Open letter to the National Safeguarding Team Adviser

Revd Colin Coward MBE
6 Norney Bridge  Mill Road  Worton  Devizes  SN10 5SF
01380 724908    07770 844302

Graham Tilby, National Adviser
National Safeguarding Team
Church House
Great Smith Street
London SW1P 3AZ

15 June 2018

Dear Graham,

An Open Letter to the Church of England National Safeguarding Team

I have recently written to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York about the open letter written by the Rt Revd. Rod Thomas, Bishop of Maidstone, to the Bishop of Lichfield and the Lichfield College of Bishops. The Archbishop of York has referred my letter to the Pastoral Advisory Group for advice.

Subsequent conversations with friends and members of the LGBTI community in the Church of England have alerted me to the fact that the Bishop of Maidstone is advocating teaching and pastoral practice that is potentially abusive. I am therefore bringing it to the attention of the National Safeguarding Team.

Bishop Rod Thomas writes about repentance, the Church of England’s official position in relation to marriage, ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ participation in the sacraments, inappropriate ‘exclusion’ or intrusive questioning, and the possible requirement for “very gentle probing” of gay individuals and couples The letter is carefully and subtly phrased.

My interpretation of what the Bishop of Maidstone is saying in coded conservative evangelical terms is as follows:

  • Marriage between a man and a woman is the only kind of marriage God allows and of which the Church of England approves. This official position was last determined in 1987.
  • The official position means there are limits to which people should be allowed to participate in the Sacraments.
  • We want to discourage some people from participating in the Sacraments.
  • Some lesbian and gay people will be unworthy because they have entered an equal marriage (same sex marriage in C of E speak)
  • Unless they divorce this renders them permanently unworthy – thus says Canon B30, the 1987 Synod motion and BCP Article 25.
  • The practice advocated in Reform churches is to let married gay couples know this and explain to them why they are unwelcome to receive communion.
  • We leave the decision to them but we would prefer them not to receive communion until they have repented of getting married (and have divorced).
  • We don’t like to ask or be seen to be asking intrusive questions.

Many people reading this would take as implicit in the last point a continuation of the bishop’s argument in his letter: “but by opening the Bible with them we can manipulate them into seeing that our teaching is right through a process of gentle but determined probing because we are right – the Bible and God are clear about this.”

I believe the Maidstone letter describes and encourages teaching and pastoral practice that is homophobic and abusive.

The potentially abusive and homophobic character of the Bishop of Maidstone’s letter are confirmed by three recent reports.

The first is a survey carried out by Dr Lisa Oakley of Bournemouth University for the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS). The survey found that two-thirds of the respondents had personally experienced spiritual abuse. The report identified key characteristics of spiritual abuse as coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture, and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour” in order to punish or control and coerce a worshipper. Elements of these characteristics can be found in the Maidstone letter.

This research identifies how the misuse of religious texts and scripture can be used to abuse people through manipulation and control. This is typified by conservative evangelical organisations such as Reform and the Church Society. I believe the Bishop of Maidstone’s letter encourages Reform congregation to behave abusively towards same sex couples, whether married, civil partnered, or in a committed relationship.

The second report is the Church of England tribunal into allegations about the Revd Timothy Davis, the vicar of Christ Church, Abingdon, Oxfordshire. He was found guilty of spiritually abusing a teenage boy after putting him under “unacceptable pressure” during intensive prayer and Bible-study sessions. He was found guilty of “conduct unbecoming to the office and work of a clerk of holy orders through the abuse of spiritual power and authority”. Davis told the panel that he had no idea of the effect he was apparently having. Encouraging clergy and leaders to follow homophobic teachings and practice in a conservative evangelical context can result in a lack of self-reflection about the abusive effect of the teaching on LGBTI people.

Significant in the context of the Bishop of Maidstone’s letter is the concern that conservatives may have no idea of the effect they are having when adhering to their use of and interpretation of the Bible. In fact, I think the bishop was aware of the effect he might have and therefore phrased his letter as carefully as possible. This habitual practice in certain networks of the church itself results in abusive and collusive behaviours.

The third report is in article published by the Church Society in January 2018. It offers what is effectively advice to those congregations who are under the Episcopal oversight of the Bishop of Maidstone.

John Telford begins by belittling the reality of spiritual abuse. He says it seems “suddenly to be a thing”, added recently to four recognised types of abuse: sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. He implies that only these four are legitimate categories of abuse. Conservative evangelical networks believe their reading of scripture is authoritative and legitimates homophobic teaching.

Telford says that over the past few months some peripheral voices on the edge of the Church of England have called for spiritual abuse to be recognised as discrete category. Others, he says, have linked orthodox teaching on marriage and sexuality to spiritual abuse, particularly when there is a call to repentance of living contrary to biblical marriage. In both examples Telford links to articles by and about Jayne Ozanne. She is a member of the General Synod and in the past was a member of the Archbishops’ Council. In describing Jayne as a “peripheral voice on the edge of the Church” John Telford is directly offensive and abusive towards Jayne Ozanne.

Telford says that conservative evangelical churches need to include spiritual abuse in their Safeguarding Policy and need to define it well in order to protect their congregation from false teaching and coercive methods. Telford wants congregational Safeguarding policies to redefine spiritual abuse. It is spiritual abuse, he says, to deny anyone access to the faithful preaching and teaching of the gospel. He instructs people to call out false gospels as spiritual abuse and name it as spiritual abuse because it is false teaching.

Telford is advising Church Society members to characterise any teaching that affirms an equal place for LGBTI people in the Church of England as false teaching. He warns members of the Church Society to expect opposition from LGBTI people advocating for equality They may in time gain influence and orthodox believers may find that equality laws lead them to being dragged in front of the criminal courts.

I believe that John Telford’s article sets out an abusive attitude to LGBTI people and all those who support LGBTI equality in the church and that the Church Society should also be investigated by the National Safeguarding Team.

Finally, I refer to the Oasis Foundation report In the Name of Love: The Church, exclusion and LGB mental health issues. The report identifies the role Church of England in particular as repeatedly contributing toward a damaging message to and about LGBTI people by direct discrimination and through being the biggest source of negative contribution around national discussions on same-sex relationships. The Oasis Foundation found that there is significant evidence to show that the Church is the biggest negative voice in the public, political and media discussion around the legitimacy of same-sex relationships.

The Bishop of Maidstone, Reform, and the Church Society are key instigators of the negative message identified in the Oasis report. Spiritual abuse is now recognised as one of the most serious manifestations of homophobia and prejudice against LGBTI people and everyone who actively believes in justice and full inclusion as Gospel values and marks of the unconditional love of Jesus.

The Church of England is systemically homophobic. It’s key office holders and institutions remain unaware of this reality. I urge the National Safeguarding Team to act on the safeguarding risks posed by the Bishop of Maidstone, Reform, the Church Society, and Christian Concern.

With very best wishes,


Reverend Colin Coward MBE

cc         +Canterbury
            +Bath and Wells