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General Synod digest: critical motion follows Independent Safeguarding Board report

18 February 2022


The Bishop of Huddersfield, Dr Jonathan Gibbs

The Bishop of Huddersfield, Dr Jonathan Gibbs


THE General Synod was taken through a critical report from the chair of the new Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB), Maggie Atkinson, on Wednesday, which sets out how far, in her view, the Church must travel to prevent further safeguarding failures and to promote a safer culture (News, 11 February).

The report came to the Synod as part of an update presented jointly by the Bishop of Huddersfield, Dr Jonathan Gibbs, the lead bishop for safeguarding, and the chair of the National Safeguarding Team (NST), Zena Marshall.

Synod members had many questions for both the NST and the ISB. Dr Gibbs and Ms Marshall defended the NST’s progress and reiterated that safeguarding must be in the DNA of the whole Church. Ms Atkinson said that the ISB “would go to the barricades” to prevent the “arm’s-length board” that some favoured and which would “allow you to abdicate your responsibilities. We will need a really rigorous conversation with all of you.”

There were questions about how to pool good practice; how to listen to children; and whether there was any theological reflection on abuse. Ms Atkinson complimented the work being done with ordinands as “a culture alive to proactive engagement . . . an A-plus”.

Martin Sewell (Rochester) asked: “If I am a complainant or respondent, where do I go to get it fixed quickly? Where does the buck stop?”

The Revd Graham Hamilton (Exeter) was worried about mission creep: “You need permission to step into your space. . .” Ms Atkinson responded, to loud applause: “You will all have people in some of your parishes sitting in a bubble of misery.” Dr Gibbs reiterated: “The Church of England is a complex animal — we can’t just dictate from the centre. . . We must find a right way of doing things and taking people with us across the Church.”

Gavin Drake (Southwell & Nottingham) then proposed a following motion that both asked the Synod to express its disapproval of the paper and called for a full and independent assessment of the work and performance of the NST and the “myriad safeguarding bodies of the Church of England”.

He alleged seven failings: the use of the term “vulnerable” persons instead of “adults at risk of abuse or neglect”; the lack of reference to the creation of key performance indicators; lack of detail to enable the Synod to form a view about its effectiveness; the absence of any mention of bullying in the Church, “widely acknowledged to be a serious issue within churches”; a piecemeal approach rather than “the wholesale reform that is needed”; failure to address the concerns of the ISB’s first report; and the lack of provision for any independent external scrutiny.

Mr Drake described the ISB report as “explosive”. “It is no longer good enough for Synod just to follow the advice of the NST.”

Lively debate followed. Dr Gibbs defended the work of the NST and declared the motion flawed. The NST report to Synod had never been intended to give a strategic overview: it was an update.

He suggested there was misunderstanding and misinterpretation in Mr Drake’s motion, and told the Synod that a vote in favour would “ effectively constitute a vote of no confidence in NST before it had started. I believe it is misplaced. I would urge you to resist it.”

Some members were in favour. Clive Billenness (Europe) suggested that the report “almost turns a blind eye to bullying”, and said that his mailbox was full of “heart-breaking stories” of bullying that had caused untold harm.

Kashmir Garton (Worcester), a member of the National Safeguarding Panel and of the Probation Service, had been impressed by the wide-ranging work that the NST had so far undertaken. It was a “process of embedding, a dynamic and continuous process of improvement”.

James Cary (Bath & Wells) said that this train “was leaving the station very late. Synod is being asked to hit the brake and take the train apart. Yes, room for improvement . . . But this motion, no; it will slow down the planning.”

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) asked the Synod to move to next business. This was a following motion, he said, and the Synod had not the background briefing papers that would have made interrogation and a detailed response possible.

The chair, Professor Joyce Hill (Leeds), advised the Synod that, if it moved to next business, the motion would lapse and could not be reconsidered in the same or similar form in the life of the Synod. Mr Drake asked that the debate might instead be adjourned. Safeguarding was a major issue, he said, “and if the NST has limited function, why are we spending so much money on it?”

More points of order followed. Standing Orders prevented Mr Drake’s request for adjournment being made within a reply. Professor Hill permitted the requested counted vote. The Synod voted by 236 to 75, with 22 recorded abstentions, to move to next business.

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