general synod truth decay
Church of England

Why is the General Synod of the Church of England so poor at holding Bishops to account?

Travel is said to broaden the mind, but occasionally it reminds us to pay more attention to what is closer to home, right under our noses.

Many years ago, on my first visit to the USA, I was paying for a taxi at San Diego airport when I casually complained to the taxi driver that all US dollar bills are the same size shape and colour. As the poor fellow waited patiently while I peered at the notes, I remarked that in Europe we made it easier for ourselves with different sizes and colour of notes. Didn’t he wish his country did the same?

“No sir,” he replied, “It teaches that it pays to pay attention to detail.”

I remembered that encounter when I read His Grace’s piece concerning the missing statistics from the Province of York recording the number of CDM complaints from that province, and which were reportedly unavailable because of flood damage. I was thinking about how these problems arise and my own part in not having sought clarification at an early stage.

Accidents do happen. I also know that I, like many others, can be blasé about requests for statistical information, and irritated by systems that demand box-ticking and data returns. Contemplating my own frailties I began to see my own failure. As a member of the General Synod of the Church of England, ought not I (and others) have picked up the problem, and put the same degree of thought that His Grace and his commenters did? Why did we not seek clarification and, if necessary, ask the awkward questions?

Having recently written a piece around the theme of being human isn’t easy, I was probably predisposed to accept the simple explanation of the absence of the requisite statistics and not to make a fuss about it. It seems I was wrong. Even if the records were less accessible than usual because of flooding, none of us at General Synod – those with formal responsibility and those simply charged with representative responsibility – failed to join up the dots and realise that in the modern world few records are only paper-based, and that it might have been possible to put the effort in and locate the data across a variety of sources: a combination of human contacts and checking across various electronic data storages might have made the information accessible.

So why had I failed to figure that out? Why did we collectively fail to pay attention to detail?

At this time we ought possibly to pause and offer thanks to those meticulous folk who ask questions at Church PCC meetings and AGMs, when all we want to do is to move on to next business and go home. Hail to the awkward squad who have done the sums and asked why the photocopying bill has gone up by 7.4% this year! Thank you for paying attention to detail and keeping us honest. Such folk are not attacking others’ competence or integrity; they are simply fulfilling their role in securing transparency and ensuring accountability.

I realised that part of my deficiency in the missing-stats affair was that I have contacts within the activist victim community and thought I knew enough about the problem not to need the exact figures. It wasn’t important enough for me to ask why, with a bit of ingenuity and effort, a figure couldn’t have been submitted.

Even if (rightly or wrongly) I thought I had a grasp of the issue, I and others didn’t care enough about this information: it simply did not seem important enough to press the issue and ask what His Grace did: ‘What does this actually tell us about the culture?’

I could and should have questioned its omission deeper on behalf of those who did not know what I knew.

Information is power in an organisation: controlling it, sharing it, managing its flow and suppressing it. Those who ask about it, either for themselves or to ensure it is shared with others, are doing a great service.

His Grace teaches us well.

Currently we are lacking a great deal of information about the investigation into the second set of allegations against the late Bishop George Bell. Our old friends ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘Why?’, ‘How?’ and ‘When?’ appear to have disappeared again, and this from an institution which claims to have embraced accountability and transparency. It looks as if we are replicating many of the original errors of the first inquiry into ‘Carol’s’ allegations. We have no idea who is investigating, who is judging, what the outline of the allegations touches upon, and nor do we have any timetable. If there is no independent corroboration then, according to Professor Maden, the original trusted expert, it may not take long to dispose of these new allegations so long after the event.

There is something seriously wrong with an institutional culture that is routinely parsimonious with data that ought properly to be made available to members and their representatives. It is especially unhealthy when the failure to provide that information
is perceived – rightly or wrongly – to be evidence of wrongdoing.

All is not lost. Usually there is a healthy number of questions tabled by members at each session of General Synod, and I apprehend a growing impatience with those answers which appear to owe something to the hand of Sir Humphrey Appleby.

Of even more importance is the growing intensity of the spotlight put on both the quality of leadership and the culture of institutions by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Confident leaders and institutions welcome both the sharing of information and being held to account. It will be interesting to see whether such confidence and openness is on display at the July sessions of the General Synod.

As I outlined the theme of this blog to my wife over breakfast, she asked me the $64,000 question: “Is it possible to transform a culture without changes in personnel?” It is an uncomfortable question, and I am genuinely unsure of the answer.

But we are not without biblical assistance. Jesus may have initially selected a closed class of disciples, but so much of the drive to spread the gospel came from outside that first cadre of followers. The ‘outsider’ St Stephen was the first martyr, and his witness to faith set an important benchmark. St Paul was surely more effective in mission than all save St Peter, and look how much of a challenge he delivered to those who thought they had the authority to map the future of the Church. When one reflects on the literary contribution of St Luke, we realise that so much of the New Testament to which we turn for guidance comes from outside the group that sat round the table for the Last Supper.

Those who were initially relied upon, those whom we might have expected to shape the future, were not always the ones who delivered; indeed, some of them disappeared without much of a trace.

Stephen took the gospel to heart, Paul ruffled a lot of feathers, and Luke… listened and wrote it all down, reminding us that it does indeed pay to pay attention to detail. None of these ‘outsiders’ sets a bad example to us members of the General Synod.