general synod bishops safeguarding
Church of England

CofE Safeguarding: General Synod is being managed, manipulated, duped and disrespected

Since the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse moved the focus of its hearings away from the Church of England until returning later in July, campaigners for the reform of Safeguarding and victim care within the CofE have had to be patient. On neither of the twin fronts of challenge has there been significant opportunities to bring the issues back into public debate.

A second allegation against the late Bishop George Bell necessarily required those campaigners wishing to restore his reputation to allow proper procedures to take their course, and the broader movement within the church to improve both our safeguarding structures and engagement with victims has had to await opportunities offered at the July Synod. That is not to say that all is well, or nothing has been happening; it is simply that choosing one’s timing is a often a necessary part of making progress.

On the Bell issue, Sussex Police predictably declined to engage further with an investigation after what they carefully described as a ‘proportionate’ inquiry. They plainly have learnt lessons, but not so the Church of England. At Synod Question Time in February I asked a supplementary question of Bishop Peter Hancock. the Lead Bishop for Safeguarding. in the following terms: “After Carlile, shall we see better transparency of process from start to finish in respect of the new Bell allegations than we did with the first?” I received the reassuringly unqualified answer, “Yes”.

Unfortunately for us all, the writ of the Lead Bishop does not run very effectively within the Established Church, and we saw the old ways reassert the traditional destructive gravitational pull, akin to that of a black hole. We were not told who constituted the new Core Group, nor its terms of reference, nor its time frame. And when the Church addressed the Carlile recommendation that someone ought to be appointed to represent the deceased Bishop’s interests, the church immediately appointed one of its own to that role without consultation with the Bishop’s last living relative.

I understand that following robust representations, not insignificantly supported by Lord Carlile himself, a compromise solution was cobbled together so that the Bell Group currently has some confidence in the case against Bell being at least competently challenged, and we do now know the name of the lead investigator. Nevertheless we are still some way off the sunny uplands of ‘Transparency and Accountability’ to which we do occasionally pay lip service in our corporate documentation.

On the other side of the coin, listening to victims and developing serious debate about remedying our deficiencies, things are proving less than satisfactory.

The agenda for the July Synod has just been published and it indicates that the representatives of the Houses of Clergy and Laity will be given a short presentation on safeguarding developments including time for a few Questions and Answers. We had a similar structure in February. There was no significant challenge or dialogue. There was no debate on the Carlile Report or the Elliott Review then, neither will there be one now. At the February presentation, we heard testimony from four of our victims, but these remarks were pre-recorded – I understand some two years beforehand. Much has happened since.

So in two Synod sessions it appears that we lack the collective courage to invite our victims and critics to speak to us live and unmediated by ‘the powers that be’. Of course that would have been risky and uncomfortable, but a body that is serious about owning its failures and reaching solutions through hard engagement with the facts might have had the integrity to take such a chance.

The motion with which we are presented is anodyne:

That this Synod, recognising that safeguarding is at the heart of Christian mission and the urgent need for the Church of England to continue to become a safer place for all and a refuge for those who suffer abuse in any context:

a) endorse the priorities for action outlined in the report (GS 2092); and

b) call on the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council to ensure that the plan of action is implemented as a matter of priority

As of now, we do not have the document GS2092, and will have but two weeks to consider it and liaise with outside interested parties. Even if this is a well drawn document, it is simply not a good practice for the Bishops and advisors – who have, after all, been in charge throughout the developing safeguarding debacle – to devise a rescue plan without having first invited the representatives of the wider church to have made their contributions. General Synod is being treated as an optional extra; the last to know and with no opportunity to contribute or amend.

It seems to me that the Bishops are inviting us to fast-track the acclamation having neglected to include members of General Synod in any meaningful way in the discussion of the problems, the identification of structural weaknesses which created the problems, and without any opportunity for us to have called them to account for their stewardship to date.

We heard from Bishop Peter Hancock in February that devising a suitable motion is difficult when there are so many strands to a problem, and one can have some sympathy with that view. However, if it is such a multi-layered conundrum, is that not all the more reason for taking a little time, consulting more widely, publishing proposals in good time, and, above all, giving a chance for the victim community to contribute?

Safeguarding problems are currently within the church’s power to fix if we concentrate and put our hearts, minds and resources into it. Had this Synod been substantially devoted to grappling with this solvable problem, we might have made good progress, not least in educating and engaging those whose record of taking responsibility for putting things right is certainly sub-optimal. We appear to have given up that chance: there will be a fringe meeting run by the National Safeguarding Team, which is deeply distrusted by the victims, but that will hardly affect how the matter is conducted on the floor of Synod where the votes are cast.

To the victims it looks like General Synod is being managed to enable the Church of England to present to IICSA an image of sincere engagement, yet by doing it in this present manner it is both disrespectful and bad practice not to have given its members the opportunity to have aired their thoughts and concerns before presenting ‘the solution’.

But what else will we be doing in York?

Apparently we have to discuss sexuality again, even though the Bishops have now told us that no decisions can be made until their teaching document is ready in 2020. So we will have ‘group work’ predicated on a document we don’t and won’t have, and will continue a conversation in which, as far as I can tell, everyone’s mind is already made up, and we evidently think this a more productive use of our time than addressing a problem without much theological or ‘party-line’ controversy which might actually prove both productive and unifying if we gave extended time to it.

We are also to discuss climate change and divesting from energy companies. Although we will hear the case against those who provide our energy needs, we will not be inviting any companies to address us with a balancing case.

Correct me if I am wrong, but there is currently no sufficient alternative to the carbon economy by which 7.6 billion of us are kept from poverty, yet we in the Church of England have apparently run out of patience with the energy companies for not having yet solved an immensely complex problem. So, while applauding ourselves for “continuing to become” a safer church, we will not give them credit for “continuing to become” greener, even though they are all engaged in the necessary complex and expensive research to reposition themselves.

It looks like a case of motes and beams.