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Something's Not Right at Synod


Wade Mullen, in his book ‘Something's Not Right’, explains the way that institutions fail to apologise properly to survivors of abuse. In this brief article he observes some of the ways apologies can be used to appease the crowd, blame others, excuse failure, minimise the impact of what has been done, and boost the image of those apologising.

Yesterday the General Synod witnessed just such an apology.


Four members of the Archbishops’ Council were brought before Synod to make a presentation about their decision to sack the Independent Safeguarding Board.

Jane Chevous, a representative of survivors of church abuse, opened the proceedings with a damning description of the events leading up to the decision to sack the board, the incompetent way it was handled and the devastating impact it has had on already vulnerable people.

“For as we learned this weekend,” she explained, “Getting the papers prepared for Synod was more important than the lives of survivors. At 12.17 that day Jasvinder phoned me to share the devastating news – I felt like my whole world had crumbled around me. I had trusted the ISB. I had hope. And now that hope had been snatched from me and trampled underfoot.” [at 5.14 on video]

Despite their claims to the contrary, the response of the Council representatives, particularly the Archbishop of York, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, was defensive and self-asserting. In his introductory remarks he said,

“I want you to know Synod, though I can’t make you believe me, but I want you to know, that the decisions we took were some of the most painful decisions I have ever had to be part of in my life and work, but we took them believing them to be the were the right decisions for the safeguarding of the church? Could we have communicated them better? Could things have been different in the past? They are things we can discuss and they are certainly things we can learn from – I do want you to know that my concern has always been for the safeguarding of the church.” [at 18.50 on video]

This is a list of excuses, seeking to elicit the sympathy of the audience away from those affected by the failings of the Council and onto the Council themselves. When prompted in the question-time to correct the rather double-edged phrase, ‘safeguarding of the church,’ Cottrell failed to make things any better.

“I apologise if what I said has been misinterpreted, I want our church to be a safe place and it is the independent oversight and scrutiny that is needed to hold us to account and enable us to be as safe as we can for all people.” [at 50.13 on video]

Notice, first that the Archbishop says it is not his poor choice of words that has caused the confusion, but the inability of others not to understand his good intentions. Second, in his justification he hints that the ISB were sacked because they were the ones failing by not providing the independent oversight and scrutiny that was needed.

One last example – the Archbishop was asked, in the light of the biblical injunction to care for the most vulnerable, what he might think Jesus was feeling about what had happened.

“I imagine Jesus weeps over this situation where we’ve been. I don’t believe there is a payoff between justice and mercy. We humans fail, but God alone is just and merciful and I look to his justice and his mercy in this situation, as I do in all situations. But right now I expect he is weeping – and I know many of us are not far from those tears as well. But the other thing is, because this is about justice as well as mercy we also need to find a way forward that will not erase the mistakes, difficulties and challenges of the past but will build a better future.” [at 49.09 in the video]

Though much of what the Archbishop says is true, it is his framing of it that causes the problem. Once again, he places himself at the centre of the story. Jesus weeps about “where we’ve been” – not for the survivors he has caused to be abandoned. He sweeps his own failure up in the general failings of all people (minimising his culpability) and even suggests he is Jesus-like in his own weeping. That is not an apology - and his rush to put away the past and his assumption that he will be involved in the building of a better future compounds the problem.

The Archbishop may claim this is to misunderstand his intentions – but words matter – and the meaning of words matter. A point made by one of the sacked ISB members, Steve Reeves, who along with Jasvinder Sanghera, was called to the stage after an extraordinary ‘take-over’ by Synod members:

“The meaning of words in this context is very different to the rest of society. It is very clear to me that when the Church, or the Archbishop’s Council talks about independence they do not mean independence in the way that you and I and the average person on the street mean independence. They mean semi-detached. When they say trust…. what they mean is obedience. When they talk about communication… they mean loyalty.” [at 1.:45:49 on video]

How can there be proper safeguarding in an institution where independence is partial and obedience and loyalty are demanded?

Institutions and people can only behave in this way because they are powerful and the power itself can blind those in the institution to the harm they are doing. Rev Lindsay Llewellyn-MacDuff explored this idea in a later debate about the redress scheme for those who have experienced abuse.

“But however good this looks I don’t think this redress will necessarily end the circle of mistrust, grievance and injury that we keep lapping. And I don’t think it is the solution because I think there is a deeper problem and we will keep circling this drain until we address it – because the Church of England has a problem with power.” (3.21:14 on video)

She went on to describe ‘root-sin’, sins so deeply buried that the institution or culture can no longer properly see it and every attempt to address it in fact shaped by it and destined to compound it.

In another article, Wade Mullen describes how powerful people and institutions are able to coerce individuals and groups, in a number of ways including flattery, silencing and partial confession. The most dangerous point though is the ‘demonstration’:

"The coercive person or institution seeking to repair its damaged image might engage in displays of change in an attempt to appear legitimate. They may seek ways to recruit good will and earn back trust without ever dealing with the truth of their past behaviour and its impact. If they can successfully win over acceptance without laying down their coercive tactics, then they find themselves back at the start: promoting themselves and charming their targets; only they’ve learned new and more creative ways to confuse and control."

What Synod experienced yesterday had all the marks of a powerful body in damage-limitation mode and the sad thing is that most members didn’t even notice.

 

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