Following intense scrutiny this month from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), an Oxford theologian has argued that the Church of England is no longer competent to run its own safeguarding.

The Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, has set out his argument in an article published on the website of Modern Church, a society promoting liberal Christianity, of which he is a Vice President.

In the essay, called Cricket, Elephants, Armies and other Analogies: The Church of England after IICSA, Prof Percy says:

‘time and again the reputation of the Church of England was placed at a premium, and well above the needs or interests of those who had been abused.’

He describes the inquiry, which took place over three weeks, as ‘something of a spectator sport’, like a game of cricket with poorly matched teams. The inquiry was live-streamed, and open to the public, but received little coverage from mainstream media, which he believes is

‘because the three weeks have amounted to something of a slow death for the Church of England as an operational public body…’

IICSA worked with case-studies, mainly from the Diocese of Chichester, with representation from the National Safeguarding Team, the House of Bishops, and other bodies within the Church, which revealed what Percy describes as ‘gross incompetence, shoddy amateurism and shady nepotism’ which highlighted

‘a culture where minor oversights, dubious legal short-cuts, file-shredding or record burning, forgetfulness, errors, incompetence and culpability were routine… Everyone knew a little, but no-one chose to know enough. It seems that the cultures of abuse were ultimately no-one’s fault. So no-one did anything. Everyone else was to blame.’

Professor Percy acknowledges that, while some church leaders spoke openly about their shame, sorrow and contrition for the abuses, apologies are not enough to change the culture that has produced and concealed the abuses. To enable such a radical culture change, he believes the church must tackle not only ‘poor professionalism and meagre managerialism’ but also, among other things, ‘warped attitudes to gender and sexuality’ and ‘naïve assumptions about human nature’.

Recent reports on safeguarding controversies in the Church of England have shown that it is simplistic to blame liberals for ‘lax standards and moral lapses’, as the cultures of sexual abuse appear to have been most prevalent in traditionalist strains of Anglo-Catholicism (e.g. Bishop Peter Ball) and Biblicist strains of Conservative Evangelicalism (e.g. John Smyth of Iwerne Camps). Percy argues:

‘There are common denominators between these two ecclesial cultures. They deny women equality. They are squeamish about sexuality. They sacralise ambiguity. They put their leaders on unimpeachable pedestals. The worst abuses flourish in the cultures that are self-righteous.’

In addition to the findings of the IICSA hearing, Percy cites the recent Gibb Report and Carlile Report (dealing respectively with controversies surrounding Bishop Peter Ball and Bishop George Bell), which are both damning of the Church of England’s handling of safeguarding, the role of bishops in providing leadership and oversight, and the competence of the National Safeguarding Team. Professor Percy suggests

‘the Church of England would position itself better in the public domain if it made itself subject to those norms that govern other aspects of public life - for example, signing up unequivocally, for equality legislation that addresses gender and sexuality, so ending its own ‘opt out’ clauses that permit it to discriminate in the name of theology, or offer protection to dissenting minority ecclesial traditions.’

He concludes by calling for the Church to hand over its power and authority in safeguarding to a genuinely independent regulatory body ‘free from paying homage to ecclesial patronage and deferring to episcopal authority’:

‘Such a regulator could firmly bind the Church to principles of law and justice first, be thoroughly forensic with its investigative powers, and have the authority to call the Church to account… This is the only way that victims will be able to get the justice they deserve. It is the only way the churches can begin to rebuild public trust. Ultimately, this now an argument about a change of culture: one that many of us now believe is an urgent priority for churches. Without it, I fear for both victims and institution alike.’  

Read and download the full 4000-word essay, Cricket, Elephants, Armies and other Analogies: The Church of England after IICSA, by Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy.


Note for editors: Modern Church is a membership organisation that promotes liberal theology. It encourages open, respectful debate and discussion of matters relating to Christian faith. It was founded in 1898 as a Church of England society. Now in its 120th year, it welcomes all who share its ethos.

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