The performance of the Diocese of Chichester and of Lambeth Palace has come under the spotlight again thanks to letters obtained by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act. The letters are of interest to Changing Attitude for a number of reasons.
Bishop Wallace Benn is a key member of Reform, GAFCON and FCA. As a conservative evangelical he would claim to be taking a principled stand against the full inclusion of LGB&T people in the Church of England based on Biblical orthodoxy and tradition.
The bishops of the Diocese of Chichester are opposed to the ordination of women as priests and bishops, coming from both extremes of the Church, conservative evangelical and anglo-catholic.
A very high proportion of clergy in the diocese of Chichester are gay, divided into two sets. The anglo-catholics tend to be against the ordination of women and closeted. The others are more likely to be pro-women, members of Affirming Catholicism and members of Changing Attitude Sussex.
The letters were sent by Matt Dunkley, director of East Sussex County Council’s children’s services, and Cathie Pattison, independent chair of the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board (LSCB) to the Archbishop of Canterbury. In a letter sent on 16 May they called for the immediate suspension of the Bishop of Lewes, the Right Reverend Wallace Benn and revealed that social care chiefs do not believe children’s safety is assured within services provided by the Diocese of Chichester.
The letter said: “We have no confidence in the judgement and conduct of Bishop Benn, in relation to dealing with safeguarding issues, and believe it is appalling that the Church seems reluctant to take decisive and immediate action.
“Bishop Benn faces serious questions of, at best, his competence to ensure children are protected, and at worst, his gross negligence in the face of serious allegations against staff he was responsible for.
“His position as bishop is plainly untenable until these matters are fully investigated.”
Lambeth Palace replied on 7 June, justifying lack of progress or action by saying the Church had to follow the rule of law and be above any risk of legal challenge, which meant the work had to be careful and painstaking. That letter said: “Any process of suspension involves us jumping through several hoops and we are by no means certain that the evidence for such a step will be sufficient.” Lambeth Palace claims that the diocese had been subject to “one of the heaviest sanctions the Church can impose” – the visitation process.
Those responsible for the safeguarding of children in Sussex say Wallace Benn’s position is untenable, accuse him of gross negligence, question his judgement and conduct and believe it is appalling that the Church failed to take immediate action, implicating Lambeth Palace as well as Chichester.
Has Lambeth Palace failed to act because attention is consumed by the final stages of the women in the episcopate legislation. Both Archbishops are, of course, trying to find a way of satisfying the extreme wings of the Church of England represented in the Diocese of Chichester by Wallace Benn of Reform and John Hind (now-retired) and Mark Sowerby of Forward in Faith.
I wrote about dishonesty and corruption amongst closeted conservative Anglican catholics in a previous blog in 2009:
“Many priests in the dioceses of Chichester and London who are members of Forward in Faith are gay and closeted. Bishop Gene Robinson would say they are “bearing false witness”, denying and condemning their own sexuality and their own core self, the self God created and gifted to them, a self they suppress. There is a sickness of the self and the soul in these people, the risk of acting out in inappropriate ways and they want to join a church slowly recovering from the scandal of child abuse.”
In retirement Wallace Benn presumably intended to become a roving Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans’ bishop, ministering to and encouraging those who believe schism is the only answer to the challenge presented by gay priests and ordained women in the Anglican Communion.
Surely Bishop Wally’s future as a figurehead for FCA is now fatally compromised. Although his solicitors say the East Sussex County Council letters contained significant inaccuracies but legal obligations prevented the Bishop of Lewes from using confidential information to correct the inaccuracies, it is going to be hard for him to shed the impression that he is culpable of gross negligence in the care of children and the proper pastoring and discipline of clergy.
I want to turn to the bigger picture: the impending November session of General Synod (to vote finally, we hope, on the women in the episcopate measure) the December House of Bishops meeting (and the reports by the two House of Bishops working parties on sexuality).
Lambeth Palace and Church House are investing a huge amount of time and energy in trying to find solutions to the demands of those on either extreme of the Church who are opposed to the full inclusion of women and LGB&T people.
Has this absorption with the demand of Forward in Faith and Reform distracted them from attending properly to the shocking scandal in the Diocese of Chichester?
I think the Church of England in its two London headquarters is so intent on managing the negativity of conservatives towards gays and women that it totally fails to communicate a vision of God which is generously loving, creative, responsive to our changing world, inclusive and flowing with life-giving Spirit.