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Letters to the Editor

25 August 2023


Defence of seal needs more rigour

From Canon Judith Maltby

Sir, — In no way do I wish to minimise the ethical complexities surrounding breaking the seal of confession to those of us in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England. Any discussion, however, must take place in full acknowledgement of the catastrophic safeguarding failures of the Church and its chronic poor performance in incorporating learning from external reviews or inquiries.

I had hoped for a more substantial defence of the seal from The Society’s submission to the IICSA response unit at the Home Office (News, 16 August). Disappointingly, the submission is thin on evidence.

The Society bishops state: “[It is a] a remote contingency, and unproven concern, that perpetrators will abuse the Seal. . . We are not aware of examples of penitents in the Church of England alleging that the ‘process’ of Confession has been in some way misused by priests to cover up instances of child sexual abuse nor indeed of the existence of any other types of such evidence” (my italics).

Two things:

First, “We are not aware . . .” Being “not aware” is not the same as being confident, especially given the terrible history of collusion and cover-up in safeguarding failures. Did The Society conduct an extensive survey of their members and perhaps the wider Catholic constituency in the Church of England? Perhaps this was done, and it would be helpful if the authors shared the evidence that underpins that statement. An appended letter from one priest, however faithful, experienced and articulate, is not an extensive evidence base.

Second, it is “an unproven concern, that perpetrators will abuse the Seal. . . we are unaware . . . of the existence of any types of such evidence.” Some familiarity with the key professional literature in this area would include Dr Marie Keenan’s study of abusing priests in the Irish Roman Catholic Church, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church (Oxford, 2012).

The majority of abusing priests whom she interviewed for her study reported that they had disclosed their abuse of children in the context of sacramental confession. But Dr Keenan found that, instead of its acting as a deterrent, it was exceptional for them to be advised to report themselves, or even to be told that they should stop. On the contrary, her study shows how sacramental confession acted as a “safe space” for abusers and enabled them to continue their abuse. Would the Society bishops let us know the professional literature that they consulted in composing their submission to the Home Office?

In mandatory reporting drawn from the confessional, distinctions need to be made between (a) victims or survivors who are adults who need the confessional as a safe space to make such a disclosure — this is the pastoral emphasis rightly made in the appended letter to The Society’s submission (although problematic if the abuser is still alive); (b) disclosures from children; and (c) disclosures from abusers. It would be good to see these distinctions articulated and addressed.

For some, however, such context-based differentiations or evidence/outcome-based arguments are irrelevant, because they believe that there are no circumstances whatsoever in which breaking the seal is a lesser evil than failure to take action that could stop a child abuser. Is that really what underpins opposition to mandatory reporting of child abuse disclosed in sacramental confession? If so, it would help this debate to state that clearly.

Chaplain, Fellow, and Dean of Welfare
Corpus Christi College
Oxford OX1 4JF

China: disinvestment is a flawed policy

From Mr John Alty

Sir — Andrew Gray urges the C of E to disinvest in Chinese firms (Comment, 18 August).

This, of course, sounds a morally attractive step. But where does it end? What about the UK and other companies that do business in China, of which there are many? Should the C of E disinvest in them? Should parishioners refuse to buy any Chinese-made goods? Had the Government not bought Chinese goods during the Covid pandemic, the consequences for public health would have been far worse than they otherwise were: almost every Covid testing kit and much of our PPE came from China.

Of course, all Chinese companies pay tax, which supports the Chinese state — as do foreign companies based in China, and probably companies selling into China. But, unless we are going to completely “decouple” the UK and Chinese economies, which would be an economic disaster and make the cost-of-living pressures that many people face far worse, we need a more focused and intelligence-led policy than one of blanket disengagement.

20 Meynell Crescent
London E9 7AS

When public ministry ends through disagreement

From the Revd Dr Nicholas Sagovsky

Sir, — As a priest with permission to officiate (PTO) in the diocese of Newcastle, I am grateful to the Ven. John Barton for his letter (4 August), in which he notes that the continued withdrawal of Lord Sentamu’s licence by the Bishop of Newcastle raises important issues. He notes that it now appears that “‘a priest may lose their licence if their public utterances are ‘inconsistent with the tone and culture’ expected by their diocesan bishop.” He is right to suggest that a precedent has been set that must be of concern to all retired clergy — especially, I would suggest, those with PTO.

The House of Bishops has committed itself to applying the Policy on Granting Permission to Officiate (2018) when granting clergy PTO (1.1). The Policy document differentiates between the position of clergy with PTO and those operating under licence (Annex 1, pp. 27-9). As I read the Policy document, the Bishop of Newcastle was within her rights when, in her Public Statement of 27 July, she announced that she was unable to grant Lord Sentamu permission to officiate (my emphasis) within the diocese of Newcastle. Whether her previous action in requiring Lord Sentamu “to step back from public ministry” was correct or just is another question.

The basis of her decision, as stated on 27 July, was her continuing concern “that [Lord Sentamu’s] public statement, following the Learning Lessons Review, is inconsistent with the tone and culture [she] expect[s] around safeguarding in Newcastle Diocese and has had a significant impact on survivors and undermined public confidence”.

The reasons that she gives (on which she does not elaborate further) are not among those suggested by the House of Bishops’ guidance as appropriate reasons for withdrawal of PTO (4.24, 6.10). The policy guidance makes clear, however, that, “There is no right of appeal against a withdrawal or refusal or non-renewal of PTO, but the cleric should be given an opportunity to put the case for why [sic] the PTO should be continued, granted or renewed” (6.2). The case for continuation, renewal, or granting of PTO would presumably be made to the same diocesan bishop who withdrew or refused it in the first place.

In the light of this, the model PTO letter (p. 39) creates a frisson when it simply says: “Your Permission to Officiate is held at the Bishop’s discretion and may be withdrawn at any time” (p. 40). For all holders of PTO (and, I guess, licence-holders), this raises a sharp question: If, in the light of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s frequent exhortations to “disagree well”, I disagree with the action of my diocesan bishop (cf. Galatians 2.11) and am adjudged by the same bishop not to have done so “well”, do I thereby imperil the continuation of my public ministry?

4 Holburn Village
Northumberland TD15 2UJ

Don’t confuse disciples with passive consumers

From Mr Anthony Stansfield

Sir, — I was not surprised to see several letters (11 August) in response to the Revd Dr Nicholas Buxton (Comment, 4 August). I was surprised, however, that none had commented on his apparent equating of “disciples” with “customers”.

If the Church is an entity distinct from its customers (in the same way as McDonald’s and Cadbury’s are distinct from the purchasers of burgers and chocolate), and disciples are the equivalent of customers, then disciples are not part of the Church, which is clearly untrue. There seems to be an unfortunate division creeping in between the Church as institution and the Church as the gathering of the people of God.

Importantly, the Church does not offer salvation: God does. Likewise, the Church does not “offer an eternal relationship with God”: God does that, too. The Church’s role is that of an enabler, not a gatekeeper.

Perhaps a better analogy is that the Church is the advertising agency: a body asked by the principal producer (God) to assist with getting the message out through the various channels to which it has access. In the case of the Church, some of those channels are surely the people of many backgrounds, ages, and locations who make up its membership: the “disciples” who, far from being passive consumers, are an important asset.

Finally, a good advertising agency brings together an understanding of the product with an understanding of the target customers and how to get a message to them memorably.

To expand on Horace Mitchell’s analogy with the mobile phone, we might not have known that we needed mobile phones (let alone phones with cameras), but we did know that people like to talk with each other. Mobile phones are not a completely new thing: they are just the latest example of a technology to help us to communicate, part of a long line that includes writing, the postal service, and more traditional phones. They weren’t marketed as something unprecedented, but as a novel solution to an old problem.

If this analogy works, then it implies that the task for the Church is to show how God’s offer of relationship meets the existing felt needs of the outside world.

12 Rushmoor Grove
Backwell, Bristol BS48 3BW

Broken-marriage ‘tax’

From Dr Margaret Wilkinson

Sir, — I read with interest Hannah Rich’s article on ending child poverty (Comment, 18 August). Child poverty is, indeed, a national scandal, and your readers should be aware of the effects of the two-child limit on tax credits. They may, however, not be aware of the “tied-housing tax” that affects children who, when their parents’ marriage ended, left the vicarage with a non-clergy parent.

Child maintenance is calculated on taxable income only, which means that the value of tied housing is excluded from the calculations. This means that the monthly maintenance for each child is more than £100 less from their clergy parent than it would have been without the provision of tied housing.

These figures are based on the 50th report of the Central Stipends Authority, published by the Archbishops’ Council in 2022, and the latest Child Maintenance calculations for families with two or three children staying six or more nights a week with the non-clergy parent.

Chair, Broken Rites
27 River Grove Park
Beckenham BR3 1HX

Rare thank-you letter

From Mrs Gertrude Robins

Sir, — Canon Mark Oakley is so right about “giving thanks” (Diary, 4 August). My husband Ian Robins wrote to Gerald Butt to thank him for a helpful article in the Church Times (no response necessary).

He did reply, saying that it was the first time in 40 years of journalism that he had had a response to anything he had written. May they both rest in peace and rise in glory. It nearly was “too late”, as Evelyn Waugh said.

33 Manorfields, Whalley
Clitheroe, Lancashire BB7 9UD

The cat-flap timeline

From Mr John Appleby

Sir, — You show an early cat-flap (or hole) in Exeter, described as the oldest, but without a specific age (News, 18 August). Yet, it has often been claimed that Isaac Newton, while merely discovering calculus, invented the cat-flap (c.1655). At his uncle’s farm in Lincolnshire, there is a hole in the barn door for the cat, with a smaller hole adjacent for the kittens (which presumably needed a lower sill).

38 Beech Grove
Whitley Bay NE26 3PL

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