lambeth awards paul butler safeguarding
Church of England

Lambeth Awards: why is the CofE patting itself on the back over Safeguarding?

The Lambeth Awards were bestowed last week at Lambeth Palace. The Anglican Oscars non-academic honours for exemplary service and inspirational ministry were instituted in 2016 as part of Justin Welby’s blowing away of the ecclesial cobwebs, and many of the citations of the 2018 recipients are indeed inspirational.

There isn’t a Lambeth Award for Bloody Annoying Blogger of the Year, so absolutely nothing to lose in airing a couple of gripes.

Actually, one gripe, and one imputation of crass insensitivity and ministerial myopia.

The gripe concerns the Thomas Cranmer Award for Worship, which this year was bestowed upon hymn-writer the Rev’d Dr John L Bell; hymnographer and composer Bernadette Farrell; and choral composer Dr Geonyong Lee.

See a slight issue?

Consider then the 2017 Thomas Cranmer Awards, which were bestowed upon Director of Music at Eton College Ralph Allwood MBE; singer-songwriter Vicky Beeching; cathedral organist Paul Hale; writer on music and hymnody Anne Harrison; singer-songwriter and worship leader at Holy Trinity Brompton the Rev’d Timothy Hughes; and contemporary Christian worship leader Stuart Townend.

Got it yet?

Well, ponder the 2016 list of recipients, which included cathedral organist Canon Dr James Lancelot; choral composer Dr Philip Moore; songwriter and contemporary Christian worship leader Matt Redman; and organist/choirmaster Michael Williams.

Does anyone else think this award is something of a misnomer? With all these crotchets and quavers and crescendos and tubular-pneumatic action, wouldn’t this honour be more appropriately designated the William Byrd Award for Worship? Or, if we’re sticking with former archbishops of Canterbury, the Dunstan Award for Worship (he was a writer of hymns himself as well as being a patron saint of musicians)? The Thomas Cranmer Award is supposed to be given for “outstanding contributions to all aspects of worship in the Church, including both words and music”. Yet how many of the recipients are outstanding wordsmiths? (‘Bless the Lord/ O my soul/ O my soul/ Worship His holy name/ Sing like never before/ O my soul/ I’ll worship Your holy name/ The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning…’ isn’t really so great, is it?) How many recipients of this award are truly gifted in the creation of beautiful prose or lyrical poetry independently of melody or choral antiphon? Where is the scribe honoured irrespective of the composer? Where are the words not subordinate to an air on a guitar string?

We may be feeling in the dark for a latter-day CS Lewis or TS Eliot, but isn’t Professor Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch a fairly obvious candidate for the Thomas Cranmer Award? Aren’t some of his books (or at least one of them) magisterial acts of worship?

Great Christian writers tell the stories of where God lives. They muse on relationships, ecstasies and depravities, and the never-ending human blundering from faithlessness to fullness. They create literature from words which forge the souls of centuries, persuading and nudging us toward light and love; teaching and shoving us toward conflict and endurance. A few might be prophets of philosophy or social power, but most are more comfortable reconciling hearts and mediating minds. One or two might be in conflict with the church, possibly even condemned and outcast. They don’t need a Lambeth trinket for their salvation: it is found in deeper mysteries and magic; in the courage of distress and the nobility of shame. There’s immortality in the limitless passion to destroy one’s own evil.

Worship is not just music; it is preeminently the word. It is faith walked and talked in spirit and in truth. If the Lambeth Awards restrict the understanding of worship to music, choruses and hymnody, then please re-name it the William Byrd Award for Worship or the Dunstan Award for Worship, and bestow the Thomas Cranmer Award instead upon those who lay down their lives for Jesus (sometimes literally, and so posthumously). “There has never been a time in Christian history when someone, somewhere, has not died rather than compromise with the powers of oppression, tyranny and unbelief,” said the Rev’d Dr Anthony Harvey, one-time sub-dean of Westminster, when Westminster Abbey unveiled its Martyrs for the Modern Era. In the postmodern era, some Christians are having an absolutely awful time contending against the police or their employers. How about an award for victims of anti-Christian injustice?

Which brings us neatly to the crass insensitivity and ministerial myopia.

The Church of England has just been through a traumatic fortnight of the Independent Investigation into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). Those who are responsible for safeguarding are apparently devoid of compassion: “The cruel and inhuman treatment I have received from the National Safeguarding Team in Church House, and others in the Church of England hierarchy, makes what Peter Ball did to me pale into insignificance,” said one victim. It is impossible not to read some pronouncements and not conclude that the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team is either untruthful or incompetent (or quite possibly both).

And the consequent headlines bring shame upon us all: ‘Church of England put reputation first, child abuse inquiry told‘; ‘Church may have “conspired to enable child sex abuse”‘; ‘Church of England faces “deep shame” at child abuse inquiry‘; ‘Clergy resign from Church of England rather than face criminal records checks, abuse inquiry told‘; ‘Church “facing two years of abuse revelations”‘, and on and on…

The failings aren’t just historic; they are present and ongoing.

So who at Lambeth Palace thought it was a good idea to honour the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev’d Paul Butler, with the Hubert Walter Award “for his outstanding service to the church as Lead Bishop on Safeguarding”?

Bishop Paul might be a lovely, faithful, compassionate and pious man, but why this citation now? Why honour a bishop for his safeguarding genius just a few weeks after the appalling IICSA revelations? Isn’t it rather like awarding Captain Smith the Blue Riband for Outstanding Service as a Merchant Navy Officer in April 1912? It isn’t merely bizarrely inopportune; it is crassly insensitive for the Church of England to be blowing its own trumpet over safeguarding at all.

If the Archbishop of Canterbury is to make awards (as indeed he ought), might he not reflect on the fact that in some spheres of church life – such as safeguarding – that the last shall be first? Might he not perhaps consider honouring one or two representative survivors for their contributions to truth and services to reform? If the world can see the very obvious virtue in honouring the victims before indulging in self-congratulation, why couldn’t those advising the Archbishop?