Slander: Hillsborough & Brentwood compared

HillsboroAfter 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.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

15 thoughts on “Slander: Hillsborough & Brentwood compared

  1. Yes ‘Institutional power’ is the one thing that this Country has perfected; its extremes can be seen (And Heard) in Institutional religion.

    “All things bright and beautiful all creatures great and small”

    “The rich man in his castle the poor man at the gate”

    I, and the people from whose ranks I am proud to have come still have these concepts hanging over our heads!

    Hillsborough and the Brentwood fellowship are just the tip of the iceberg.

    Oh how I wish we could Really get to grips with this acute problem of disempowerment on this blog. For a current example of this mass evasion of the truth, look no further that the political program, “This Week,” not one voice from the lower working class, what do celebrities like, Diane Abbott, Michael Portillo, and Alan Johnson, know about sweeping roads, toilet cleaners, factory workers with gruelling shifts, every penny they earn a pool of sweat on the floor.

    Always, Always, top down, its hopeless.

  2. Portillo has become a celebrity because of his Railway Journeys. The others are just MPs. And not really all that well known. Of course, the “Westminster bubble” does mean that people living within it indeed know very little about other people’s lives. And wealthy people know very little about poor people’s lives. MPs do govern our country. That’s what they’re there for. Be fair, Chris, we don’t sing that verse anymore because no-one believes it’s ok to do so. But the church certainly covers up and sticks together. I’m afraid it’s a human trait. But the church should do better.

  3. Anonymous

    A postman? For how long? I don’t know any one from the lower working class who could rise to the lofty position of, ‘Home Secretary’?
    It is an undisputed fact that there is not one politician who can claim to have been inside the nervous system of those people from the lower class. Dennis Skinner may have a vague memory (I say this as a someone who gave up on politics years ago).

    If you can tell me of one celebrity or politician who knows of the utter disempowerment of the present day lower working class, I’ll make my home in a Zoo?
    To me this is so obvious. The present day meathead systemite walks around with fifty pounds of headlight stapled to their chest. I personally reject them all utterly and with contempt. The game goes on and the solutions that are offered are like saying, “Well, old chap you have got a cold but, what you really need is a shot of Malaria!”

    In the company of flying pigs and well groomed hedgehogs,


    “The rules of the road have been lodged, its only peoples games you got to dodge” !

    1. Are class wars really relevant to this blog? Just asking. A lot of leaders who throw their weight around in evangelical churches have come from very humble beginnings. I know people who are upper class, well educated and would never even think about throwing their weight around.
      I feel this stereotyping has got into a rut.

      1. Chris has a history of trying to get a hearing on bullying in the church and being ignored. He suspects, and may be right, that the powers that be think he is lower class, and therefore don’t listen.

        1. The junior doctors are largely middle class, well educated and articulate and they are not being listened to either. I don’t believe that class can be blamed for evertything. I feel very sad for what Chris has been tnrough, but I think the issues je brings up frighten the powers that be rather than his class.

    2. The following from Wikipedia re Alan Johnson.

      Born in London on 17 May 1950, the son of Stephen and Lillian Johnson, he was orphaned at the age of 12 when his mother died. Johnson was then in effect brought up by his older sister Linda when the two were assigned a council flat by their child welfare officer. Linda, then herself only 16, has since been recognised as the hero of Johnson’s poignant 2013 memoir This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood. He passed the 11 plus exam and attended Sloane Grammar school in Chelsea, now part of Pimlico Academy, and left school at the age of 15. He then stacked shelves at Tesco before becoming a postman at 18. A full-time union official from 1987, he became General Secretary of the union in 1992.

    3. You should read the two volumes of Alan Johnsons Autobiography.They are very honest and very moving

  4. Thanks Anon and E/A

    A hundred years ago people starved and died on the street because they were regarded as an unproductive irrelevance. In those days the government worshipped it’s own conclusions and justified tyranny by using selective use of Christian Scripture. Has the inner workings of this mentality really changed? Education when it is seen only as something to promote self-interest is redundant and dead. Surely it is the job of the Church to protect the,” things that this world counts as nothing”? These questions are either drowned in the hurricane of praise band noise or dismissed (like I have been a million times) as someone who has got a chip on his shoulder. To actually have a real conversation using pure mechanics of logic about this appears to be impossible in this present climate.

  5. I must apologise to Stephen because we often don’t keep to the point of his blog posts.

    I’m sad that anon spoke of ‘class wars’, I have never declared war on any one and one of my best friends is right wing. What is or is not reverent to this blog is (I hope), hurt caused, harm done, mental cruelty together with all its causes and what is the appropriate ‘Christian’ response? Anything that puts honest to God discussion in a box is to me spiritual darkness.I’m the sort of dog you can take for a walk, I don’t bite (Much)!


  6. You’ve had a bad time, Chris. It changes people. But you are the reason this blog started, and it’s giving a forum for people to come along and say things that they haven’t said before. That’s good work.

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