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A lament for Soul Survivor failures — but no new independent inquiry

08 July 2024

Synod votes to significantly amend a motion calling for a new report on the alleged abuse

Sam Atkins/Church Times

The Revd Robert Thompson (London) moves his motion

The Revd Robert Thompson (London) moves his motion

A CALL for a new independent inquiry into abuse in the Soul Survivor network was lost at the General Synod in York on Sunday, despite support from Charismatic Evangelical members.

A private member’s motion, moved by the Revd Robert Thompson (London), argued that neither the investigation by the National Safeguarding Team (NST) (News, 8 September 2023) nor the inquiry currently being undertaken by Fiona Scolding KC (News, 9 February) were “sufficient or right in principle”, and called upon the Archbishops’ Council to commission its own review.

The remit of the two reviews failed to deal with “the wider cultural and systemic contexts that allowed this abuse to occur, to continue, and to go unchecked for nearly 40 years”, an accompanying paper argued.

The motion was challenged by the Bishop of Stepney, Dr Joanne Grenfell, the lead Bishop for safeguarding, who argued that the NST’s investigation had been “handled well”.

“I don’t see enough benefit in a costly re-investigation . . . with no guarantee that victims, survivors, and those involved in a variety of other ways would be willing to put themselves through potentially traumatising further interviews,” she told members.

Her long amendment removed almost the entirety of Mr Thompson’s motion, calling instead for the Archbishops’ Council to “ensure that learning from the review into allegations of abuse within the Soul Survivor network currently being undertaken by independent King’s Counsel Fiona Scolding is considered in any recommendations relating to the future of church safeguarding.”

Her amendment was carried overwhelmingly in the House of Bishops, by 20 to two, with eight abstentions. The vote was much closer in the other two Houses: 84 to 75 in the House of Clergy (seven abstentions), and 80 to 78 in the House of Laity (six abstentions).

When moving her amendment, Dr Grenfell had argued that it was not a challenge to “much of the spirit” of Mr Thompson’s motion. The substantiated allegations against Mike Pilavachi, the founder of Soul Survivor, were “appalling”; his actions had “ruined people’s lives”. Among the lessons to be learned were those concerning “the leadership and theology that allowed such behaviour to go unchecked”, and “the disciplinary and other processes that weren’t adequate enough to hold this abuser fully to account”.

“We need the culture across the Church of England to change,” she said. But the motion was not the “most constructive” way of promoting this.

Last week, Matt Redman, a former Soul Survivor worship leader, and his wife Beth, published a statement in support of a new independent review (News, 5 July). Dr Grenfell said that Mr Redman had spoken of “good interactions” with the NST and had emphasised: “Our words were definitely not meant as a criticism of them.”

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Bishop of Stepney, Dr Joanne Grenfell, the lead Bishop for safeguarding challenges the motion

She went on to raise concerns about Mr Thompson’s accompanying paper, which listed, among the areas that a new inquiry should explore “semi-detached organisations”, including Bishop’s Mission Orders and the Myriad church-planting programme (News, 2 July 2021). There were “complex governance issues” here, she agreed. “But I would feel that such an approach, which looks to me to be a bit of a side-swipe at church-planting and missional communities, doesn’t help, and may even be counter-productive.

”Abuse can take place in any part of the Church. The rest of us don’t get let off the hook that easily.”

Mr Thompson firmly denied that his paper had a sectarian edge, attesting that he had personally benefitted from eight years of worshipping in a Charismatic Evangelical setting. Survivors — who had assisted in the drafting of his paper — wanted the “structural aspects, the systemic aspects, the theological aspects to be looked at”. He urged the Synod to put them at the centre of the debate.

Dr Grenfell’s amendment “shifts the balance of power”, he warned. Trust in the Archbishops’ Council was “pretty low at present”.

It was a point picked up by other speakers. The Revd Professor Judith Maltby (Universities and TEIs) professed herself “a little flabbergasted” that the Archbishops’ Council had been nominated as the group to take the work forward, given its failures in the handling of safeguarding, recently set out in the “forensic analysis” of the Wilkinson report (News, 11 December 2023). “Trust in safeguarding at the centre is broken,” she warned. “A lack of self-awareness here is the kindest way that I can put that.”

Mr Thompson also heard support for his recommendation that a review consider semi-detached organisations. Taking a different tack to her colleague, the deputy lead bishop for safeguarding, the Bishop of Birkenhead, the Rt Revd Julie Conalty, told members: “Pioneering, church-planting, and creativity cannot be at the expense of good safeguarding governance and practice.”

The chair of the House of Laity, Dr Jamie Harrison, confessed to being “deeply worried” about “para-church networks”, referring to the Nine O’Clock Service in Sheffield, Peter Ball’s community, and the networks around John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher. “We are still seeing the impact of a lack of governance, a lack of control, of understanding of these other networks, which sort of sit halfway out of the Church,” he said.

His assertion that “on the ground, safeguarding is much stronger that it has been” found some support. The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, was praised by the lay chair of the St Albans diocesan synod, Peter Adams, who said that much of what was called for in the original motion had already taken place in his diocese.

In his own speech, Dr Smith warned that, in calling for another review before Ms Scolding’s was complete, there was a danger “that we might jump to conclusions or even criticise a report which we have not yet seen”.

Mr Thompson heard expressions of support from speakers in the Charismatic Evangelical tradition.

Canon Kate Massey (Coventry) told the Synod the views of a friend, also a survivor, who “loves and ministers within the Charismatic Evangelical tradition in the Church of England”. Their “deepest desire” was “for their tradition to learn the lessons needed to be a safe and healthy place for all who grow in faith there.”

“All traditions have their vulnerabilities,” Canon Massey observed. “This motion is not and must not become a witch-hunt against a branch of the Church of England or individuals within it. But rather, like all other traditions, there are cultural and theological aspects of the Charismatic Evangelical tradition — which is also my own — which can allow unhealthy or damaging leadership practices to develop.”

The Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Sean Doherty (Universities and TEIs), described how the Soul Survivor festivals had been “instrumental” in his own journey of faith, since first attending in 1996 and serving as a volunteer many times. He had “lost count” of the number of ordinands who had come forward because of their experiences at Soul Survivor.

“I continue to be so grateful to God for the many positive ways that Soul Survivor has impacted my life and the Church,” he told members. He had “no anti-Soul Survivor axe to grind”, but sought to support the motion as a “card-carrying Charismatic. This is an opportunity for us to exercise some self-reflection, and learn what lesson we possibly can about how our theology and practice can be misused and abused. It’s not about undermining our movement, but strengthening it by ensuring we have as safe and healthy a culture as we possibly can.”

The Revd Dr Ben Sargent (Winchester) also spoke in support of the motion, describing how another review — into the abuse perpetrated by Jonathan Fletcher (News, 26 March 2021) — had prompted deep reflection within the Evangelical constituency of which he was a part. He was working hard to invite challenge and scrutiny and to eliminate competitiveness in his leadership team.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, who last week announced that he had withdrawn the Lambeth Award he gave to Mr Pilavachi in 2020, said that the debate had raised questions about ”the slight gap in the way we look at things, as to how we deal with very powerful leaders, of which thank God we have some. You don’t want to quench them, but you do want to make sure that they don’t go bonkers . . . and are not irresponsible in their actions.”

Before the vote on the amended motion was taken, Mr Thompson’s expression of regret was echoed by Simon Friend, a layman from Exeter who had worshipped in Charismatic churches for the past 40 years and had sent his own children to Soul Survivor.

To have the Archbishops’ Council look into the matter, given recent history, was “shocking”, he said. “I don’t think this is going to be received well outside of this chamber. . .

“We need to look at how power operates in large, successful churches, where it is extremely difficult to call that power out,” he said. “It’s so difficult to call out something that is going wrong without it being extremely costly personally, because you end up being excluded from the group and somehow being marginalised.”

The amended motion passed by 303 to 20 with 38 abstentions.

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