Geoffrey Sampson


Sad Times in the Church of England

For most of my life I have been an active member of the Church of England, and felt fortunate to be so. Unhappily, 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.

I first began feeling this way as a result of 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?

One might suppose that the Church handled Bishop Bell’s case shabbily because, being dead, he could not stand up for himself. But in 2020–21 we learned differently. George Carey, who through the 1990s had been Archbishop of Canterbury – the highest-placed figure in the Anglican hierarchy, other than the Queen and above her only the Almighty – was stripped in June 2020 of his Permission to Officiate (to function as a priest), for reasons having to do with a man, John Smyth, who had been discovered to have grievously abused boys at a Christian college about thirty years earlier. There was a vague suggestion by someone that this had been reported to Carey who failed to do anything about it. But in January 2021 Carey’s Permission to Officiate was restored (presumably implying that the Church recognized it had made a mistake), and he was free to publish his side of the story, which he did in a column headed “The Church has created an unjust culture of fear” in the Daily Telegraph, 30 Jan 2021. Carey says that he has no memory of Smyth. “If I had seen the ‘memo’ listing Smyth’s terrible deeds it would have been seared on my memory. But [the Church investigators] took no note of my protestations, nor of the testimony of a senior member of staff at the college who gave clear evidence as to why I could not have known. … I am not the only one experiencing these unjust measures. Last year, it was reported that many clergy were left feeling suicidal by the way they were treated during the Church of England’s disciplinary processes. … This is not the Church of England that I have known – generous, open and kind.”

Justin Welby came to ministry unusually late, after an early career in the oil industry. The behaviour of the Church in the Bell and perhaps also the Carey 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.

I suspect that the Church leaders who chose Welby for Archbishop may have thought that bringing someone in from industry would be a smart move to help the Church with its financial problems. But not everyone who gets ahead in large established business firms is a financial whiz, and what the Church seems to have got instead is a large dose of the 21st-century curse, managerialism. Emma Thompson, writing in the Telegraph for 1st March 2021 under the heading “Church bureaucracy is out of control”, points out that the British Army manages about 80,000 soldiers with 65 generals. The Church of England currently has only about 6800 salaried clergy, but 116 archbishops and bishops. She notes that in 1836 it managed with just 26, and quotes a retired vicar: “When we had 25,000 [salaried] clergy, we had fewer bishops and archdeacons, and no assistant archdeacons; and they attended to the spiritual. Now, with many fewer clergy, the management has burgeoned and they seem preoccupied with the secular.”

Apart from the Bishop Bell scandal, another 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.

— I wrote the above in April 2018. Two months later, Welby did it again! That June he made a public speech in which he described the European Union as “the greatest dream realized for human beings” since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. I am not sure how dreamy the Roman Empire was, but more to the point: in terms of political wisdom shown by different people co-operating to create lasting structures which succeed in reconciling the conflicting interests and ideals of numerous individual inhabitants, both the gradual evolution of the Swiss Confederation since the thirteenth century, and the creation of the USA in the eighteenth, knock spots off the EU. Quite a lot even of those who voted Remain in our referendum would agree, I believe. I didn’t get the impression that they mostly voted in a spirit of “Isn’t the EU great!” Some may have, and Welby was evidently one of them, but there was a great deal of “Safer to stick with what we’ve got, getting out might prove even worse”.

Is Welby on a one-man campaign to ensure that thinking people want nothing to do with the Anglican Communion in future? In August 2019 he announced that he was chairing a group whose aim was apparently to frustrate our current Prime Minister’s attempts finally to get Britain out of the EU. It astonishes me that the head of the national Church could think it appropriate to act as a partisan in a matter of political controversy in this way. (Does he think that those of us who warmly supported Boris Johnson’s approach are for that reason bad Christians?) A view which seems much more appropriate for a man of God was expressed in early 2019 by Jonathan Sacks, until 2013 the Chief Rabbi of the UK, who said in effect (I haven't got his words in front of me) that the principle of government in a democracy being subordinate to the wishes of the population is so important that, even if our rulers were thoroughly convinced that Britain leaving the EU would be a serious mistake, once the referendum was held in 2016 and the majority was for Leave, they must ensure that we leave.

Early in 2019, the Bell story took a new turn. A further official report by Timothy Briden, an ecclesiastical lawyer and the Vicar General of Canterbury, found that the accusations against Bishop Bell were “inconsistent” and “unreliable”. One 80-year-old witness had said that his mother had told him that she had seen Bishop Bell “carrying out a sexual act with a man over his Rolls-Royce” back in 1967. Bishop Bell never had a Rolls. It was obvious that this and the rest of the salacious tittle-tattle was the product of warped, attention-seeking imaginations. Yet the Archbishop still refused publicly to exonerate Bell. He accepted that the original inquiry was mishandled, but said “It is still the case that there is a woman who came forward with a serious allegation … and this cannot be ignored” (Daily Telegraph, 25 Jan 2019). Bell’s successor as current Bishop of Chichester took the same line. The Bell family's barrister, Desmond Browne QC, commented: “the investigations by two experienced lawyers [have established] George Bell’s innocence. But not once [has] the Archbishop of Canterbury offered Bell the presumption of innocence.”

The authorities in charge of the Archbishop’s own cathedral, Canterbury, announced that they plan to install a statue of Bishop Bell in one of the niches in the west wall, which typically contain figures of saints. Remarkably, the Archbishop responded that this would be a fine idea. I think that is called running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. It seems obvious that the Archbishop knows perfectly well that Bishop Bell was innocent of the charges against him, but he won’t come out and say so, because he is terrified that there might be some legal or financial come-back for the institution he is running.

This is the man whose job it is to inspire the population to be soldiers for Christ?

Also in 2019, other unwelcome features of the new-look Church of England emerged. In January it appointed a new national adviser for income generation, Jonathan de Bernhardt Wood, who had published a book on the subject (promoted on several Church websites) recommending the “target[ing of] those most vulnerable to our fundraising message”, namely “single, elderly, poor females”, and advocating signing church members up to bank standing orders, which he saw as “God’s special gift to fundraisers” partly because people often forget to stop them. “Fundraising through forgetfulness may not seem particularly noble or principled, but it is pragmatic, and in fundraising pragmatism is king … In my book … the ends justify the means.” (Reported in the Daily Telegraph, 25 March 2019.)

Then in August we heard that the beautiful 11th–12th century cathedral at Norwich had installed a large helter-skelter in its nave, with rides costing £2 a time. Some of us who see churches as important buildings think of them as places for contemplating serious, sometimes grim topics – ones that adults must sometimes face, and where better than in a church? They are not intended as indoor funfairs.

Why is it that when organizations like churches – or universities, in which I made my own career – decide that they ought to act like businesses, they always seem to choose the shabbiest, fly-by-night type of businesses as models?

— Now in 2020 Covid-19 has arrived, a crisis where one might expect the national church to step up and play an important role. Again, as I see it, the Church of England has failed badly.

At an early stage of the epidemic, when people were getting worried about infection but the Government had not yet imposed “lockdown”, some of us in my parish suggested laying in a stock of tiny paper cups so people could take communion with no risk of cross-infection. The immediate response (by our Rector, but I don’t doubt that she was only saying what the Church told her to say) was that Church rules require communion to be from a shared chalice. We were approaching the date when the parish needed to hold its annual meeting, to elect officers for the coming year and for other largely formal business. As secretary it was my job to call the meeting, but by now people were getting quite worried about face-to-face interaction: I decided to do it by e-mail, circulating a set of proposals and asking parishioners either to approve or to put forward counter-proposals. At least as many individuals took part as I would expect at an ordinary annual meeting, all approving the proposals (as I well knew they would); but then we were told that Church rules did not recognize the validity of a meeting held by e-mail.

The Church certainly has a deadline for holding annual parish meetings, so if I took this seriously it seemed that the Church was requiring parish officers (most of us not in our first youth) to put ourselves in the firing line for infection.

This was nonsense. Rules are made by Man and can be changed. Jesus did not tell us precisely how we were to take communion or elect officers. And then, as lockdown approached, the Church announced that although it has laws about holding regular public services, it was going to ignore these laws without bothering formally to change them. So much for “Church rules require…”.

In late March Government brought lockdown laws in, including a prohibition on meetings for worship. But it explicitly said that there was no objection to churches being open for individuals to pray privately, and many of us felt that in a frightening situation that was very desirable: many people gain comfort from praying in a place where others before them have prayed and worshipped for centuries. (This may be illogical – God is everywhere; but that is how human beings are.) The Church of England said no. It required all its churches to be closed and locked. As a second-best, quite a few vicars wanted to use digital technology to live-stream themselves holding services in their churches without a congregation physically present; even that was forbidden. Often, vicarages are adjacent to their churches so that a few steps take a cleric from home to workplace, but the ruling was that vicars could enter their churches for maintenance purposes, for instance to test the bells, but not to do vicar stuff.

(Long before Covid, it had been arranged that 8th May 2020 would be a national holiday to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe in WWII, with festivities that would normally include ringing of church bells. People did what they could to celebrate in lockdown conditions, and one rebel vicar arranged for his church bells to be tested, 75 times.)

It feels as though, just when people are needing their Church to help them through a crisis, the Church of England has abandoned its flock. I’m not sure how to interpret the situation. Under Welby, the impression is that everything is about money; could locking the churches have been meant to guard against someone visiting to pray, catching the virus, and then suing the Church for not maintaining adequate hygiene? But what is the Church for, if it doesn’t remind us that there is more to human life than money? People used to smile at clerics for being naively unworldly – sometimes they were, but one could say that was in the job-description. After this crisis is behind us and life gets back to something more normal, how enthusiastically does the Church of England expect its sheep to return to the fold?

— It gets worse and worse. In June, with the population still legally forbidden to congregate together, bands of young hooligans started ignoring the law and destroying or defacing public monuments in the name of “racial justice”. (They demonstrated about as much historical insight as one would expect from people like that. They daubed the word “Nazi” on a statue of Nancy Astor, the first female Member of Parliament; Lady Astor was so much not a Nazi that her name was on Hitler’s list of individuals to be liquidated after his forces conquered Britain.) Justin Welby actually went onto BBC Radio to egg them on. The Daily Telegraph columnist Nick Timothy responded with a column beginning “Nobody personifies the madness of our times, and the moral cowardice of our leaders, like the Archbishop of Canterbury.” (“Welby is rewriting the principles that hold our societies together”, Telegraph 29 June 2020.)

In November 2020, the new Archbishop of York published “A vision for the Church of England in the 2020s”, which, cutting through the feel-good buzzwords, seems to be about severely reducing front-line staffing – vicars and rectors who actually minister to ordinary men and women at parish level – and selling off churches which cannot pay their way, while maintaining the top-heavy and far better-paid managerial hierarchy. A lot of this has been happening already; writing in the Spectator on 6 Feb 2021, Rev. Marcus Walker commented that his diocese of Southwark “has got rid of 30 parish priests’ posts in the past decade, but still managed to find room in the budget for a ‘Director of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation’ ”. Now, the idea seems to be that at grassroots level just about everything will be left to lay volunteers. In the same Spectator issue, Emma Thompson quoted one commentator as saying “The bishops won’t listen. They love their corporate existence … They want online worship live from the Church of England Central”. She described one bishop “behav[ing] like a loan shark on Zoom, berating volunteers for having run out of money, reducing a treasurer to tears.” Some clergy in her diocese “feel depressed, even suicidal. ‘For the first time in my long ministry, I feel demoralized and unwanted,’ one tells me. … Tellingly, they feel too afraid to speak out, except anonymously.”

The Church and I just don’t seem to be on the same side any more.

[Added in December 2021:]

In 2020 the Church’s approach to abuse allegations caused a suicide. Alan Griffin, who had been an Anglican priest before converting to Roman Catholicism in 2012, had apparently been the subject of allegations of child abuse and various other sexual misdeeds, to which the Church of England responded in 2019 by mounting an investigation in which Griffin was never told what exactly he was accused of or who by; in Nov 2020 the pressure was such that he killed himself. The coroner’s report in Jul 2021 was deeply critical of the Church, writing that Griffin “did not abuse children. He did not [do the other things being investigated]. And there was no evidence that he did any of these things.”

It all smacks of a strange new management style which I have observed in other professions. When I was young, it was taken for granted that the senior management of any organization was expected to back the staff working under it, and to support them if difficulties arose with members of the public. In the years before I retired as a university prof, though, a weird new alliance developed in which senior management seemed to league with the student body to treat the teaching staff who actually did the work of the university as opponents – not just in individual cases where a teacher might have been at fault, but as a general day-to-day working assumption. I hear rumours of comparable developments in other professions. How any theory of management can regard this as a recipe for a successful organization beats me.

Later in 2021 came an extraordinary volte-face by the Archbishop with respect to the Bishop Bell case. In a statement issued on 17 Nov that year, Welby said “I do not consider there to be a ‘significant cloud’ over Bishop George Bell’s name. Previously, I refused to retract that statement and I was wrong to do so. I apologize for the hurt that my refusal … has caused to Bishop Bell’s surviving relatives, colleagues and longstanding supporters.” The Archbishop went on to call Bishop Bell “one of the most courageous, distinguished Anglican bishops of the past century. The debt owed to him extends far beyond the Church that he served and is one that we share as a society.”

Public acknowledgement of a grievous error should be applauded, whenever it comes. But why suddenly now, after almost a decade during which the Church has resolutely trashed George Bell’s name, despite eminent figures denouncing the injustice?

Perhaps the Archbishop’s sabbatical gave him a new moral sensitivity. But by now it is hard not to be cynical. Perhaps so many voices were continuing to defend Bishop Bell’s memory that the balance of advantage to the Church tipped: it was doing itself more harm by its obstinacy that it was gaining by siding with the self-proclaimed victim.

Many Anglican churches have a tower or steeple which is topped by a gilded weathercock. They are elegant architectural features. But their behaviour is not meant to be a model for those who are responsible for the running of the Church.

Geoffrey Sampson

last changed 7 Dec 2021