An Abuse of Faith -Bishop Ball revisited

Readers of this blog will not be surprised that I feel compelled to comment on the recent Gibb Report on the crimes of Bishop Peter Ball and the way the church responded. It is less easy for me to write this post as I am en route between home and the ICSA Conference in Bordeaux. This event begins next Wednesday and no doubt I will be reporting on some of what will take place there.

On Thursday when the report by Dame Moira Gibb appeared via the Thinking Anglicans website, I quickly read the entire document. It showed me once again how relevant is our continuing discussion on the issue of power within the church. From my perspective, the facts around Ball’s crimes are now so well known that they need not be further rehearsed. For 20 plus years Ball used his authority as a priest and bishop alongside his personal charisma to take advantage of young men, sexually and emotionally. This personal and institutional power allowed him to indulge in one of the worst types of abuse – sexual abuse.

The shocking parts of the report have been already rehearsed by others. The blindness of the wider Church to the seriousness of, firstly, the rumours, and later the admissions of serious crimes by the Bishop is extraordinary. The former Archbishop, George Carey, has come in for particular censure. He withheld from the police six letters from victims which were received after the Ball’s Caution in 1993. These letters were written either by victims or their parents and were independent of each other. If the police had received them they might have been able to establish a clearer pattern of behaviour by the Bishop. The Archbishop’s response reflected, as we have seen in the Catholic Church, an obsessive defensiveness on behalf of the institution at the expense of affected individuals. There were in 1993 people around who would have been able to advise the Archbishop as to how serious the offences were which Ball had admitted. From the perspective of this blog, George Carey also was showing a complete blindness to the way the dynamics of power were at work in the church. Sexual abuse by a person in authority in the church is likely to have devastating consequences. The power given to church officials, bishops and clergy, is considerable and sensitivity to ways it can be abused should be part of the awareness of everyone. Clearly it was not. Although sex is at the heart of this episode, almost as important is the way that power has been used or misused in the subsequent blanking out of victims. This has been going on since Ball’s Caution in 1993 and reminds us of Joe’s story told last year. It would be possible to write an annotated version of the Report by Dame Gibbs to highlight the numerous examples of power mismanagement revealed in the Report. Each represented an attempt by the church to control bad news. Clearly almost no one from the top down seems to have had an understanding of the different power dynamics that were in play in this tragic episode.

The second shocking part of the story is the way that Ball, assisted it seems by his brother Michael, had no insight into the appalling nature of his actions. It is also hard to believe that the former Diocesan Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp, had no knowledge of the rumours about Bishop Ball’s behaviour when Bishop of Lewes. The late Bishop Eric has been previously criticised in an Archbishop’s Visitation to his diocese for the lax moral culture in parts of the Chichester diocese. Under his watch a number of clergy were to practise child abuse, and several of them are serving prison sentences for their crimes. Any level of collusion in the crime of another person is a serious matter. It would appear, according to the Gibb Report that a number of senior clergy stand accused of this failure. Michael Ball, a Bishop of Truro and twin brother to Peter, lobbied for several years to allow Ball to regain a Permission to Officiate. This lobbying was effective and Archbishop Carey is criticised by the Report for giving into the pressure. Ball continued to take confirmations and visit schools right up till 2011. In short no one at the top of the Church of England was prepared to state categorically that, after his Caution and admission of criminal acts, Ball was unfit to be with young people. In subtle ways power was used against the Archbishop himself to overturn a clear case for inhibiting one of his senior clergy. Also, the apparent failure of Bishop Peter to express any remorse, according to the report, is a remarkable fact within the whole sorry saga.

What do I take from reading this report? Apart from being reminded how the church seems to care more about its institutional reputation than individual people, I realise how little insight there is about power operating within the church institution. Power exists in many forms in the church. A danger which is potentially acute arises when charismatic power is combined with institutional power. This was the situation for Ball and there was in him enormous scope for destructive behaviour. This blog has at its aim to be sensitive to all expressions of power in the church. We have identified the power of an infallible Bible. There is also the power of charisma, the power of institutional authority and the power assumed by the male of the species over the female. Within a church all the strands can come together. They are at best untidy but sometimes they form a potentially abusive combination. The people who are best able to tell us how power is operating are not the holders of this power. We need to listen to those who feel bullied, controlled and generally manipulated by the people who use power in the ways we have named above. When we have this fuller insight into the way that church and power coexist, then we may be able to begin to rebuild the institution. We want a church which is life-affirming, encouraging and empowering for all. That sort of church is sadly still a long way off. Reports like the Gibb Report show relatively little insight into the power dynamics in our church on the part of leaders even in the year 2017.

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.

9 thoughts on “An Abuse of Faith -Bishop Ball revisited

  1. My own experience with shunning, emotional, and relational abuse in The Episcopal Church suggests that the problem of people not understanding power dynamics within the church is endemic. Moreover, in cases where officials don’t understand this dynamic, abuse often will go in plain sight yet go unchallenged.

  2. Yes. The indifference shown to victims of bullying is the same institutional sin. It’s that the powerful at the top of the church don’t really care about the unimportant people. I’ve no idea what can be done. I’ve certainly not succeeded in making any impact.

    1. In her excellent book on responding to clergy misconduct, Robin Hammeal-Urban reminds us of our obligation to disclose misconduct, to bring light to the darkness. My feeling is that, all too often, we feel like we need to be nice, or to not name names. But there is no obligation to be nice to a bully. And discussions like this put bullies on notice that they will be called out on it when they engage in misconduct. So, you are making a difference.

  3. Thank you David. It occurred to me as I was writing it that there is a blog post based on the last paragraph. Basically I want to examine the idea of a forensic analysis of power in an institution. It should be possible to say that power is flowing in this particular way and this is able to be described. Because people get caught up in these flows of power, they cannot stand outside them and understand who is caught in self-aggrandisement and who is getting bullied for example. Am thinking about it!

    1. Stephen, the thought that came to me is that questions coming from you about the infallibility of Scripture can easily arouse hackles, because people often only glance at things and jump to conclusions. But the point you make, if I understand it correctly, is that the claim of infallibility can be used by unscrupulous people as a means of control. ‘My superior knowledge’, e.g. by quoting the Greek, can be used likewise. It’s a good point and needs making. I hope the article goes well.

  4. Thank you for this insightful post. It was a pleasure to meet you today at the ICSA conference here in Bordeaux and discover these wonderful blog posts you provide. As a former member of a fundamentalist cult, The Way International, I am well acquainted with how power can be abused by charismatic leaders. I look forward to reading what more you have to say about it.

  5. Most CofE clergy will laugh if you mention their power. They really don’t see it. That’s the nice ones! The others know it and use/misuse it.

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