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Press: You wait for one church scandal, and then . . .

05 February 2021


THIS was the week when the various disciplinary scandals that had been bubbling under the radar all autumn blew up into the mainstream press.

Gabriella Swerling in the Telegraph got a couple of excellent stories out of Christ Church, Oxford — first with the news that the Charity Commission had responded to the appeal by Martyn Percy’s supporters in the autumn and written to all the fellows of college formally to ask in what sense the millions that they had spent on legal fees and PR companies, in the attempt to oust him, could be said to advance a charitable purpose; second, it seems, to remind them that, as trustees, they might be personally responsible if the actions of the Governing Body were found uncharitable.

This story had only been up for three hours before it was supplanted or supplemented by another one, which led with the response of the ruling clique on the Governing Body: “Now a further leaked internal leaked email between the trustees has been shared with The Telegraph, revealing their anger at the watchdog’s review.

“It reads: ‘Considerable anger was expressed at Governing Body about the nature of the Charity Commission’s communication and we are taking this up with the Commission. However, with regard to the enquiries they seek to make, we should feel confident that we have absolutely nothing to be concerned about.’

“It said members are ‘welcome to contact the Censor Theologiae or Senior Censor if you would like support in responding. . . You may also ask to have a representative with you and, if it is a formal interview, you are entitled to legal representation. This is unlikely to happen, but we thought it would be helpful to share this advice.’”

This last sentence would read even better in Japanese, alongside the Emperor Hirohito’s explanation in August 1945 that “The war has proceeded not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”


THEN there was the reinstatement of Lord Carey’s PTO (News, 29 January), also given a good spread in the Telegraph, with an article by the Lord himself. This deserved close reading. There are two questions involved. The first is whether it made any sense to remove his PTO for safeguarding failures when he clearly posed no threat whatsoever to anyone vulnerable, nor has ever personally done so.

The second is whether he long ago behaved in ways that enabled abusers before his retirement — and we know from the case of Bishop Peter Ball that he did. That is why his PTO was withdrawn in retirement the first time (News, 30 June 2017), and restored only provisionally, and that provisionality explains why it was withdrawn for a second time when his connection to John Smyth was examined (News, 26 June 2020). You would not gather this from his article.

He does complain that the core group that examined the allegations does not believe his protestations of ignorance about Smyth, but he regards this as further proof of the unfairness of the system. I’m sure he has sincerely forgotten whatever he may have been told at the time.

With that said, he makes telling points about the arbitrariness and cruelties of the present system. “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. . . The current Bishop of Lincoln, Christopher Lowson, has been suspended since May 2019 [his suspension was lifted this week]. What monstrous system of justice leaves a bishop in such a difficult quandary for so long? In contrast to these cases, and mine, recent safeguarding complaints about both the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have been closed quickly with judicious speed and finality.”

It all brought to mind some lovely lines of Auden: “But hear the morning’s injured weeping and know why: Ramparts and souls have fallen; the will of the unjust Has never lacked an engine; still all princes must Employ the fairly-noble unifying lie.”


NICK HELLEN in The Sunday Times got hold of a document putting the skeleton into the spectre that has been haunting the Church’s finances. “The damage inflicted on the Church of England by the pandemic is revealed in a leaked internal document which warns up to 20 per cent of its regular worshippers may never return. One bishop and another senior source said the number of paid priests could be cut by 10 to 20 per cent, as the church cuts costs by recruiting more unpaid clergy.”

The comments online to this story tended to confirm its estimate of the Church’s loss of esteem. When The Guardian published anything about the Church of England, it would attract mockery from atheists; when The Times does, the tone is just as hostile, but from the other direction. The atheists are convinced that the Church is behaving as reprehensibly as they want it to; the Times readers that it is failing to live up to their ideals. They believe that the Christians should live up to our ideals and believe impossibilities, so that the rest of us don’t have to. Hence the rage and scorn when they fail to do so.

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