Rewriting your history: thinking about the Winchester case

When I was involved as a contributor to Living in Love and Faith, the ‘History’ group – with which I initially worked – was chaired by the Bishop of Winchester, Tim Dakin. I’m a lay person and I have never been employed by the church, so I don’t tend to hang out with bishops very much, and I had not met this one before. On 20 May, Thinking Anglicans posted “Winchester rebels against its diocesan bishop”, the story of how Bishop Tim has “stepped back” from his diocese for six weeks. The ‘stepping back’ seems to be because of a threatened motion of no confidence from the Diocesan Synod, one backed by a large number of clergy and lay members. I am not going to discuss my encounters with Bishop Tim in the context of the LLF group because personal information of that kind is still under the embargo of the Memorandum of Understanding (“Under no circumstances will views expressed within or to the groups be attributed to individuals outside group meetings”). Instead, I want to pick up on two points which have been made in the subsequent discussions of this extraordinary situation: one about history, the other about power.

First, some context. The diocesan website has so far said nothing about the bishop’s ‘stepping back’. But, at the time of writing this piece, 349 comments have been made on Thinking Anglicans and from these and from the blog posts and newspaper stories it seems that the dispute concerns management style and the methods of pastoral reorganisation. That long TA thread has often gone off-topic, taking opportunities not just to revisit the Bishop’s role in the circumstances in which the Channel Islands were moved from Winchester diocese to Salisbury and his involvement with the merger of the South American Mission Society and the Church Mission Society, but also to tell stories about other bishops, past and present. Questions were raised about the gaps in Bishop Tim’s published CV; about the circumstances of his ordination and the lack of any theological college training or of parish ministry experience; about what he means in his unusually long online bio on the diocesan website by saying he ‘unexpectedly transferred, as an ordinand, from Oxford to Nairobi diocese’; and, in the comments on the Surviving Church blog, about his 2020 PhD ‘by publication’ (presumably still assessed and examined by academics?) from the University of Winchester and the presence on his submitted list of work that was not in fact ‘published’ (the list includes a book review, conference papers with no publisher listed, and papers produced for various boards). 

There have been plenty of attempts to fill in the gaps here. But what counts as a reliable source when writing someone’s history? Some TA contributors did sterling work in finding back issues of various publications such as Oxford Diocese’s The Door and the journal Anvil and comparing them: also comparing the entries in Crockford, Who’s Who and Wikipedia. Which is the most authoritative, here? It’s difficult to say. In my line of work, when someone needs 150 words about me, they’ll usually ask me to write them. So it’s up to me what I include – and what I don’t. If someone introducing me at a conference decides instead to go it alone, well, there’s plenty online that they could use; but despite having a detailed university page about my background, I’ve also had experiences of being introduced at conferences as the author of books I did not write! The very length of Bishop Tim’s (self-constructed?) diocesan bio just makes the gaps more obvious, and it isn’t even up-to-date; it still has him chairing the LLF History group, but now that’s … history.

In a church where testimony plays a role, perhaps personal experience trumps everything else. That could be why LLF makes a point of including many individuals’ stories in the teaching materials; I’ve often wondered what happens if one of those individuals rewrites their story later, when one stage of it is preserved forever by LLF? In the TA thread, people who had worked in senior roles, for example in the Church Army UK, gave their own recollections, but even then these weren’t accepted without challenge.

Another of the contributors to the thread, Simon Bravery, who had already intervened several times, shared what he interpreted as a positive comment about Bishop Tim, from a blog post written seven years ago. In this, Rachel Hartland was upbeat and enthusiastic about her experience of Deacon’s Day in Winchester, mentioning the bishop’s “seriously inspirational talk” about ordained ministry, his vulnerability when questioned by the ordinands and his “fresh ideas and a fresh way of doing things”. She then described how the bishop asked the ordinands if they were willing to be ordained in red stoles, for the colour of the Holy Spirit. As it happened, Rachel had already had an ordination stole made, in ivory and white, created from her wedding dress and incorporating a reference to a cross her father gave her at university and wool from her mother’s saddle-cloth. She was clearly uncomfortable with the bishop’s idea but went along with it, and tried to reflect on the incident as showing how our “nicely laid plans” can be “well and truly shot out of the water”. Yes, as a mere authorised lay preacher, I’ve done that training too: the Kolb reflection cycle, when you try to make sense of your reaction and learn from it for next time… 

And that would have been the end of it, except that Rachel responded on TA to Simon’s posting, as follows:

I wrote this blog post as an ordinand 7 years ago as a reflection on my first meeting with the peers with whom I was to be ordained. Our meeting that day with +T was in that context. A lot has happened to myself and colleagues since then: his seeming vulnerability when he spoke to us initially could now be interpreted differently. His snap decision over the stoles – with no concern for the personal significance of their design – is hardly a positive reflection on his pastoral care for his clergy.

Simon apologised for misrepresenting her current views, writing that he was “trying in the interests of balance to find something positive to say”. Nice try, but it didn’t work.

With that input from Rachel, we can revisit her blog post. Upbeat and enthusiastic, yes, but also – think about it, you’re moving towards ordination to the diaconate and your bishop comes up with an idea. Who has the power here? Precisely. Are you going to risk being forever in the bishop’s bad books by saying, ‘Actually no, Bishop; while I understand where you’re coming from, that’s not an appropriate thing to suggest at this point, and don’t try to bully us by bringing the Holy Spirit into it’? If we read that alongside another TAcomment by a member of Winchester Diocesan Synod that “People are fearful of using their real names for comments online in case they incur +Tim’s wrath”, what happened seven years ago feels even more significant.

I was interested in this exchange, not least because made me wonder about my own blogging. I started this blog in 2015 when I was chosen as one of Oxford Diocese’s representatives on the Shared Conversations process. I was very excited about this. But I realise now that I was also very, very naïve. In my first blog post, I blithely talked about how I’d worked with Christians with views very different from my own about all sorts of topics. Ha! It wasn’t until the Shared Conversations that I met, to give just one example, someone who thought that people with intersex characteristics were evidence of The Fall; and, while we’re on this, that The Fall was a real historical event. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. 

And then I was asked to join LLF. Again, I hadn’t a clue. I think at some level I was excited to be in what my favourite musical, Hamilton, calls ‘the room where it happens’. But that room wasn’t a place of equality. Most people there knew others in the room. Clergy know each other. Bishops know each other and know clergy. There were very few lay people present, and I got the impression that most of those knew each other from General Synod. I haven’t been on General Synod for decades now – I left in 1993 – although such is the nature of the Church of England that some who served with me are still there, and were involved in LLF. But in general I didn’t have the ‘history’ which they all shared. As a non-clergy, non-church-employed, non-theologian, I was of very little interest to them (with a few notable exceptions). There are many comparable situations in the Church of England. Most importantly, for most clergy or church-employed people, then taking part in projects like LLF can be presented as part of your job, whereas for lay people in particular you need to take leave to make it possible to be there.

I’m not going to rewrite any of the blog posts I’ve put up here. They represent where I was, at a particular time, and as such they’re a historical source. I reserve the right to object, and to clarify, if someone takes them as my current views. I wrote as a person without power in the church, and was probably unaware of some of the power moves taking place in the room where it happened. It is interesting now to read more about the person who was chairing our group, and to wonder how I would have reacted if I had been aware of some of this at the time.

About fluff35

I blog on a range of subjects arising from various aspects of my life. On https://theretiringacademic.wordpress.com, I focus on my reactions to early retirement and think about aspects of teaching and research which I hope will be stimulating to those still working in higher education. On https://shared-conversations.com, I blog as an authorized lay preacher in a pretty standard parish church of the Church of England, who needs to write in order to find out what she thinks. I took part in the Oxford/St Albans/Armed Forces C of E 'Shared Conversations' in March 2016, worked on the Living in Love and Faith resources from 2017 and was elected to General Synod in October 2021, and continue to try to reflect on some of the issues. On https://mistakinghistories.wordpress.com I share my thoughts on various aspects of the history of medicine and the body. I also write for The Conversation UK on https://theconversation.com/profiles/helen-king-94923/articles
This entry was posted in Living in Love and Faith, Shared Conversations and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Rewriting your history: thinking about the Winchester case

  1. Pingback: Opinion – 16 June 2021 | Thinking Anglicans

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s