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Bishop of Newcastle: Synod delays on safeguarding are ‘disgraceful’

26 February 2024

Same-sex marriage ‘not incompatible with doctrine’ she says in wide-ranging interview

Diocese of Newcastle

The Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley

The Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley

THE Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, has termed it “disgraceful” that the General Synod did not agree immediately to adopt a new, independent safeguarding structure. She has linked the issue to wider questions of governance in the C of E, including concerns about the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process.

In a wide-ranging interview on Sunday afternoon, Dr Hartley said that she had initially been disappointed that the Synod had not unequivocally accepted the recommendations of Professor Alexis Jay (News, 24 February).

“Having reflected on it overnight, and some of the response to it, I thought, ‘No, it’s disgraceful that Synod can’t embrace this positively,’” she said on Sunday.

She had used the same term in a social media post on Sunday morning, and in response, the Revd Lizzi Green wrote: “I’m a survivor as well as a priest. One of the reasons I didn’t pursue anything formally whilst my abuser was alive is because the first person I told, a senior cleric, utterly ignored what I had said . . . So watching its play out in Synod is incredibly painful.”

Dr Hartley said that she hadn’t been expecting to speak in the debate, but had been “quite shocked when it became clear that, while, I think, there is an intention to move forward, what came across was delay and obfuscation through a desire to consult and to set up a response group.”

An amendment to which Dr Hartley spoke in support asked for a Measure to be drafted that would implement Professor Jay’s proposals. The amendment was carried narrowly in the House of Laity, but lost by a significant margin in the Houses of Bishops and Clergy.

Supporting the amendment was a “no-brainer”, she said on Sunday, and expressed disappointment that only seven of her episcopal colleagues had agreed. “The Bishops will be seen as failing victims and survivors. And what have we got to be afraid of in following the Jay recommendations?”

Concerns expressed about the way in which the recommendations might affect diocesan safeguarding staff were not convincing, she said. “My understanding is that there will still be a local element,” she said. The diocesan safeguarding adviser in Newcastle had been “very positive” about the proposals.

“I get the anxiety around it — but let that not be about delay or having yet another process for consultation,” Dr Hartley said. “This was a real opportunity for the Church of England, as the Established Church, to step up and take leadership, after so many years of failure; and we’ve just blown it. I think that’s really distressing.”

The LLF process was “another casualty of governance and leadership challenges”, she said, though she was not without hope on these broad issues of governance: in the racial-justice debate earlier on Sunday (News, 26 February), “we glimpsed the Church as it can be: speaking with power, conviction, hope, and justice.

“And yet, we seem unable to do the same thing with safeguarding and with LLF matters; so there’s a bit of a disconnect for me in terms of how we engage with issues of inclusivity and justice.”

On 1 February, Dr Hartley resigned as one of the co-lead bishops for the LLF process, citing “serious concerns” about the appointment of a new interim theological adviser to the House of Bishops (News, 1 February).

During her brief time at the head of the LLF process, she had the “dawning realisation that, actually, the co-lead bishops I don’t think were really given the opportunity to co-lead in how I understand co-leading, which is: you’re part of a process, but you make decisions, and people help you implement those.

“That was not my experience, and I think that speaks to issues of governance, leadership, and process, and how we just haven’t got those right still in the Church.”

The process of the appointment of the Revd Dr Tom Woolford — who had been outspoken in his opposition to the introduction of blessings for same-sex couples — as interim theological adviser to the House of Bishops was “symptomatic of systemic issues that I alone didn’t have the power or authority to tackle”.

“It was not a good process in my understanding of appointment practices,” she said, suggesting that it had been unduly informal and ad hoc.

At the time of Dr Hartley’s resignation, the Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, who chairs the Faith and Order Commission and was involved in Dr Woolford’s appointment, defended the professionalism of the process. The interview panel had been chaired by the secretary-general of the Archbishops’ Council, William Nye, and assurances had been sought that Dr Woolford would act with impartiality in his new post, Dr Innes said.

“I’m perfectly happy to live with complexity and difference,” Dr Hartley said on Sunday. “Increasing polarisation” was a challenge, and informed the need for the debate to be “reframed” or “reset”, but the process by which the new theological adviser had been appointed “derailed what we were trying to do.

“I just completely lost faith at that point. I thought, ‘I just can’t do this. I won’t do this.’ Actually, it wasn’t ‘I can’t do it’, because I probably could have kept going. I just thought: ‘No, this needs calling out. It’s not acceptable.’”

In Sunday’s interview, she confirmed that she was in favour of “full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the Church”, including the introduction of same-sex marriage.

“I do not think that that is incompatible with doctrine. I do not think it’s incompatible with people who do not share that view. I believe that we are a broad Church, and I don’t think it’s a first-order issue.

“I think that we can live in that space. I am aware that not everybody agrees with that, even in my diocese, but I don’t believe that that means that I can’t still be their bishop and allow them, with their integrity, to have those views,” she said.

The LLF paper that is due to be debated on Monday afternoon argues for some form of settlement to allow the process to move forward (News, 9 February); but, on Sunday, Dr Hartley said that she didn’t know “what the settlement would look like at this point; so I can’t say whether it’s a good or a bad thing.

“I just continue to hold out hope for the unity of the Church,” she said, echoing comments made by the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, who had been co-leading the process with Dr Hartley, and is now fronting it alone, despite efforts to find another co-lead.

On Friday, Bishop Snow had responded to the question why a settlement was being considered, even though the Synod had voted earlier against amendments calling for some form of structural accommodation for opponents of the introduction of blessings for same-sex couples.

He said: “When I was made a bishop, I made a promise to uphold the unity of the Church. That matters to me; that matters deeply. I’m sorry, but I don’t think this body or any other can ask me to do anything [that] asks me to endanger the unity of the Church.”

Some of the votes in the past had been tight, however, and, he said, he wanted to “get to the point where we can reach a broader agreement for the way forward”.

That said, the outcome of votes had to be accepted. “I may not have voted for these things personally, but I’m very clear that, on taking on this role, it is to implement the will of Synod.”

He admitted that he felt like a bit of a “mug” for accepting the job of steering the LLF process, and that alternatives to a co-leadership model were being discussed, including the creation of a “programme board” to lead the process.

“We need to model working together across difference,” he said. “I still believe there is the possibility of an agreement in which we can live together.”

The LLF debate is scheduled to begin on Monday afternoon, and to continue on Tuesday morning. There are suggestions, however, that an attempt will be made to move to next business on Monday evening, before a vote has been taken.

The “key thing” would be what happened at the next group of sessions in July, Dr Hartley said on Sunday. “I suppose the fear is that, if we constantly keep pushing it to the next Synod, then are we ever going to reach a point where we draw a line and move on?”

She remains hopeful that this will happen eventually. “But it’s not clear at the moment what, when, and how that will be.”

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