Secrecy and an Unaccountable Church of England

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.

This entry was posted in Human Sexuality, IICSA, Living in Love & Faith, Rosie Harper, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Social Justice, Spiritual Abuse. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Secrecy and an Unaccountable Church of England

  1. Phil Gardner says:

    I hadn’t realized the situation is as bad as this – truly appalling. Something demonic has embedded itself into the structures and attitudes of the Church; thank you for exposing it.

    I can well understand how frustrated you must feel, and after ten years no one would blame you for not standing again. But please, please consider struggling on for a bit longer, if you can. The next few years will be crucial for the direction of the Church, and for all its many faults General Synod is the only place where change can be achieved. Clear prophetic voices like yours are desperately needed.


  2. David says:

    I have no experience of General Synod. But I agree that there are areas of concealment in the way the church runs that are unhelpful. They are very frustrating and need challenging. However I also think there are times when ‘work in progress’ is an entirely appropriate response when to say more too soon in a process just creates confusion. At that point it comes down to trust. And trust is at a premium in almost every level of organisational life at present. But the description of LLF as a process ‘shrouded in secrecy’ is a baffling. It has been a huge project with a full and informative website, involving a very large number of people on all sides of the debate. The names of those involved are not secret. In my own experience I approached facilitators on several occasions with questions on aspects of the project (out of personal interest). Though not formally involved at all I was always given generous time. There was completely open engagement and I was finally invited to read and comment on a late draft of final text. I wish this project well. I know some have struggled with it. This is a painfully divided issue. But I actually think LLF has been modelling a way of working this article is asking for.


  3. manipleman says:

    Ah yes. But Bishop Alan is a v. rare species on the Bench of Prelates …I hope he is given a Diocese soon, but I’m not holding my breath


  4. Froghole says:

    The reason why parliament came to have the whip hand over the crown was the desperate need of the latter for cash. Essentially, monarchs could not live off their own resources. As such they (or their officials) had to become accountable for expenditures in order to be able to persuade legislators to vote the taxes that would allow the crown to subsist.

    What is the situation with the Church? Synod grew out of the convocations, which were an adjunct to parliament, allowing the Church to tax itself to aid the crown. At no point was there any meaningful notion of the Church being accountable to its members, because its structures (and, to a significant degree, its ideological predicates) were feudal and authoritarian. As the Church lost its ability to tax the laity (from 1836/1868), the Church Assembly became necessary (1919) to provide some pretence for consulting the laity on whose funding the clergy were increasingly coming to depend. However, it was merely a pretence, since it would have been deeply subversive to the natural authoritarianism of an episcopal church for its bishops and proxies to be subjected to meaningful questions or to be constrained to adjust policy (conventionally said to derive from the ‘inspiration’ of the Holy Spirit).

    The Church ‘solved’ the increasing tension between authoritarianism and accountability in 1997. The Commissioners had fallen down and had to be ‘redeemed’. It was a crisis, said Carey and Coleman. The Pensions Measure 1997 had the effect of relieving the Commissioners of liability for future pension accruals; responsibility for stipends shifted radically to the dioceses (i.e., parishes). Essentially, a highly regressive permanent funding structure was adopted, in which the most vulnerable and ‘democratic’ tier in the Church (the parish) provides an implicit subsidy to the most affluent tier (the Commissioners), whose assets have grown from about £2.4bn in 1998 to about £8.7bn now. The dioceses (i.e., parishes) have been eviscerated. Of course, discontent can be bought off by the Commissioners acting as Lady Bountiful, funding a few R&R schemes and ‘fresh expressions’, etc., though they are using cash essentially ‘appropriated’ from the parishes. I note that the Commissioners’ recent subsistence to distressed dioceses was in the form of loans (not grants in aid) charged at interest well above base; ‘our hands are tied’, the Commissioners’ cried, weeping crocodile tears. The bishops, of course, are funded by the Commissioners and are ex officio commissions (a remarkable conflict of interest, given the progressive economic evisceration of the dioceses/parishes for which they are supposedly responsible).

    With this formidable asset base, the ‘managers’ of the Church have no need to be accountable, just as the early medieval crown had no need to be accountable to a parliament when its military expenditures could be financed by the revenues of its own estates. Follow the money.

    That this system is malignant should be evident to a child of ten, though it is not, of course, to many in authority (to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, people will believe anything to be true when their salaries depend upon it).

    The structures I have described made Justin Welby’s remarks earlier this week about the virtues of ‘localism’ especially amusing to me.


  5. Trish says:

    As a survivor that has only ever asked for justice from the church, not compensation I know their poor response is not levelled only at those seeking financial redress, it is across board. For me this is a very timely piece of writing as I go to a meeting next week to discuss my learning review that has had a confidentiality clause slapped on it without my agreement. I cannot share it with anyone to get support and any lessons that need to be learnt will be confined to a very few people.
    To make any sort of life after abuse takes infinite courage and tenacity, falling off the edge into the abyss is an ever present danger, the church needs to respect that struggle not add to it. Secrecy will always replay abuse. Secrecy that protects our abusers is not safeguarding or justice it is pain that rips at our souls.


    • Jayne Ozanne says:

      So very sorry for the continued abuse that you are being put through. Thank you for your courage in sharing this, and for all that you are doing with regards to your “learning review”. I do hope that many will read and reflect on your comment here, which I have shared elsewhere too.


      • Gilo says:

        Echo what Jayne says. This is unacceptable. Trish, you may be aware that Birmingham diocese received much media lambasting in Decmeber 2018 for similar use of NDA in a case review. Nearly two years ago. At the time a spokeswoman for the National Safeguarding Team said:

        “National guidance on Lessons Learnt Reviews will soon be going out to consultation, and will include advice against the use of NDAs by dioceses. Once this is approved by the House of Bishops, all dioceses will be expected to have ‘due regard’ to this policy. This has been formulated over the past year and is not a direct result of any current case.”

        Can I suggest you contact the Lead bishops and the Director of Safeguarding to alert them that this practice is still being deployed. The use of confidentiality clause or NDA in reviews – serves the purpose of protection of those who’ve failed, usually hierarchy, and shields structure and makes a mockery of any ‘lessons learned’. I will alert them also. Really surprised that any diocese has not learnt from the adverse media attention received by Birmingham diocese.


    • Alan Wilson says:

      I an so ashamed that anyone has tried to slap an NDA on you in relation to abuse. There’s an ancient prayer in which the Church asks God to “banish deeds of darkness from the children of Light”. Christians are called to “walk in the light as God is on the light…” the whole system has broken down if religion is being used as what the Scriptures call “a cloak of maliciousness” Light is the best antiseptic….


      • Trish says:

        Thank you for these replies, it makes me feel better to know I am not alone in finding it unacceptable practice and thank you for the information Gilo which I can take to the meeting tomorrow. The diocese has said, they paid for the review so they own it but as you say it makes a mockery of lessons learned. It’s hard enough doing these meetings without having to challenge everything. The bizarre thing is that there are many points in the body of the review that clearly state what a negative impact secrecy by the diocese has had on my case, so what do they do, slap a confidentiality clause on it! Do they actually read these things!


    • Froghole says:

      Certainly in commercial contracts it is relatively unusual for a confidentiality obligation to be made perpetual; there is invariably a sunset clause (3 years is pretty routine).

      However, there isn’t a huge amount of case law on the duration of confidentiality clauses. There also isn’t guidance in statutes or regulations to speak of, because ‘confidentiality’ is a principle which has its roots in ‘equity’ (i.e., a branch of the legal system which came out of the chancery rather than common law courts). This is presumably one of the reasons why the diocese you are having to deal with may feel it can get away with a perpetual confidentiality obligation.

      Whilst it is always best to get your own legal advice (perhaps via the CAB if necessary), maybe you could argue that you can agree to a confidentiality obligation provided that it has a duration of x years.

      Then, if they refuse, say that the information in question must be so problematic to the diocese that this is, in itself, an admission of the seriousness of the damage you have suffered. Therefore, in turn, the compensation that you are [hopefully] receiving should be proportionately greater. The longer the duration of the confidentiality obligation, the higher your price. It could be used as a lever to get more money from them.

      Perhaps if they don’t play ball, query why you should be under any compunction not to divulge everything to the press, including the details of how this diocese negotiates. I mean, why are these moral derelicts so crass and shameless that they feel the need to conceal anything? You should be compensated for the loss and damage you have suffered, in any event. Why do these people feel the need to continue coercing you? It simply perpetuates the original abuse.


      • Trish says:

        Thank you Froghole that is actually very helpful. From the findings of the review I could reasonably expect the suggested action to be taken to protect not only my mental wellbeing but that of other vulnerable people who may become prey to this vicar, who is still in post. If that action doesn’t happen I would see it as negating any confidentiality clause so I could say if this hasn’t happened in ….I will consider that safeguarding trumps safety and share the document.
        One of the problems with face to face meetings is that for someone like me who has been abused from a very young age they can be overwhelmingly intimidating and I can hear myself become compliant in them, whereas on paper I can hold my own. The meeting was on Thursday and while not a disaster needs a lot more work done on it.
        Though the statement from the Archbishop’s Council yesterday was welcome news these things rarely seem to filter into diocesan responses as dioceses remain hugely autonomus. I was told at the meeting, ‘well this isn’t a national case,’ as though it was less important and I had suffered less. That was very hard given that I had to fight to retain custody of my daughter when I had a breakdown following their abuse, there is simply no redress for that level of pain.


  6. Gail Bourne says:

    Prophetic voices are needed to speak truth to power and there really is a terrible dynamic at work with such duplicity. Please consider restanding – even if it is like returning to the trenches! The church needs to remember the pain and enduring damage caused to victims of the Nine O’Clock Service scandal in Sheffield during the 1990s. There were many chances for those in power to listen to voices of church members and relatives crying out for justice then. Protecting the system was considered more important than the cure of souls. Even after national newspapers reported the abuse in depth there was no shame evident in the responses of leaders. Little seems to have changed and the careers of those in authority usually seem to prosper rather than be damaged after such secrecy and unaccountability. The public understand that large, secular organisations major on deceit and self-preservation. What message does this send out about the Christian faith and the Anglican Church? After the widespread neglect of much needed pastoral care during the pandemic, there will be less willingness and energy available in congregations to tolerate this sort of neglect of the justice that is meant to be central to Christianity. As local ecumenical communities are increasingly being promoted, no denomination can afford such secrecy and silence in the background when claiming to preach the Good News with integrity.


  7. Anne Lee says:

    What you say, Rosie, is exactly why you should stand again for GS. You are needed there to bring much needed accountability. You may not be popular, but my goodness your are needed there.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s