07 Bishop Gavin Ashenden

This article is based on the record of an electronic note taker (ENT) hired to provide deaf attendees with a rendering of what people said in real time. It is a phonetic account, first and foremost, taken down in the heat of the moment. An echo of what was said rather than a reflection of what might have been written before or since.

Gavin Ashenden: I would like to begin with an anecdote. I was part of the Chapter when the first announcement was made. Like others, the decision was brought to us as if it were a matter of fact. So the Dean said; does anyone have any views? I did train in the law and that gave me a sense of its importance; I suggested we call the house Natural Justice!

Thank you for asking me to speak. If you are here today it’s because you are in no doubt that Bishop Bell is innocent. You’ll be familiar with the conclusion of Lord Carlile’s review and his frustrations. I was glad Bishop Martin took responsibility.

Many of us believe the terms of references stopped Lord Carlile saying Bishop Bell was innocent. I read a statement earlier on – ‘George Bell should be declared innocent’. Still the Archbishop of Canterbury is reluctant to accept the truth. Though his apology has lots of emotive words it came close to a ‘non-apology’ – sorry if you feel hurt by what I did. Welby apologised to the survivors and family – but that’s not an apology to Bishop Bell. When measuring the demands of truth on the ethical scale, it’s near the bottom. Victimhood is at the top. ‘We need to care for her’ – of course we do. No one has ever suggested that anyone who is a victim should experience anything but the utmost care. So why does it not care about Bishop Bell? Let us review how we got to this point.

The scales were weighted against Bishop Bell from the start. Why were the terms of reference not allowed to examine the cogency of Carol’s claim? You might be forgiven for thinking that though the Church was unwilling to look into these allegations more closely.

The response of the Church was to claim that there was further evidence to say Carol’s memories WERE concrete enough. But there was evidence to say that 70-year-old memories were too flimsy. So there was new information, but they wouldn’t tell us what it was. Everything hung upon the reliability of the further accusations. One side was… the other was that there were even more allegations. The safeguarding culture was choosing victimhood over truth. Safeguarding should protect everyone. One problem for the public is that it became impossible to hold the Church to account. Who has read the Briden report? I will add a couple of details. The Church knew the allegations did not bear the weight attributed to them. The most serious was from a man who said his mother had found Bishop Bell engaged in a sex act with another man. She had answered the phone and gone to find him. But cleaners never answered the phone – and he’d been dead 20 years at that time. So the accuser just changed the date.

Another allegation was from a reporter who had interviewed a psychiatric nurse who said she’d been abused by Bishop Bell as a child. Alison also accused Bishop Bell of interfering with her when she was sat on his knee. But she contradicted herself, and when asked if she had been touched in the crotch she said ‘maybe it was my tummy’. Hard not to touch a child on the tummy if they are sat on your lap.

Recall is an active mental process where memories become distorted with time. I had lunch with an old friend who studied law with me – she said I was the only one to get a first, but I didn’t!

Briden’s conclusion says; the allegations are all unfounded. Bishop Bell’s biographer claimed the Church had been caught up in self-justification and said it would maintain the views that got them into so much trouble in the first place. Chandler says the Church are trying to reclaim the narrative. ‘They have nothing to hide behind now – it is quite extraordinary – the various establishments invested so much in this and are unable to climb down. They need to think about how to regain trust’.

It’s part of a growing culture that threatens the freedom of speech. I could be here all day – but you’ll be aware of political correctness. When Marx tried to bring about a revolution, there were also Cultural Marxists who thought they’d have a go. Feminism has a benign side, but also a malign side where the idea is that you could construct your own gender – which led us to gay marriage. You may or may not be in favour of it – and then that led us to transsexualism. It’s all part of the subversion of Judeo-Christian culture. If you criticise this, you are committing political blasphemy. Those who have had power are old Christian white men. The victimhood – those without power – must have more power than those who had it. It’s not an excess of pastoral care. It’s begun to steal the heart of the Church. This is a new form of totalitarianism; if you speak out against it, you could be sacked. The real problem is that it attacks freedom of speech. Bishop Bell is famous for speaking out against totalitarianism, and here we are speaking out against them attacking him 70 years. I am suggesting this is unconsciously done – it’s more than a tragedy, close to blasphemy. All we can do is seek to articulate the process while offering as much pastoral care to anyone who has suffered, without compromising our values. We need to defend Bishop Bell and hold the Archbishop of Canterbury to account.

Sandra Saer: Any questions?

New speaker: Because we’re about to have lunch I don’t want to let this slip – earlier Martin Warner was put on the spot as to why these investigators couldn’t look at Carol’s allegations. His defence was that it would hurt Carol too much. If that’s correct, we need to look carefully at what he said and I want us to hold on to that.

Gavin Ashenden: I almost said; you brought it into the public process! Let’s say it really was mistaken identity which I think is very likely – I don’t disbelieve Carol but I don’t think she would have been able to recognise one from the other, similar uniforms were worn. It’s reprehensible to insist it was Bishop Bell and there is no way it can be anyone else. This is either through pride or the political agenda. But you’re right. He should be held to account.

New speaker: I would like to ask what you would like us to do about it. The majority of us are church members – do we mull it over, is there something we can do as individuals or as a group?

Gavin Ashenden: I worked at the University of Sussex for 25 years. They are further along the progressive road. I think we are culturally in the same place as Germany in 1932 – it’s harder to spot, they don’t wear brown shirts, but people like Germaine Greer are silenced and then you know there’s a problem with democracy. What was Bonhoeffer’s response? He decided to lose, and did lose. He decided to create a confessional church. I think there is scope to creating something similar and am talking to people who share my views. The first thing is to realise what is going on. Bishop Bell would be pleased to know we are looking at freedom of speech.

New speaker: I’m not taken in by this talk of victims. With John Smythe, the victims say the Archbishop of Canterbury knew him. We have to believe him because he says he’s innocent. It’s not balanced.

New speaker: Thank you for what you said and especially confronting politely Martin Warner earlier. There are concerns about the elevation of victimhood. I do think there are important strands in plurality which embrace gender which are important and will still contribute towards a more fair-minded society.

Sandra Saer: Thank you very much. Before you go, I want to make a cri de coeur. Especially Richard – he doesn’t like me saying what he’s done. He has gone to great deal of expense putting these conferences together. I wanted to ask if you would consider contributing, however small.