For most of my life I have been an active member of the Church of England, and felt fortunate to be so. Suddenly I no longer feel that way. Since Justin Welby became Archbishop of Canterbury in 2013, the Church has been changing its nature and ceasing to be the organization I used to know.
My chief reason for saying this is the scandal relating to George Bell (1883–1958), who was bishop of Chichester from 1929 to his death. Bell is a man who would have been recognized as a saint, if the Church of England went in for saint-making. In the early 1930s he was active in support of workers harmed by the economic depression of that period. Then from 1934 on he became the leading voice outside Germany publicizing and protesting against Nazi anti-Semitic measures, supporting the section of the German Evangelical Church which opposed the Nazis, and helping Jewish refugees from Nazism. After World War II was under way, Bell was one of the very few public figures who condemned and used his role in Parliament to try to change the Allied policy of area bombing of civilian populations. Since the war it has been widely recognized that the bombing campaign was a barbaric stain on the British historical conscience, but at the time Bell’s stand attracted hostility, including from fellow church leaders. Bell tried to organize help for the anti-Nazi resistance within Germany, but was rebuffed by the British government – Bell believed that our government could have helped the July 1944 Hitler assassination plot to succeed, but instead chose to act in a way which ensured its failure. After the war, Bell was a leading proponent of magnanimity in victory, protesting for instance at the ethnic cleansing of Germans from Eastern European countries.
In 2013, when Bell had been dead more than half a century, one woman, “Carol”, complained to the new Archbishop that between the ages of five and nine she had been sexually abused by Bell. This was a period of public moral panic about sexual abuse of children. A number of appalling cases had come to light, involving people such as a recently-deceased show business personality, a still-living bishop, and a number of men from Muslim immigrant families who treated naive young white girls as meat to be passed round from bed to bed. As a result people, including the police, seemed disposed to take seriously even the flimsiest and most implausibly lurid allegations against public figures.
In the case of Bishop Bell, the Church rushed to accept “Carol’s” story with no apparent willingness to consider that the allegations might be false (although everyone by then could see that there was money to be made from false accusations). After holding an enquiry at which George Bell’s living relatives were not allowed to appoint a lawyer to defend Bell, the Church declared that it accepted the allegations, and paid “Carol” a substantial sum in compensation. A church school named after Bishop Bell was given a new name, and other similar moves were made to blot out the memory of Bell as a great man.
Many individual voices within the Church protested at this travesty of normal standards of justice and due process, but they were ignored, until in 2016 the Church asked the senior lawyer Lord Carlile to review the way it had dealt with “Carol’s” allegations. His conclusion was that the Church had “rushed to judgement” and “failed to follow a process that was fair and equitable to both sides”; but this led to no change of heart on the part of the Church authorities. In January 2018 they claimed that they had “fresh evidence” against Bell (a statement which Lord Carlile said ought not to have been made public when the details were not revealed and so could not be tested).
Obviously the worry, for those of us who feel shocked by all this, has been that if we were privy to whatever confidential information the Archbishop has, perhaps we would realize that the allegations were well-founded. But in March 2018 the man who had been “safeguarding officer” for Chichester diocese when the Church accepted the allegations made a statement which appeared to imply that the real reason for that acceptance had been, not conviction of their probable truth, but a desire to mitigate an uninsured financial risk in case of further similar allegations. (See p. 9 of The Spectator for 24 Mar 2018 – and see also a hard-hitting letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph on the same date from Dr Ruth Grayson.)
This is not what we expect from the Church. What authority can it have to preach to us that care for other people should take precedence over our selfish financial interests, if it throws one of its great men to the wolves as soon as its own finances are threatened?
Justin Welby came to ministry unusually late, after an early career in the oil industry. The behaviour of the Church in the Bell case seems to reflect norms of the commercial world, where a firm will routinely trim its sails to shifts in public opinion so as to avoid any conflict which might threaten profits. From the Church we expect higher standards, and before the tenure of the current archbishop we got them.
A second episode which has reinforced my doubts about the Church today also relates to the current panic about “safeguarding children and vulnerable adults”. Our Deanery encouraged us to attend a training session on this subject, organized by our Diocese, at which most of the talking was by a woman who used to be in the police but has now been appointed by the diocese to improve safeguarding standards. The tiny congregation in our parish doesn’t really have children or vulnerable adults, but I dutifully went along. After a chunk of bureaucratic guff of interest only to administrators, the bulk of the session revolved round a series of hypothetical scenarios which we were invited to consider and decide whether they warranted reporting to the police. We were told “Say what you think – there are no right or wrong answers.” But when a couple of us ventured to put an alternative to the speaker’s point of view (in one case in particular, relating to money rather than sex, it seemed very easy to imagine that rushing to the police could do more harm than good), the shutters immediately came down. The speaker’s view was right, we were wrong, no discussion. From comments in the national press it appeared that churchgoers all over the country were having similar experiences.
Again this is not the Church of England I thought I knew. One of the strong points of our national church has been that (in contrast to the Roman Catholic church) it is not intellectually authoritarian. It has not, in recent centuries, presumed to impose a single correct point of view in areas where in reality truth is grey and debatable. For a policewoman it is natural to see the world in crudely legalistic black and white terms, that is their déformation professionelle. But one looks to the Church for a more nuanced and tentative (and hence more morally realistic) attitude.
On the other hand it is clearly true that in the current climate of public opinion, informing on one’s neighbour whenever one thinks one might have detected any vague hint of impropriety is the “safe” thing to do, never mind whether it might be a recipe for an unhealthy society.
What does an ordinary man in the pew do in this situation? Living where I do it would be difficult to transfer allegiance to one of the nonconformist churches, even supposing their current standards were better, and at the parish level I am very happy with my church. Furthermore Welby will not be Archbishop for ever. So I suppose I will struggle on in the Church of England for the immediate future at least. But my enthusiasm is severely dimmed. If I were not a member already, I would not feel tempted to join.
last changed 20 Apr 2018