Church of England General Synod debates safeguarding next steps

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Divisions have surfaced at the General Synod meeting in Westminster over the urgency of bringing forward legislation on independent safeguarding for the Church of England.

Members debated the future of safeguarding at Synod on Saturday, three days after the publication of Professor Alexis Jay's report which heavily criticised the C of E's system and practices. The former chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse called for the creation of two independent charities, one to deliver the Church's operational safeguarding, the other to scrutinise it. 

The debate also came after a report in December by leading barrister Dr Sarah Wilkinson into the controversial disbanding of the Church's Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) in June 2023. She found that a "complex matrix of reasons" lay behind the termination of the ISB members' contracts, including roles that were "not clearly defined". 

Speaking to the Synod by video, Professor Jay told members: "Safeguarding in the Church today falls below the standard expected and set in secular organisations, which are required to follow statutory guidance."

She called on the Church to "challenge erroneous beliefs about safeguarding which continue to be held".

"For example, we heard from a number of people that safeguarding should be rooted in Scripture and that being a practising Christian should be a prerequisite to holding a safeguarding role," she said.

The Church's lead safeguarding bishop, Joanne Grenfell, Bishop of Stepney, circulated a document, GS 2336, to members before the debate. Paragraph 12 of GS 2336 recommends the creation of "an internal team" to "run deep engagement with Diocesan Safeguarding Advisors/ Diocesan Safeguarding Officers and others in dioceses and cathedrals to unpick reactions on different elements and develop detailed proposals". It also calls for the creation of a "survivor and victim focus group" to "hear the views of victims, survivors and their advocates on the proposals".

Bishop Grenfell moved a motion that "this Synod thank Sarah Wilkinson and Alexis Jay for their work and request that the process set out in paragraph 12 of GS 2336 for forming a response to, and considering any necessary implementation of, their recommendations be pursued as a matter of priority".

Clive Billenness, a lay member for the Diocese in Europe, proposed an amendment to the motion to "instruct independent legislative counsel to prepare a draft Measure giving effect to Professor Jay's proposals in the manner recommended by Dr Wilkinson (i.e. using external consultants)"; "to publish the draft Measure for open consultation by 30 April 2024"; and "to bring that draft, together with a report setting out responses to the consultation, for first consideration at General Synod in July 2024".

Bishop Grenfell resisted the move to push ahead with preparing legislation. She said: "The work that needs to be done now is deep and wide engagement, not immediate delivery. We've only had the (Jay) report for a few days."

Mr Billenness's amendment fell in a vote requiring a majority in each of the three Houses of Synod. The House of Bishops voted against it by 27 to 8; the House of Clergy by 95 to 62; but the House of Laity supported it by 83 to 80.

Amendments apologising to "the survivors impacted by the matters described within the Wilkinson report" and to all the former members of the ISB passed but the debate descended into bitterness when the Rev Robert Thompson, a clergy member for London Diocese, called on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Archbishops' Council Secretary-General, William Nye, to resign.

He said: "Apology needs to be embodied and at present no one is embodying that within our Church. I have on social media called for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the General Secretary (sic) to resign and I think that is now what is needed. Trust is completely broken."

The main motion passed in a vote of the whole Synod by 337 to 21.

Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Lancashire.