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Letters to the Editor

21 July 2023


Crowe inquiry into Sargeant fraud

From Mrs Margery Roberts

Sir, — The Church of England rarely learns from its all-too-frequent post-disaster reviews. I hope, however, that it will learn lessons from the inquiry by the accountancy firm Crowe into the fraud carried out by Martin Sargeant in the diocese of London (News, 7 July). Crowe’s report, now published on the London diocese’s website, tells a sorry story of poor governance, misplaced trust, naïvety, and amateurism. Plenty of lessons to be learnt there.

Yet, serious though those matters are, there are more fundamental issues that must be faced, not only by the diocese of London, but by most dioceses. Those of us who were parish officers when Martin Sargeant’s powers were at their height experienced a culture that was oppressive, artificial, and sometimes bullying. The declared aim of the London hierarchy was success, and that meant a combination of church growth and money.

Everybody was expected to rally under the banner of Capital Vision 2020, to produce, somehow, thousands of Ambassadors for Christ and to expose every corner of church sites to lucrative development. That was fine if you had those resources, but, if you were a parish with little scope for expansion or church-planting, you felt worthless, however hard-working and loyal you were.

In such a culture, combined with the sloppy governance identified in Crowe’s review, an intelligent fraudster could thrive. Plausible and with a talent for property development, he was the fixer that the diocese wanted. And they were prepared to pay handsomely. At a meeting held in St Margaret Lothbury on 29 June to discuss the Crowe report, the overwhelming emotion in the audience of City clergy and laity was anger.

Efforts at church growth and the raising of funds are not undesirable in themselves. But they should never be allowed to create a culture of intimidation, recklessness, and, as in London, serious fraud, all of which are counter-productive. There must be a kinder way.

7 Nunnery Stables
St Albans
Hertfordshire AL1 2AS

Synod: safeguarding, procedures, and governance

From Mr Clive Billenness and 13 other members of the General Synod

Sir, — We, the undersigned, are writing to jointly express our deep concern at the series of events at General Synod in York a fortnight ago which culminated in the resignation of our colleague Gavin Drake, who has been one of the strong voices for more effective safeguarding arrangements in the Church of England (News, 14 July).

We are concerned that the Standing Orders of the General Synod, originally intended for the orderly conduct of the Church’s principal legislative body, are now being misused to suppress proper debate on issues of significant interest throughout the Church. Two particularly egregious examples of this from the recent meeting of Synod are as follows.

First, on Sunday, when members were told that the two former members of the Independent Safeguarding Board, Jasvinder Sanghera and Steve Reeves, could not address the Synod because both Archbishops had not approved the suspension of the relevant Standing Order to enable this. This was blandly stated despite its being generally known that the Archbishop of Canterbury had left the Synod for urgent family reasons.

The consequences of exploiting this loophole to prevent free speech are horrendous. Must we in future require both our Archbishops to remain at the Synod irrespective of personal circumstances or other commitments? Surely not in a loving and caring Church. Surely, also, this could not have been the intention of the original authors of these Standing Orders — which makes this application of that Standing Order abusive.

And then on Monday, when Mr Drake proposed a motion critical of the Archbishops’ Council, he consented to a short adjournment of his item to allow some important financial business to be conducted. He was then ambushed when the item should have resumed, by being told that three-quarters of the Synod now had to vote to approve the resumption. A vote was then taken without any alert being sounded to warn members of the Synod who were in the area outside the chamber that it was in progress.

As a result, although 175 Synod members (72 per cent of those voting) wanted the debate to continue, for the want of a few more votes their wish was frustrated. And so the debate was suppressed, very much as Mr Drake’s last attempt to raise these issues in February 2022 had been, by the use of a procedural device.

It seems to us that there is a growing perception that Synod procedures and Standing Orders are being used and abused to frustrate open debate by elected members about matters of genuine concern both to our congregations and also to the wider public in cases where these are seen as being somehow embarrassing to the hierarchy of the Church.

We, therefore, intend to begin, with other interested parties, a full, independent review of the Standing Orders of the Synod to identify where these are not conducive to proper Christian consideration of matters that can affect entire communities. We will then invite Synod members to make changes to enable them to work more effectively as well as more compassionately.

c/o 4 Rue Des Sports
09600 Léran, France

From Miss Vasantha Gnanadoss

Sir, — Your coverage of the safeguarding proceedings at York, along with your reports of subsequent related statements, leave an impression of a proliferation of safeguarding structures at national level.

Worryingly, a lack of clarity is also evident about how the structures interact. Such a situation does not serve transparency and accountability well. The situation carries the risk that safeguarding responsibilities might be accidentally or wilfully obscured.

Additionally, the structures are not consistently connected to the commitments made by the bishops in 2017 (see www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/safeguarding).

242 Links Road
London SW17 9ER

From Professor Fraser Watts

Sir, — It is very much to be welcomed that the current review of the governance of the Church of England has been honest enough to admit the serious lack of trust that now exists about how the Church of England is governed (News, 7 July). There is mistrust about the current managerial style, about several aspects of policy, and about the use of procedures.

The way in which the governance review has circumscribed its remit, however, makes it impossible for it to address this problem. There is clearly a lack of trust between the General Synod and the national institutions, but the review has decided not even to consider that relationship. That is a missed opportunity.

2B Gregory Avenue
Coventry CV3 6DL

Pensions Board agreement for housing assistance

From Dr Angus Black

Sir, — In the early 1990s, my (now late) parents accepted £40,000 from the Church of England to fund two-thirds of their retirement property overlooking the Solway Firth in north-west Cumbria. Between c.1994 and the passing of my mother in January 2023, through direct payments taken from their respective church pensions, I estimate that my parents were charged approximately £100,000 for the use of this £40,000.

I have been advised by the Church of England Pensions Board’s solicitors that the Church of England now require the return of £40,000 from my late parent’s estate “plus an additional sum equivalent to the amount by which the mortgage equity exceeds the loan remains payable” (sic, Devonshire Solicitors, 7 July).

In turn, the inference from the signed agreement of c.1990 between my late parents and the Church of England is that this same agreement neither constituted any recognised criteria of any type of mortgage arrangement nor constituted the criteria of any type of recognised loan agreement.

While Devonshire Solicitors have wholly satisfied themselves that the stance of the Church of England is legally defensible, I remain perplexed as to “Christian”, moral, and ethical justification for this grotesque profiteering from my vulnerable parents, who had both given a lifetime of dedication and service to the Church.

59 The Mount, Papcastle
Cumbria CA13 0JZ

Concern shared over RE and Worldviews shift

From Dr L. Philip Barnes

Sir, — I would like to comment on the letters (14 July) concerning the adoption of a new Worldviews approach for religious education, based on the proposals of the final report of the Commission on Religious Education. The report recommended reconceptualising religions as world-views, expanding RE to include the study both of the world-view of pupils and of non-religious world-views (25 of which are cited for illustrative purposes). The context of these proposals is that of a “crisis” in non-confessional RE (though the proposals are intended to be adopted by all schools, both faith schools and non-faith schools).

The proposals have attracted interest and a range of criticisms: that the systematic study of non-religious world-views necessarily reduces time for the study of Christianity and the “principal” religions; that the concept of “personal worldview” is problematic in itself and almost meaningless for primary-school children, given their stages of cognitive development; that there is no research base for the proposals; that the theme of moral and spiritual development is overlooked; and that while the concept of religions as world-views may have an appropriate place in philosophical studies of religion or, as has been the case, in Christian apologetics, it is an inadequate vehicle for providing pupils in schools with an understanding of the nature of Christianity, which centres on salvation.

Other criticisms could be cited. One of the commissioners, the late Professor Anthony Towey, subsequently identified an anti-religious and anti-church animus among some of the commissioners, which was, he believed, apparent in the report, and which caused him to dissociate himself from many of the conclusions. In his view, the “Commission report failed to build the ‘irresistible coalition’ necessary to effect policy change”.

That an irresistible coalition has failed to coalesce around the commission’s proposals, and that its supporters have pressed on regardless, has encouraged the emergence of a new association: the Religious Education Network. This is my interpretation of its emergence.

In conclusion, I want to make clear that I am not connected to the Independent Schools Religious Studies Association, nor have I ever been. I am a retired academic, who researches and writes on religious education, as well as on other subjects. I believe, as do the Revd Michael Wilcockson and Richard Coupe (Comment, 7 July), that the adoption of a Worldviews approach in RE represents the further secularisation of the subject.

To accuse opponents of the commission’s proposals of being “alarmist, divisive, and undermining of efforts” to improve RE, and of being holders of an “imagined conspiracy theory”, detracts from the seriousness of opposition to the transformation of RE into Worldviews Education.

Emeritus Reader in Religious and Theological Education
King’s College London
Franklin-Wilkins Building
London SE1 9NH

Not Wren: Wren-like

From Canon Peter Doll

Sir, — I was intrigued to read that Giles Coren chose to get married in St Bride’s, Fleet Street, “Because Christopher Wren didn’t do synagogues” (Quotes, 14 July). But the City of London also has the glorious Bevis Marks Synagogue, contemporary with and in the style of Wren.

56 The Close
Norwich NR1 4EG

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