Nobody's Friends
Church of England

Nobody knows Nobody’s Friends

People of a certain age might remember that the motorcycle patrolmen of the Automobile Association was once a common sight on British roads. Members sported badges on the fronts of their cars which, when spotted, caused the uniformed patrolmen to salute you. If you were a member and your car developed a mechanical fault or puncture, technology being less reliable then, you could make your way to a roadside box, similar to a police box (younger readers, think Dr.Who) and summon help.

Nowadays this all seems pretty anachronistic: cars are more reliable, we are more egalitarian, we are less military so don’t require the salute, and everybody carries mobile phones. The AA demutualised and had to reinvent its raison d’être in recognition that the world had moved on. For a brief insight into that world, have a look at the 1950s Highwaymen.

All organisations and institutions are conceived at a certain time to embody a time-specific mode of thinking. Of course many necessarily evolve, but some do not and that can become problematic. Eternal truths are one thing; outdated elitist attitudes are quite another.

Two organisations are currently attracting adverse attention for just such provenance and attitude, and both feature in the vigorous debate over Safeguarding: the ‘Iwerne project‘, currently managed by the Titus Trust, and Nobody’s Friends, a private dining club in the Church of England. Each of them has or aspires to a role in shaping the public life of the Established Church and the country at large.

Nobody’s Friends began as a private dining club for 13 members sharing a particular High Church ecclesiology and theological orthodoxy. It has substantially expanded its membership over two centuries, and currently meets quarterly in the Guard Room at Lambeth Palace. Its status as a highly establishment group of people has been explored extensively on the Surviving Church blog:

Membership has included many bishops and archbishops, headmasters from a sprinkling of top schools, various Archbishop’s Appointments Secretaries, Prime Minister’s Appointments Secretaries, Leaders of the House of Commons and House of Lords, Tory peers, Admiralty figures, judicial figures and church lawyers. Such heavyweights as Sir Michael Havers (later Lord Chief Justice) (sic [actually Lord Chancellor]), Lord Pym, Douglas Hurd, Lord Justice Bingham (former Master of the Rolls) have graced its tables. Several of the senior clerics on the board of Ecclesiastical have also enjoyed membership, and one of the headmaster directors of the church’s insurer. The current club President is believed to be Sir Philip Mawer, who was on the directors board of Ecclesiastical (Insurance) when he was also at same time Secretary General of Synod.

If you read this extract from the perspective of survivors of abuse whose thirst for justice has been collectively denied over many years, you might understand why such a grouping might attract suspicion, even if its entire membership has spent the last two centuries acting with complete probity. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) itself was established to investigate both common themes and possible links between abusers across public life, and how such malefactors got away with it for so long. It is surely inevitable that such a carefully curated assembly of ‘the great and the good, whose institutions have been collectively afflicted and which responded with cover-up, will be called to account. But where is the mechanism to do so?

I understand that the membership criteria for Nobody’s Friends have recently changed, and they now admit a few women, though its BAME quotient might not pass current Anglican aspirations. I also suspect that its culinary standards may not have sustained the epicurean character of its predecessors from 1891. But what is plainly its forte is the bringing together of carefully chosen and trusted persons of public stature, to meet and discuss matters of mutual interest and to secure good counsel from those who may have relevant or perhaps related experience. Are these meetings minuted? Is there an agenda? If so, who compiles it?

Nobody knows.

If Sir Humphrey Appleby of ‘Yes Minister‘ fame were real, he would undoubtedly have been a member of Nobody’s Friends, which might be compared to a London branch of Oxford high table. All are safe pairs of hands; they are ‘one of us’.

Abuse in various forms has been rife in many of the institutions represented in this private dining club. Its membership spans the Church, public schools (many insured through the Ecclesiastical Group), the military, public sector care homes and the BBC. It is hard to think of a networking institution spanning more collective participation in responsibility for these institutions than Nobody’s Friends. Equally, it is hard to imagine a dining table that has hosted more people who between them had the potential to share knowledge and give good counsel concerning those they would have known in various permutations when suspicions began to emerge – Jimmy Savile, Cyril Smith, Peter Ball, John Smyth, Trevor Devamanikkam, and many more. It was a network that either failed in addressing this important inconvenient truth about the institutions for which they held collective responsibility, or worse, it succeeded in keeping the lid on it for many years. Maybe it was just a blind spot who knows? Understanding which of these possibilities applies would be useful. Perhaps they might have a chat about it over Brown Windsor Soup and Spotted Dick, and share their collective wisdom with rest of us?

I am not a conspiracy theorist. Intrinsically I want people to be free to meet with who they like, say what they like and to enjoy good food and company wherever and whenever it pleases them. If that means they chew the fat over knotty problems, why on earth not? You can, however, sense an ‘except’ coming here, can’t you?

When the Church is repeatedly hit by serious safeguarding scandals, what confidence can victim-survivors possibly have in an organisation where such a gathering has the potential to inculcate hush-hush confidentiality and influence crisis management? Within Nobody’s Friends there are some we know, and undoubtedly some we do not know, against whom criticism or complaint will, could, or should be made by survivors. Within this group are people who shape the Church’s response together with those of, or close to, the Government and Judiciary, in whose gift justice and outside oversight could be granted or withheld.

Anyone who has asked an awkward question at General Synod will be familiar with what some of us have come to call the “Sir Humphrey Answer”. It is a fine example of life imitating art. Sir Humphrey’s Wikipedia entry captures it splendidly: “Sir Humphrey is a master of obfuscation and manipulation, often making long-winded statements to confuse and fatigue the listener.” The latest controversies over the terms of reference of current Church Reviews owe something to this culture and the master bureaucrat’s hand.

Regular readers of the blog will know that part of my frustration with the Church of England is trying to work out who actually makes the big decisions on these safeguarding matters. It is a frustration shared by many victims. In his closing speech at IICSA one of their lawyers William Chapman openly criticised the church’s “byzantine procedures” and the “medieval fiefdoms” of diocesan bishops which enable responsibility to be plausibly denied, shifted, and evaded. When one reflects upon a semi-detached organisation like Nobody’s Friends, the problem deepens.

Of course a private dining club has no formal position or corporate authority. The truth, however, is they do not need it. Stanley Baldwin’s strictures against “power without responsibility” (the prerogative of the harlot) applies. Historically, of course, harlots, when they slipped into public controversies, became nobody’s friends.

In recent years, the Church of England has publicly espoused the democratic virtues of transparency and accountability, yet it isn’t at all clear how this public proclamation is reified by and within those institutions which were established when things were done rather differently. I like traditions, the more eccentric the better, but idiosyncrasy has no role, direct or indirect, when it comes to matters such as safeguarding and open governance.

If both were demonstratively the remit of clear and independent processes fully removed from the dining club’s membership, Nobody’s Friends would be lifted like Caesar’s wife – above suspicion. I want it to be so. As it is, its members are tainted by suspicion that they failed to grapple with the widespread abuse within their various institutions, especially now that it is known that the Rev’d Jonathan Fletcher,  an associate of John Smyth QC, was a longstanding member of the Club. Both were significant figures within the ‘Iwerne Project’, of which further scrutiny is certainly merited.