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Church of England

Safeguarding: the Church of England’s house is slowly being rebuilt

On 25th November 2015 the newly elected General Synod of the Church of England gathered to worship together with HM The Queen before she inaugurated the first sitting of its new quinquennial. It was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and it was fitting that we fraternally received preacher to the Pope Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, who addressed us on the need for reconciliation.

He graciously affirmed that justification by faith ought to be preached in all churches, and after acknowledging past divisions he warned us against creating fresh ones. Appreciating current controversies, he wisely counselled: “We should never allow a moral issue like that of sexuality to divide us more than the love of Christ unites us.” Amen to that. His sermon is worth reading in its entirety.

Fr Raniero took as his text the injunction to the minor prophet Haggai, and his theme was ‘Rebuild my House’. Anyone who has had anything to do with serious renovation of any ancient building will know that before the reconstruction begins, a degree of exploratory destruction is always needed. As Synod sat listening, none of us appreciated the full extent of the major task for which it was being inaugurated.

It turned out that the entire Safeguarding wing of the Church of England needed rebuilding: it was poorly designed; there were parts that were rotten to the core; it was not a place of health and safety for the vulnerable, and it had been staffed by unjust servants. As I listened approvingly to Fr Raniero, I had no idea that I would be called with others to make our Synod contribution as part of the wrecking crew.

This necessary preliminary work has been hard, and I know that many will have have found it painful to watch as a much loved façade had to be taken down before the public gaze. That aspect of the work is still not yet complete, and I know that when outstanding inquiries report on John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher, there will be more distress. However, this week we may begin to talk more positively about rebuilding the house.

Even if we do not yet have the full architectural drawings (we await the final IICSA report), my Synod colleagues David Lamming, Peter Adams and I decided to propose amendments to the original motion with which we were being presented by the powers that be.

In my time at Synod, I have come to realise that control has been a major negative part in our church culture, within which so many of our Safeguarding deficiencies persisted. It was ecclesiastical control that kept Bishop Peter Ball’s crimes secret, debilitating his victims for decades, and leading directly to the death of Neil Todd. It was the culture of control which corrupted those at the heart of the Iwerne project when they covered up the horrific abuse of John Smyth and quietly spirited him out of the country. It has been a similar control that kept Jonathan Fletcher in an honoured position within the same constituency; his victims devastated as they came to realise how a much vaunted leader was actually spiritually abusing them.

Perhaps unwittingly, the control of the Synod agenda has been a contributing factor to the slowing of our journey towards the rebuilding of God’s house, to make it a place of safety and refuge for the vulnerable. Time and again, reports into safeguarding failures were delivered, received, considered and debated at Church House, Lambeth Palace and in the House of Bishops. But they never made it to the floor of the General Synod: Gibb, Elliott, Carmi, Carlile, and the Past Cases Review were treated like a DH Lawrence novel: they were scandalous and not to be discussed in polite society. One would want one’s servants to read them.

So it was with the interim IICSA report on Peter Ball and the Chichester Diocese. We were offered a bland motion. It would not have taken an hour-and-a-half to adopt the proposition that Synod “endorse the Archbishops’ Council response set out in paper GD Misc 2158 to the five recommendations made by IICSA…”.

So it was that once again some of us sought to challenge the control that was being exercised to channel the General Synod of the Church of England into safe ans moderate modes of thought. After consultation across the church, we introduced amendments which attempted to put responses of real substance up for debate.

Our proposals sought to record our collective lament at our sins of omission and commission, and (for the second time of asking) we commended the text of the excellent Blackburn Ad Clerum. Then and now these suggestions were rejected: the first time our Archbishops thought it premature; this time, seeking to preface our acceptance of the IICSA recommendations with sentiments of repentance, and endorsing the pastoral response which our victims had welcomed, were ruled technically out of order. We can play with the idea of repentance being ‘out of order’ in this context at a future juncture: this is not the time for mischief-making, however tempting.

Our purpose in going beyond the anaemic and prosaic was to make this debate a cultural turning point from which we might begin to move on from the necessary demolition – of structures, attitudes, policies etc. – toward a more positive future.

We thought it important that such an initiative should come from below, for we saw that it is no longer sufficient for the House of Bishops alone to direct our response. Archbishop Justin has previously acknowledged that a change to the culture of deference is needed. We were taking him seriously. It is liberating and deserves to be taken seriously. “Trust me, I’m a Bishop” is no longer a sound principle: the whole of the Church, from top to bottom, must own its priorities, and discussing these at Synod seemed to be a healthy place to start.

Our proposals additionally committed Synod to accepting the final IICSA proposals promptly, on the basis that it was inconceivable that we would pretend to know better after all the embarrassment of the IICSA evidence and submissions. Our track record does not merit once again wandering off on a Safeguarding frolic of our own.

Our final proposal dared to engage bluntly with the issue of proper reparation. We were mindful of the story of ‘Tony’ in the insurance press. He told his story on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, and explained how survivors have endured very low levels of compensation because they cannot afford to take matters to court and lose. The power imbalance in the negotiations is immense.

We wanted such issues debated by Synod, and began devising strategies to challenge the control that was being exercised. There is more than one reasonable response to the first IICSA report. ‘One way, our way’ is controlling and unhealthy, and we readied ourselves to challenge the decision.

Last Friday afternoon a new and positive initiative emerged. Alternative amendments were brought to us by the Bishop of Huddersfield, Jonathan Gibbs, the newly-appointed Lead Safeguarding Bishop. He is to be supported by his colleague the Bishop of Southampton, Debbie Sellin. We already knew that Bishop Jonathan had a heart for the task before him, and believed that he and Bishop Debbie deserved to begin their terms of office with our full support.

Although the new amendments were more emollient than our own drafts, the inadequacy of the original motion was being implicitly accepted. Something had changed. This matters. The Church of England had listened to survivors, their advocates and its new Lead Bishop for Safeguarding. The new amendments were being accepted as ‘in order’. The institution had heard, listened, and changed its mind. This was an important token of the cultural change that has been longed for.

Sometimes the fact of agreement is more important than its individual parts, and on this basis we have felt able not only to set aside our own robust version of amendments, but to second and support Bishop Jonathan’s welcome initiative.

This is not a climb-down but an important acceptance of bona fides: the primary purpose of our original initiative has been fulfilled; it was to bring a fully engaged Synod behind a proper and resourced project to ‘Rebuild my House’ as a place of safety, and a place reconciliation for those who have been hurt by our sins of omission and commission.