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After weeks of testimony from leading figures, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, Justin Welby, has appeared in front of the committee investigating abuse. He was open about the factionalism and tribalism that tears at the heart of the nation’s established church, and concluded by saying that he was ashamed of the Church of England. He was genuine, and his words heartfelt.
The investigation has focused on the Diocese of Chichester, perhaps the most troubled and dysfunctional of all the Church of England dioceses. What has been brought into sharp focus is the appalling, and at times grotesque, lack of personal responsibility exhibited by those in positions of power when exercising their duties. Archbishops George Carey and Rowan Williams are shown in a particularly poor light. Neither seems to have had the experience or wisdom necessary to operate effectively in this senior national office, and Justin Welby is now having to deal with the consequences of their shortcomings.
There are thousands of good priests and tens of thousands of faithful worshippers up and down the country who will be looking on in horror at what has unfolded. To hear Justin Welby say he is ashamed of the Church of England as a whole will be very difficult for them. The majority of clergy and laity are totally innocent of all wrongdoing, and will want clear explanations from their bishops and archbishops of how things are going to change. This was a failure made in the House of Bishops not in the nation’s parish pews. Justin Welby, who often gives the impression he does not really like the Church of England very much, would do well to remember this when he associates everyone in the Church with the failures of his Episcopal colleagues and predecessors.
Senior business leaders are frequently criticised for being rewarded with large payouts when their businesses fail. The same criticism can be levelled at those who lead the Church. Why are the bishops who ran the Chichester diocese still allowed to exercise ministry in other parts of the country, for example? George Carey and Rowan Williams both hold Life Peerages and The Royal Victorian Chain – a rare and senior honour. Are these rewards for failure? Rowan Williams says he was unaware of what some of his staff at Lambeth were up to, but he was the person in charge. If he could not run an effective private office what on earth was he doing leading the national church? Even today he chairs a huge international charity and heads up a Cambridge College.
What we have seen unfold is a complete failure of national leadership and personal accountability by those at the top of the Church. Hard as it is to accept, confidence in our archbishops and bishops, and the leadership of the Church of England as whole, has been severely dented. To change the culture and practice of any organisation requires new leadership. Justin Welby is putting in new bishops, with wider experience of life, as fast he can. He would be helped in this necessary task if some of his senior colleagues freed up the position they occupy by removing themselves sooner rather than later.