Lidington: I was used to acrimony in politics, but I hadn’t expected to find it in the church

By Ruth Peacock

Sir David Lidington, a former de facto deputy prime minister, and long-standing member of the Church of England, has spoken of his shock at discovering a total breakdown of trust within the church.

In an interview with Roger Bolton for the Religion Media Centre, he said the flaws in the governance of the church were not by themselves the sole cause of the culture of distrust within the church, but he was convinced they had aggravated the mistrust.

He was speaking days after presenting the National Church Governance Report and recommendations to the Church of England’s general synod in York, outlining proposals for a new structure, cutting down the number of internal organisations, streamlining decision-making, clarifying the role of bishops and the general synod and making the change happen as soon as possible.

 “Yes, I was shocked when I started this work. I was expecting that this was going to be at root about governance structures, about addressing the over complex nature of the church’s central institutions,” Sir David said.

“What became clear, as we continued with our work was that while those flaws were real and needed to be addressed, underlying so much of this was a breakdown of trust, at all levels between different institutions within the church family, and between individuals.”

He said synod members told him directly that they did not trust the bishops and archbishops.

Sir David, who served as both lord chancellor and deputy PM in the Theresa May administration, earlier heard some bishops say they were deeply sceptical about the value of scrutiny by the general synod and he formed the view that they were overly defensive towards it.

Again and again, he found a deep suspicion of one another’s motives. He had heard people say that the Archbishops’ Council was trying to centralise all power, railroad things through to the detriment of parishes and diocese, and even that it was Machiavellian.

On the other hand, people on the Archbishops’ Council and other central bodies said all they were trying to do was reach out to people who were not part of the church. They were at a loss to know why their motivation was not understood.

“There are always going to be differences of opinion in the church, as in any large group of people engaged in a common endeavour, but the lack of trust, and the degree of acrimony was something that really did shock me,” Sir David said. “I was used to all of this in politics, but I hadn’t expected to find it in the same way in church.”

He felt it was important to state on the record the depth of the mistrust he believed had “bedevilled” efforts to bring people together when confronting divisive challenges, such as the theological dispute over same-sex marriage or the dispute over the safeguarding process.

He was in the room at synod when the two sacked safeguarding board members were allowed to speak, after chaotic scenes over process.

His reaction? “A deep sadness was my reaction and frustration, because there was a recognition at all ranks of the church that things had gone badly wrong and that a means needed to be found to remedy this in the future, to have a genuine independence in the safeguarding process.”

He hoped the solution would demonstrate strong evidence of independence and he raised the question as to whether parliament should set up a new institution responsible for safeguarding.

“It’s a question of how you establish that independence and you get into really central questions as to under whose law. Is it church law that therefore can be amended by church processes? Or do you go to parliament and say a new institution responsible for safeguarding should be set up?”

He believed operational independence was relatively easy. The key questions were who appointed the people who sat as an independent safeguarding board and under which authority or framework of law was a new safeguarding institution established.

His review did not deal with those questions. But he said for the sake of the church’s reputation, the vulnerable adults and children, and to build trust, “this needs to be sorted out as rapidly as possible”.

Sir David, who stepped down as Conservative MP for Aylesbury in 2019, believed he had been asked to take on the review because he was independent with knowledge of how government machinery worked.

“My political and parliamentary government experience taught me that the machinery of government, getting that right, is very important. Indeed, if you’re going to actually give effect to good policy, rather than to simply make highfalutin speeches or sermons and somehow hope that that is sufficient, you need to get the exercise of authority and power and delivery mechanisms properly in place.”

He hoped restructuring would contribute to a rebuilding of trust, but he recognised that structural change could go only so far. What was needed was a change of culture that everyone adopted, from archbishops to general synod members.

“What I can’t do is wave a magic wand and change the culture of the Church of England,” he said, but he hoped the proposals would move the CofE into a “more trustful direction where people do have greater confidence in each other”.

Continuing rows diminish the church’s prophetic voice, he said: “As an ordinary churchgoer, I do find it sometimes just weird that the general synod of the bench of bishops can spend ages and ages talking about various aspects of sexuality.

“Yes, those are important in terms of personal morality, but where is the challenge from conflict worldwide, of peacebuilding, of the need for help to the poorest in the world, the existential challenge of climate change – those are things the church should be involved with and speaking on as well”.

He said incessant arguments obscure the good work that the local and national church does week by week in helping people who are homeless or mentally ill, in trying to support prisoners after they’ve been released from jail or helping people overcome drug and alcohol misuse. But all of that is hidden.

Time was of the essence, he felt. Legislation to enact the proposals could go to the synod in February 2024 and he hoped the changes could be enacted within two years, under this Archbishop of Canterbury or his successor. 

View the Big Interview between Roger Bolton and Sir David Lidington on our YouTube channel here. Al;so available as a podcast here


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