feet to the fire
Church of England

In Holy Week we should hold our Archbishops’ feet to the fire

Many years ago during the course of a philosophical discussion, an old writer friend of mine offered me one of the most simple yet incisive observations on the human condition. He was a man of deep humanity and integrity, a Muslim convert to Christianity, who was writing exploratory ‘Magic Realism’ fiction at the same time as Salmon Rushdie, necessarily under a nom de plume.

Whenever I veered towards criticising somebody for a failing he would say to me: “You must remember, Martin, being human isn’t easy.”

I have been reflecting on that of late. Being human isn’t easy under any circumstances, and given my current interests and responsibilities it is worth exploring that it is especially not easy to be human as an abuse victim, revisiting how badly the Church of England has treated them institutionally and personally. In Holy Week it is less obviously, but still necessarily, worth considering that it is not easy to be a member of General Synod, a member of the National Safeguarding Team, a Diocesan Safeguarding Officer, and especially not a Bishop or even an Archbishop at this time.

Since the IICSA hearings, everyone can see that safeguarding issues within the church are considerably worse than the common platitude ‘all have made mistakes’ may express: we are way beyond vague generalities like ‘lessons must be learned’. We are now into ‘all have sinned’ territory. We haven’t said that enough, indeed hardly at all, yet, as Holy Week teaches us, sin has to be dealt with head on, and sometimes ultimately by self-sacrifice.

Members of Synod, church officers and clergy are, of course, all volunteers: there is absolutely no equivalence between them and the victims of our individual and collective failures, though all are undoubtedly finding it hard to be human, for each status has its own human challenges and difficulties. I am sure that more than one member of the House of Bishops will pass from this life with the single word ‘safeguarding’ metaphorically inscribed on their heart.

In Holy Week we are reminded that even Jesus did not find being human easy. He wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, was infuriated by the Temple traders and began overturning the furniture; he asked that the cup of suffering might pass him by as he offered his lonely prayer in Gethsemane, and the cry of dereliction on the Cross was heart-rending. He faced the fact and the consequences of sin, and it was agony.

Being human, in the fulness which Jesus wants us to embody, is especially difficult when we engage with injustice: it is easy for us to become short-tempered, vengeful, and mocking – and that’s just the response of the victims of such sin. When we ourselves have been shown to be in the wrong, as those in authority within the church have been, it is especially hard. We all become frightened, bombastic, unreasonable and evasive when our faults are exposed. As Christians, we shouldn’t behave like this, but we do. Being human isn’t easy.

Institutions are made up of ordinary people, with commonplace failing. We become defensive, evasive, legalistic, embarrassed, proud, defiant and vindictive. But when we do this we compound the hurt and deepen the sin. This is why the reaction to the Archbishops’ Pastoral Letter delivered to congregations this week has been so negative, as His Grace and Janet Fife have so brilliantly expressed.

If the IICSA hearings tell us anything it is surely that very little of what we have learned is new. In various ways, many people at a senior level knew our church institution was failing, and yet somehow, bafflingly, the dots were not joined up. Everybody who testified knew things were going wrong, but individually and collectively they lacked the courage, motivation and/or the structures to put them right.

That silence was sinful. It needs to be faced.

Author Andrew Graystone, who compiled the devastating indictment booklet ‘We asked for bread but you gave us stones‘, has identified that the responsibility has been dispersed, and contrition centralised. In that way, nobody actually has to offer a personal or significant Mea Culpa. It reminds me of the cartoon of the foreman of the jury answering the judge who has requested their verdict: “We are all guilty, M’lud.” Generality can be the enemy of true understanding and true repentance, and that is all we have seen so far.

One victim of abuse, Gilo, wrote 17 times to Lambeth Palace without receiving the courtesy of a reply. Fr Matthew Ineson still awaits a proper answer to CDM complaints more than 220 days after filing, and Archbishop Sentamu took no action on hearing of the inaction of bishops under his jurisdiction. Janet Fife has waited 133 days for a reply to her complaint. There needs to be a personal and plain acceptance of personal responsibility and shame.

Early in my legal career a wise Court Registrar told me that he never accepted the excuse from a solicitor ‘I delegated’. He was right. That hard lesson made me a better lawyer. It needs to make us better Christian leaders.

But let us not stop with the Episcopacy; let’s go all the way. Let us include all those clergy who looked the other way or would not go on the appropriate training. Will they be apologising to their congregations?

What of the National Safeguarding Team which, within a few short years of being established, has somehow managed to forfeit the confidence of those many victims who contributed to that shocking booklet ‘Bread not stones’. Should not the entire team be offering apologies for what has happened on their watch? I didn’t hear much of that at IICSA.

Our lawyers have not covered themselves with glory. The Church House legal team and Diocesan Registrars lack specialist safeguarding legal expertise, and even within their expertise they have landed us with a Clergy Discipline Measure that has proven wholly unfit for purpose. Our communications teams have fudged failure and compromised our mission and integrity with unconvincing weasel words instead of advising honest acceptance of real error.

Above all, however, let us remember that members of General Synod past and present bear a major responsibility, for has it not been through our collective historic incuriosity, complacency and lethargy that these things have been allowed to come to pass? We have not called the House of Bishops to account largely because we have passed procedures which make such scrutiny impossible. Even if we identify problems, the chances of forcing change against a recalcitrant conservative culture are minimal. Therein lies a long-term project for those seeking to make transparency and accountability a meaningful reality.

In Holy Week we should hold our Archbishops’ feet to the fire, as His Grace and Janet Fife have done. But this is no time for scapegoats: all who sought and were granted positions of authority in the church would do well to read ‘We asked for Bread but you gave us stones’ again, and then pray the following familiar confession:

Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

We talk the talk of contrition. It is time for us all to walk the walk. This seems to be proving very hard for our church leadership, but as my old friend explained: “Being human isn’t easy.”