clear look of reproach cast behind her through the exit. My understanding is that she told the bishops what was what in no uncertain terms! It was possibly the only dynamic thing she was able to do in the end. Zena Marshall is likely to leave with barely a whimper. She has achieved little in terms of change of culture in those above her head.
The mix of sclerosis and apathy in many dioceses, dysfunctionality in the NST, and toxic strategy at the core all run deep. There is no mechanism for repentance, no route by which bishops can take ownership of failure or dishonesty and say the simple word sorry. There is zero mechanism for holding accountable those who have been complicit with corruption. Those who have tried to hold bishops or Church House accountable meet the power of stealth and silencing. Everyone takes cover in the hills whilst an engine of quiet corruption powerfully embedded at the center purrs as it cradles an institution. And the formulaic “no blame will be apportioned” is a systemic insurance policy which lets everyone off the hook.
Any notion that the Church has moral consideration at its heart really has to be abandoned. At its heart is the twin engine of damage limitation and reputation management. This engine motors Lambeth Palace, Church House, and many of the diocesan offices of the broken world of Bishops who cannot face or address their own and their agents’ gangsterism.
As in political worlds, so it will remain a bewildering and necessarily painful time dealing with the institution of the Church.