Lord Lexden
Church of England

Lord Lexden: “My faith in the Church’s institutional integrity has been completely broken”

Lord Lexden has resigned as a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee (the Church of England in Parliament), over the Clergy Discipline Measure and “the harm it is capable of inflicting on innocent clergy”. He specifically mentioned the suicide of his friend, Fr Alan Griffin, with its “denial of natural justice”; the treatment of Bishop George Bell whose reputation “was damaged so unfairly”; and the church’s seeking to interfere with a coroner’s report, which he considers “utterly reprehensible”. He speaks of his “deep passion and anger” at the Church of England’s chronic incompetence, and his “total despair” at the institutional failure.

Lord Cormack also said: “I have not lost my faith, but I have come close to losing my faith in the Church of England.”

This won’t make the national news. In fact, it isn’t even likely to make a column inch of a newspaper, so the Hansard debate between the Bishop of Blackburn, Lord Cormack and Lord Lexden is reproduced here in full:

The Lord Bishop of Blackburn:

Moved by The Lord Bishop of Blackburn

That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Safeguarding (Code of Practice) Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.

The Bishop of Blackburn Bishop

My Lords, it has been a long day and we are on the cusp of a party conference recess. I do not want to detain your Lordships more than is necessary. I am somewhat anxious, and feel, to use the words of a noble Lord a moment ago, a scintilla of fear, standing here for the first time and hearing much of the previous debate about the importance of good leadership and of doing everything well. Perhaps I am a candidate for all that further training that was talked about. It is a great privilege to be allowed to spend this week as duty Bishop in this House and to lead Prayers each day.

I am grateful for your Lordships’ presence this evening, not least because the Measure before us is significant in its application and is about safeguarding. As noble Lords will know, the Church of England has been on a long journey of putting in place appropriate staff, policies and practices to make the Church a safe place for all people, especially children and vulnerable adults. That has been essential as a response to church often being unsafe and to stories—historic and current—of appalling cases of abuse by those in positions of power who should have known better and whom many were willing to trust.

This Measure updates the legislation concerned with the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults by the Church of England. In particular, it responds to a recommendation made by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, known as IICSA. In 2019, the independent inquiry issued a report on case studies it had carried out into abuse committed by Peter Ball, a former Bishop of Gloucester, and on past abuse in the diocese of Chichester. The report recognised that steps had been taken by the Church to tackle abuse, including the passing of the Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline Measure 2016. But the independent inquiry considered that the way the 2016 Measure imposed obligations on individuals and Church organisations to follow correct safeguarding practice was less clear than it should be. This recommendation focused on the requirement in the 2016 Measure that a relevant person must have “due regard” to safeguarding guidance issued by the House of Bishops. The independent inquiry considered that the effect of a statutory requirement to have “due regard” to guidance was not well understood and should be replaced with a requirement that was more explicit in its terms.

The Archbishops’ Council accepted the recommendations contained in the report of the independent inquiry and has been taking steps to implement them. This Measure, passed by the General Synod in April this year, will implement the recommendation I have just described. It replaces the existing duty to have “due regard” to safeguarding guidance with the duty to “comply with” requirements imposed by a safeguarding code of practice. The concept of complying with a requirement should be more straightforward than having “due regard” to guidance.

The code of practice itself, and any subsequent amendments to it, will be subject to prior consultation, including with those who have suffered abuse, as well as with representative bodies of the clergy and the laity. The code will also be subject to scrutiny by the General Synod. The code of practice, and any amendment to it, will be sent to every member of the General Synod and published online. If 25 or more members of the synod give notice, a code will not come into force until the synod has debated and approved it.

The opportunity has also been taken in this Measure to update the list of “relevant persons”—that is, those individuals and bodies to whom the code of practice will be directed and who will be under a duty to comply with its requirements. Under the 2016 Measure, the list of relevant persons already includes clergy, licensed laypersons, church wardens and parochial church councils. Cathedral chapters will be added by the Cathedrals Measure 2021. This Measure will add diocesan boards of finance and diocesan boards of education to the list. It will also add staff working in the Church of England’s national safeguarding team, meaning that they too will be obliged to comply with relevant requirements contained in the code of practice.

During the passage of the Measure through the General Synod, the issue was raised as to how compliance with the requirements of the code of practice would be enforced, should that become necessary. So far as the clergy are concerned, non-compliance would potentially be a disciplinary matter, as it would be for licensed lay ministers. Bodies such as parochial church councils and diocesan boards are charities, and the Charity Commission takes the safeguarding responsibility of charity trustees very seriously and has statutory powers to intervene where they are not being properly carried out. Cathedrals are subject to visitation by the bishop and will shortly become subject to the jurisdiction of the Charity Commission.

The sole lacuna in terms of enforcing compliance was found to be the case of churchwardens. As matters stand, there is no power to take disciplinary or other action against a churchwarden who refuses to comply with correct safeguarding practice. The Measure therefore includes a power for the bishop to suspend a churchwarden where he or she has failed to comply with the requirement of the safeguarding code of practice. This is a discretionary power and builds on powers that bishops already have to suspend churchwardens who present a direct safeguarding risk. As with the exercise of those existing powers, a churchwarden who is suspended for non-compliance with the safeguarding code of practice will have a right of appeal to an independent judge.

I must conclude by acknowledging the serious past failings of the Church of England in protecting children and vulnerable adults from abuse—a failure which the most reverend Primate Archbishop of Canterbury has acknowledged on many occasions. As he said in his evidence to the independent inquiry in 2019:

“Overall, I remain utterly horrified by what we have done in the past, our failures, and no doubt there will be failures going on … We have made some small progress. We have a long way to go.”

I hope and pray that this Measure will be another step in making the Church of England a safer place for children and vulnerable adults. I beg to move.

Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, I rise as one who has been a churchwarden—although no longer—for a total of 36 years in three different churches, who has served on the General Synod of the Church of England for 10 years between 1995 and 2005, and who is still actively involved in church affairs. I have also served on the Ecclesiastical Committee, whose report is what we are officially discussing tonight to approve it, for nearly 50 years. I therefore have a fairly long background.

I am so delighted to see my noble friend Lord Lexden here—I think we are the only two members of the committee here. I know that our chairman, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, was very sorry not to be able to come, and I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, was also particularly sorry not to be able to come. I support the Measure, but I agreed with my colleagues on the committee that between us, we need to make some rather important points.

I support this Measure as being expedient but I hope it will also be effective and will not create some of the tragedies and difficulties that the ham-fisted handling of safeguarding has resulted in in recent years. I speak with some passion and some anger. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln, a Member of your Lordships’ House, was suspended—the first time a bishop had been suspended in centuries; I believe the previous one was suspended for shooting his gamekeeper—for 20 months and was then allowed back with a mild rap on the knuckles. He had done nothing serious—he himself had done nothing of a criminal nature—but he was held not to have handled a case drawn to his attention with sufficient expedition. It was a difficult case; I do not know all the details, and it would be wrong to give just a few. However, this man, who served the Church for many years and who was installed as bishop in November 2011, the day before Remembrance Day, having had almost two years of his episcopate suspended, is now somewhat broken, and has announced that he is retiring at the end of this year. I am pleased to say that he has been able to take Prayers in your Lordships’ House on a couple of occasions; I hope that he will be able to do so again. This was a disproportionate handling.

It would not be so bad if this were an isolated case. But staying in Lincoln, the chancellor was suspended because he was facing a criminal charge; that is fair enough. He was acquitted unanimously by the jury and was then exonerated by the Church authorities, but it took 789 days. Again, it was said that some further accusations were trivial and unsubstantiated. We must be careful when dealing with public men and women who have contact with their parishioners, or with a wider congregation if they are in cathedrals and so on. We must have regard for them as people.

For instance, it was said in Committee—my noble friend Lord Lexden was there—regarding the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln, that part of the delay was due to the fact that the police were investigating and had to report to the Church authorities. He suggested that the police had held this up for well over a year when they had not done so at all. Within a few months of the action taken in May 2019, the police said that they had no further interest in the case, and yet the Church dragged its feet.

Of course, there are many examples of clergymen—it is not an exalted rank—who have had their lives completely wrecked by malice. There is recent example in the London diocese of a clergyman who committed suicide.

I am not for a moment suggesting that safeguarding is unimportant. As a Christian and an Anglican, I am deeply ashamed of some of the things that have happened historically. But I am also deeply ashamed of the way in which certain things have been handled, as I have indicated.

Let me make a historical reference. One of the saintliest bishops of the 20th century was, without doubt, Bishop Bell of Chichester, formerly the Dean of Canterbury. He was a man of great spirituality and is regarded as so important that he has a day devoted to him in the Church calendar. He stood up and spoke out against mass bombing. He did not always endear himself to our great Prime Minister of the day, Winston Churchill, or to others—although Churchill did say some very kind things about him, and meant them. This man, dead in 1958, was, a matter of just three of four years ago, suddenly traduced on the evidence of a woman in her late 70s, who alleged that she had been interfered with by the bishop as a girl of five. There was no corroborative evidence. An investigation was conducted with great forensic skill by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, who delivered what can only be called a damning report on the way in which the Church of England had handled this.

I welcome the Measure before us tonight—not that the bit of paper that colleagues have been able to pick up tells them very much about it, and so I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for his concise but good explanation. I wish our colleagues had had a better piece of paper; they might then have been more tempted to come and take part in this debate. It is also a pity that this is a debate without a list of speakers, as I think we would have attracted more with one.

However, it would be wrong to let this debate take place without seeking to stress that this safeguarding business has not been handled well. It is important because any man or woman is innocent until proven guilty. It is important that if there are further cases they are handled with greater dispatch and compassion, and if the man or woman is guilty then of course they must be appropriately dealt with. If that means they must be unfrocked, as the term is when a priest loses holy orders, fine, but we have not got the balance right up to now.

I pray devoutly that this Measure will enable us to get the balance right but it is crucial for the reputation of the Church of England, which is going through a rough patch at the moment. I have not lost my faith, but I have come close to losing my faith in the Church of England from the experiences I have witnessed in the last few years. We have got to get the balance right. This Measure must work in a way that is fair to the accused as well, of course, as rooting out those who do evil. What we are talking about is that there are some people who do evil, but the vast majority of clergy men and women in the Church of England are honourable to their vocation. They deserve to be treated fairly and properly, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln recently has not been.

Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Cormack referred at the start of his powerful remarks to the passion and anger that he felt because of some recent events. I feel very deep passion and anger, as I shall explain.

I have had the honour of serving on the Ecclesiastical Committee for a few years, but I am afraid I cannot continue my membership of it. I can no longer support the Clergy Discipline Measure, in view of the harm it is capable of inflicting on innocent clergy caught up in sex abuse allegations. Doubts about the Church’s capacity to devise a fair and just system for dealing with accusations of sex abuse laid against its clergy have long been simmering in my mind, not least because of the terrible way in which the reputation of the great George Bell, to whom my noble friend referred, was damaged—and damaged so unfairly. But worry and concern have now given place to total despair; my faith in the Church’s institutional integrity has been completely broken.

Long ago I was briefly close, perhaps for no longer than a single summer, to a witty and clever Cambridge contemporary. He was a classicist who became a lecturer at Exeter University and later took holy orders. His name was Alan Griffin. In November last year, the Reverend Dr Alan Griffin committed suicide. After the end of the inquest into his death in early July this year, the coroner wrote a detailed report on the way that the Church had investigated his suspected sexual misconduct. She revealed that when he died, the Church’s investigation had been going on for over a year. The coroner stated that

“he could not cope with an investigation into his conduct, the detail of and the source for which he had never been told”—

I repeat, the detail and source for which he had never been told.

Worse, when the coroner probed the evidence against him, she found it was non-existent. There was, she said,

“no complainant, no witness and no accuser”.

The Church had acted on the basis of mere gossip and innuendo. Could there be a clearer example of the denial of natural justice?

And how did the Church carry out its investigation during the year in which Alan Griffin was kept in ignorance of the so-called accusations against him? The coroner states:

“nobody took responsibility for steering the direction of the process from start to finish and for making coherent, reasoned, evidence based decisions”.

And so the scene was set for a terrible tragedy.

The last element of the Church’s behaviour in this case which I want the House to note is very serious indeed. The coroner records that submissions

“on behalf of the Church of England … urged me not to include any concerns that may be taken as a criticism of clerics or staff for not filtering or verifying allegations.”

This is not from some shady organisation or business with suspect moral standards, but from our country’s established Church. These are the circumstances that led to the death of a friend of mine from long ago, and that is why my faith in the Church’s institutional integrity has been broken.

The Bishop of Blackburn

My Lords, I am grateful to the two noble Lords for their contributions in this debate and for speaking from their experience and their expertise and involvement not only in this House but in the Ecclesiastical Committee, and bringing that experience to this matter.

I would be the first to put my hand up and say that we have not been getting things right, and the national safeguarding team is seeking to improve its way of working. There are a number of cases that have been referred to which are inexcusable, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, in particular, has expressed his deep regret over the 20-month suspension of the Bishop of Lincoln and has expressed that that should be something that is never, ever repeated. I am not aware of all the details of the other incidences that have been referred to, whether it is Bishop Bell or the Reverend Dr Alan Griffin, but there are obviously important lessons to be learned through those experiences and those stories that the Church of England needs to take on board and listen to very carefully.

There is a real sense in which it is important that there is a balance between the concern for safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults within the life of our Church, where terrible abuse has occurred, and for that to be dealt with firmly and rightly, but also a right case for compassion for those who are being accused of something and for that to be looked at both quickly, so that it does not drag on endlessly, and to be looked at quickly enough so that the evidence can be brought to light to see whether there is a case to answer or not. I am horrified to hear the stats just referred to about the Reverend Dr Alan Griffin, that he was never told what the accusation was and that, when it was looked at, it was found to be non-existent and it was all gossip and innuendo. That is not acceptable as a way for a Church to behave in trying to deal with safeguarding matters.

There is a real difference that needs to be drawn between the call to comply with guidance on safeguarding and dealing with those people differently from those who are subject to an allegation of some sexual abuse. There are cases where, sometimes, a person who has just not complied with a particular line of guidance has been treated as though they themselves are a safeguarding risk. That is an unacceptable comparison and there needs to be a distinction drawn between the two. My hope is that this Measure that talks about having to “comply with”, rather than having “due regard” for, will help sort some of that issue out in the days that lie ahead.

I am sorry to hear the stories that have been relayed. I hope that expressing them here in your Lordships’ House is helpful so that they are on the record and we know they have been told and heard by someone in the House of Bishops. I will do my part to relay something of this back to those who seek to carry out that safeguarding function for the Church of England and the national safeguarding team. I will undertake to report something of what I have heard today to them.

I will finish by saying that I and my colleagues commit to seeking to make the Church of England a place where it is safe for children, vulnerable adults and all people to be part of a church gathering and a church family, and for the Church not just to exercise good practice in those areas but to be a model to others of how to do this, because sometimes people have looked to the Church and said, “If the Church doesn’t do it, why should anybody else?” The Church has a call to model something to others in a way it has not done up to this moment. There is a challenge.

Although I am glad for the support for this change in the Measure to ensure good and better practice in the days that lie ahead, it is not the whole answer. We shall have much more to do. I will play my part in doing what I can to relay this back to others and encourage the House of Bishops to do the same.

Lord Lexden

Could the right reverend Prelate comment on the quotation from the coroner’s report that I read out at the end? The Church of England seeking to interfere with the content of a coroner’s report in order to diminish the extent of the criticism it would sustain: is that not utterly reprehensible?

The Bishop of Blackburn

It is reprehensible and unacceptable. One of the big issues has been the whole matter of cover-up and trying to silence voices. That is a very clear example and should never, ever be repeated. I will report that back to the national safeguarding team and others. We are in the business not of covering up but of being transparent and open, so that these things can be brought to light and people can learn from them. It is reprehensible and completely unacceptable.

Motion agreed.