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Letters to the Editor

05 January 2024


Pondering Ofsted and Ruth Perry

From Prebendary Giles King-Smith

Sir, — The recent inquest into the death of Ruth Perry, the primary-school head teacher who took her own life in January 2023 (News, 21 March 2023), knowing that her school was about to receive a negative inspection verdict from Ofsted, has brought into the open what everyone working in education already knew: that Ofsted inspections, generally sprung on schools with a day’s notice, provoke appalling levels of stress and anxiety among school staff, especially head teachers, who are held responsible for their school’s overall performance.

Alongside the tragedy of Ruth Perry’s death for her family, and the wrenching sense of unnecessary, avoidable loss and waste, this high-profile inquest has raised wider issues, not only about the way in which Ofsted conducts school inspections, but also about general trends in our culture which are damaging and unjust.

Most obviously, the idea that evaluation of performance is a process that can operate without reference to the well-being of those being evaluated has been exposed as inhumane.

You don’t have to agree with the view strongly expressed by Julia Waters — that this Ofsted inspection directly caused her sister Ruth’s death — to accept, as the coroner did, the connection. Why would a system that routinely places school staff at the mercy of sudden-death inspections, by strangers, which may or may not “lack fairness, respect and sensitivity” (as the Perry inquest found), and which certainly lack any kind of provision for excessive staff distress, be considered fit for purpose?

Second, there’s the absurdity of boiling down a complicated, multi-faceted reality — an organism like a school, or a person, or a church — into one or two words that then become the headline value: “outstanding”, “good”, “inadequate”, “requires improvement”.

As the coroner, Heidi Connor, put it, referring to two hypothetical schools: “Hypothetical school A is good in all areas, but there are safeguarding concerns which can be remedied quickly. Hypothetical school B is dreadful in all respects. The system as it currently stands will mean that these 2 hypothetical schools will receive the same overall label of ‘inadequate’. For maintained schools, both would face possible academization and job losses.”

Here is the nightmare scenario that devastated Ruth Perry: a single word that can derail careers and re-allocate control of schools. And yet it was clear that Caversham Primary was essentially a good school, with “a robust safeguarding culture”, whose flaw in safeguarding administration could easily be addressed. In this systemic determination to impose a definitive one-word verdict, are we faced with evidence of a culture that is unable to reckon with complexity in making its judgements — still less with ambiguity, uncertainty, grey areas? Must everything be labelled “good” or “bad” for us to understand it?

Third, I would argue that the default position, when something goes badly wrong, is to find someone to blame rather than to look for what can be learned. Whether fairly or not, Ruth Perry, like other leaders in her position, was assumed (and, presumably, felt herself) to be to blame when her school was judged “inadequate”.

Now, in the wake of the inquest, Ofsted (whether the particular inspection, or the wider system) is assumed to be to blame for her death. And we watch on as the purpose of the Covid Inquiry appears, as much as anything, to be about assigning blame. What seems to happen, in these, as in other high-profile cases of institutional failure, is that the blame game conveniently diverts attention from the need to appraise mistakes honestly so that positive changes can be made.

Fourth, while I stand in awe of the astonishing dedication of public servants such as Ruth Perry, the despair that she experienced at the (unmerited) collapse of her life’s work reminds me of the danger that we run when we associate the value of our life with career success or failure. How hard it is for us to see that we are more than our work, even than our life’s work!

We have, I believe, a core identity — the divine in us, in Christian terms — in which we find a deep and unshakeable affirmation of our worth which can protect us in all adversity. But we struggle to locate this core, in a culture in which blame and fault-finding take precedence over willingness to learn from our mistakes; in which compassionate concern is easily sidelined; and in which here complex issues are reduced to simplistic headlines.

My hope is that Ruth Perry’s death will not be mere loss, but will be part of a process of change, towards a more humane culture, in education and in the wider world.

4 Bicclescombe Park Road
Devon EX34 8EU

Prayers of Love and Faith and conscience

From the Revd Richard Stainer

Sir, — The Revd James Dudley-Smith (Letters, 22 December) asks why the Prayers of Love and Faith have been commended for use before provision for the protection of consciences has been made. As I understand it, no priest has to use these prayers. Rightly, it is a matter of conscience whether they choose to or not. For some of us, however, it is also a matter of urgency.

Although newly priested, I am of an age when I have to apply for permission to officiate and, therefore, do not have the time to waste while the Church of England delays and prevaricates over the issue. I was heartened to see the picture of my diocesan colleague Canon Andrew Dotchin using the prayers in his church, and I want to be able to do the same. I cannot see why all my parishioners should not be able to experience the full range of ministry that I can offer regardless of their sexual orientation. I would like to be able to do that while I still can.

Mr Dudley-Smith is right: there is division; but there needn’t be as long as priests are allowed to act according to their conscience. What is more upsetting is when some priests try to police what others want to do. Now, that is insensitive.

High Hedges, Felsham Road
Bradfield St George
Bury St Edmunds
Suffolk IP30 0AD

Failure to agree nomination for see of Carlisle

From Mrs April Alexander

Sir, — I was very sorry to read that the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) has failed to nominate for Carlisle (News, 22/29 December 2023), as it also failed to do for Oxford in 2016.

The Church Times tellingly reports that a nomination requires ten of the 14 votes on the Commission, and that four of the General Synod members, in the sessions immediately beforehand, had voted against the saying of Prayers of Love and Faith in church for gay couples. It is too early to tell exactly the extent to which those people opposing PLF are also opposed to women’s ordination and consecration, but it is fair to conclude that the overlap will be very close indeed. The issue for the Carlisle nomination might, therefore, have been that a gay candidate was clearly in the frame, or a female one. In either case, it will have had little to do with the qualities and talent presented by the candidates.

If the CNC process is to be invoked again for this bishopric, it will be interesting to see whether precisely the same Commission needs to be called, as was the case for Oxford in 2016, or whether it matters only that either one of each of the pairs might serve. I believe that there are many fine details of this new pairing arrangement to be worked out. It is unfortunate that it should be tested in this way so soon after its inception.

In any event, both women and gay clergy need to know that they should accept an invitation to be considered with great caution, if Oxford is anything to go by. Among the four interviewees for the second CNC for Oxford was a diocesan bishop of several years’ standing, and the two women interviewees (who had never had the chance to be experienced bishops by that time) had no chance at all. The Archbishops should not allow this to happen again. It is outrageous that the four per cent of parishes that “opt out” should be pandered to in this way, and the opportunity should be taken to examine carefully how it is that these parishes are so grossly over-represented on the CNC.

Transparency is far too much to ask for in this process. In the General Synod, a motion for transparency, on Professor O’Donovan’s advice, was lost comprehensively in 2019 to those whose tactics to prevent the appointment of women or gay men as diocesan bishops are dependent upon secrecy. The nomination process was also described by Professor Oliver O’Donovan in his report of 2017 as “gruelling”. This is further reason that no female or gay candidate should be invited for interview unless the process is a fair one. Ensuring this will be a hard task.

General Synod member (2000-21) and Synod representative on CNC (2013-18)
59 High Street
Redhill RH1 4PB

From Pat Johnson

Sir, — The Rt Revd Rob Saner-Haigh is now Acting Bishop of Carlisle, until 2025, because there is no agreement on the next appointment.

Facing divisive issues, the Methodist Church had the courage to agree to same-sex marriage. It lost some members.

Jesus did not compromise in his radical teaching. The chief priests and elders had no answers. Left without provision for protection of their consciences, they arrested him.

Because of the confrontational nature of the debate on the blessing of same-sex couples, the plausibility of Christianity is at stake for the next generation. The Church of England has much to learn from the courage of the Methodist Church.

Serendip, Glenridding
Penrith, Cumbria CA11 0PL

Hymn’s view of grace

From Canon Graham Pigott

Sir, — I noted a comment by the Revd Dr Ian Bradley when reviewing Amazing Grace: A cultural history of the beloved hymn (Books, 22/29 December 2023). He wrote: “Its theology is certainly questionable, not least the assertion that grace teaches our hearts to fear.” Surely, grace is awesome, undeserved, and pure gift. St Paul was very aware of that and acknowledged that God’s grace to him had not been in vain (1 Corinthians 15.10), and he did not wish to nullify the grace of God (Galatians 2.21).

An awareness of God’s grace can lead to an awe and reverence of not wanting to waste the gift; a kind of fear akin to not wanting to betray the generous love of another. In this sense, grace can “teach the heart to fear”, and, as the verse continues, “And grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed.” Grace can convict, correct, convert, and reassure that one is forgiven, accepted, and restored, stirring profound reverence, and create a root within us that does not wish to hurt the relationship, a gift.

That is a key dimension of what God’s grace seeks to do, to lead us into a deeply reverent, respectful, and responsive loving of God, aware of being loved, and graced first. So, I’m very happy to sing that verse of “Amazing Grace” with no theological reservations.

5A Goatscliffe Cottages
Grindleford, Derbyshire S32 2HG

Climate change seen as call to repentance

From Dr Henk Carpentier Alting

Sir, — You rightly have a two-page report on COP28, along with comments from Christian and other organisations. There is also, again rightly, a concern for the most vulnerable (News, 15 December 2023). Climate action is important, since we are God’s vice-regents and stewards of the earth. There is, however, another aspect about which the church is uniquely qualified to speak but remarkably silent.

God has often spoken through the environment. It starts with the curse of the ground, then continues with the flood and the destruction of the cities of the plain. There were the plagues of Egypt, and, when Israel broke the Covenant, there were droughts and locusts plagues. Jesus speaks of earthquakes and famines and finally the apocalyptic bowls of God’s wrath are poured on the earth in Revelation 16. None of this is about recycling or failure to implement net-zero policies.

The point is that we need to be both responsible with the environment and at least speak about the possibility that environmental change is God’s judgement call to repentance and faith in Christ. These are not mutually exclusive matters. Unfortunately, it is easier to align, rightly, with environmental issues than to address these prophetically.

30 Buckingham Road West
Heaton Moor
Stockport SK4 4BA

Keeping it local in the allocation of Parish Share

From the Revd Simon Douglas Lane

Sir, — During my first incumbency in the late 1990s, I was asked to produce a report on the vexed subject of the “voluntary” contribution that we all know and love as the Parish Share (Comment, 8 December; Letters, 15 December 2023): like most reports, it is probably gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, but I would like to explain the method that, I think, would be the most Christian.

Our deanery of 25 parishes, under a forward-thinking area dean, instituted a review of one another, requiring openness and trust. As a result, four categories were identified: A, paying more than 100 per cent of the sum asked; B, could pay more than 100 per cent of the sum asked, and should do so; C, could never pay what was asked, but was worth supporting; and D, could never pay what was asked, but could with effort. Mine was the only C parish.

Every autumn, all the incumbents would come together, be told what sum was required of us by the diocese, and, having undertaken the review of one another’s parishes, and be aware of the financial state of each: over a period of hours, we divided the diocesan amount among us, and anything left over was divided among the 25 of us: having completed this task through prayer and collegiality, we were then in a better position to sell the results to our PCCs.

A parish settlement agreed in prayer and fellowship in Christian love is, I contend, better than an imposed figure from the centre. It requires, however, a degree of trust and honesty which for many, sadly, would be a challenge.

30a Belgrade Road
Hampton TW12 2AZ

Marginal comments

From the Revd John Humphreys

Sir, — The Ven. Paul Thomas predicts that “clergy will become an increasingly rare breed” (“C of E should embrace its place on the margins’’, Comment, 15 December 2023). The Revd Nicky Gumbel declared, in an interview in the magazine Premier Christianity at the time of his retirement from Holy Trinity, Brompton, last summer, his vision of finding 6000 people retiring from paid employment to be trained for ordination and deployed as self-supporting ministers “so every Church of England church has a focal [ordained] minister”. I wonder which of these contrasting outlooks will prove to be the better guide to the future of the Church of England.

61 Josephine Avenue
Lower Kingswood
Tadworth KT20 7AB

Ord and his chord

From Dr Philip Moore

Sir, — Perhaps I am splitting hairs, but the wonderful chord to which Canon Angela Tilby refers (Comment, 22/29 December 2023) existed in Dr Boris Ord’s day. The 1954 carol service from King’s is available online and bears this out. It was sung to the verse “Sing, choirs of angels”; the final verse, “Yea, Lord, we greet thee”, was omitted. Sir David Willcocks’s contribution to the hymn was his stunning descant to “Sing, choirs of angels”. In no way does this take away from the substance of what Canon Tilby says; Sir David’s other master stroke was to transfer Dr Ord’s harmony to the final verse.

Organist Emeritus, York Minster
Rectory Cottage
Malton YO17 6PN

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