george bell justin welby
Church of England

How Bishop George Bell became a victim of Church of England ‘spin’ and a narrative of ‘decisive leadership’

This is a guest post by The Very Rev’d Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.


Some may begin to wonder how exactly the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team (NST) has operated in the case of Bishop George Bell. No living witnesses from the late 1940s or early 1950s were contacted by the team. Such people – relatives of Bell, neighbours and employees – could easily have corroborated or challenged “Carol’s” testimony. Bell’s own diaries (accessible, and in the public domain) appear not to have been consulted, and which reveal him to have been away on church business – including overseas tours – for some of the alleged periods of abuse. Bell’s biographer, Andrew Chandler – a historian of prodigious reputation – was never contacted by the Church of England’s NST. As Dr. Chandler notes, because George Bell was such a towering ecclesiastical, political and cultural figure, he was “the most closely observed bishop of the twentieth century”, with almost every detail of his life written about, scrutinised and noted. But Chandler didn’t receive so much as a phone call from the Church of England’s NST.

Despite these glaring gaps in basic investigative practice, the Bishop of Durham, who presided over the Church of England’s safeguarding until July 2016, consistently went on record assuring us that the process of inquiry into George Bell was ‘robust’, ‘thorough’ and ‘lengthy’. So what has happened here? How can a few senior executives and managers running a process as important as safeguarding, and backed to the hilt by a senior bishop, manage to preside over such a debacle?

You only have to look to the wider culture of the Church of England (and, indeed, of comparable and voluntary and vocational institutions) to see that this problem is endemic and extensive. The whole of the reform of the Church of England’s theological education is currently in the hands of an ex-banker, who has had a successful business career, but knows absolutely nothing about theology, theological education, or spiritual formation for ministry. He is backed to the hilt by a senior bishop, who acts as little more than an acolyte for the introduction of implementation of business principles into a rich body of expertise and practice that has worked extremely well for many decades, training outstanding ministers.

Somehow, though, business minds are allowed to opine that soft, voluntary and vocational ‘institutions’ are flabby and inefficient, and ripe for reform. What they need now is organisational scrutiny and business leadership. At the heart of this is a sense that measurable growth and rational organisation are relatively easy to introduce and reify within our institutions. But some commentators are less sure.

David Hare, in his play The Power of Yes (2009), has an imaginary conversation between a pro-organisation banker and someone working in public service, who works in an institution. The character speaking puts it like this:

…people say, ‘Oh get some private-sector people into the schools, that’ll sort them out.’ Actually I doubt if there are many jobs in finance as hard as teaching a class of fourteen year old boys in a tough school. Because business is in some way quite simple, it has clearly defined aims. The aim is to make money. So you have a measure against which to judge all the subsidiary actions which add up to the overall result. Managing a hospital is rather more complex. Because it’s very hard to know what your objective is. There’s no money-metric to help make the choice between better cancer care or having a better A&E. It’s a judgement call. And running a hospital is an endless series of judgement calls where the criteria and objectives are very far from clear. So don’t tell me that’s easier than making money.

Some years ago, I was present at a meeting when the then most senior executive-manager in the Church of England told a gathering of our most senior theological educators that “our days for doing theologies of education or for theological formation in training, or for church leadership, were over”. What he meant to suggest was this: that in the entire reconstruction of seminary or theological education, now imminent, there would be no theological thinking to reflect on the content or process of the new world being ushered in, or to construct the foundation upon which this new world would rest. All the decisions to be made were pragmatic, organisational and financial. Theology had no need to involve itself with the resulting reconstruction. The decisions would be made by executive-managers and strategists, and not by theologians.

It is hard to know where to begin critiquing such an approach. Here, therefore, the church might as well be a supermarket chain or car-plant; the only difference being that we are ‘selling’ God and trying to increase our customer-base through our outlets (i.e., churches). But such a viewpoint is little more than a form of idolatry. Now, the executive-manager proposing to exclude theology was no idolater, to be sure. But he was proposing a production plant and line – shaped and governed by salvific executive-management – and then placing it at the heart of our life and worship, in order to grow the number of consumers. And that is idolatry. In the Church of England, there is now a palpable sense of alienation within our polity. The Spectator magazine has reported on the ‘reformers versus opponents’ contest that underlies the growing ‘sense of exile’ many now feel inside the church:

A new mood has taken hold of Lambeth Palace. Officials call it urgency; critics say it is panic. The Church of England, the thinking goes, is about to shrink rapidly, even vanish in some areas, unless urgent action is taken. This action, laid out in a flurry of high-level reports, amounts to the biggest institutional shake-up since the 1990s. Red tape is to be cut, processes streamlined, resources optimised. Targets have been set. The Church is ill — and business management is going to cure it… Provoking more anxiety, though, is the emphasis on growth in numbers. Half of the central fund distributed to help poorer dioceses is to be diverted to support thriving projects. The previous system was thought to ‘subsidise decline’. The new approach, to be brought in over ten years, is meant to ‘incentivise…church growth and innovation and flexibility. (M. Greaves, ‘God’s management consultants: the Church of England turns to bankers for salvation’, p.18, 18 July 2015).

Most denominations are not alert to the dangers of uncritically inculcating management and business-think into their systems and structures. To an organisation that is panicking, or to an institution that believes itself to be in decline, the rewards of incorporating secular managerialism can appear tantalising.

So, appropriately enough, we return to the incorporation of managerialism in the Church of England, and its increasing reliance on numbers (‘ecclesionomics’) and growing faith in the power of organisational and administrative directives (‘ecclesiocracy’). To be sure, the Church of England is a complex and demanding institution, and good management at all levels will always be important. So what is at issue here? It probably lies in understanding the nature of the body that is the church, and appreciating that it needs a kind of leadership that may be less obvious to the secular, commercial, corporate sectors one usually finds in business.

Governance and accountability are an issue here, since (as Rollo May opined), structure is an expression of value. How the church is shaped and re-shaped reveals what its leaders (currently) value. A homogenous, pasteurised polity, in which all leaders are compliant and ‘on message’, will reveal a tight structure that resists diversity and an investment in celebrating a wide range of theological viewpoints. Of course, it is important to grasp here that the church is not simply an organisation struggling to cope with the complexity of cultural change. It is, rather, an institution. The distinction is a vital one to comprehend if one is to address the kind of archiepiscopal leadership that might be required. Here, the contrasts between organisations and institutions, usefully characterised in the early work of Philip Selznick, might be helpful in understanding the nature of the church (Selznick, Leadership in Administration, 1957).

Selznick argues that organisations primarily exist for utilitarian purposes, and when they are fulfilled, the organisation may become expendable. Institutions, in contrast, are ‘natural communities’ with historic roots that are embedded in the very fabric of society. They incorporate various groups that may contest with each other over the very nature of the institution and its values. Following Selznick, a church is much more like an institution, thereby requiring a particular kind of moral leadership from its ordained leaders (including character, compassion and wisdom), rather than (mere) management.

For Selznick, the very term ‘organisation’ suggests a certain rudimentary bareness; a kind of lean, no-nonsense system of consciously co-ordinated activities. It refers to an expendable and rational instrument engineered to do a job. An institution, on the other hand, is more of a natural product of the prevailing social needs and pressures – effectively a responsive, adaptive organism. This distinction, claims Selznick, is a matter of analysis, rather than of direct description. It does not mean that any given enterprise must be either one or the other.

While an extreme case may closely approach either an ‘ideal’ organisation or an ‘ideal’ institution, most living associations resist such easy classifications. They are complex mixtures of both designed and responsive behaviours. But assuming the Church of England is more akin to an institution than an organisation; this of course requires an extensive investment of time. There can be no quick-fixes in the church. Those conversations that are moral and theological need to engage with the reality of complex institutional life.

Thus, and according to Selznick, organisations tend to use ‘tools’ or means as they reach for definite goals; and their leaders deliver on this, in target and performance-related ways. The institutional leader, in contrast, is primarily an expert in the promotion and protection of values. And in one sense, this distinction between organisations and institutions can act as a helpful aid in reflecting upon and discerning the contrasting attitudes in the wider church.

Put bluntly, is the Church of England an inefficient, tangled and complex body that needs to be re-shaped organisationally? Or is it an institution in which its tangled and complex structures are, in fact, part of its very identity and value? Indeed, something like a family, perhaps, or even a ‘household of faith’ if one wanted to be more biblical about this – so not easy to organise, and not always obvious where membership begins and ends, and who belongs? It is neither fully one nor the other, of course.

So the wider culture in which the Church of England’s manifest failures and shortcomings in the Bell case can now be seen in a much clearer light. The problem is caused, to some extent, by the Church of England’s heavy over-dependence on the expertise of executive managers from secular or commercial contexts. Similar recent attempts by universities and hospitals to use ‘business models’ (and executive managers) from the private sector to lead such institutions have mostly ended unhappily – if not disastrously.  Sometimes the best people to run hospitals are actually doctors, or those with medical training. The best people to run universities or colleges are often (but not always) academics.

The more the church is treated as an organisation, the more its mission becomes focused on mechanistic techniques designed to maximise efficiency and to reify productivity. The church moves to being mechanistically driven; to becoming a managed machine, with its managers judging their performance by measurably-related metrics.  Invariably, the clergy and the congregations are made to collude with this – largely through the imposition of codes of compliance. This can rob clergy and parishes of their distinctive local autonomy, and can also override the value of local knowledge. It turns partnerships and soft forms of association rooted in trust into hard forms of organisation and corporation.

As two recent commentators note:

‘Professionals…value autonomy…[yet] there are many examples of professionals surrendering their autonomy in the face of managerial change agendas.  It has happened in health care, as management systems have been imported from automobile manufacturing, to control the workflow of doctors. It has happened in the law as traditional partnerships have becomes corporations.  Now even priests are being sent on management training courses in business schools…’ (Alvesson & Spicer, ‘(Un)Conditional Surrender?  Why Do Professionals Willingly Comply with Managerialism?’, Journal of Organisational Change Management, vol. 29, no.1., 2016, pp.29-45).

The problem the Church of England now has is that the executive managers who run these new organisational and business-orientated processes – all of which are backed up by secular reasoning that does not easily correlate with complex ecclesial institutional life – are endorsed by senior bishops who simply act as acolytes for the reforms.  The bishops collude with this, and one wonders why: weakness, fear, the lack of ecclesial comprehension and theological nous all seem to be potential factors.

The wider culture of the Church of England has promoted and prioritised executive managers and their processes over and against institutional patterns of vocational practice and the values of the institution. Time and again, managers and executives are found to be bullying clergy and congregations, telling them how they now need to be dominated by new management-led organisational paradigms. Some of this is right, appropriate and useful.  Some of it is not, and simply fails to understand the nature of the church and its ministry. And some of the managerial, executive and organisational paradigms and personnel being imposed are of very poor quality.

We see these problems in the proposed reforms of theological education, and in the proposed reorganisation of canon law. The same pattern is there each time: a failure of the managers driving the culture of change to consult with academics and theologians, and those with wider expertise who would challenge the authority and expertise of those managers. The reformers lack ecclesial comprehension: they don’t understand the nature of the body they seek to discipline, control and improve. Yet their power is unchecked.

We obviously cannot know what happened to “Carol” over 60 years ago, and we now may never know. We are obviously concerned for her, and her sense of what has befallen her. But the debacle over the Bell case was an accident waiting to happen. There clearly are serious cases – historic and current – that the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team needs to pursue. But equally, there are already too many instances of accused individuals and alleged abusers being judged and treated harshly – assumed to be guilty until proved innocent – only for us discover later that no charges are to be brought. The shadows that hang over these other victims, and the stigmatisation they endure, should not be overlooked.

The Church of England’s NST and the bishop now presiding over it need to consider their positions carefully. So, too, do senior staff in Lambeth Palace and the Church of England’s Media Centre, who self-propelled the ‘story’ of George Bell back in October 2015, attempting to ‘spin’ it as a narrative of ‘decisive leadership’. A thorough investigation into this case, and how it was handled – of the sort being conducted by Lord Carlile – would go some way into restoring broken trust, ensuring that there was accountability and fairness in future practices – for both victims and the accused – in a church and world that surely deserves better. But the Carlile Report is being ‘finalised’ by Lambeth Palace, and they have been doing so now for over a month. We don’t yet know what his findings are, but it is to be hoped that his investigation also examined how the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team might be audited in future, because we simply cannot afford a failure of process on this scale again. It must be hoped that the leadership of the Church of England will now find the humility and grace to recognise its failings in the Bell case, and resolve to do better.

The root of all evil is the abuse of power.  We now have a great many questions to ask of those in power.  Those who have used their power to abuse children, and those who have covered up such sins, cannot be allowed to hide. All must live in the light of justice and scrutiny. But equally, those with the powers to investigate such abuses must also become fairer and more transparent in their dealings with alleged and actual instances of abuse. There are now too many examples of the highest principles of natural justice, and those who turn out to be falsely accused, being sacrificed to lengthy, unfair and intrusive processes justified on grounds of repulsion and expediency.

On Bishop George Bell’s birthday (February 4th) I slipped next door to our Cathedral – where Bell had worshipped as an undergraduate and as a Junior Fellow – just before Evensong. I lit a single candle, leaving it on the altar that is dedicated to Bell and his tireless work for reconciliation and peace-making. And I prayed for three groups of people: the victims of sexual abuse, and those perpetrate such abuse; the victims of false accusation and those who perpetrate such falsehoods; and for all those engaged in the work of healing and justice in this most painful of pastoral and legal arenas. George Bell would, I think, have approved of the gesture. Much of his life was spent speaking out against reprisals. He spent his lifetime working for reconciliation and concord. Such peace can come, if those in power will work ever-more earnestly for justice and truth – and against all abuse.