General Synod 2018 on Safeguarding: Despair and Hope?

Readers of this blog will know that I was present at a demonstration outside Church House Westminster as General Synod met for the final day of its February session. This was to show support for survivors of sexual abuse who had suffered within the church. It was a good experience to greet in person individuals whom I had never met beyond the virtual world of the Internet. With the survivors were other supporters like myself. Some were lawyers who had represented the survivor victims in their struggles to achieve justice.

After the demonstration was over, most of the demonstrators opted to sit in the public gallery to watch the Synod presentation on the topic of Safeguarding. I have never been a member of General Synod and it was of interest to be part of it for the hour and a half of the presentation. The speakers were keen to show that the church was doing a great deal to improve procedures for protecting the vulnerable and investigating past episodes of sexual abuse by its own employees. We were told in one statistic that the amount being spent on Safeguarding had increased five times in a few years. This money was being spent on ensuring that every member of the clergy or officeholder in the church was to attend training. No doubt this is a worthy effort but there was still something that I felt to be missing in this careful presentation.

Every member of Synod had received a short booklet entitled We asked for Bread but you gave us Stones. The booklet’s message, collated by Andrew Graystone, reveals the challenges of being a survivor and dealing with the procedures set up by the church. The common demand by those wounded is that the church needs an outside independent body to deal with complaints and the needs of victims. The complaint that is almost universal is that dealing with insurers and church lawyers is a worse ordeal than the original event. On paper things are progressing in the right direction but there is still something in the system that perpetuates and exacerbates the suffering of survivors. I have been struggling for the past 24 hours to articulate what might be wrong. What is it about the well-intentioned system that fails to engage the confidence of survivors so that they do not feel that things are genuinely getting better?

One of the slogans that permeates the discussion on survivors is that we need a ‘change of culture’ in the church. Evidently from Graystone’s booklet the legal and compensatory atmosphere of the current arrangements is failing to reach the survivors’ deep need for compassion and understanding. I have been reflecting as to what may be missing in the current ‘culture’ and how Church and victim could really meet in a place of healing. I am asking myself whether the traditional culture of the Church of England is similar to that of an old-fashioned English public school. Such schools are often an embodiment of a strong male attitude to life. In such places things like perceived weakness or vulnerability are typically ignored or despised. Such an all-male environment also does not value empathy and compassion. Success, especially physical prowess on the sports field, is celebrated. In contrast pain and failure are quietly pushed under the carpet. Thinking back to my own schooldays in a minor public school, I became aware of how important it was ‘not to let the school or house down’. Stories about individual pain, abuse or bullying did not fit the narrative of achievement as defined by this system. The culture wishes to make these stories go away or disappear. Looking at the church today, whatever may happen in the future, there has traditionally been a strong tendency to bury or avoid bad news. One of the complainants I met had spoken to a number of different bishops about his abuse. He was told later that there were no written records of these conversations. They had simply been forgotten. This is the kind of thing that perhaps is typical of a male-dominated institution where values of success and achievement are placed right at the top. Failure is forgotten or denied.

This suggested understanding of the church having the values of an all-male public school where weakness or pain is despised, leads me to point to a sign of hope. The group of survivors who welcomed me as one of their supporters were given a room in Church House to meet members of Synod who wanted to speak with them. I tagged along and found myself encountering several senior clergy. There were two senior women bishops in the room and I was impressed with their attitudes towards survivors. I discovered that Sarah Mullally, who is about to become Bishop of London, had read my blog post which came out at the time of her appointment. She is genuinely concerned that the Church puts right unhelpful structures and procedures for dealing with abuse. She also wants to see survivors and victims treated with the compassion and understanding they deserve. As she is yet to be enthroned as Bishop of London, she attended Synod as a visitor. In a powerful symbol of solidarity with the cause of survivors she sat in the gallery next to Gilo, one of those present at the demonstration. This was a powerful message to send to the members of Synod down below in the chamber. This speaks well for the future. If I am correct in seeing the reactionary attitudes of the Church of England embodying the masculine values of a public school, then a powerful woman is needed to call out and challenge this culture. The other senior female bishop present in the room was Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester. She with Sarah can do a lot to change the culture of the Church of England for the better, especially in this area of Safeguarding.

To summarise, the problem that I was hearing from lawyers and survivors alike is that the church needs to transform its procedures. It needs to lose the defensiveness and culture of denial with which it has worked so long. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is going to reveal massive failings from the past which will do harm to the reputation of the Church. It will need the help of a new kind of input which will enable it to move away from repression and secrecy to express and articulate both genuine remorse as well as proper compassion for the victims. Male cultures of bluster and denial do not serve the Church well. We need the insights of survivors such as Gilo to communicate the enormous seriousness of the issue of sexual abuse. We also need the intuitive, caring and compassionate qualities of senior women in the Church to neutralise the somewhat harsh controlling methods preferred by the male sex. I saw some of this new feminine approach yesterday. It gives me hope that the church may yet survive what may be one of the most profoundly threatening events to its existence.

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.

7 thoughts on “General Synod 2018 on Safeguarding: Despair and Hope?

  1. Stephen, I am encouraged by those signs of hope that you perceived. I fear, though, that it will take more than 2 strong women bishops to change the culture, since they are so heavily outnumbered by men.

    I think you are probably right about he C of E and public school culture. My theological college (Wycliffe) was very public school when I was there. I have to say I didn’t react well to that! It was a long time ago, Wycliffe may be different now.

    Years ago a member of Synod told me he had been sexually abused at his public school. He’s a bishop now and, as far as I know, has never gone public about it. He absolutely has that right: it’s difficult for anyone to come out as a survivor (as I know), and must be much more difficult for a man who’s been educated at public school. I hope, though, that he and others eventually feel safe enough to be open about their history.

    I saw you in the group of demonstrators who were on the news, and noted Charles Read was in that group too. Good for both of you. There didn’t seem to be any women in the group when the statement was read out, though. I’m wondering why that was?

  2. In your second paragraph you use the term “clergyman”. I’m guessing you do need to adjust that?
    I have finally revived my blog. I’ll let you know if I get any action. https://myblogaboutbullyinginthechurch.blogspot.co.uk/
    Sorry about the snappy title! I just kept typing until google told me I could stop!

    Stephen, this is a fascinating post. But please don’t assume that women are always on the side of other women! My first problem with the church was one of the first women to be ordained who didn’t much care for the fact that others were now joining in. I’ve had problems with a clergy wife who considered her husband’s parish to be her patch, and just a good friend, who chased away anyone whom she thought her prize was a little too friendly with! And latterly a woman who wasn’t very bright, and didn’t much care for clever women! Believe me, it ain’t necessarily so.

    1. Oh dear, there’s far too much of it about. You are right about some women being difficult and bullies. Fortunately, there are also a lot of good supportive ones about too. Sorry you’ve run into so many of the crappy ones.

      I look forward to reading your blog.

  3. Athena want to say well done and good luck for your blog, but not sure how to post a comment. I don’t have a Google account and don’t recognise any of the other terms.

    I too have experienced bullying in the C of E, and witnessed it too. It’s damaging, unChristian, and it shouldn’t be allowed to continue.

    1. Oh dear! There were comments on its previous incarnation. I’m certainly not clever enough to either switch on or off the facility. I’ll see what I can about finding a passing nine year old!

  4. Your analysis, Stephen, in terms of comparison with public school values is interesting, and, I think, just. It certainly focuses on the default position of valuing the institution as bestowing a state of grace, with the consequence that criticism is viewed instinctively as culpable disloyalty. I do not think we see that as having had considerable virtue in the past in our rush to criticise on the basis of cases now viewed as abusive. It goes a long way to explain what we now view as deplorable inertia on the part of church authority. Moreover I do agree that the “old” view is so deep-seated that it will take a generation or more to reform. Whether it is a masculine culture I am not so sure; that is just the way things were. The present revolution in approach to safeguarding seems to me to represent a watershed nearly as fundamental as the adoption of the Ten Commandments must have seemed in their day. I think it would be a great help to see it that way: the adoption of a safe-guarding culture is a radical step forward in the way we view individual responsibility, and essentially a new thing. Only that way can we seriously mobilise change from a paternalistic view of responsibility (which has long held sway) to a corporately shared and policed responsibility. It is significant to me that the new clergy disciplinary measure with its requirement that its sanctions be made public has proved something difficult to accept to my recent observation. The making public of a disciplinary sanction such as a temporary suspension from a licensed ministry is an essential step for a proper sense of reconciliation and restoration for an offending party – people are remarkably generous in their judgments when fairly given the chance – but it is viewed with great suspicion by authority. You may well be prophetic in viewing the timely introduction of women into the episcopate as having a big role to play in the needed shift in attitude!

    1. There was great resistance to the original Clergy Discipline Measure too. I was on General Synod at the time, and remember the heat and indignation with which a number of Synod members – all male, as I recall – spoke against it. They viewed clergy as always victims, never perpetrators. Having served a curacy with an incumbent with a certain reputation, I saw the CDM as very welcome.

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