The ecclesiastical donut: why the C of E is ungovernable


Last week saw yet another Church of England report into safeguarding and institutional failings in the handling of abuse allegations.

Almost 400 new cases involving actions by clergy, officials and volunteers against children and vulnerable adults were uncovered.

In a foreword to the report, Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, wrote of their ‘great sadness and profound shame’:

“We sincerely apologise for our failures and want to reach out to those who are still suffering from the pain and misery they endured…We are so sorry that this ever happened. It was not your fault and you are not to blame.”


I do not wish to simply heap on more criticism. 

Both my sons attend vibrant C of E churches, both my brothers are vicars of lively congregations who reach out to their local communities and my parents continue to be heavily involved in their parish after a lifetime of ministry. Only Crufts has more dog collars than my family.

Though I no longer attend a C of E church, I know there is a huge amount of positive things happening within its churches. I also know that other denominations have a host of similar problems but are less high profile.

Weary & angry

But I agree with those survivors and activists who are weary and angry of seeing more heartfelt apologies from senior Bishops. 

I wrote last year about the way my brother’s safeguarding concerns were weaponised against him by his Diocese and led to a completely unjustified suspension. In some ways the crisis has passed and he is back at work, but the way he has been treated since has continued to be incompetent and vindictive.  I have zero confidence in those in senior positions in his diocese to act in a decent way.

The Archbishops are clear that the continued safeguarding inadequacies are not the fault of the victims. But who then is to blame? What is the root of the on-going problems?

Theology & leadership

Some emphasise theology as the key issue. There are endless internal debates about the need for the C of E to be more evangelical/catholic/liberal (delete as appropriate). I have come to believe that much of these debates are a distracting, tribal sideshow.

Some blame poor leadership. That everything would be fine if only Bishops had more skill/integrity/bravery (delete as appropriate). It must be very hard for Bishops to handle the public critique many have to endure. I believe most are decent people encumbered by the institutional pomp and disempowering culture they operate within.

The core issue

Both theology and leadership skills are important. But neither are as critical as one issue which is consistently overlooked: governance.

Governance is the basis of authority and accountability for an organisation: the element that ensures the right things happen and takes action when it doesn’t. Governance is what holds senior leaders to account. And in many parts of the C of E it barely exists.

Forget the theological tomes, the leadership seminars, the hard-hitting reports, the statements on safeguarding, or even the training and procedures. None of these make any real difference if an organisation is not governed properly.

The donut

I have long thought that the culture within the C of E is a bit like a donut: no one feels at the centre and almost every constituency within it feels marginalised. 

Evangelicals complain about being misunderstood and judged harshly. Anglo-Catholics are upset that their traditions and sacramental emphasis is marginalised. Liberals feel threatened by their perceptions of a conservative take-over.

Everyone feels on the edges. This leads to a widespread sense of aggrievement, fragility and disempowerment. This provides combustible fuel for the internecine conflict which abounds on blogs and at conferences.

Lack of centre

But this culture is also reflected in the C of E’s governance. There is an absence of leadership and the accountability in the centre.

Many would assume that the Archbishop of Canterbury is something like the ‘CEO’ of the C of E. But he is not.  He has influence but is more of a figurehead. In many ways he has the worst of both worlds: he has to assume responsibility and apologise when ‘The Church of England’ fails but he does not have his hands on levers which control the institution. 

The 42 different dioceses in the C of E are all separate legal entities. Each has their own diverse history, theological and sociological texture and Bishops with an equally diverse range of skills, experiences and sympathies. In terms of practical management, they each do their own thing. 


This means that as a national body the C of E cannot act either consistently or coherently. And this affects many issues beyond safeguarding. 

Take for example the excellent report that the C of E produced last year about housing and homelessness called Coming Home. The report was widely praised for its good analysis and it willingness to commit the C of E’s own resources to addressing the issues.

But the outworking of the report, what will be done as a result (i.e. the bit that really matters), is almost completely down to individual dioceses. No one can mandate them to act on it or to commit any resources to implementing it. As I have seen, this means that some Dioceses will act, whilst others will do nothing.


When no one is in charge, no one is accountable and there are little consequences for those behaving badly.

In my brother’s situation, despite overseeing a complete debacle, none of the Bishops or senior Diocesan officers involved will face any proper accountability or disciplinary process. It is hard to find anyone who has any faith in the Clergy Discipline Measure, especially when applied to Bishops.

This is terrible governance. It means that incompetence, dishonesty and negligence are simply not addressed. Its neither good for leaders nor the people they are responsible for.

Critical dynamic

Changing culture and practice in any organisation is no easy task. It is especially difficult in an organisation as large and complex as the C of E. But change is impossible without effective governance.

I worked for 8 years as CEO of a church-based organisation which employed around 100 staff running a wide range of services for people affected by homelessness, offending and addictions. Much of our work was high risk and complex.  I was responsible to a trustee board and the relationship between myself and the trustees was critical to the health of the organisation.

As a leader, I needed to be accountable to a group of skilled, experienced and wise people. Their task was to monitor key aspects of the organisation: financial performance, risk management, strategy and major decisions. And to ask hard questions when things went wrong. 

Full and frank

After I had been there for a few years, one of our accommodation services hit a significant crisis due to poor management and significant misconduct. We had to take decisive action to keep the service running. In the aftermath, the board insisted on a full and frank review of what had happened and why. It was tough but appropriate and critically important.

They also oversaw an annual 360 degree appraisal for me so that all managers in the organisation could feedback on my performance.  Aspects of this could be difficult to hear, but it was healthy form of accountability and drew out issues that needed dealing with.

A good trustee board are gracious and supportive to senior staff, but they are also truthful and challenging.  This is what good governance looks like.

Proper accountability

All layers of the church require good governance because you cannot get away from the need for the appropriate use of power.  The donut need filling.

The decisions, performance and behaviour of Bishops and Senior diocesan staff need to be accountable to a group who have power to act when things are not being done properly or effectively.  Strong governance, which ensures transparency and accountability, is more important than the depth of their theology, their spiritual devotion or their personal leadership skills.

Unless governance is improved then I cannot see an end to the safeguarding scandals and institutional failure. If its key leaders are essentially unaccountable, then the C of E will remain essentially ungovernable. And the apologies will keep coming from the Archbishops.

Good theology

It is worth ending by saying that effective governance is simply the practical implementation of good theology.

However skilled a pastor, preacher or leader, we are all frail, damaged and inadequate in different ways. And, these tendencies are not just individual; our fallenness and sin is compounded in organisational systems and culture.

Therefore, all organisations need just structures which are effective in encouraging and enabling our strengths whilst managing and mitigating our weaknesses. No person or institution remains healthy without these forms of grace and truth.