Photography for Prospect by Paul Black

Martyn Percy: Why I’m leaving the Church of England

Mired in allegations of partisanship and incompetence, the Church is now incapable of running its own affairs. After a series of farcical “safeguarding” claims, the former dean of Christ Church, Oxford, no longer feels he belongs
May 10, 2022

The Church of England (CoE) is one of the few major British institutions remaining that ticks the box of “establishment.” So looking for signs of change, or trying to chart its slow inexorable decline, can be like watching paint dry. It is happening; but it hardly makes for compelling viewing.

The Church’s combat strategy has been to invest in organisational bureaucracy, intensify congregational identity, and then try to increase membership. There are the familiar PR exercises: a diocesan newspaper might give us a picture of a grinning bishop planting a tree to commemorate something or other, with a small group looking on and applauding. There might be a tweet of the bishop dropping in to a school, or meeting young people at an event somewhere. The bishop might say something in the Lords about poverty, family or mental health. These sorts of activity feel like an easy win for the church, but they no longer cut the mustard with the public.

Beneath the surface, there is something like a crisis in the CoE. You can tell how bad things are by reading a letter addressed to applicants for the post of director of the National Safeguarding Team (NST), which is tasked with overseeing standards, practice and conduct in safeguarding matters across the Church. This will be the fourth post-holder in four years, suggesting that retention of staff is an issue.

The letter comes from William Nye, who is secretary-general of the Archbishops’ Council and of the General Synod of the Church of England. He has served as principal private secretary to Prince Charles. Nye is a courtier and civil servant, and quintessentially establishment.

“Safeguarding is at the heart of the life of the Church of England, reflecting the values of the Christian gospel,” the letter reads. The NST supports worshipping communities “on their journey to become safer places for all, and to promote good safeguarding practice as integral to the mission of the whole Church.”

These words might sound encouraging but the reality is anything but. The parlous state of safeguarding in the CoE has caused me to reflect deeply on the plight of victims and complainants, as well as the respondents who have been accused. My own encounter with the culture of the NST and the diocese and bishop of Oxford has given me first-hand -insight into what respondents and complainants can experience. In the face of such partisanship, failure to neutrally manage conflicts of interest, double standards and incompetence in the CoE’s safeguarding, I finally took a decision: to leave the Church. Though I have been ordained for more than 30 years, and continue with my faith in God, the Church of England has destroyed any trust I might have had in it. It is an unsafe place to work.

The primary purpose of church safeguarding is reputational and financial

The CoE insists it is “committed to being an equal opportunities employer.” This is an unfortunate choice of words. The CoE has women bishops and it is trying hard to look and sound modern, inclusive and committed to equality. But it continues to allow discrimination on grounds of gender and to enshrine homophobia: as any gay priest will tell you, marrying the love of your life will almost certainly mark the end of your ministry and result in a permanent ban.

The CoE’s foray into safeguarding, meanwhile, exemplifies the failure to adopt robust principles for conduct in public life, and apply them uniformly and fairly. Victims of John Smyth and the reverend Jonathan Fletcher (see box) have yet to see justice; those who knew of abuses they perpetrated have not been held to account. The Church made catastrophic errors over the former bishop of Lewes (later Gloucester) Peter Ball, who perpetrated sexual abuse over many years and was eventually jailed. The great wartime bishop of Chichester George Bell, on the other hand, was put on trial more than 50 years after his death and subjected to a process of retrospective investigation that was both naive and cack-handed. The CoE, only grudgingly, apologised for its multiple procedural errors.

There have been instances of mental breakdown and even suicides. Recently, the Coroner’s Office took the extraordinary step of issuing a Regulation 28 notice of a preventable death to the archbishop of Canterbury after Alan Griffin, a London priest, took his own life due to a mishandled inquiry into false child abuse allegations. Griffin, 76, who—to complicate matters—converted to the Roman Catholic Church, died in November 2020, having spent a year under investigation without ever learning details of the allegations against him. Coroner Mary Hassell stated in her July 2021 report that the claims were “supported by no complainant, no witness and no accuser.” The Church’s response to this was to assure the public that there would be a “lessons learned review.”

One might think that the suicide of a clergyman should cause the CoE to do more here. Sadly, the promised review has yet to see the light of day. Please do not hold your breath, as it will be an internally commissioned document, replete with redactions and with great care taken to avoid apportioning blame or inflicting reputational damage to the individuals. Victims of abuse often wait years for investigation or due process; somebody accused of unspecified abuse might never work again. There are no corrective measures in place and there is no mechanism for appeal. The CoE sets and marks its own homework—and awards itself top grades. I learned just how seriously it is failing in its responsibilities when I faced seven allegations of “safeguarding concerns” within a seven-month period from March to October 2020, while in dispute with the governing body of Christ Church, Oxford, where I was dean.

Christ Church is unique. It is the only institution in the world that is both a college of a university and the cathedral of a diocese. A head of house at Oxford is usually designated as principal, president, master, warden or rector. Exceptionally at Christ Church, they must also be a clergyperson (the college-cathedral hybrid dates back 500 years). With the Queen as Visitor, Christ Church is governed by its own statutes, and the diocese and bishop of Oxford have little power or influence.

This makes the proactive interferences in safeguarding matters by the CoE, NST and the bishop harder to fathom—especially given the history. I had raised serious questions about safeguarding protocols in 2017. By that autumn, some dons were plotting to remove me. And in October 2018 they sought to have me ousted under the statutes for “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful” conduct (the college refused to explain what was meant by this). Facing 27 charges, I was suspended. Rumours started, with lurid speculation, but by August 2019, retired High Court judge Andrew Smith had rejected all 27 charges after an 11-day tribunal. I was not refunded my defence costs and was also prevented from resuming many of my duties.

Then, in March 2020, the very safeguarding concerns I had raised in 2017 were turned against me, and I found myself reported to Thames Valley Police, the NST and CoE over four historic safeguarding concerns. By June, further concerns had been added. However, the NST reported that I had “acted correctly” in respect of all allegations. Thames Valley Police agreed.

Dons at Christ Church refused to accept these judgments. Only a few weeks later, a new safeguarding allegation was made. I was said to have stroked the hair of an employee and was immediately suspended following an (apparently) independent investigation, despite this work being overseen by many of the same dons, clergy and lawyers who had already been acting against me in previous litigations.

Thames Valley Police dismissed the case in a matter of weeks. But by mid--November 2020, Christ Church had initiated Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) proceedings, an NST investigation, and a second trial for immoral, scandalous or disgraceful conduct.

In order to support this seventh “safeguarding allegation,” an extraordinary 19-page “Safeguarding Risk Assessment” was compiled against me which suggested that I somehow posed a sexual threat to children and adults, yet without any detailed substantiating evidence. It would appear that some of the bishop of Oxford’s own staff were involved in -approving this document, and the bishop himself seems to have taken against me, even though he must have known that some of the same individuals were behind the previous allegations dismissed by Smith.

Once the police and judge Sarah Asplin (presiding over the preliminary “Clergy Discipline Measure”) determined that there was no serious case to answer regarding my alleged conduct, let alone sexual harassment or assault, the bishop seemed reluctant to accept this. He pointedly told me that he “did not read the police and Judge Asplin’s judgment as others did,” suggesting that the complainant’s case had not been heard.

All this contributed to my decision to leave. I had discovered that the Church of England lacks transparency, accountability, external scrutiny and, as far as I am concerned, integrity.

In Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explain how it is that the individuals and institutions that make catastrophic errors, or simply mistreat others, justify their actions. The key is that those responsible for the neglect or abuse are able to calm their cognitive dissonance by creating fictions that absolve them of responsibility. Thus, the belief that we are clever, moral and right simply masks behaviours that are otherwise delusional, immoral and wrong.

Cognitive dissonance now plays a significant part in the institutional dynamics of the Church of England. This may explain why some years ago a CoE bishop, faced with several cases of child sexual abuse on his patch, responded with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. It was not his fault. Responsibility apparently lay somewhere else in the chain of command.

The situation is made worse by the fact the NST appears not to be very good with its own numbers. At a gathering of the General Synod, the (then) bishop in charge of safeguarding was asked how many open cases were being dealt with. The best he could manage was a guess—he thought it might be “around 3,300.” The number was subsequently revised—upwards.

As Peter Drucker is famously said to have remarked, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It is therefore no use the Church running safeguarding investigations and inquiries into itself. The safeguarding culture remains mired in partiality, an element of fear and a degree of shame. The primary purpose of its safeguarding enterprise remains reputational and financial. If the CoE wants to remain as a religious and civic institution that can serve the nation—and that is an “if”—then it needs to start behaving like a morally responsible public body.

Meanwhile, the slow and shoddy safeguarding work continues. Take the definition of “vulnerable adult” in the 2014 Care Act. The Church pays regard to this, but then expands its ambit in a way that is both dangerous and indefensible. Is a bereaved person a “vulnerable adult”? According to many diocesan safeguarding advisers, the answer is “yes,” since the grief-stricken are distressed. Should a funeral visit be risk-assessed by the safeguarding officer first? Again yes, because the person might be vulnerable at the time. The Church ultimately regards almost everyone as a “potentially vulnerable adult,” and so subject to safeguarding concerns. And yet there appear to be two exceptions to this rule: the accused, and the victim who persistently complains and may have mental health and trauma issues from the abuse they suffered. These two groups are effectively denied any “vulnerable adult” status. The effect is to ensure that they cannot gain rights to representation, additional support or access to key information, disclosures and decisions.

The Church of England badly needs an independent regulatory body to oversee its safeguarding and begin to address the culture of bullying and harassment afflicting many clergy. Some congregations might also be grateful for basic human resources expertise being available to parish churches. The need for an impartial regulator is obvious when one realises that a nervous, declining church, losing its way, quickly collapses into being a members-only club, in which deference to episcopal authority and loyalty to patronage are the only ways to get on.

Such a regulator could firmly bind the CoE to the principles that govern other areas of public life, with authority to call the leadership to account. Good models exist in other professions—the General Medical Council and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, to name but two. The Church must find a way to divorce itself from the political, weaponised, amateur and contorted behaviour that causes people to become ill, self-harm and even commit suicide over these allegations.

Currently, the CoE properly serves few of those with a stake in the safeguarding process. Respondents and claimants alike have been known to cite the conduct of bishops and diocesan safeguarding advisers (DSAs) as further sources of abuse and trauma. Significant numbers of DSAs seem not to know what NST policies consist of (they are, in any case, notoriously fudgy). Core groups, which try to determine the facts of an allegation and the risk that the accused may pose, are also a problem. Most members lack basic legal training or relevant expertise. In fact, they lack adequate training full stop. The minutes of a core group meeting, making life-changing or employment-ending decisions, are sometimes forgotten or entirely mislaid. Where minutes might exist, both respondents and claimants are frequently denied access. If they eventually get to see them, there is no mechanism for challenging or correcting them.

Tea and sympathy are not an adequate solution to this enormous mess

Neither respondent nor claimant has a right to representation at a CoE core group and there is no obvious mechanism for fact checking. Intense and unbounded pastoral gossip sessions ought to have proper checks and balances. There is nothing to stop the train of thought hurtling along, driven by catastrophising and a desire to manage reputational risk. These trains have no braking mechanism, as Father Alan Griffin found to his cost.

Respondents and claimants often despair. They experience opaque, tortured “verdicts” that cannot be contested. No core group has to work like another, and methodologies for investigation and determination can proceed in impenetrable ways. Explaining the doctrine of the trinity is a cinch compared to giving an account of the workings of a core group.

The NST hires investigators who are frequently unlicensed, unregulated and unaccountable—even untrained. They can investigate any member of the clergy on any matter, without set boundaries. Clergy themselves, by contrast, are licensed, regulated, accountable and (usually) trained. Only the CoE subjects its ministers to such grotesque imbalances of power, including what strikes me as the denial of basic human rights.

Yet all the CoE offers those involved is “pastoral care during this difficult time” or “some counselling” (perhaps). Tea and sympathy are not an adequate solution in the face of such an enormous mess. No industrial-sized pooper-scooper has ever been manufactured that could deal with such an odious mountain of unctuous public pronouncements.

The CoE was never omnicompetent. Its grip on school education is -ever-dwindling: indirect, largely confined to imparting some benign Christian ethos. Once upon a time, the church ran orphanages, teacher training colleges, adoption agencies, social and medical care centres. If the CoE is no longer even a professionally competent body to run its own safeguarding, it will be symbolic of a wider decline.

It is hardly coincidental that clergy are now joining unions such as Unite in exceptionally high numbers, with some signing up during their training. This is smart thinking, because it shows that the next generation already know that if something goes wrong or mistakes are made, they will likely have to look elsewhere for proper support.

Yet even if the CoE was willing to manage its own internal grievance and safeguarding procedures, it is reliant on voluntary donations, and is far too poorly resourced. Current estimates suggest it might be spending tens of millions of pounds a year on safeguarding, most of which is frittered away on procedures that seem cosmetically adequate, yet ultimately lack the professional standards one would find in other spheres.

Salvation will come. Hope will eventually arrive through genuinely independent regulation. The CoE is still a public service provider in both the civic and spiritual senses. The crisis it currently faces is that its leadership cannot simultaneously police, investigate and repair the malfunctions and injustices that frequently occur, whether in relation to pulpit or pew. To survive as a body in which the public can have any confidence, the Church of England needs to become accountable.

Ofcom, Ofgem and Ofwat all came into being to regulate their respective public service providers and utilities. They have a role of oversight. Ironically, this is what bishops are supposed to do—be overseers. These public regulatory bodies are now heralds of an Ofchurch that is to come.

This will, alas, be far too late for me. My bishop decided that it was too risky to give me a licence. He would not even allow me to preach at my own farewell service—or perhaps ever again. He has no accountability, save only to God. In the end, taking leave of the Church of England was the only safe and sensible option remaining.

*Clarification: there is a dispute over whether the number of victims is 16, 17 or 18: while some of the cases were abusive, others—while representing misconduct in public office—were consensual encounters with adults.