William Davage summarises what Mawer and Carlile say about the procedures of the Church of England
Two significant reports published last year raise concerns about the governance and procedures in the Church of England. Both the report by Sir Philip Mawer about the circumstances around the withdrawal of Bishop Philip North from his nomination to the See of Sheffield and the enquiry of Lord Carlile into the handling of the allegations made against Bishop George Bell highlight institutional inadequacies and procedural errors and a degree of bureaucratic disarray that need to be addressed.
Sir Philip rejected the suggestion that the accommodation reached in General Synod to enable the passage of the measure to permit the ordination of women to the episcopate was not a synodical fix, but his description of the events that unfolded after the announcement of Bishop North’s nomination suggest that the outcome of the synodical process and its attempt to outline a way for two integrities mutually to flourish did not command universal consent. It may have been produced in accordance with the church’s constitutional arrangements and synodical structures, but the debacle that followed undermined those very structures and representative processes. Sir Philip also finds the Crown Nominations Commission deficient: in the absence of an ordained woman among the diocesan representatives, its voting method, and its failure to prepare for the reaction to the appointment of a diocesan bishop who did not ordain women priests (misunderstanding Bishop North’s position on the matter).
Sir Philip also points out that the principles are for guidance; they do not have ‘almost totemic significance’ nor are they ‘quasi-legalistic.’ He says that the House of Bishops needs to provide greater theological underpinning to the Five Guiding Principles (no mean feat) and to consider more fully the pastoral implications of the settlement. His conclusion is, in effect, to go back to 2014 settlement and work it out again. But might that also necessitate a reconsideration of synodical representation and a greater degree of diocesan and institutional procedural and electoral transparency? Perhaps the present procedures are too rarefied and convoluted to be fit for purpose.
It was the issue of transparency that caused the Archbishop of Canterbury to dissent from one of the conclusions of Lord Carlile’s enquiry. His conclusion that Bishop Bell’s reputation was ‘wrongfully and unnecessarily damaged’ is buttressed by an institutional and haphazard procedural failure. The approach of the Core Group was ‘inappropriate and inadmissible … wrong in principle,’ its membership was inconsistent, not all of whom were fully informed of the content of a critical psychiatric report. Witnesses were not sought, evidence was not tested, it did not consult a criminal barrister, and misapplied a civil standard of the balance of probabilities. It would seem that anything that could go wrong did go wrong. The bishop’s guilt was assumed from the outset. The veracity of what was alleged was accepted without serious investigation or enquiry. It failed to follow a process that was fair and equitable to both sides, and its processes resulted in ‘the knowing and apparently deliberate destruction of the reputation of the alleged perpetrator.’
Yet another report, this one by the retired judge Sir Richard Henriques into Operation Midlands, the investigation into historical allegations of child abuse alleged against the late Sir Edward Heath and others, was similarly damning in its criticism of the police for accepting as credible sole, uncorroborated evidence from an individual. One officer stood outside Sir Edward’s former home and called for other ‘victims’ to come forward. Sir Richard said that such language prejudges the issue and such people should be regarded as complainants rather than described as victims until the investigation has concluded. Automatically to ‘believe the victims’ perverted the system of justice and was ‘fundamentally unfair to those accused, alive or dead.’
The church should be as committed as the state and its agencies to truth and justice, to innocence until proven guilty. But we seem to be in the midst of a media and social media frenzy where justice and due process are too swiftly sacrificed on the altar of expediency. We rush to judgement at our peril. The BBC dropped an Agatha Christie drama from its Christmas schedules because allegations of rape and sexual assault have been levelled against one of the actors, Ed Westwick. I have never heard of him and have no idea whether the allegations are true or false, but it seems that an accusation has become the verdict without any trial, and in the more egregious cases of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey there have been no charges or trials. I happened to be at dinner a few months ago at which one of the guests said that over twenty years ago he had been assaulted by Mr Spacey. If so, that allegation should be tested by a due and proper, fair and dispassionate judicial process.
That is why the Archbishop’s response was so disappointing. While he accepted Lord Carlile’s criticism of procedures he said that ‘a significant cloud’ remained over Bell’s name. ‘He is accused of great wickedness. Good acts do not diminish evil ones, nor do evil ones make it right to forget the good.’ In the interests of transparency, he is willing to allow anonymity to the accuser and unsubstantiated accusations but not for the accused. In what sense is that just? In what way does that contribute to the truth? As Charles Moore commented, ‘The good that Bell did is transparent, the evil is uncorroborated.’ As another seasoned commentator has written, ‘resignations are not expected.’
Fr William Davage writes from Hampstead