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Letters to the Editor

24 November 2017


Christmas-service attendance at cathedrals

From Canon Rachel Phillips

Sir, — The recent statistics for attendance at cathedrals (News, 10 November) give us the good news that cathedral congregations grew at Christmas 2016. They do not, however, mention the effect of Christmas’s falling at the weekend (in 2016, Christmas Eve was a Saturday and Christmas Day a Sunday).

There was a similar bulge in Christmas attendance in 2006 — the last time Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday, as it will this year. Research that I conducted in York Minster that year suggests that more people are likely to attend services on Christmas Eve when it falls on a Saturday or (especially) a Sunday than when it falls midweek.

My research also suggested something more interesting, beyond the numbers attending. Through questionnaires and focus groups conducted among hundreds of people who attended the service of nine lessons and carols in York Minster on Christmas Eve 2006, I gained some insight into the theological meaning that people took from that service.

The data suggested that those who were regular churchgoers understood the service “better” (more in keeping with what the Church believes to be the meaning) than those who attended church only at Christmas; crudely speaking, those who were regular churchgoers “got” the meaning, whereas those were not did not.

This, in turn, might suggest that those who understood the theological meaning understood it because of their year-round church attendance rather than purely through what they experienced on Christmas Eve. While this is hardly surprising, it might mean that growing Christmas congregations are not necessarily a cause for celebration, if the gap between Christmas attendance and year-round attendance is widening.

So, if we are to expect growing congregations again this Christmas, the challenge will be how to ensure that the message that we think we are giving is truly heard by all who come. Technology and social media offer far better opportunities than existed in 2006 (or even 2016); so we should be better equipped to rise to this challenge — as we hope to do this Christmas in Rochester Cathedral — and to proclaim the good news that Christmas is not just for Christmas.

Canon for Mission and Growth
The Chapter Office, Garth House
The Precinct
Rochester ME1 1SX


Safeguarding systems and power dynamics

From the Revd Janet Fife

Sir, — My experience of the Church of England, and of York diocese, does not lead me to share the Rt Revd David Wilbourne’s confidence that the Church is best placed to manage its own safeguarding (Letters, 17 November). I have myself reported issues and concerns and been rebuffed or ignored; I know others who have had similar experiences. Still more cases have been widely reported, including some that have now been settled and others that are ongoing.

Nor have I found that the majority of senior clergy “faithfully desire to bring Christ’s healing light into the direst and darkest situations that they never baulk from entering”. Too often, they seem reluctant to deal satisfactorily with reported instances of bullying or sexual abuse, and, in fact, shy away from the whole topic. I have several times offered to lead workshops or training sessions on the pastoral care of sexual-abuse survivors (in which I have an M.Phil.), but the offer has never been accepted.

Dame Moira Gibb identified an unhealthy culture of deference within the Church. It is clear also that there is little understanding of the mechanics and healthy uses of power, which can only be exacerbated by the present valuing of management skills over pastoral ability. It is of the utmost importance that we address our safeguarding failures soon, and thoroughly. Our best hope of doing that is to call in people from outside to help us take an honest look at ourselves, and set up safeguarding systems that are both fair and thorough.

12 Waterstead Crescent
North Yorkshire YO21 1PY


From Jayne Ozanne

Sir, — The Rt Revd David Wilbourne’s letter is a perfect example of the scale of the problems that we face in the Church of England with regard to acknowledging and addressing issues of sexual harassment.

That he was not aware of many incidents during his decades of ministry does by no means imply that there wasn’t a significant problem — more that the system failed victims and kept them from coming forward.

The Church is no more “complex” than any other public institution when dealing with sexual abuse. To hide behind such an excuse is to create an environment in which the abuser, not the abused, is protected.

Address supplied


From the Revd Stephen Parsons

Sir, — May I humbly suggest that Bishop David Wilbourne is looking at the problem of clerical abuse from the wrong end. Instead of talking about “errant clerics”, we should also be looking at a church culture that makes such behaviour possible. I am speaking of the incidence of bullying and power abuse within the Church.

As the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, has said in the past few days, addressing the George Bell debate: “The root of all evil is the abuse of power.” Whenever we encounter child abuse or other sexual crimes, we also find an institution (Hollywood, Parliament, or the Church) that seems ignorant or naïve about the way in which power operates within its system.

Through my work running a blog on power abuse in the Church, I am aware of dozens of sufferers of bullying and other improper uses of power. Some branches of the Church have a special problem with power as they ascribe to their leaders a mantle of infallibility or divine authority. Few victims of this kind of spiritual battering speak up, though it seems to be fairly common.

Let us begin to talk about how power should be used by those in the Church who share in exercising its institutional authority. Awareness training of how to use power is needed every bit as much as current safeguarding practice. Perhaps by opening up the power dynamics of the Church and understanding them better, we might be able to defeat sexual abuse of all kinds, as well as bullying and other examples of the evil abuse of power in the Church.

19 South Gables, Haydon Bridge
Hexham NE47 6EQ


Sir, — In your columns in recent weeks there has been much coverage of the shameful abuse committed by those entrusted with authority to minister in the name of Christ.

Little, however, has been said of the plight of those who are accused of sexual abuse, but against whom nothing has been proven. In some cases, the exercise of ministry is denied to them on the grounds that there is “no smoke without fire”. It has been encouraging to hear from the Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, that the pastoral care for such folk is to be increased (News, 13 October); but surely we can do better than this.

I have supported victims of abuse and understand the issues, having worked on the diocesan safeguarding team; but it seems to me that our current approach falls short on several counts. The outcome is “lose-lose”: the complainant is left without justice, and the defendant is barred from exercising any ministry, and offered no hope that matters can ever be resolved. Sadly, it seems that our practice is all too often driven by fear.

Every one of us in church leadership is vulnerable to a false allegation of sexual misconduct. How are we to be protected if the Church appears at times to be setting the bar above the law of the land, which says that we are innocent until proved guilty? Clearly, some matters will not be resolved this side of the grave, but may I put in a plea on behalf of those against whom nothing has been proven, that we exercise a more compassionate and flexible approach?



CBS’s varied work in support of its objectives

From the Rt Revd Roger Jupp

Sir, — Members of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament have cause to be grateful to Canon Andrew Davison (News, 10 November) for providing the opportunity to advertise briefly what this, the Church of England’s oldest devotional society for both priests and laity, really does in our Church today.

Putting on festivals and buying monstrances (a part of our life of which Canon Davison is apparently aware) is, in point of fact, rather far down the list of what we are about. Our available funds come from the generosity of our forebears. From their gift we are called upon today, in association with other Catholic societies, to assist in a number of endeavours, all of which are consistent with our foundational objectives of promoting due honour to Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of his Body and Blood, mutual prayer at the eucharist, and careful preparation for and reception of holy communion.

To these objectives has been added in more recent times, among other things, and most importantly in the context of Canon Davison’s reported comments, “Catholic theological teaching, learning and development”.

To this end, the trustees have, during the past year at least, made grants such as these: an on-going contribution to stipends in parishes (usually in particularly needy areas) that would not otherwise have priests; a teaching weekend for families in the south-west of England; a eucharistic congress at Walsingham; continuing assistance to vocations’ initiatives; a retreat helping to prepare deacons for priesthood; the enabling of a group of young confirmation candidates to go on a one-day pilgrimage from their impoverished parish in search of their patron St Hilda to Whitby (and to have fun at the seaside, to which some had never been before); and assistance to a forthcoming “Leading Your Church into Growth” conference.

Added to this, a major initiative that the trustees currently have in hand is the provision of a multi-media catechetical resource for parishes, the budget for which is in the order of £50,000. We had one festival, an annual one, at Corpus Christi. By the way, we provided one monstrance as well.

The truth is, though, we don’t shout about this: we just get on with the task. But, by doing all this and more, alongside the other Catholic societies and in the same apostolic spirit, we aim to teach the faith once delivered to the saints, to do what the apostles did, and to love our Lord Jesus Christ as he reveals himself to us and ministers to us in the sacraments, which are his gift to all people.

With Canon Davison, we invite others to join with us in this joyful task.

Superior-General of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament
The Vicarage, Regent Street
Long Eaton, Nottingham NG10 1JX


People of his pasture and sheep of his hand

From the Revd John Owen

Sir, — Ted Harrison (Faith, 17 November) highlights his reservations about the Church’s use of sheep imagery, when less than 20 per cent of the UK population live in rural areas. Nevertheless, there are more than 33 million sheep in the UK: that’s half the human population, and a quarter of the EU sheep flock.

There are a lot of them around, particularly in South Downs parishes like my own, where they greatly outnumber parishioners. You also see them grazing alongside motorways, including the M25, and they are educational draws in city farms. And, yes, many of them are reared for meat production as well as for wool; otherwise UK farmers would not maintain such a large population.

Currently, there is growing interest in rural life. Programmes such as Countryfile and Springwatch are popular among children and adults, and the publishing market for books on natural history is healthy — witness the popularity of James Rebanks’s books on hill farming.

Ted Harrison’s article might be behind the curve at a time when there appears to be a desire to reconnect and learn from the language and insights of our Christian pastoral setting.

Portsmouth Diocesan Rural Adviser
The Vicarage, 77 Church Road
Steep, Hampshire GU32 2DF


From the Revd Dr Mark Betson

Sir, — May I respond to Ted Harrison with a plea to make the most of the sheep?

Sheep and shepherds are literally and metaphorically an intrinsic part of the biblical text from Genesis to Revelation. Not to engage with them is to miss a considerable amount of the biblical message. As Ted Harrison points out, it is here that we go into “deeper spiritual territory”.

Modern methods of shepherding are very different from those in first-century Palestine, and the proportion of people who have daily experience of sheep, compared with biblical times, particularly in 21st-century Britain, is much reduced. Rather than try to back away from the metaphor as having no modern relevance, however, I would encourage churches to build up confidence in engaging with it, and understanding where the parallels can helpfully be drawn.

To lose the connection with these references in the biblical text closes a door to understanding the relationships described between people and the animals that they keep, the relationship we have with land and food, and what a good shepherd is. It shouldn’t matter if you are rural or urban: it is an opportunity to grow in faith.

Chichester Diocesan Rural and Environment Officer
The Vicarage, Plummers Plain
Horsham RH13 6NU


From Canon Christopher Hall

Sir, — At Westcott House in 1959, our Sri Lankan brother Maxwell de Alwis announced: “I refuse to regard any congregation with whom I may minister in the future as so many tons of mutton!’’ The rest of us cheered.

The Knowle, Deddington
Banbury OX15 0TB


Glorious liberty?

From Canon Martin Jayne

Sir, — Dr Phillip Rice wrote (Letters,10 November) that the offshore world was all around us. It is nearer than we might imagine.

One of the authors of the Archbishops’ Council report Setting God’s People Free is a top lawyer “specialising in tax and estate planning for both UK and non-UK domiciled clients and in trust and tax advice for onshore and international trusts on a wide range of issues, . . . responding to legislation in relevant jurisdictions and advising on more contentious situations . . . works particularly with clients in the offshore trust jurisdictions, Europe, the Middle and Far East and the US.”

Another co-author is a director for a private bank whose website proudly proclaims the wisdom of its founder: “it takes a great deal of boldness and a great deal of caution to make a great fortune: and when you have got it, it requires ten times as much wit to keep it.”

Hm. I do wonder sometimes about the stream of Reform and Renewal papers: setting free from what?

12 Longmeadow Lane
Natland, Kendal LA9 7QZ


A song of the truth in the heart of youth

From Dr Andrew Smith

Sir, — Some ten years ago, the Director of Music at Knaresborough Parish Church was preparing a nine-year-old boy for his RSCM Dean’s Award. One of the rubrics for the award stated: “Candidates will be asked what motivates them as singers in a church choir.”

After some thought, the boy replied: “I like singing, and at St John’s I don’t have to sing happy-clappy child-friendly stuff that we have to put up with at school.”

Ex ore innocentium . . .

28 Boroughbridge Road,
Knaresborough HG5 0NJ

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