by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Author, Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation and member of General Synod
Honestly, it drives me mad!
When I first became a member of General Synod over ten years ago I was very taken with the idea that anyone could ask a question and the person responsible for that area of church life would be required to reply both to the question and the supplementary. It looked to me like a way of ensuring accountability.
What I quickly discovered is that it’s actually a game of manners in which carefully briefed bishops very effectively shut down any probing or awkward questions. There are basically variants of three answers: ‘This is work in progress’; ‘We don’t collect that data’; ‘It’s confidential.’
It mirrors the whole world of General Synod which, apart from the odd little rush of blood to the head, is very carefully managed to create the illusion of accountability without the reality.
So yes! It makes me mad. So much so that I’m not going to stand again. It has, however, got me thinking about accountability as a Christian concept.
In February 2020 I asked the following question: “In the light of a figure of £200 million mentioned by Bishop Peter Hancock to survivors, how much money has actually been allocated in the AC or CC budget this year and next, specifically for the care and restorative justice of survivors of clergy abuse?”
The reply was that they were working on it and waiting for the IICSA report to tell them what to do! Not even a hint of any figures and zero accountability.
John Spence, the chair of the finance committee was clearly deeply moved and memorably spoke from the floor promising that funds would be found for compensation payments, saying: “This is not about affordability, it is about justice. Justice cannot have a different value depending on the finances of this or that diocese. Whatever we are told is required … for redress, then those funds will be found,”
So, is this actually happening? Can we hold even the revered John Spence to account?
In the absence of any figures whatsoever Dr Josephine Stein used her research skills to put together an educated estimate. The opening sentence of the Church Times article about her work says it all: ‘Survivors of abuse in a church context receive about £55,000 in redress in from the Church of England out of an estimated £20 million spent on safeguarding annually.’ (CT 19.08.2020)
It would seem that John Spence’s pockets were not that deep after all. Survivors are still on the bread line. They are unable to work, have exhausted their life savings and are still given a poxy £500 upper limit for counselling after life changing trauma.
There are no other ways we lesser mortals can ask the Church of England to follow through with its promises – that’s why it drives me mad.
The really interesting thing, once you start thinking about it, is that accountability should be an attitude of life – a cast of the heart. There are all sorts of legal backstops to ensure financial accountability. People make it their life’s work and call themselves “accountants” after all! Genuine accountability is far more to do with the nature of the relationship you think you have with others. I hold myself accountable to my husband, to my family, because I love them. We consider one another equal and would not abuse power or money. If one of us messed up we’d try and fix it and be genuinely sorry. This requires truth telling and openness and transparency not secrecy and silence.
Whilst writing this blog a rather excellent MA thesis landed on my desk. It’s about the use of Non Disclosure Agreements in Religious Institutions. Ben Nicholson successfully demonstrates that: ‘NDAs actively prevent transparency, truthfulness, accountability, reconciliation and restored relationships through a combination of intimidation and enforced silence.’ They also, he continues: ‘discriminate in favour of the powerful, enabling them to avoid being held accountable for wrongdoing and require the complicity of other powerful people.’
I recognise that. When I asked about the Church of England’s use of NDAs the reply was: “We can’t tell you that – it’s secret!”
So yes! It drives me mad!
It doesn’t need to be like that! As Bishop’s chaplain I have been to more licensing services than I care to remember, when a new person is legally made the vicar of a parish. To this day I am struck afresh by a particular moment, after the bishop has read out the terms of the license, when the piece of paper is handed over from the bishop to the priest with the words ‘receive the cure of souls which is both yours and mine….’ And Bishop Alan always says: ‘I hold myself as accountable to you as you are to me. The scripture teaches mutual accountability…….’
Experience tell me that is not a common attitude.
What’s more Scripture teaches us that we are accountable to God through one another. The way we treat one another is the litmus test of the authenticity of our faith.
As we hold our breath for the “Living in Love and Faith” document whose genesis has also been shrouded in secrecy, can we expect something different? Will the authors hold themselves as accountable to the LGBTI+ members of our Church as they do the powerful conservative lobby!?
Unaccountable power is dangerous. To sustain it there needs to be secrecy. However, it won’t last forever for: ‘Things hidden will become clear and every secret thing will be made known.’ (Luke 8.17)
Secrecy and accountability can’t co-exist.