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Let’s not be hasty: Synod opts for consultation before safeguarding upheaval

24 February 2024

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The lead bishop for safeguarding, the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Joanne Grenfell

The lead bishop for safeguarding, the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Joanne Grenfell

APOLOGIES and accountability were demanded, and offered, during Saturday’s General Synod debate on safeguarding, but no decisive next steps were approved.

Amendments that would have committed the Church of England to a new, alternative safeguarding system were rejected in favour a period of consultation.

The debate focused on two reports: Dr Sarah Wilkinson’s report on the demise of the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) (News, 11 December 2023), and the report compiled by the former chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), Professor Alexis Jay, which was published only three days before (News, 21 February). Much of the debate concentrated on this latter report, which recommended the creation of two independent charities to carry out and scrutinise the Church’s safeguarding work.

A series of amendments were proposed which called for the urgent adoption Professor Jay’s recommendations, notwithstanding uncertainties aired since the report was released about how the proposed changes will affect safeguarding staff currently employed at diocesan and national level (News, 23 February).

At the outset of the debate, the lead bishop for safeguarding, the Bishop of Stepney, Dr Joanne Grenfell, conceded that the Church had “not yet gained the trust and respect” of survivors of church-based abuse.

She thanked Professor Jay and Dr Wilkinson for the work they’d done, and assured members that the response group, the creation of which was being proposed in the motion, would consult on the next steps and bring its findings to the Synod for a decision to be made.

“This is urgent work. It is not straightforward, but it deserves thorough, balanced, courageous, and open-hearted consideration, to help us together to reach a place where the Church can be both safe and trusted,” she said.

It was an approach that she was to repeat in response to arguments for the immediate and wholesale adoption of Professor Jay’s recommendations.

The Archdeacon of Liverpool, the Ven. Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, who has recently become a member of the Archbishops’ Council, said that “the time for debate on whether we need an independent body for safeguarding is past”, and urged the Church to “get on and do it”.

The Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, also spoke in favour of one of the amendments endorsing Professor Jay’s recommendations — a position which it transpired was a minority one among her episcopal colleagues.

Dr Hartley said that she did not feel the Church had a choice about adopting the proposals, and suggested that the novelty of the proposed structure should not be a reason for resisting it’s creation. Rather, the Church of England had an opportunity show “leadership” in creating independent bodies to take over safeguarding.

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, however, spoke against the immediate rubber-stamping of Professor Jay’s recommendations, and it was his view that prevailed.

If safeguarding was outsourced, a tighter definition of the term would be required — but a broad definition of safeguarding had “served us well”, he said. It allowed for investigation of non-statutory kinds of safeguarding, such as spiritual abuse, he said — a category that the Jay report suggested should be removed.

The proposed new structures would remove safeguarding responsibilities from bishops, but, he said: “I want to be held accountable for my own safeguarding practice, and I need convincing that these proposals will deliver that accountability.”

In a vote by Houses, an amendment to request a draft measure based on Professor Jay’s proposals to come before the Synod in July, brought by Clive Billenness (Europe), was carried narrowly in the House of Laity: 83-80, with eight recorded abstentions.

But the amendment was rejected firmly by the House of Bishops (27-8, two abstentions), and the House of Clergy (95-62, seven abstentions).

Other bishops who argued in favour of a consultation period before making any decisions included the Bishop of Bath & Wells, Dr Michael Beasley, who expressed concern about how a shift to operationally independent safeguarding would affect current staff employed in the dioceses.

He was also worried that a hasty decision would lead to a “botched and rushed implementation” of the reports’ findings.

The latter point echoed a short speech made by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the start of the debate, who said that the Church should act “as fast as is wise”.

In this context, he offered an apology for his actions concerning the ISB, accepting Dr Wilkinson’s finding that he had been in “too much of a hurry”.

 

APOLOGIES were the object of the two amendments which were successfully added to the motion — one offered to “survivors impacted by the matters described within the Wilkinson report”, the other to the members of the ISB for “stress, harm and professional embarrassment”.

For some, however, apologies did not go far enough.

“Apology after apology after another bloody apology will not do,” said the Revd Robert Thompson (London). He called on Archbishop Welby and the secretary-general of the Archbishops’ Council, William Nye, to “embody” the apology by resigning.

His speech was met with scattered applause. The next, in which a member of the Archbishops’ Council, Alison Coulter (Winchester), expressed her apology, was more audibly supported.

Proposing the amendment to extend an apology to the members of the ISB, Martin Sewell (Rochester) said that Steve Reeves’s and Jasvinder Sanghera’s continued, unpaid, support for survivors demonstrated “true Christianity”.

Another of Mr Sewell’s amendments identified a number of individuals whom he said were responsible for the “collapse” of “confidence in the safeguarding culture of the Church of England”. Those identified were the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the other members of the Archbishops’ Council, including Mr Nye, the lead bishop for safeguarding, and “senior secretariat members”.

His amendment was resisted by Dr Grenfell on the basis that it was “indiscriminate”, and had “no constructive goal at its heart”. Those identified would want to apologise, she suggested, even if some — like herself — were not in post at the time that the ISB was disbanded.

The amendment lapsed as not enough members stood for the amendment to proceed to debate.

At times, procedural issues threatened to distract from the substance of the debate.

The short notice at which the amendments had been drafted meant that they overlapped in places, and the structure of Mr Sewell’s raft of proposals meant that, if one were passed but later amendments fell, there was a risk that the final motion would not include any requirement for further action.

“None of us want that,” the Revd Mike Tufnell (Salisbury) said, in an intervention urging members to reject the amendment so that they didn’t risk saying nothing.

The amendment was defeated in a vote by show of hands, prompting a cry of “shame” from Jane Chevous, a survivor and one of those who were awaiting a review when the ISB was disbanded.

She told the Church Times that she thought survivors didn’t have confident in the response group that had been announced, due to the involvement of people who might be considered responsible for the current situation — a point which was made by several members during the debate, including the Bishop of Birkenhead, the Rt Revd Julie Conalty, who is deputy lead bishop for safeguarding.

Bishop Conalty added that she was “struck” that the Church was “reluctant to let go of safeguarding”, and urged it to “move with haste” towards adopting the recommendations made by experts.

Ms Chevous also expressed frustration and not being able to speak in the debate, despite having requested to do so (News, 20 February). “They’re talking about listening but they’re not doing it,” she said.

In the final part of the debate, the Archbishop of York joined Archbishop Welby in expressing an apology for his part in the safeguarding crisis, and suggested that he backed the implementation of Professor Jay’s recommendations, but wanted a period of consultation first.

It seems likely that Archbishop Cottrell represented the views of many: the motion as amended was carried 337-21, with 20 recorded abstentions.

A press release issued by Church House after the debate gave some more detail about the next steps that would be taken: an internal team running “deep engagement” with diocesan safeguarding staff “ to unpick reactions on different elements and develop detailed proposals”, along with a survey for parish safeguarding officers and volunteers.

There would also be wider engagement with stakeholders, including a specific “survivor and victim focus group”.

 

The final motion read:

That this Synod thank Sarah Wilkinson and Alexis Jay for their work and request that the process set out in paragraph 12 of GS 2336 for forming a response to, and considering any necessary implementation of, their recommendations be pursued as a matter of priority.

That this Synod adopt and endorse the apologies expressed by the Archbishops to the Survivors impacted by the matters described within the Wilkinson Report, and specifically acknowledge and apologise for its own collegiate shortcomings within the scrutiny process.

That this Synod apologise to all members of the former Independent Safeguarding Board for the stress, harm, and professional embarrassment they have endured which have arisen as a result of the ISB formation, structuring, resourcing, implementation, and management for which they were not responsible.

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