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Letters to the Editor

02 February 2018


AI prompts calls for expert advice

From Professor John Wood

Sir, — The Bishop of Oxford’s summary of the House of Lords’ Select Committee on AI’s current thinking (Comment, 19 January) was encouraging and clear. My experience of interface with the Science and Technology Select Committee gives me confidence that, when the report is finally published, it will deserve serious study and actions.

The implications of AI (artificial intelligence), and the link with large volumes of data that feed the algorithms have been around, at least in part, for years, and should be seen in the context of the “Open Science” movement, which integrates open data, and citizen science, along with AI and many other nodes.

The ecosystem around these developments is changing how science (defined as including all areas of investigation, including humanities) is pursued. Other developments that are emerging within this environment include the so-called internet of things, the implications of using CRISPR/Cas9 for gene-editing, etc.

Such developments cannot be seen in isolation, and need a holistic response from the Church. How will this be achieved? There needs to be a focusing of effort.

At the Commonwealth Summit on Science, in Singapore last year, there was a lecture by the CEO of Deep Mind, Demis Hassabis, who said that they had now set up an ethics group within the company to look at the issues coming up for AI.

He was asked the question: How would we know if the algorithm was not telling the truth, and distorting the data input or taking false data? The answer was ambiguous, but the problem was acknowledged as real, since the consequences of not finding out in time were immense. It is clear that the nature of trust between systems, individuals, communities, and countries becomes a key issue, especially since the outputs from AI will be downloadable on smartphones, and can be used by anyone.

The next day, the question was asked: Was there any need for the Y chromosome in the future, since AI, manipulation of stem cells, and robots could take over the function of males, who will be superfluous. While there was much hilarity about this, there are clearly implications, some of which the Bishop describes.

Summarising, at the end of the meeting, Lord Rees, as chair, stated something along the lines that scientists needed to take seriously the views of faith communities in the future when proceeding along some of these paths. The Church and individual Christians needed to be informed to give a balanced response.

In my view, too often the Church has come to such challenges late in the day, and is reactive rather than proactive. As chair of the Trustees of Christians in Science, I asked the trustees whether they thought that the Church of England should have a Chief Scientific Adviser, along the lines of the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, who ensures that the implications of science are at the heart of policy-making.

The trustees were enthusiastically in support, and encouraged me to write this letter, although the views expressed are mine. The issues facing us both as Christians and humanity are huge, and we cannot wait while the Church remains in piecemeal catch-up mode.

Old Rectory, Bolnhurst
Bedford MK44 2ES


The House of Bishops and gender transition

From the Revd Andrew Lightbown and Mr Simon Sarmiento

Sir, — GS Misc 1178 suggests that the decision by the House of Bishops not to authorise liturgy to mark a “person’s gender transition” was made after the time and space was provided for bishops “to consider the issue prayerfully”. The official press release states that “the House of Bishops has prayerfully considered whether a new national commended service might be prepared to mark a gender transition.”

The recommendation of the sub-committee to offer the existing rite of Affirmation of Baptismal Faith was placed on the agenda under “business for deemed approval” and was accepted without debate (News, 26 January). In governance terms, it is hard to believe that a motion overwhelmingly approved at the General Synod, which explicitly calls on the Bishops to consider collectively an issue of such sensitivity, has been treated in such a desultory fashion.

For such a sensitive issue to be accepted without debate, and unrecorded, represents a significant governance failure by the bishops, who, as “moral agents” are both “collectively and separately” responsible for the highest standards of governance.

The Vicarage, Vicarage Road
Winslow, Buckingham MK18 3BJ

18 Whincup Grove
Knaresborough, North Yorkshire


From Mrs Andrea Williams

Sir, — It is surprising to see the transgender lobby getting upset about the Bishops’ not creating a new liturgy to mark gender transition. The Bishops have instead stated that existing liturgy can be adapted for the purpose. This “adapting” amounts to allowing full liturgical recognition of an acquired gender in any case. What is there for the transgender activists not to celebrate?

Meanwhile, those of us who believe what Jesus said about being made male and female are also upset by the decision of the Bishops not to uphold this clear teaching. The Church should be welcoming to people who identify as transgender, but not affirming of their chosen identity. Is it too much to ask the Bishops what theological justification they can possibly have for affirming gender changes?

Chief Executive
Christian Concern
70 Wimpole Street
London W1G 8AX


How should a line be drawn under the Bell affair?

From the Revd Alan Fraser

Sir, — It is clear that some people have been angered by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement last week concerning the allegations against the late George Bell (News, 26 January). I must confess myself simply confused.

Having looked through the Carlile review, I suppose I had expected the half-apology to the relatives of Bishop Bell for the distress the Church’s investigative failures caused to them. I then expected a grudging acknowledgement that, without casting doubt on “Carol’s” testimony, the presumption of innocence would have to be applied to Bishop Bell unless and until any corroborating evidence came to light.

But no. With admirable clarity, the Archbishop said that he could not “with integrity” clear Bishop Bell’s name, and further, that the substance of “Carol’s” complaint was probably true. Given that the rest of us are not able to review the evidence against Bishop Bell, I think we are obliged to take at face value the Archbishop’s statements, and have reluctantly to conclude that Bishop Bell sexually abused a young girl.

But the Archbishop then goes on to say that this “does not diminish the importance of his [Bell’s] great achievements, and he is one of the great Anglican heroes of the 20th century”. With respect, I don’t see how these two statements can possibly both be true at the same time. If Bishop Bell sexually abused “Carol” repeatedly over a period of four years, it emphatically does diminish his achievements.

At the very least, the Church of England should suspend forthwith Bishop Bell’s commemoration on 3 October (as the Episcopal Church in the United States has already done) with a view to removing it from the liturgical calendar entirely. It would also seem advisable that Bishop Bell’s name be removed from any church institution or building in order to send the clearest of messages that paedophiles are not to be celebrated. And, if the Archbishop genuinely believes Bell to be an abuser, he should stop describing him as a “hero”, as it is clearly wholly inappropriate.

But it seems unlikely that any of these things will ever happen, because almost no one else who has reviewed the case against Bishop Bell appears to believe him guilty, even on the balance of probabilities. And, indeed, many of them loudly continue to declare him innocent. Meanwhile, the liturgical calendar ticks slowly on and clergy are left wondering “What should we do on 3 October? Whom are we to believe?”

It seems to me that the only possible way to break this unfortunate impasse is for the Church to commission the one thing that Archbishop Welby seems keen, inexplicably, to avoid at all costs: an independent review of the evidence against Bishop Bell which declares authoritatively on his guilt, or otherwise. I am at a loss to understand why this was not included within the remit of the Carlile review, as it would have avoided the current confusion. But we cannot continue to be asked to believe both that Bell was a paedophile and that he continues to be an Anglican hero, as though sexual abuse of a five-year old is no more than an unfortunate character flaw that can be discreetly overlooked in the face of ecclesial achievements. It most definitely is not.

41 Hobhouse Close
Great Barr
Birmingham B42 1HB


From the Revd Dr Barry Orford

Sir, — Amid the widespread dismay and anger at Archbishop Justin Welby’s statements concerning Bishop George Bell, a disturbing fact must not be overlooked. But for the concerned individuals who banded together to demand justice for Bishop Bell, the official presumption of his guilt would have been generally accepted, and his reputation wrecked at the hands of a now discredited committee for which the Bishop of Chichester must accept final responsibility. This is shocking in itself, and in what it suggests about the Church of England’s approach to questions of truth.

The only acceptable resolution of this miserable affair is for the Archbishop and Bishop to express contrition and declare that no shadow remains over Bishop Bell’s name. Perhaps this might best be done during a service in Chichester Cathedral celebrating the life and achievements of George Bell.

That the claimant in the case was abused as a child is credible. There has been no convincing evidence presented for believing that she was abused by Bishop Bell. Why is it so difficult for Archbishop Welby and Dr Warner to admit this?

Flat B, 8 Hampstead Square
London NW3 1AB


Public/private sectors after Carillion collapse

From the Revd John Clarke

Sir, — While I agree with the Revd Geoffrey Smith’s article on Carillion’s collapse (Comment, 26 January) that PFI was a mistake, I do not agree with his anti-profit bias. “As costs rise, the private sector makes more profit, and the taxpayer incurs more cost.”

Surely, the whole problem is that Carillion didn’t make enough profit. He claims that until recently the shareholders have been well rewarded. On what does he base this? From 2014 to 2017, before the recent clash, the share price showed steady decline.

In the parable of the talents, our Lord gives ample support for well-earned profit. Let us put aside caricatures of greedy capitalists, and remember that a minority of shares are held by private individuals, far more being held by a combination of pension funds, charities, government, and so on.

The article says that “the prophets are ringing the bells of change.” Doubtless so; but let us hope that the future involves healthy partnership between a well-funded public sector and a thoroughly profitable private sector. Each needs the other.

St John’s House, Church Lane
South Moreton OX11 9AF


Canon Dyer is well equipped for new diocese

From Canon Gordon Oliver

Sir, — I write to reassure those who are concerned that Canon Anne Dyer’s not being a car driver will limit her ability to minister as Bishop of Aberdeen & Orkney: they need not be anxious about this or any other aspect of her appointment (Letters, 26 January).

For ten years, I was privileged to have her as a close ministerial colleague in the Ministry and Training department of Rochester diocese. Indeed, I was her budget-holder. She was one of three of our department staff who did not drive. I can testify that she always delivered her ministry, at times in unsocial hours and in stretching contexts, on time and within budget.

She is a priest of deep Christian faith whose discipleship has been tested and found to be well-rooted in Christ and refreshed with resurrection joy.

In my 40-odd years of ordained ministry, I have worked with around a dozen bishops, and personally know many more. All of them are sinners redeemed by Christ, like the rest of us; all of them have personal and professional challenges to face in the exercise of their ministries; and all of them stand in deep need of the grace of Christ within themselves and within their fellow priests and deacons. Aberdeen & Orkney is about to receive a cracking good bishop in whose appointment I and many others rejoice.

112 Bush Road, Cuxton
Rochester ME2 1HA


I don’t see anything bland about A Vicar’s Life

From Mr John Saville

Sir, — I am surprised that Prebendary Gillean Craig (TV, 26 January) finds the BBC TV series A Vicar’s Life bland and failing to tackle the gritty issues. The first episode dealt at length with one incumbent ministering, at obvious emotional cost to herself, to a dying parishioner, and another dealing with a break-in and trying to deter further attempts. If that is bland, what qualifies as gritty?

At a time when I feel ashamed of many things that the Church does, I am glad to be reminded of those that keep me coming.

3 Melbourn Close, Duffield
Belper DE56 4FX


Hidden in full sight

From the Rt Revd John Dennis

Sir, — A word of encouragement to Margaret Buchanan (Letters, 19 January), whom I know well: as a one-time bell-ringer who finds one of his few remaining duties in church is to chime the solitary bell that his parish sports, I find the same as she does. As people, all of whom I regard as my friends, pass by, they practically all fail to acknowledge me. I find the only answer is to take the initiative and do the hailing — then if possible, and later if not.

7 Conifer Close
Winchester SO22 6SH


Benedict Biscop: a correction and an addition

From Dr Bernhard M. Krischan

Sir, — I must point out an error in your use of an image purporting to be Benedict Biscop alongside the Revd Adrian Leak’s article (Faith, 19 January).

The painting in question actually forms part of a very significant art collection of Carolingian frescoes in an eighth-century church in the village of Mals, in South Tyrol. It depicts a donor patron of this church, who, indicated by the square halo, was not a saint, and was probably alive at the time.

33 Horse Street, Chipping Sodbury
Bristol BS37 6DA


From Mr Graham Trasler

Sir, — The Revd Adrian Leak’s article on Benedict Biscop mentions Benedict Biscop’s successor as joint abbot, Ceolfrid, and the three copies of the codex that he commissioned. It was an extraordinary achievement and to be celebrated. But he goes on to say “It is now kept there [Florence], in the Laurentian Library.”

That is, sadly, an opportunity missed. The codex was on display in Paris in 2014, and — this is the point I would like to underline — it will be coming to the British Library from October 2018 to February 2019, and will be displayed alongside the Lindisfarne Gospels and in an Anglo-Saxon context.

It will be the first time the codex has been in England in 1302 years. It is surely worth telling as many people as possible, as it is the earliest complete Bible made in England.

30 Cole Close
Andover SP10 4NL

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