I’ve wondered if you’ve noticed the same thing as me? When it comes to big difficult topics of discussion there’s a tendency to do one of two things.
First, if something is very clear then those who don’t want it to be clear can be tempted to suggest that things are a lot more complicated than they really are. A black and white question is answered with 50 shades of grey.
But the opposite is also true. When something is complicated there can be a tendency to seek to over-simplify; to condense things down to one single take-it-or-leave it proposition.
We’re all guilty of it, depending on what issue we’re particularly committed to or which difficult thing we want to avoid addressing. It strikes me that this is particularly evident in the current troubles waylaying the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle here in Australia.
This website is as good a place as any to see some of those different views working out. Take for example a recent exchange in our comments:
Even in these brief few comments the complexity/simplicity issues become apparent. For some, any criticism of the current diocesan leadership is a criticism of the current leadership’s hard work in exposing and addressing a legacy of sexual abuse of minors in the diocese. That hard work has been led by the current Bishop of Newcastle, Greg Thompson, and his senior management team and is currently the topic of investigation for the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse of Children. For others there are multiple issues at stake which ought not to be so quickly confused or conflated.
This website has, from time to time, been included amongst those who have been criticised in the same way for “undermining” the hard work done in this field. So I want to write with two purposes in mind – first to set out some clarification on exactly what the issues are (and are not) in Newcastle and, second, to provide some form of apologia for what we’re doing here (given that I can’t seem to find any other website providing the same level of scrutiny for the entire range of issues currently facing the diocese). In a nutshell, I will be arguing that the diocese’s issues are not as simply black and white as some will contend.
Response to Child Abuse
The first thing that needs to be said is that the current diocesan leadership’s general resolve to deal firmly and fully with both historical allegations of child abuse and also their handling of the failure to deal with those matters in the past is entirely commendable. I said as much during a recent Anglican TV interview:
That’s from back in August 2016 when the Commission hearings were in full swing. You can watch the entire program in order to hear more from me on the necessity to deal fully with these matters and also my gratitude for the excellent training I and many others have received in dealing with these terrible actions.
But getting one thing right doesn’t grant someone a free pass on everything else.
Dealing with False Teaching
At the same time that Bishop Thompson and his team are to be commended, there have also been ongoing complaints from many about his refusal to deal with false teaching and flat-out rejection of orthodox doctrine in the Diocese. Top of the list must be his passivity over and then promotion of the now-archdeacon of the Central Coast, Rod Bower who is on the record as denying the personal nature of God, the saving death of Jesus and the uniqueness of Christ, and the existence of heaven and hell (amongst others). In return for this wholesale repudiation of key Christian doctrine Rod Bower was appointed archdeacon – an act that brought understandable protest from many. By Bower’s own statement (in an interview published only yesterday where he also states “I figured they’d work out I’m a fraud and they’d throw me out,”):
Some in the congregation might tell me to shut up. My bosses never have. They’ve never told me to pull my head in…
Of course, some of those matters are social justice issues where it’s entirely right that the church speaks out. But others are outright repudiations of orthodox Christian belief for which Bower receives no response from the Bishop (and certainly not a call to “pull his head in”) other than appointment to senior diocesan leadership.
Any objective observer of the current situation in Newcastle will tell you that it is not a happy place to be at the moment. The letter written by a number of diocesan members (some very senior) to Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney (the Metropolitan of NSW) outlines a large range of issues. Those complaints go well beyond the matters before the Royal Commission into general concerns over the governance of the Diocese. Ironically these concerns include allegations of an increasingly heavy-handed response to any criticism of diocesan leadership, no matter what the topic, the response to which was every signatory on the letter finding themselves the immediate subject of a diocesan disciplinary procedure. Others speak to me of a refusal by the bishop to countenance any complaints at all, no matter how serious. I reported at the time:
One member of clergy described the atmosphere now as “a little McCarthyist” and described how they and others shared the concerns but were concerned that any attempt to speak out would be met with an identical response.
Now in stating this we ought also to recognise some factors pushing in the other direction about the two letters (to the Royal Commission and to Archbishop Davies).
First, the letter to the Royal Commission was (to my mind at least) an incredibly foolish act. It was strategically naïve given that the agenda of the RC was entirely clear (i.e. to affirm Bishop Thompson’s excellent work in this area). His honour’s reaction to the letter was entirely predictable, since he had no background knowledge of the wider tensions in the Diocese. Without that context it was always going to be received in the way that it was portrayed by supporting counsel – as simply an attempt to undermine a much-needed bringing to account of those who abused children or who covered up that abuse.
Even the letter written to the Metropolitan has some serious issues, most notably in terms of the signatories. Some of those signing are now recognised to be discredited over the issue of child abuse (in that they have defended notable abusers – see the first comment in the graphic above). Given that’s the case it seems to me that it was unwise of others to have their own names associated. None of this, of course, should lead us to simply dismiss the complaints, but the fact remains that it just doesn’t look good when some of your co-signatories’ reputations are so severely tarnished.
And it provides every opportunity for those who are pursuing a narrative that all complaints are effectively opposition to proper handling of the child abuse issues.
Clarity or Muddying the Water?
So where does that leave those watching events in Newcastle? Well I’d summarise with a few key points:
- The diocesan leadership’s work in dealing with the tragic legacy of child abuse and the failure to address it at the time cannot be praised enough. Bishop Thompson and his team deserve much credit, especially when there have been some working very hard to undermine that important work.
- The issues facing the diocese are wider than simply those matters being addressed by the Royal Commission. There is a failure to deal with some serious allegations of false teaching, compounded by the promotion to senior leadership of at least one such false teacher.
- Further, there is an increasing climate of authoritarian centralisation under Bishop Thompson and Assistant Bishop Stuart accompanied with a refusal to address any criticism or complaint. Anyone who raises an issue is effectively branded as undermining the good governance work done over the child abuse matters. This climate has been growing long before the current hearings at the Royal Commission. Our files at davidould.net on the Diocese of Newcastle are by far the largest that we have. I think it is fair to say that we have been remarkably restrained in what we have reported.
- The matter is only complicated when some of those who raise legitimate complaints are associated with others (or are themselves those) whose actions in the past have been nothing short of appalling.
So Newcastle is in a very difficult position. Diocesan leadership give every impression of being unable to tolerate any form of criticism or complaint. There are some very serious issues surrounding Bishop Thompson’s leadership that need addressing if the Diocese is to move forward but that will never happen as long as they keep being deflected and reinterpreted as attacks upon the handling of the child abuse matters.
These matters are not black and white, despite how some would portray them. Those critical of the Bishop must ensure that they understand that complexity as they pursue their case lest they are unjust. And others need to understand that framing every matter as an attack on Thompson’s handling of Newcastle Diocese’s terrible legacy on child abuse does not serve the cause of justice either; it is itself an act of injustice.
Here at davidould.net we believe in a simple proposition – that the truth can never be hidden forever and requires an outlet, indeed love demands it (1Cor. 13:6). Some incredibly important work has been done by Bishop Thompson and we have nothing but praise for it – that truth should be declared loudly (as it has been here many times on davidould.net).
But there is every danger that this legacy will be tragically overshadowed by other systemic failings and so we will continue to report on them.