Press: Good news comes to temper the bad

21 December 2017

Positive take: The Daily Telegraph’s story, on Tuesday, about Bishop Sarah Mullally’s nomination as the 133rd Bishop of London

Positive take: The Daily Telegraph’s story, on Tuesday, about Bishop Sarah Mullally’s nomination as the 133rd Bishop of London

WHY, thank you, Santa, for the choice of Bishop Sarah Mullally for Bishop of London. That will ensure plenty of deservedly positive coverage for the Church over the Christmas season. Also, the early reactions, which will be covered later in the column, look thoroughly favourable.

 

BEFORE then there were other stories from which this was a distraction. The first was the Carlile report on the Church’s treatment of the reputation of Bishop George Bell. I found this entirely devastating. Given that this was a QC criticising an archbishop, and so couched in tones of polite regret, it could hardly have been a more complete rejection of the choices that the diocese of Chichester made.

The Telegraph had the scoop on it, presumably through Charles Moore. And theirs was the first use I have seen for some time of “besmirch” in a headline: “Archbishop criticised for refusing to clear bishop besmirched by the Church”, and it was thoroughly hostile to Archbishop Welby: “A damning report published today by Lord Carlile of Berriew found that the reputation of Bishop George Bell, who was posthumously accused of sexually abusing a child, was ‘wrongfully and unnecessarily damaged’ by the Church, who publicly named him in an apology made in 2015.

“But in a statement following the report, Justin Welby said Bell was “accused of great wickedness” and apologises only ‘for the failures of the process’.

“Lord Carlile said the Archbishop’s comments were ‘very disappointing’.

“‘The implication of what he said is everybody accused should have their name made public, and that is just not acceptable,’ he told the Daily Telegraph.”

But this paled before the fury of Peter Hitchens in The Mail on Sunday. Of the report, he said: “The Church of England, whose senior figures are astonishingly unimpressive and tricky . . . had run an incompetent, miserable kangaroo court and . . . condemned a great man on evidence too weak to hang a hamster.

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”When [the report] came out on Friday, a Church which supposedly believes in penitence was still wriggling like a basket of embarrassed eels. The distinguished and impartial lawyer who conducted the review, Lord Carlile QC, made it quite plain that no court would have found George Bell guilty on the evidence (indeed, the Crown Prosecution Service would not even have brought it to court).

“He concluded the Church had hung one of its greatest figures ‘out to dry’. He even said ‘if I had been prosecuting this case, I would have lost it’, which is as near as such a person could come to saying George Bell is innocent.

”And what of the Church, supposedly the guardian of moral good? The Archbishop of Canterbury petulantly persisted in claiming, despite all the evidence, that there was still a ‘cloud’ over George Bell’s name. Lord Carlile remarked that this statement was ‘less than fully adroit’, which is QC-speak for something much ruder.

“I will go further. Archbishop Welby had a chance to stand for moral courage against the easy, popular thing. And he did the easy, popular thing.”

 

PRIVATE EYE carried a report on the way in which the Iwerne abuser John Smyth had escaped deportation from Zimbabwe in 1993 after a young man died in mysterious circumstances at his gospel camp, and various Zimbabwean pastors attempted to have him expelled. Smyth and his wife personally lobbied four cabinet ministers, and an Evangelical businessman lobbied Mugabe on their behalf. The deportation order was rescinded.

This kind of practised appeal to money and power is what gives public-school Evangelicals a bad name, even among people who were not at school with them.

 

IT IS possible, then, to understand Lord Carey’s anger, privately expressed in his family Christmas letter, which was quickly leaked to The Guardian: “In recounting key events of his year, Carey tells friends of the ‘shocking insistence by the archbishop that I should stand down from ministry “for a season”’’” for mistakes made when the former Archbishop of Canterbury had the opportunity to act against the former Bishop of Gloucester, Peter Ball, later convicted of sexual abuse, but failed to do so.

 

AGAINST this background, the selection of Bishop Mullally looks even more of a masterstroke. A woman in London puts the headship conservative Evangelicals in a really difficult position. Obviously, they don’t actually discriminate by sex when choosing which bishop to ignore, but headship is the hardest of their principles to sell to the outside world.

That might explain the sudden burst of noise about sexuality from St Helen’s, Bishopsgate (which had one of its staff team on the Crown Nominations Commission for London) (News, 15 December). I noticed from reports of the Anglican Mission in England consecrations (News, 8 December) that All Souls’, Langham Place, in London, also provided a preacher for that service: another tank parked on the new Bishop’s lawn.

What all this shows is that the impending schism is one that divides Evangelical churches: a reopening of the old fault line between HTB and All Souls’, or the Charismatic and un-Charismatic public-school Evangelicals. For all Archbishop Welby’s ruthlessness and occasional missteps, I’m sure he’s on the right side of that divide.

Everyone who commented on Monday was at least polite: the people who don’t believe women can be in ultimate charge; the people who don’t believe women can be priests; the man whose whole denomination believes the same; etc. We’ll see how far this season of goodwill extends in the new year.

The Church of England has always depended on women, and the preferment of Bishop Mullally shows that a woman of competence and energy can rise to the top just as easily as a rather less distinguished man. That is the message that will be remembered this Christmas, and it makes a very impressive piece of public relations.

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