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Letters to the Editor

13 April 2018

Gangs, IICSA, and funeral trends


What can be done about gangs?

From the Revd Paul Nicolson

Sir, — I write from north London about my experience in 1975/6 when there was a gang fight in Stevenage. We were worried that the gang members would all return from Borstal and set up the gang and start again. I was instrumental in setting up a workshop for them as they returned home.

With the cooperation of the DSS, now a Jobcentre, they kept their benefits if they were willing to work at the workshop. We were making a box of wooden animals designed by an out-of-work toy designer. The Educational Supply Association gave us an order worth £800. Local industry provided us with all the necessary equipment and a supervisor. We set up in the Bowes Lyon Youth Centre in the defunct rifle range. I would interview the boys as if for a full-time job, and tell them to go outside and think about it for five minutes and then come back and tell me whether they were willing to work at the workshop; they all came back and said that they would.

So I met them all daily for about a year. They told me what happened. “My gang” were the Tongs, and they were defending their land from a gang that was invading Stevenage. They got up to some horrendous things, but, finally, with great competence, they planned a battle in the car park behind Sainsbury’s. The Tongs got news that the leader of the other gang had a gun. So they planned to get him first, and the knife went in. The boy died, and one of them was committed to prison in Aylesbury at Her Majesty’s pleasure, because he was too young to receive a sentence for murder. There was a gun, but there were no bullets.

His brother was a rough diamond who worked at the workshop. They weren’t evil; they were brilliant at planning and provided each other with very deep friendship. So I would tell them: “You’re very good at friendship, and you’re very good at planning, but use them for more useful purposes.” They got my recommendation for employment outside the workshop if they worked hard at the workshop; so there was a bit of a deal about it. Some of them got jobs from the workshop. I used to ask them what they liked doing. One said cooking. So we sent him on a chef’s day-release course, and he got a job at the Welwyn Bakery.

One had a date on Saturday nights as a white boy to have a fight with a black boy. He was arrested for threatening to cut the badges of a rocker’s leather jacket surrounded by an audience of young people. He was a skinhead. I used to visit him at the Colchester Borstal. He decided that he wanted to be confirmed. So he was baptised and confirmed by the Bishop of Hertford in Stevenage. He never fought again. To my lasting grief, he died of cancer, aged 21.

There were no social media in 1975/76, and I quite understand how the mixture of gangs and social media is toxic. There are, however, many other things that have changed as well. They could actually live on single adult unemployment benefit in 1976; but it has been losing value since 1979 and been frozen since 2011. They could not live now and work at the workshop on the current £73.10pw jobseeker’s allowance, let alone the youth benefit at 16 to 24 of £57.90 per week. The blunt instrument of benefit sanctions also takes its toll. Much of the support of youth clubs been taken away. There’s a sense that youth have been abandoned by the State.

The gangs are a secure underground family for them, with all the perils and benefits of peer pressure. A youth workshop is labour- and character-intensive. There were two of us full-time, with about 12 to 15 boys. We can only offer heartfelt good wishes to all struggling with the tragedy of youth murder.

Taxpayers against Poverty
93 Campbell Road
London N17 0BF

IICSA and the Church: further reflections

From David Richards

Sir, — Professor Linda Woodhead (Comment, 6 April) identifies the need for a “ruthlessly honest theological audit” in the wake of the Church of England’s disclosures to the IICSA. This distressing arena is just one of many areas of the Church of England’s life, at present, where more robust and imaginative theological engagement would be extremely welcome. I am, however, concerned that by (rightly) pinpointing a “faulty doctrine of forgiveness”, Professor Woodhead is straying uncomfortably close to caricature.

Professor Woodhead names sacramental confession as a means of feeding a “doctrine of cheap forgiveness” which is concerned only with a person’s relationship with God, and “completely separate from my relation with creation”. I have no idea how familiar she is with the regular practice of sacramental confession; but her approach appears to ignore significant writing (e.g. Kenneth Leech and Karl Rahner) in its scrutiny of the tradition.

Leaving aside the absence of any serious evidence that the confessional (and, in particular, its “seal”) has been extensively misused to suppress the disclosure of abuse in the Church of England, it is worth highlighting that confession is never a purely personal matter between the penitent and God. Just as baptism and the eucharist have an inescapably ecclesial character, by regularly making my confession to a priest I acknowledge (in the words of the Bishop of Buckingham, quoted by Professor Woodhead) “that I am accountable to God through you”. That “you” is the entire oecumene of the Church, which the confessor priest is authorised to represent. It places the penitent’s flaws and failures, which damage and diminish other people, in a much larger orbit of repentance and redemption, that is subject to the conviction of scripture, tradition, and reason.

Authentic sacramental confession, far from being a superficial wiping clean of the slate, is an exacting way of facing the truth — and taking responsibility for it. Far from encouraging evasion, confession offers a generous space that enables the penitent to acknowledge truthfully his or her actions and their consequences, without which there can be no justice and no healing.

This is about taking the kind of responsibility that Professor Woodhead urges, where “when we harm a child we harm God as well” becomes completely unavoidable.

La Grange des Champs
17260 Gemozac, France


From the Revd Janet Fife

Sir, — In response to the statement from the National Safeguarding Team (News, 29 March), I would like to make it clear that I am grateful for the support I have received via York diocese since making my complaints to the Archbishops on 11 November 2017. I had to ask for it, however, and to suggest how it might be organised, and I suspect it may be time-limited. It would not have been available to a lay person, except perhaps to a Reader; nor would he or she have known how to obtain it.

The support I have received is also in-house, which, while acceptable to me, would not be to many survivors. They can hardly be expected to trust a counsellor from the organisation whose representative has allegedly abused them. The Church needs to make funding available so that complainants can obtain professional counselling from an independent therapist.

While it is true that a staff member of the National Safeguarding Team has phoned me a couple of times, I have had no written acknowledgement of my complaints, and no contact at all from them since before Christmas. I have no idea how the investigation is progressing.

Experts have told our Church’s leaders that survivors are very vulnerable when they make a complaint, and in the period following that. Neil Todd is only one of the abuse victims who have taken their own lives. The Church’s response is, therefore, crucial, both for the complainant’s survival and welfare, and for the reputation of the Church. A written response from the Archbishop’s office, signed by him if possible, together with independent psychological support, are two of the measures that could help.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has rightly said that the issue of abuse and its mishandling could destroy the Church. I and other survivors, together with experts such as Martin Sewell, Stephen Parsons, and Professor Linda Woodhead, are anxious to avoid that. We have repeatedly offered to help in our areas of expertise, so far to no avail. It is my hope and my prayer that the Church will be able to adapt as necessary, to listen, and to survive — and thrive.

Address supplied


C of E faces challenge from trends in funerals

From Canons Sandra Millar and David Primrose, and the Revd Jeremy Brooks

Sir, — From the expediency of Direct Cremation (Comment, 29 March) to the environmentalism of natural burial grounds, what we do when someone is dead is a matter of growing public interest. Over the past few years, the Church of England has been “Taking Funerals Seriously”, with research, training, dissemination of best practice, web-based resources, and conferences attended by more than 3000 clergy and lay people.

GraveTalk, a resource from Church House Publishing, encourages congregations to take the lead in helping communities engage with the big questions of life and death. This summer, we’re holding a national conference at the Memorial Arboretum in the West Midlands specifically addressing the issues around ashes and bodies. Join us on 26 June for “Just Put Me in the Bin” as we think through together the theological and pastoral challenges these trends present.

SANDRA MILLAR, Head of Life Events; DAVID PRIMROSE, Director of Transforming Communities, Lichfield; JEREMY BROOKS, Rector of Beaconsfield

c/o Church House
Great Smith Street
London SW1P 3AZ


Faiths in close quarters

From Suzanne Fletcher

Sir, — Peace among nations is surely high in our minds at the present time. We have a microcosm of this among our asylum-seeking communities, where people live and associate together, in peace. Many are people of strong faith, and it shows in how they manage this.

Here in Stockton, we have people from many parts of Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent, as well as Albania and China.

People are allocated shared houses, which means shared kitchens and bathrooms, with no regard for common language, culture, country, or faith. It can be difficult, as one man said: “In my house, there are seven Muslim men, and I am a Christian. It makes it very difficult for me being different all the time. I cannot share anything with them, and there is nowhere for me to be on my own, as I have to share a room.” There is the situation vice versa, as well, of course.

Even worse, many people have forced sharing of bedrooms with no commonality at all. It is a small space, and and it is not for overnight or a few weeks, but can be years. To quote two people: “I am from Iran, and fled here because of the Arab Iraqis, but I have to share with one, and it makes me frightened.” “I share with a Muslim man. We get on OK, but it is difficult to share with someone with a completely different background and faith. We do try, but have no common language.”

The Home Office is in the process of letting the new ten-year contract for housing provision for asylum-seekers, and such shared bedrooms will continue apart from those deemed by the Home Office (with no definition) as “vulnerable”.

Can I urge readers who live in areas where asylum-seekers are dispersed to contact their MPs of whatever party to urgently intervene before the contract is actually let.

3 Hoylake Way, Eaglescliffe
Stockton on Tees TS16 9EU

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