After a full two years the Hillsborough inquest is finally over. For the sake of my non-UK readers, I should mention that Hillsborough was a terrible sports disaster when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Sheffield in 1989. There are many aspects of this legal process which attract our interest but I find myself drawn to pointing out the way that the integrity of the ordinary Liverpool supporters has been upheld. For 27 years this integrity was tainted by what we now know to be unsupported rumours and slander. It was always being suggested that the cause of the catastrophe was partly to be attributed to the unruly behaviour of the Liverpool fans. The police were thus using their considerable social power to maintain that this was an accident which they could not have prevented. It now appears that appalling, even criminal, decisions were made by some of the police that day leading to the terrible events.
My own life and the Hillsborough disaster intersected one another through the fact that one victim, Derek Godwin, was a young man who lived in my then parish. I spent a lot of time trying to care for the family, conducting the funeral and generally hearing all about the events of that terrible day. I must confess that none of the claims against the police were being articulated by Derek’s parents. Because his character was such a gentle one, no one ever suggested that he was involved in provoking or aggravating the disaster. His parents, while devastated by the tragedy, were not holding any grudges against other people.
I want to return to the part of the Hillsborough story which highlights the power of truth and justice against the power of institutions wielding considerable social power. The event demonstrated clearly how those in charge, the police and their supporters, thought that they could control the story and write the official history of the event. Something similar seems to be being attempted at Trinity Church Brentwood. A devastating report, criticising the appalling behaviour of leaders trustees and other hangers on over 30 or more years, has been set out in the report by John Langlois. The church, using what power still remains to it, is trying to airbrush the report out of existence. Its method is to spread rumours about the integrity of the author and thus discredit the whole report. This reminds us strongly of the behaviour of the police in their attempts to suggest that hooliganism was at the root of the Hillsborough disaster. In the case of Peniel/Trinity, the latest rumour and innuendo being made against John Langlois was not expressed until several months after his dismissal by the trustees. The original dissolving of the Commission in July 2015 was on the grounds that his report contained bias which made it of no value. Now the current rumour is that he had incorporated some material from another report into his own. No details of precisely what this means are available. John has also not been afforded the right to reply against either accusation. It is strange also that the reasons for his dismissal and the complete ignoring of his report has subtly changed over the months. At least at Hillsborough, the police defence of themselves against accusations of gross incompetence and criminal behaviour was apparently consistent. Even now with the wide publicity given to the inquest results, there are still police who deny the results in favour of the old versions of events.
We do not know whether there will be any further independent report on the behaviour of leaders at Peniel/Trinity church. One thing seems to be true at present, is that there is no agreed version of how to move forward on the part of those in authority at the church. It seems that behind the scenes there is a civil war going on between those who know they must face up to the past and those who want to suppress it at all costs. The fact that Nigel Davies has not given up his protests outside the church is giving the leadership an enormous headache. I have no idea how much his blog is being read by the rank-and-file members of the church, but I would imagine that many, who are not totally locked into the church’s controlled thinking, might be tempted to read an independent voice. I, for my part, remain a fairly active contributor to Nigel’s blog. This story, as it unfolds, is an ongoing saga which constantly lends itself to interpretation and comment.
What do I think will happen at Peniel/Trinity? If the rumours of deep division within the leadership are true, then the church will, in all probability fall apart in the next couple of years. One thing that would hasten its demise is a credible lawsuit brought about by one or more ex-members. Such a law-suit would no doubt draw on the devastating Langlois report. This, I feel, must have some weight among those who are legally trained. The obsession of many of those who wish to suppress all discussion of the past would appear to be to enable the preservation of the church’s assets. The property holdings amassed by the church under its former leaders are considerable. In themselves these assets give to some in the church a sense of a dominance and importance among the local Christian communities. Such a sense of importance is now arguably no longer deserved. Eventually the mismatch between the church’s financial wealth and its corrupt history will finally be seen as a gross obscenity. For the church ever to regain any integrity in the eyes of the outside world, it would be better for it to shed all or most of the physical plant which was acquired in the dark years of spiritual tyranny and abuse.
The Hillsborough inquest, to repeat myself, is a victory of truth and justice over massive institutional power. We must applaud this outcome. It is a victory that comes alongside our increasing awareness of the way that many institutions, including our churches, seek to use their power to suppress, humiliate or exploit the weak in our society. Each and every victory by the weak helps victims in other institutions to rediscover their dignity and their power. Institutions have their place in societies, but it must always be possible to challenge and question the power that they exert in each society.