York General Synod - Bishop Peter Hancock with abuse survivors
Church of England

Synod – Reasons to be Cheerful (Pt 1): the secret to a contented flock

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that the glass is half full, and I offer these thoughts on General Synod in the irrepressible spirit of the late Ian Dury, which he expressed in his song ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’.

One of my most significant mentors in faith was a wise, long-serving parish priest who taught me that the secret to a contented flock was to ensure that everyone received what they wanted on some matters, but nobody got their own way all the time. Before you tell me that churches should not be content but, rather, provocative to a sinful world, let us remind ourselves that a house divided cannot stand, or, to update the metaphor, sometimes we have to share the TV remote.

This is what happened at the York Synod this week. There was something for everyone, but nobody was entirely satisfied. That may not be an entirely bad thing.

I set off wanting to see real progress on the vexed problems of safeguarding and victim care, and had my own thoughts upon what ‘success’ might look like and how it needed to be achieved. Many of my friends doubtless did the same. I would have liked the opportunity to argue that the paper GS2092, which outlined, how the church will proceed, should be passed, but with a significant abstention vote to mark and signify that there had been insufficient discussion and involvement of those outside of the House of Bishops. In the event, I was not called to speak by the Chair of the session, Canon Pete Spiers.

I regard Canon Pete as ‘one of the good guys’ on this and other issues. I might have fretted about not being involved or fallen into conspiracy theories, but instead I recalled that in my previous blog post I had made an important point. I wrote:

I should say that the church has been listening: I personally have been invited to have high-level discussions with significant decision makers, and I’ve had my say. But I have no significant idea what most other Synod members can bring to the discussions. I respect them enough to want to know.

So if, knowingly or unknowingly, I was being taken at my word, I could hardly complain.

The next evening Canon Pete and I socialised over a pint – I not complaining, and he not explaining, and that is how it ought to be. Among other things, it was no bad thing to be reminded that, on many issues, long-term success depends on a team effort; we now have to develop the plan and it is everybody’s task to perfect its detail. I don’t have to be involved every step of the way, and most of the hard yards will be won away from the debating floor.

Progress has begun on many levels. Often what happens in the debating chamber is but a small part of what it is going on within the church leadership. On the Friday evening, a remarkable fringe meeting occurred with perhaps a dozen victims of the church attending at our expense to enable them to share their stories directly. Also present were both Archbishops, senior Bishops, and members of the NST and General Synod. We were asked to respect confidentiality, but I can say it was raw, real and heart-searching.

It was also very hard for our leaders: engage too much, and they risked sounding defensive, over confident or patronising; say too little and they might present as sullen or disinterested. I think they got it right, so that when Jo Kind of MACSAS positively reported upon it the next day to the entire Synod body, she was greeted with a standing ovation. Jo and her supporting colleague Sheila Fish of SCIE were visibly moved that for the first time, after many years of campaigning, victims were present in person, given unmediated access to the decision-makers and valued while speaking truth to power.

Symbolism counts, and there was more to come. Not only was I invited to read the lesson at York Minster when the Synod gathered to worship together, but the other lesson was read by one of Synod’s youngest members, Lucy Gorman, who happens to be gay. Synod old hands tell me that this matters. Together, Lucy and I represented and embodied Archbishop Justin’s assertion that there is a place for everyone in today’s Church of England – the highly critical old and the gay young were being symbolically affirmed as equal members of the flock.

When we knelt for intercessions, our colleague Tim Hind led us in prayers for those we have mistreated:

Father, we pray for our corporate and individual relationship with you.

We recognise that we have failed as a church to be ambassadors for you through weak discipleship. We have not treated all with proper respect – especially those who are marginalised through difference. Help us to build an inclusive church which is visibly open to diversity.

We pray especially for all who feel failed by our church in its response to their vulnerability.

We ask that you will help our church to change its culture and reorient itself in its attitude towards victims and survivors of abuse. Help us to borrow the courage from those who have named their abuse to make new radical changes to our church.

We pray for Archbishops, Justin & Sentamu, and our Bishops as they seek to lead us through the complexities of the moral issues of the day. Help all Leaders in our church, Ordained and Lay, to recognise the importance of making our church credible as a moral compass.

When we left the Minster, a small group of victims were gathered to protest past grievance and to talk. While this was a somewhat awkward occurrence last year, this time the lead Bishop on Safeguarding, Peter Hancock, was on hand to encourage members, including senior Bishops, to come over and make personal contact. This was a powerful, symbolic and inclusive change, and it was deeply appreciated by the victims. Real conversations ensued, and even the most suspicious began to believe that this time the Church of England might be ‘getting it’.

I understand that Bishop Peter spent much of his time in York in pastoral engagement with victims, and that is as important as fine words to the media – which may be needed, but are not of the essence of Christian outreach to the marginalised. This can only be done privately humbly and in Christian love.

Meanwhile, the conversations went on. Some were informal at mealtimes, with less confident or uninformed Synod members asking questions and engaging in a relaxed context. There is certainly less reticence to deal with this uncomfortable subject. I was pleased to be able to take part in serious talks about grappling with putting flesh on the bone of the paper we had just passed.

I was also pleased to have talks exploring fundamental problem areas. An Ombudsman scheme is to be considered. How independent should this be? Who might be trusted to undertake this work? Should it precede mediation or occur after it has failed, and what powers would the Ombudsman have?

How will this all fit in with the CDM process? Does an adverse Ombudsman adjudication or failure to implement an Ombudsman decision constitute a disciplinary offence for a church officer or a CDM offence for a bishop? These are matters of first principle to be debated before any scheme can be brought forward, and it was good to hear them being explored while the formal business proceeded elsewhere.

There is similar complexity when it comes to incorporating survivors into our processes. Who will this be, and how will they be selected? The victim community is not a homogeneous grouping, and working out who speaks for such a disparate collection of people, and how they might be accountable to those for whom they speak, is seriously problematic.

At a more practical level, I was able to share with decision-makers the challenge which I would have put, had I been called to speak. Our victims engage with not one but two groups of professionals concerning their abuse. Both sets of professionals are simultaneously engaging with the same cohort of troubled and anxious people, and both are constrained by practicalities and difficult systems, and sometimes they cannot deliver everything that the victims desire in their pursuit of justice.

Both the church and victims’ lawyers engage with the same cohort of victims in circumstances where hopes and expectations are often not deliverable. Yet, whereas the lawyers have a very low incidence of complaints, the dissatisfaction towards the church expressed in Andrew Graystone’s booklet ‘We asked for bread and you gave us stones’ is as striking as it is disturbing. That must mean something.

I was pleased that the identification of the problem highlighted by this discrepancy was seriously received, and I was able to share some of the structures and techniques which are known and implemented within the discipline most familiar to me. Well-structured case planning and client care procedures have improved lawyer/client relations, and the church can and should learn from this and other contexts such as the NHS.

Our new Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, is singularly well-equipped to bring outside experience to bear upon the toxic legacy illustrated by the Singleton Report.

So, in the area with which I am most familiar, I am broadly encouraged that we are beginning to engage with our difficulties. Tomorrow I shall offer a few thoughts on wider issues, including why the Rev’d Fergus Butler Gallie might be unduly pessimistic.