The Church of England (CoE) is one of the few major British institutions remaning that ticks the box of “establishment.” So looking for signs of change, or trying to chart its slow inexorable decline, can be like watching paint dry. It is happening; but it hardly makes for compelling viewing.
The Church’s combat strategy has been to invest in organisational bureaucracy, intensify congregational identity, and then try to increase membership. There are the familiar PR exercises: a diocesan newspaper might give us a picture of a grinning bishop planting a tree to commemorate something or other, with a small group looking on and applauding. There might be a tweet of the bishop dropping in to a school, or meeting young people at an event somewhere. The bishop might say something in the Lords about poverty, family or mental health. These sorts of activity feel like an easy win for the church, but they no longer cut the mustard with the public.
Beneath the surface, there is something like a crisis in the CoE. You can tell how bad things are by reading a letter addressed to applicants for the post of director of the National Safeguarding Team (NST), which is tasked with overseeing standards, practice and conduct in safeguarding matters across the Church. This will be the fourth post-holder in four years, suggesting that retention of staff is an issue.
The letter comes from William Nye, who is secretary-general of the Archbishops’ Council and of the General Synod of the Church of England. He has served as principal private secretary to Prince Charles. Nye is a courtier and civil servant, and quintessentially establishment.
“Safeguarding is at the heart of the life of the Church of England, reflecting the values of the Christian gospel,” the letter reads. The NST supports worshipping communities “on their journey to become safer places for all, and to promote good safeguarding practice as integral to the mission of the whole Church.”
These words might sound encouraging but the reality is anything but. The parlous state of safeguarding in the CoE has caused me to reflect deeply on the plight of victims and complainants, as well as the respondents who have been accused. My own encounter with the culture of the NST and the diocese and bishop of Oxford has given me first-hand -insight into what respondents and complainants can experience. In the face of such partisanship, failure to neutrally manage conflicts of interest, double standards and incompetence in the CoE’s safeguarding, I finally took a decision: to leave the Church. Though I have been ordained for more than 30 years, and continue with my faith in God, the Church of England has destroyed any trust I might have had in it. It is an unsafe place to work.
The CoE insists it is “committed to being an equal opportunities employer.” This is an unfortunate choice of words. The CoE has women bishops and it is trying hard to look and sound modern, inclusive and committed to equality. But it continues to allow discrimination on grounds of gender and to enshrine homophobia: as any gay priest will tell you, marrying the love of your life will almost certainly mark the end of your ministry and result in a permanent ban.
The CoE’s foray into safeguarding, meanwhile, exemplifies the failure to adopt robust principles for conduct in public life, and apply them uniformly and fairly. Victims of John Smyth and the reverend Jonathan Fletcher (see box) have yet to see justice; those who knew of abuses they perpetrated have not been held to account. The Church made catastrophic errors over the former bishop of Lewes (later Gloucester) Peter Ball, who perpetrated sexual abuse over many years and was eventually jailed. The great wartime bishop of Chichester George Bell, on the other hand, was put on trial more than 50 years after his death and subjected to a process of retrospective investigation that was both naive and cack-handed. The CoE, only grudgingly, apologised for its multiple procedural errors.
There have been instances of mental breakdown and even suicides. Recently, the Coroner’s Office took the extraordinary step of issuing a Regulation 28 notice of a preventable death to the archbishop of Canterbury after Alan Griffin, a London priest, took his own life due to a mishandled inquiry into false child abuse allegations. Griffin, 76, who—to complicate matters—converted to the Roman Catholic Church, died in November 2020, having spent a year under investigation without ever learning details of the allegations against him. Coroner Mary Hassell stated in her July 2021 report that the claims were “supported by no complainant, no witness and no accuser.” The Church’s response to this was to assure the public that there would be a “lessons learned review.”
One might think that the suicide of a clergyman should cause the CoE to do more here. Sadly, the promised review has yet to see the light of day. Please do not hold your breath, as it will be an internally commissioned document, replete with redactions and with great care taken to avoid apportioning blame or inflicting reputational damage to the individuals. Victims of abuse often wait years for investigation or due process; somebody accused of unspecified abuse might never work again. There are no corrective measures in place and there is no mechanism for appeal. The CoE sets and marks its own homework—and awards itself top grades. I learned just how seriously it is failing in its responsibilities when I faced seven allegations of “safeguarding concerns” within a seven-month period from March to October 2020, while in dispute with the governing body of Christ Church, Oxford, where I was dean.
Read it all in Prospect Magazine