The fall-out at York Minster over the dismissal of the bellringers was a sub-editor’s dream, with an almost endless supply of puns; and it is likely that the story will not go away quickly. Meanwhile, until the appointment of a new Tower Captain who is able to raise a new band, there will be no ringing on the Minster bells – which are regarded as some of the finest in the world – and occasions of Church and State will pass unheralded. “What passing bells for those who die as cattle?” None at York Minster this Remembrance Sunday, Wilfred – they’ve sacked the ringers.
The Minster authorities told The Guardian that there had been Health and Safety concerns regarding the ringers. That was followed with a statement that would not have been out of place in some of the more conservative political regimes of the last century: the ringers’ replacements would be given training so that they could “understand fully why we have to ask them to do things that we need them to do, in the way that we need them to do them”.
But then – after a frenzy of international criticism – suddenly it wasn’t a Health and Safety issue after all, and the Big S was brought into play: Safeguarding, that is, not Dr Sentamu. His Grace of York was, nevertheless, duly wheeled out with the Chapter’s official statement. We might well muse on why the Dean and Chapter of York asked or needed a Primate of England to speak on their behalf, rather than do it themselves.
Let us not for a moment trivialise the seriousness of the many failings in the past regarding the care of children and vulnerable adults, and the absolute importance of safeguarding procedures in the present at all levels of society and within the Church. People might reasonably wonder, however, why an issue with one member of a group of volunteers involved the summary dismissal of the entire body, and their unceremonious expulsion from the belfry by the Minster Police. The handling of the whole affair has been muddled and clumsy from start to finish.
We can only presume that the Minister authorities have been acting on advice based on information which cannot, for good reason, be made public. It must surely be obvious that the safeguarding policies of the Church of England need to be applied in a way that protects children, vulnerable adults, and the innocent. That may of course be easier said than done; but until then we run the risk of perpetuating injustice and treating as criminals those who have not been found guilty of any crime.
It is a cause of satisfaction and quiet celebration that over 400 parishes nationwide have now come under the oversight of a bishop of The Society. There continues to be traffic in both directions, as some parishes opt not to carry forward the resolutions they had in place under the old Measure and Act of Synod; but many more (as noted in News from Forward in Faith in this issue) have newly requested episcopal oversight under the provisions of the House of Bishops’ Declaration. After the weeks spent in committee rooms and on the floor of the General Synod hammering out the detail of the ‘settlement’ over women bishops, it is good indeed that there has been such an appetite at the grass roots for putting the flesh on all of those legislative and canonical bones. It is too easy to see all of this in political terms: a parish gained here, lost there, a vote narrowly won or defeated. (In fact, the overwhelming majority of PCC resolutions for the oversight of a Society Bishop have been carried nem con or by large majorities.) But church politics is only a part of what is going on. We can surely discern here the movement of the Holy Spirit. The catholic movement in the Church of England is prospering and flourishing: and that is a movement of disciples of Jesus Christ, eager to share the Faith with the people of England. Elsewhere in this issue, the Bishop of Norwich notes that from 1900-1930, years in which the Church of England as a whole was in sharp decline, it was the Anglo-Catholic movement which bucked the trend and grew, in numbers and influence. Satisfaction and quiet celebration, yes; complacency, certainly not. We trust and pray that there are greater things to come.