The goings on at Christ Church, Oxford over the last four years have been bewildering for all disinterested observers. I’m in the position of knowing people on both ‘sides’. I’ve known Martyn Percy for many years, and hold him in great esteem. I don’t know if he’d count me as a friend, but I’m very grateful for the warmth and support he’s shown me over the years. The conflict between him and the Studentship/Fellowship must have been incredibly painful. Like Martyn, I’ve been a Head of House, and I’ve been in conflict with my own Fellowship. I feel badly let down by many of them, and I’m as good as certain that some have been craven, and that some have kept quiet or perhaps even lied about what they knew or didn’t know. Anyone who’s been caught up in the febrile atmosphere of ‘safeguarding’ complaints and counter-complaints in the university world will know that even when you think you have done your best in difficult circumstances, you will be found to have failed somewhere, somehow, and that you will not be forgiven for that failure. It’s a hard time to carry significant responsibility in Higher Education. And even in relation to the Church, I’ve had my share of bad experiences.
But these conflicts are never neatly categorised or described. If you follow the website ‘Thinking Anglicans’, as I do, it’s sobering to see what people contributing to the ‘below the line’ comments seem to make of things. Sometimes I think the website – an amazingly well-maintained and informative one – ought to be renamed ‘Shrieking Anglicans’. There is the most grotesque parade of accusation, sweeping generalization, and sheer lack of Christian charity on display at times. And all this, when it’s almost certain that many of those commenting do not actually know the people involved, or the situations in detail, on which they have such strong views.
One of the problems – and I’ve seen this time and again – is that individuals who bring complaints against institutions are generally at liberty to say what they like on social media, and perhaps even in traditional print media. But generally speaking the institutions concerned are not at liberty to respond in detail, because they’re bound by the responsibility of confidentiality and would be open to accusations of further abuse were they to try to respond. But then again, an institution is only a collection of people, and people, as we know, vary enormously in their reliability, their integrity, their trustworthiness, their grasp of the issues with which they’re confronted, and so on. Yes, sure, there are faulty processes, but in the end the responsibility for implementing, reforming, protecting processes is a personal one.
So sometimes we see institutions behaving appallingly, covering up abuse, protecting abusers, or letting them slip through the gaps in processes ill-suited to what they’re supposed to be dealing with. Sometimes we see people in positions of responsibility juggling difficult, challenging problems on multiple fronts, and unsurprisingly getting things wrong. Sometimes we see people who exercise a general responsibility for overseeing a department or an activity or a group of people unfairly targeted with a venom which – if appropriate at all (which, frankly, as a Christian I doubt) – ought to be reserved for the perpetrators of abuse (think, for example, of Sharon Shoesmith). But it won’t do just to blame the institution en masse: matters have to be quarried down to the question of actual, personal responsibility.
The Church of England is no different in all this from other churches, and from other charities and other institutions. Is it better than than the Catholic Church, public schools, residential care homes, the police…? Sadly, no. But then, as a friend of mine says when she’s approached by would-be ordinands, ‘You do realize that the Church of England is an abusive institution? – not because it’s a Church, but because it’s an institution’. This is the sad stuff of life. And it’s not to say that there isn’t an urgent need to reform, to improve, to care for and protect the weak and vulnerable, for of course there is, and to the extent that we fail to do this, we’re culpable and ought to be held to account.
But personally I don’t accept that ‘institutional’ failures – which, as I say, in the end are personal ones – cancel out the value or even necessity for ‘institutions’. I can’t follow Martyn down the path of separation from my own Church. For me, the Church is always at fault, always faltering, always problematic and riddled with failure. People suffer at the hands of church leaders or church members, just as they do in any other association. There are appalling cases of abuse and deliberate cover up, and yet there are also very mixed situations in which good intentions have got mangled, attempts to be even-handed have appeared to be callous, processes have been fitfully followed, and so on.
What did we expect? Paradise on earth? The kingdom of God is here, and yet it is always becoming. I don’t believe the bishops are rotten to the core – far from it. Yet they make mistakes, as everyone does, and sometimes those mistakes have serious consequences for people. But I don’t believe the Church of England is rotten to the core. When I think of its many failures, however, I find myself going back again and again to the words of Austin Farrer who, in a memorable sermon he preached first in 1960, and again near the end of his life in 1968, confronted the problem of being in an imperfect church. The sermon was called, on publication, ‘On being an Anglican’, and it’s quite startling today for its sharp criticism of the doctrine of infallibility. That apart, to me it’s a steadfast defence of staying in the Church of England, the Church of my own birth, baptism, upbringing, marriage and, I hope, death. I’m quoting a few passages, of course, but to me Farrer’s words acho strongly (and the uninclusive language is of its age):
“[F]undamentally we are just Christian priests, priests in the Church of God. Did not Christ establish sacraments, and an apostolic ministry, and a visible company of faithful men? And have we not to make the best of it, by the grace of God?…Suppose the organization is antiquated, the leadership weak; we shall not help to modernize the former or invigorate the latter, by deserting our stations…
…The Church of England is not the Church; there is only one Church, as there is only one Christ. The centre of the Church is neither Rome nor Canterbury; it is the heart of Heaven. There is a company of saints who enjoy the society of Jesus Christ more intimately than his disciples ever did on earth. We, who know him only by faith and touch him only in sacraments, are no more than outposts and colonies of his sacred empire…
…[W]e are Anglicans because we can obey Christ in this Church, by abiding in the stock and root of his planting, and in the sacramental life…The Church mediates Christ: her sacraments make Christ present, her creed presents the lineaments of his face, her fellowship incorporates us into his body. To be a loyal churchman is hobbyism or prejudice, unless it is the way to be a loyal Christian. Christ is our calling, Christ our life; he whom the cross could not daunt nor the grave retain will make our dry bones live, and restore to the universal Church that peace and unity that are agreeable to his will, that we may be one in him, as he with the Father and the Holy Ghost is one life, one love, one God.”
(from The End of Man, 1973, pp. 49-52)
7 thoughts on “On not leaving the Church of England”
I find your analysis to be both clear and helpful.
I have never met Martyn Percy and I hold no office or role that would lead him to esteem me. I also disagree fundamentally with many of his public positions. However, justice is not about how we treat people with whom we have a sense of affinity. It is surely about the objective standards of truth and fairness.
Martyn Percy has clearly been treated very badly indeed. He will probably (given he is human) have played some part in his own difficulties. That does not detract from his entitlement to now feel a profound sense of grievance and indignation.
Even his theological opponents, of whom I am one, should now extend compassion and understanding to him and wish him consolation and peace.
Absolutely – and whatever you think of his views, he is a kind and good man.
A friend sent me a link to your blog article on Martin Percy. I have read it several times and I hope that you do not mind me replying. I do so not as an academic theologian but rather a simple Christian who has lived through a rather shabby Welsh imitation of the events at Christchurch at the Cathedral of Llandaff. I write because I have few if any answers to what has taken place in Llandaff and the wider Church in Wales (and which appears to parallel multiple similar events within the Church of England) but rather because I think that the greatest problems are rarely solved but at best healed, and tragically sometimes can only be accepted, by being lived and suffered through. In using this response to your blog as a sounding board perhaps that is part of that process for me.
Like you I was baptised and nurtured by the Anglican Church. I grew up just outside Coventry and was privileged to be exposed to the flowering of post-war Anglican thought and art and to bishops like Cuthbert Bardsley and archbishops like Michael Ramsey. Churches had parishes in which the priest was known in the community and “success” was not measured in terms of the sizes of the congregation but whether, in a quiet Anglican way and in the aftermath of the Second World War, church members were committed to being disciples of Christ. have also been privileged to experience the best of Roman Catholicism while working in France and for a number of years worshipped in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Despite these profoundly enriching experiences, until relatively recently I would have regarded the Anglican Church as my natural home.
In your blog your argument, which is illustrated from the passage you quote from Farrar, appears to be saying that the Church in England (and from my perspective I would add the Church in Wales) is not the Church Militant but only a small backwater of it, albeit one to which many are called to be part and, for those with a catholic faith, to depend upon for the sacraments and communal worship. The Church Militant is not, nor ever has been, perfect. We should not expect it to be so because throughout its history it has been made up of institutions and organisations. We should accept its shortcomings, fixing instead our heart on the Church Invisible along with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. In so doing we can perhaps influence our little corner of the Church Militant for the better and maybe bring it a little nearer to its calling to live out the love of our crucified and risen Lord to the world. In choosing to leave the Church in England, and in so publicly announcing his departure, Martyn Percy has failed to grasp and live by these important principles.
There are a number of problems for me with this reasoning. No matter how difficult to neatly categorise (and what conflict ever is purely binary, the more so the longer it drags on?) what Martyn Percy, and here in Llandaff Dean Gerwyn Capon, have lived through at that hands of those with who they have worked, prayed and celebrated the Eucharist has undeniably had such a profoundly destructive effect on their relationship with the church to which they were called to serve as priests that it has brought Mr. Percy to the verge of suicide and resulted in the Dean of Llandaff being on sick leave for two years culminating in his resignation this week.
It would be easy for us to sit in judgment on the decisions of Martyn Percy and Gerwyn Capon but we have not been subjected to the depth of abuse that has actively and repeatedly sought to destroy their reputation, calling and self-esteem. Note this is not the behaviour of the “narrow, irritating and inadequate officials behind the counter” that tempt us to exasperation, as Evelyn Underhill so memorably put it in one of her letters, but something far more sinister. Prior to witnessing the events at Llandaff over the last two years, I have also seen at first hand in my work as a doctor the effect that the powerfully destructive behaviour of an organisation can have on a dedicated and talented colleague that left them with no alternative but to quit the organisation. To have remained would have represented a profound risk to their mental and physical health.
You write that an institution is “only” a collective of people and yet the people who form the hierarchy of such institutions, unavoidably necessary for the practical functioning of the institutions, are in positions of authority and responsibility that they invariably have chosen to occupy. You go on to state that the implementation and maintenance of the necessary processes any organisation needs to function is the personal responsibility of the individuals within the leadership/hierarchy of that institution. Yet if we have learned anything in recent years from the failure of organisations within the public sector that exist to do good but which have failed catastrophically to do so (the most instructive example in my own profession of medicine would be the Mid-Staffs scandal*, and the Francis Reports should be compulsory reading for anybody in a position of leadership within the Anglican Church in Britain) it is that individuals may set out to do their very best but once they are caught up in a failing and dysfunctional organisation it is very difficult to resist being drawn into its behaviour. When this happens individuals only too readily take on the compassionless and disturbingly cruel values of the organisation.
Such dysfunctional organisations are characterised by a toxic environment in which criticism of the organisation is not tolerated and those who seek to raise concerns are either ignored or subjected to intimidation and bullying. The irony is that those who are the most sensitive to the malpractice within an organisation and seek to raise their concerns are frequently the most susceptible to the destructive intimidation with which the organisation seeks to silence them. Such behaviour is tragic in a secular organisation but in a church which exists to live out the liberating love of Christ it runs counter to the very reason for its existence.
As I have participated in the sad events here in Llandaff and read from afar (accepting that I am not party to all of the details) of the events unfolding in Christchurch, Winchester, Aberdeen and Orkney and the tragic death of Fr. Alan Griffin in London, a common thread seems to stands out. The figures in authority caught up in these events frequently demonstrate a toxic insecurity and an obsession with protecting their perceived reputation, power and image and that of the organisation. Such insecurity is marked by a joyless bureaucracy and preoccupation with numerical growth. The lack of joy is very relevant. Ken Leech summarised the situation perfectly when he wrote that, “The Church is easily seduced by the kingdoms of the world so that it takes on their image, becomes an imperium, a power structure whose institutional form is shaped by the prevailing secular hierarchical and bureaucratic models and not by the gospel. Power and stability come to matter more than truth. When power is primary and the Church is seen as an end in itself, the road to some kind of fascism is wide open . . . ” (Ken Leech, We Preach Christ Crucified, Chapter 1, Foolishness to the Greeks)
Two phrases stand out for me in the above paragraph. The first is that “Power and stability come to matter more than truth.” Note Leech writes, “Come to matter.” The desire for power and stability are not necessarily there at the beginning. With certain notable exceptions I do not think that those who hold authority in the various tragedies that have beset the Anglican Church in Britain set out to live in such blatant contradiction of their vocations. Organisations. in which bullying, intimidation and lying develop on a destructive scale frequently start out simply as badly run by not very talented people who were trying to do their best.
The second is the sobering phrase, “when . . . the Church is seen as an end in itself, the road to some kind of fascism is wide open.” This is important because the suffocating and oppressive environment of a dysfunctional organisation that began through incompetency can rapidly tip over into wickedness. There have been occasions over the last two years in Llandaff when I feel as though I have fallen into the pages of a Charles Williams’ novel. The behaviour of and justifications given by some of the key Christians in the Llandaff fiasco for that behaviour have been so incomprehensible and absurd that they would be risable were the consequences not so destructive and serious for individuals and the communal life and witness of the Christian community in Llandaff. The only word that does such behaviour justice is wickedness and the Church seems to have lost its courage to recognise and call out wickedness for what it is.
It all begs the question of how such wickedness can continue and propagate within an organisation such as the Diocese of Llandaff whose stated aims are, “Telling a joyful story. Growing the Kingdom of God and building our capacity for good.” Martyn Percy in his Prospect Magazine article hits the nail on the head when he writes, “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 actions 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.” And I would add, also in the Church in Wales.
One of the major ways in which this cognitive dissonance appears to manifest in the church is by it becoming more and more dependent upon procedure and bureaucracy to defend indefensible behaviour. By hiding behind procedure and bureaucracy it minimises the behaviour and wickedness being exposed to and judged in the light of scripture and tradition (“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”) and enables people to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
This inability, particularly by people in leadership, to take responsibility for their mistakes is profoundly destructive of relationship and it is relationship that lies at the heart of our faith, symbolised most powerfully and mysteriously by the Trinity, and it is the sanctifying demands of Christian relationship and the call to be vulnerable before God and to each other in relationship that are also neatly avoided by resorting to procedure and bureaucracy.
I have gone on for far too long. There is so much more that I could write about relationship, joy and reconciliation but I should stop. I shall leave the last word to Rowan Williams. In the following passage on forgiveness he highlights all of the things that a toxic dysfunctional organisation destroys and hints at what is possible in joyful relationship marked by genuine reconciliation:
“Praying for our daily bread is asking to be reacquainted with our vulnerability, to learn how to approach not only God but each other, with our hands open . . . And perhaps this explains why the Lord’s Prayer at once goes on to pray for forgiveness – or rather the gift of being forgiven as we have learned to forgive. . . .The person who asks forgiveness has renounced the privilege of being right or safe; she has acknowledged that she is hungry for healing, for the bread of acceptance and restoration to relationship. . . . The unforgiving and the unforgiven cannot see the other as people who are part of God’s work bestowing humanity on them. To forgive and be forgiven is to allow yourself to be humanised by those who you may least want to receive as signs of God’s gift; and this process is deeply connected with the prayer for daily bread. To deny the possibilities of forgiveness would be to say that there are those I have no need of because they have offended me or because they have refused to extend a hand to me. . . . A willingness to forgive is clearly the mark of humanity touched by God – free from anxiety about identity and safety, free to reach out into what is other, as God does in Jesus Christ.”
Rowan Williams, Forgiveness, from Being Disciples.
* A good summary of the problems at Mid-Staffs can be found in the Lancet of February 16th, 2013 p521-522 (https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(13)60264-0/fulltext): “The inquiry found a deep rooted, pernicious cult of management, obsessed with achieving ill-conceived targets yet isolated and wilfully oblivious to day-to-day operational reality, and fixated on image management and cultivating positive publicity while demonstrating little or no interest in acknowledging or addressing problems. Throughout the period considered by the inquiry, from 2005 to 2008, the executive management of the Mid Staffordshire Trust was blinded to the appalling care given to patients at their hospitals by their excessive focus on securing Foundation Trust status. An oppressive atmosphere in which intimidation and bullying were rife prevented staff from raising concerns, and, when they did, swept them under the carpet.”
Dear Nick (if I may),
Thanks very much for taking the time to reply at such length to my post. It’s very hard to engage, however, with such passion and pain – if I may so – in detail, since I don’t know in detail your experience, and you don’t know mine. What I would say is that I suspect what you write doesn’t touch my key point. I want to say as clearly as I can – and I had made this clear in my piece – that individuals must be held to account for their faults. I have been after all, even though the outcome was in my view not proportionate, and my efforts to do the best I could have been misinterpreted, or misrepresented. Abuse is abuse is abuse – no question. Faults need to be called out. People need to be accountable. And systems – disciplinary, complaint, HR – need to be transparent and robust. My aim was to highlight, rather, as a Christian, the difficulty of the idea of ‘leaving’ the Church. For me, to leave the Church is to leave Christ, for the Church is Christ on earth. Of course, it is also a human institution, staffed by very fallible individuals. But if I find myself in a minority of one, pursued and threatened on all sides by those who are supposed to be my pastors, still I will say, I will not leave the Church. Now, the Church of England is part of the one Church of Christ. And there are other churches, or denominations. But none of them are pure and undefiled. And so, given that my convictions are essentially Anglican – that is really the point of Farrer’s sermon – I will not leave the Church of England, however far it falls. Anyway, much more to be said, but I do wish you well.
Dear Jeremy (if I may),
Not one for the blog comments section, but I was wondering if I could have your email address to reply to your response to my response to your blog privately? Your email address is very well hidden despite the usual power of Google to find these things!
I’m happy to communicate privately, but not to prolong a correspondence unless there’s something very specific you want to ask me. However, I don’t think I can give you my email address here without making it entirely public. Probably the best thing to do is to message me via Facebook, or LinkedIn.