The first Saturday Synod in London began in a sombre mood. By 9.00 outside Church House, as people arrived, safeguarding victims, survivors and campaigners were joined by members (including those Bishops engaged with safeguarding matters) for a time of silence and prayer.
Inside, our opening worship was uncharacteristically sober. We were conscious of the heavyweight issues were about to handle, and of the presence of survivors and victims of abuse up in the gallery. Prayers and readings were around God’s engagement with pain and suffering, and the hymn Christ be our light spoke to the situation, with its opening line Longing for light, we wait in darkness.
The rest of the day had some upbeat material, it’s true – a look at our Anglican religious communities, and a cheerful exposition about the current ‘digital church’ work that’s going on. But everyone’s mind was on the first item after the worship.
We were launched straight into a powerful audio experience. A DVD prepared by some survivors of abuse, which has already been used with the Bishops, had a number of victims talking about their experience of how the Church dealt with them after they were abused. Sparse captions gave enough information about the people behind the voices. I won’t go into details because they asked that the material was not used in a wider sphere. As media reports have made clear, we knew there were some survivors and victims up in the gallery. I can’t have been the only member to have glanced up at the people there, wondering who had been through what experiences…
But when the DVD finished, Synod was strangely silent, as we went on, with hardly a moment to draw breath, into a short series of presentations
A strangely silent synod
The Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, has had to deal with the aftermath of many serious abuse cases: he said dealing with the cases he inherited at Chichester had been a life-changing experience. He stressed that we must see survivors as people, not ‘a problem to be solved’. He usually comes across as a rather gentle character, but today he came across quite forcefully, describing his (and every) diocese’s need to invest in training, as well as being very clear that nothing can excuse the criminal misuse of power. He said the church’s long-running denial compounds things – we cannot put the dignity of the church above ‘the inviolable dignity of an individual’. Abuse has consequences for the victim, the congregation, the family and friends of an abuser. We have a duty of care for them.
Having had some involvement with safeguarding matters in my previous job, I was struck by the very direct things he had to say, particularly in the context of Chichester, which has had the spotlight put on it in the past, and will do again when IICSA (see below) holds its hearings next month. In particular, he was positive about investigative journalism which, ‘at its best has given a voice to the voiceless and said in public what we might not want to hear’.
We are not used to hearing such direct assessments by Bishops. It’s a sign of a change in the air. He was followed by Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester. She spoke about the deep shame she felt when Peter Ball’s crimes were exposed in court not long after she went to Gloucester. She gave a brief run-down of how safeguarding is tackled in her diocese, the big challenge now being getting it embedded in parishes, (a theme taken up by the next speaker, Sir Roger Singleton). Summing up, she said we must ensure that people realise safeguarding is the responsibility of all, and that relationships and communication are critical not just within a parish or diocese, but with external agencies as well.
Sir Roger is a member of the national safeguarding panel and has extensive experience in the charity sector and in government. He asked us how the church could move from having a rather shameful record on safeguarding to being a place where people can be as confident as reasonably possible that everything is being done.
He said that despite the recent changes and developments, a common theme in all the heavyweight reports on church failures is this: culture change is needed. There is a lack of awareness and willingness to engage in some parishes. There is a minority of parish clergy and lay members of the church who “appear unable or unwilling to accept the need for sensible, proportionate measures; or who minimise the adverse impacts which physical, sexual, emotional or spiritual abuse can have on people’s lives; or who believe that complainants are only in it for the money”.
The message he gave was that even though those in leadership do now give heartening messages about safeguarding:
- we need to extend the leadership further – it is the actions of people in parishes that are critical (clergy, senior lay leaders). A tipping point has been reached where most clergy have got the message, and will tackle their lay leaders where necessary. But some still minimize the effects of abuse, or do not press their PCC.
- we need to communicate the differences that need to be made. The places where abuse is least likely to occur are the ones where the leaders understand it and take it seriously at detail level.
He described himself as belonging to a small rural parish. And the practical outcomes he is looking for across all parishes include
- a proper review of safeguarding over the year at the parish annual meeting.
- Archdeacons annual Articles of Enquiry must move beyond a ‘tickbox check’.
- We must grasp the nettle of clergy and readers who persistently do not attend training or speak disparagingly of safeguarding.
- Ordinands’ training needs a thorough exploration of safeguarding awareness.
- There should be rigorous safeguarding questions in interviews.
I give a lot of space to this, partly because it is a subject close to my heart, having had some involvement; and partly because it was extraordinary how different Synod was during these remarks. There was no applause (polite or otherwise), and the speakers were heard in deeply attentive silence.
IICSA: Coming soon…
Bishop Peter Hancock (disclaimer again: my former boss) took over to explain what is happening nationally now and what IICSA will bring forth. he has been Lead Bishop for Safeguarding for 18 months.
(New readers will need to know that IICSA is the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. The Anglican Church is one of its 19 areas of enquiry and the first major hearings start next month and run for three weeks.)
Bishop Peter, Bishop Martin and other church figures will be quizzed by the Inquiry at some depth, and we can expect a lot of media coverage – which will not be pleasant, as poor practice, cover-ups and failures will be forensically examined. Details of how IICSA works are here, and I wrote a little about it in my preview.
He explained that he had spoken to and met a number of victims and survivors, and was grateful to them for giving him their time and help and who have been willing to share their experiences with him. I suspect many listening would have been surprised to hear that, despite the very real difficulties, there is some dialogue with victims of abuse, many of whom are deeply hurt by the Church.
Some other highlights of his remarks:
- In the last four years there has been a fivefold increase in national resourcing so the National Safeguarding Team, from a low base, is working much better.
- In the dioceses, work has improved, and he encouraged us to be in touch with our own diocesan safeguarding teams – to know who they are and what they do.
- There is a raft of legislative change going through to cover Clergy Discipline matters
- Very large numbers of people at all levels have undergone quality training
He then turned to IICSA. The Anglican Church must not be defensive about it, he said, but be investigated in an atmosphere of transparency and openness, and listen to what victims will say.
The first public hearing is on 3 March with another in July and more in 2019. He told us this will not be an easy couple of years. We will hear painful accounts of abuse, poor response and cover up. We will feel a deep sense of shame, and we need to respond as a whole church, rather than stressing what happened somewhere else.
(As I know him well, I won’t give my impression of how he performed, but I will pass on what a well-seasoned observer of Bishops said in my hearing later in the day – that he gave the impression of openness and integrity, not reading from a script, and that we could have confidence in his leadership on this.)
I sensed that people wanted to applaud, but were again unhappy to break the silence. So after a pause for prayer, the well-regarded and urbane Aiden Hargreaves-Smith in the chair moved us on to questions from the floor. The first one was about Bishop George Bell, but most questioners kept off national high-profile cases and asked about things affecting their diocese and parishes:
- dioceses have acted independently – how can we ensure we act consistently?
- increasing professionalism might stop parishes being more engaged and responsible
- putting Communications Officers on Core Groups is unwise as they have no specialist knowledge
- there are too many levels of training – can we have something streamlined appropriate for volunteers?
- Are there proper resources for clergy spouses who may be vulnerable as a result of abuse within marriage? (The Bishop reminded Synod of the ‘Bishop’s Visitor’ (BV) scheme, and stated that Bishops have recently been told to ensure BVs have appropriate safeguarding training)
- Can we be given an example of something tangible done for victims by the time Synod next meets in July?
- How can we deal with the slow and painful processes that add further damage when an allegation is made? (The Bishop said that a review of the relevant aspects of the Clergy Discipline Measure is in train)
A few things emerged from this intense session. First, in response to a question about why are we having a presentation rather than a debate, Bishop Hancock said that people who wanted a debate now all had different notions of what their motion should be. However, having set out the ground today, he hoped we would have a debate in July.
I’m sure that’s right: if we had had a debate today, what would the motion be? It could not have covered anything currently before the courts or the subject of an enquiry; it would have pre-empted the IICSA scrutiny, and would have been hijacked into arguing about high-profile cases, when Synod’s role is surely to ensure diocese and parishes get their act together in the way Sir Roger Singleton had set out.
Secondly it was news (to me) was that the SCIE independent audits that have been covering every diocese are to be extended to the two Archbishops’ Offices, Cathedrals and to theological colleges and courses. SCIE (Social Care Institute for Excellence learn more here) is an independent body that audits cases, files, protocols and practices. All the dioceses have had their two-day visitation and a detailed report with recommendations. I was involved in ours – it was pretty searching and though we were told ‘this is not like an OFSTED it felt a bit like it, though it concludes with ‘learning points’ for development rather than ‘pass/fail’ assessments.
Thirdly, I was a little depressed by the poor level of knowledge exhibited by some questioners. I realise I have quite had quite a lot of engagement with safeguarding, but there was a naivety about some questions that proves Sir Roger is right: a lot more needs to be done at parish level.
It felt like a huge relief to move on to a motion about our religious communities. Bishop David Walker spoke about his Franciscan links (and his famous habit of wearing sandals at all times), and the emergence of new religious communities alongside the age-old traditional orders such as the Benedictines and Franciscans. (It was only at the end of the 19th century that the Church of England recognised its own monastic religious orders.)
He explained that following the debate, the process of bringing in a new Canon to give a legal framework to our Anglican religious communities would begin. A Canon will allow them proper oversight as well as the freedom to work according to their calling. The motion therefore goes beyond welcoming and celebrating, but also ‘legislating’ for the communities.
Archbishop Justin spoke of the strength he finds from his own commitment as a Benedictine oblate – he reads part of Benedict’s Rule every day, and he has the Catholic Chemin Neuf community as well as the Community of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace. The debate heard from members and supporters of different communities, but I must confess, dear reader, that I sat some of it out, so cannot give you a decent report. “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent”, as Wittgenstein put it.
And from religious community in an age-old tradition, we moved on to hear about Digital Evangelism from Adrian Harris, Head of Digital at Church House, who produced some impressive statistics and examples:
- the #Godwithus Christmas internet campaign had 6.8million visits for 2017 compared to 1.5m last year, with 98,000 copies issued of the booklet that accompany it.
- The new Christmas videos had 2 million views.
- The team is now routinely offering prayers on a daily or ‘response to an event’ (such as a bombing) basis.
- Page views of the relaunched C of E website are up 20% since the autumn redesign.
- the new-look A Church Near You – ACNY for short – has had a 50% increase in page views
Many church people have not quite registered that 89% of people use the internet (one priest said to me ‘the rest are in my benefice!’). Two-thirds now use smartphones to use the internet. So the team’s work is designed to use these media to bring people to their local church via the social media channels and the website. They have identified 9 distinct audiences they can communicate with, from ‘fully-engaged’ (e.g. PCC members) to ‘non-churchgoers’ (via specialist groups like ‘clergy’, ‘new parents’ and ‘wedding couples’).
Adrian’s presentation was very impressive, partly because he is an enthusiast for his cause without being over the top about it, and partly because of the way he stressed that this work is about supporting parishes, rather than being some C of E plc corporate boastfest.
There’s more to come – he stressed that this is the beginning of a digital journey for the C if E. If you’re not familar with this stuff:
- Take a look around the main website.
- And see if a church near you is well-represented on ACNY
- Or you can watch the whole presentation and questions on video here
To end this unusual day, we debated a motion about Downs Syndrome
There was a very full house, despite the fear that other calls on their time on a Saturday afternoon might draw people away. The Bishop of Carlisle spent some time explaining that this was not to be a debate about abortion, or discussing medical developments, but about treating those with Down’s Syndrome as full members of both church and society. In three generations, life expectancy for those with Down’s has moved from 9 years to 50-plus. So children may, with proper support, go through primary, secondary and tertiary education. This is amazing progress.There is a secular viewpoint that the Church is only concerned about preventing abortions. But our ethics stress independence, diversity and finding a way to coping with suffering. He said ‘there’s an inherent contradiction between the secular celebration of diversity and the unintended consequence of getting rid of anything that is inconvenient and uncomfortable’.
This was a sensitive and soul-searching debate. Synod at its best: we had informed medical opinions and very real personal stories about advances in testing, making choices in pregnancy, caring for and living with people with Down’s. The background paper is a mine of information: if you, like me, are not well-informed and don’t know how to approach the issue, then it is well worth a read.
It concludes ‘People with Down’s Syndrome are complete human beings, made in the image of God’, and this theme was taken up by many speakers, either theologically or about their personal experiences.
The standout speech for many was from the Revd Rachel Wilson, a priest speaking from a wheelchair, who referred to her ‘catalogue of medical disasters’ before birth. She said “We need to remove the link between capacity and whether life is worth living. Being born with disability is not a disaster – I know I am what God made me to be. If it was good enough for God, it’s OK with me” She got a storm of applause.
Needless to say, there were amendments, largely what might be called ‘pro-life’, concerned with focusing on unborn children, termination of pregnancies and highlighting the very different approach being taken by our Porvoo church partners elsewhere in Europe. But they were demolished one by one, and before the debate ended, the Bishop of Ely reminded us of the radical thinking of Jean Vanier in working and living alongside people who society might despise or exclude.
There was a thread of comment (on Twitter and in speeches) that we had not heard from anyone who actually has Down’s Syndrome. Technically, if there is no one elected who has it, then we would have to work our way round Standing Orders to allow someone to speak or make a presentation. The Bishop of Carlisle pointed out that Heidi was at the fringe meeting yesterday and there was a ‘thank you’ video from some young voices just before we voted.
Saturday. Did it work?
Early in the morning we had an unprecedented appeal from the Archbishop of Canterbury for us not to go home early! He made the (justifiable) point out that the Down’s Syndrome debate was both important and sensitive and had attracted media coverage. But the very fact he spoke indicates that there was some nervousness that people would not stay on Saturday and the experiment was not going to come off well.
Positive points about it:
- the public gallery was very full all day. Visitors included the Clergy Chair of the Bath and Wells Diocesan Synod, the Revd Jane Haslam
- A young people’s group from Rochester made the journey, as did others – which they could not have done on a weekday.
- there were clearly some people reluctant to give up their Saturday, who stayed away despite the significant agenda and the Archbishop’s appeal
- quite large numbers of Synod and Church House staff had to come in and work on a weekend. When asked discreetly, they professed not to mind, but it would be disruptive for them as well as for members. They did get a word of thanks from Archbishop Justin for their willingness.
The stated theory is that Saturday meetings would help working people to be on Synod. One Saturday experiment will not change the whole culture, and it seems to me unlikely to affect the 2020 elections to a great extent. But it’s too soon to know, and the Business Committee will have to decide whether to pursue it.
- People should be going home tonight much more aware of the bigger safeguarding picture, and Bishop Hancock thought the Business Committee might schedule a debate on it at York in July (when the first IICSA fallout will be in the public domain).
- With the working party now in place to take on the Clergy Well-being Covenant, I suspect we’ll have a House of Clergy meeting in York before the main Synod starts. There’s an interesting Private Members motion up for signatures about clergy taking two days off per week, not one. That will stir up some debate if it gets onto agenda!
It is an ancient and immutable tradition of the Church that I note the stats of this blog at this point. UPDATE: Up to teatime on Sunday, the bathwellschap blog has garnered 1062 visits about the February sessions, with 1701 page views. You reading this has added another 1 to those totals.
While the overwhelming majority of readers are in the UK, long-distance visitors include China, Australia and New Zealand. Thank you: I hope the blog has fulfilled its aim of informing people on how our Synod works (with a bit of education and entertainment thrown in).
General Synod reconvenes on Friday 6 July in York, and bathwellschap will be back with a preview piece a day or two before that. Otherwise, this blog will remain silent till then. (Unless something epically interesting and General Synod related happens before then of course.)
If you want to be sure of not missing it, just join the 86 other people who’ve clicked on the ‘Follow’ button on the right hand at the top of this page – you’ll get an email with a link when a new post goes up..
- “It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday, the regular crowd shuffles in” – Piano Man, Billy Joel 1973. He was singing about 9.00 p.m. in a city bar, but the lyric’s too good to waste for 9.00 a.m. Synod start!