Snails safeguarding church
Church of England

It is pointless pouring the new wine of safeguarding into the old wineskins of arcane ecclesiology

The Church of England media report on Monday told us that “a senior church figure” had been invited by the police to discuss an alleged failure to report a serious sexual offence. Following the case of Sir Cliff Richard, official police hesitance and revised guidelines apparently prevented further identification of who was involved and that ought to be respected, even though this particular genie was well out of the bottle. The controversy is a longstanding one, pre-dating the Cliff Richard case, and many know what this is all about, but let us do what Lord Carlile suggested when he reviewed the mistakes made in the case of Bishop George Bell.

Interestingly, the Church of England originally immediately repudiated that Carlile recommendation, yet in Monday’s media announcement they coyly adopted the police reticence and applied the principle in this case, though whether this is an official embracing of the wisdom of Carlile’s proposition or a ‘one off’ exception is unclear. This matters.

We need a debate on the principles of these cases in the abstract, because tainted by excessive sympathy or disapprobation of any individual or set of circumstances may well lead us astray.

While following this aspect of the debate amongst colleagues with a special interest in Safeguarding policy, a simple question arose: ‘Do the same rules apply to the most junior of deacons as to an archbishop?’ Essentially: ‘Is there equality under the law within the ecclesiastical community?’

It seems to me that the answer to that question may not be quite as simple as one may think, and we need to grapple with the complexity of the debate without being bogged down by unique contexts and individual circumstances.

I want to say that there should be equality of treatment. As Lord Denning once observed: “Be you ever so high, the law is above you.” I want to think that an accusation against the institutionally highly and lowly-placed should be consistently handled, but is there a single rule or might there be a hierarchy of responses? Do the living get the same treatment as the dead; the famous as the obscure?

When one is talking about direct abuse, there can surely be no question. An abusive cleric or youth leader may be granted anonymity before charges are laid, but surely they also need to be immediately suspended. Protection of others must be a priority where a direct offender is potentially detected. Such a rule needs to be clear and consistent both for reasons of the safety of the vulnerable but also in fairness to the accused. Often it is said that suspension is a ‘neutral act’, but that only makes sense if it is always applied, inflexibly. If one picks and chooses who is or is not suspended, then those who are suspended are tacitly more culpable, and at that point the policy of neutrality has slipped off true.

Matters get more complicated, however, when the complaint is not one of active abuse but of failure in one’s duty to respond to an allegation. This does become more difficult, and perhaps we need at least to consider that judgment – imperfect human judgement – may come into play. Does every allegation in every circumstance warrant suspension?

The impulse is to say ‘Yes’: a zero-tolerance culture needs clarity and consistency. Yet suppose, in the course of a bereavement visit, a widower tells a new curate that his deceased wife was abused by an assistant organist 60 years before. Should a failure to report that be met by an inflexible punitive process if the inexperienced cleric feels this is pastorally not the time to open that particular can of worms? Perhaps the curate needed to share the problem with his/her incumbent or area dean, but if they misjudge the circumstances, what should the consequence be? Might a degree of latitude be available to his/her bishop?

We can debate this, but can’t we say, at the least, that the answers are not easy? If the answers are not easy, the discussion needs to be widespread, and not confined to a small group of policy-makers, not because there is anything wrong with such folk, who do their best, but because the wider the debate the better the likely clarifications.

When one goes to the other end of the spectrum it becomes more complicated. A newly-appointed bishop ought perhaps to take up their duties with an expectation of skeletons in the cupboard. How assiduous must they be in seeking them out? How long have they got before poor prioritisation becomes negligence or even complicity?

When one reaches the level of archbishops it gets even more complex. How ‘hands-on’ is it reasonable for them to be? One sympathetic view is that they have the ‘soft power’ of influence but less directive capacity within our structures than most members of the public assume. Individual bishops have autonomy: neither Archbishop, nor the relatively newly-created Lead Bishop for Safeguarding, nor the Chair of the National Safeguarding Steering Group, can ‘make things happen quickly’, as many would wish. There is some force in their implied argument/excuse that they have responsibility without direct power.

The Church of England is currently inclined to hold onto responsibility for managing these complexities, though, to be fair, there is an emerging openness to considering outside independent input. How committed the church is, and the degree of effectiveness of any proposals, will be scrutinised by the victim community, and they will be right to do so. Yet in many ways would it not be to the church’s benefit to have as much of this outsourced as possible? Would we not benefit enormously – both practically and in terms of public confidence – from being distanced from judging in our own cause?

The Church of England is not alone in grappling with such difficulties. From Australia to Ireland and Chile, the Roman Catholic Church is riven with such controversies, despite having a much simpler line of authority and responsibility. And the devolved world of US Protestantism has similar problems. If any church has cracked the problem, I have not yet heard about it.

Perhaps the problem lies with the multiplicity of roles we ask those who serve us to attempt to fulfil: maybe we demand too much of those in whom we invest responsibility. A bishop is inter alia simultaneously a pastor, a mentor, a teacher, an administrator, a line manager, a spokesperson, commentator, judge and preacher. When a Safeguarding problem lands, he or she needs to ensure the delivery of an investigation, support, and perhaps make a quasi-judicial judgment. There is still an element of protecting the good name of the Church, though hopefully this now implies transparency rather than cover- up. Some would debate this proposition.

In short, my provisional conclusion is that this has all become too much, too complex for us, and needs simplifying for the good of everyone. A strong outside independent component would be the start of precisely that. It would take the pressure off, and give outsiders the opportunity occasionally to assume that we are doing our best and co-operating with outside scrutiny and not acting like an institution in a Dan Brown novel.

Nothing illustrates the problems of not having thought things through better than the current incoherence of our structures. When IICSA began its work investigating the Church of England, it was given an explanation of our structures to enable it to  contextualise our Safeguarding culture. William Nye, General Secretary to the General Synod, provided a fascinating and comprehensive document for this purpose.

It runs to 50 pages. It is a good read, but it is 50 pages and it needs to be.

Think about that. Mr Nye is a very smart man. He is writing for a panel made up of very smart people. He is no waster of words, yet he has to take 50 pages to explain how we operate. That simple statement may be the most succinct way I can express the extent of the problem of reform. Our difficulties, and the delay in resolving them, may not simply be rooted in individual failure or deliberate collective obstruction, but in an historic evolution of complexity that needs a radical rethink which external oversight of our Safeguarding practices would force upon us.

Is it not possible that a significant part of our current difficulties and arcane procedures is that our response to an evolving crisis was to add more structures, policies and personnel? At various times we added a professional level of Diocesan Safeguarding Advisors, a National Safeguarding Team, a National Safeguarding Steering Group, a Lead Bishop with responsibility for Safeguarding, along with a plethora of policies and guidelines. Each development was intelligent and well-meant, but it was an addition, grafted onto an ancient structure. We grafted but never pruned, yet there is good biblical authority that pruning adds to our health and vigour.

No matter how scrupulous and conscientious the individuals concerned, the constant adding of new structures into an already complicated institution carries the risk that both the management of the new system and its reform become increasingly difficult, and when problems arise, victims constantly complain that they do not understand who can achieve what. Sometimes those with presumed responsibility begin their responses with the words: ‘I’d like to help, but…’ Often that is an entirely justified confession of impotence.

Many years ago, I heard the Austrian Philosopher Leopoldo Kohr speak. He was the inspiration for EF Schumacher, whose work Small is Beautiful influenced many of my generation, not least the Green movement before it was captured by Marxists. Kohr drew his inspiration from the natural world and was a little more subtle than Schumacher in his approach to scale. His book on Schumacher’s subject was to have had the less punchy title: ‘Appropriate Size is Beautiful’. An ant, he reasoned, works because it is ant-sized, and an elephant works similarly. Swapping their sizes, having ant-sized elephants and elephant-sized ants, would not work.

In the context of the Church and its Safeguarding, his other example is apposite. A snail grows by adding an additional spiral to its shell. That has a mathematical progression. There comes a point when the snail balances an optimal trade-off between size and mobility. It sensibly ceases to acquire mass when more twist to the spiral would double its size and render it immobile.

I think this may be where the Church and other institutions might be reaching their limits to useful expansion. Conceivably, the additional opportunities for control in the digital age add to our temptation to over-reach and outgrow the limits of our wisdom, though that is a discussion for another day. For now, let us just reflect a while on the proposition that the so called ‘simplification agenda’ undertaken during the latest Synod’s period in office may not just apply to ancient structures, but may have to be applied to more recent developments.

When victims complain at the snail’s pace of resolution and reform, they might be putting their finger on a structural problem identified by an obscure Austrian philosopher, though I do seem to recall that an obscure Galilean also offered some useful thoughts on the merits of simplicity, too.