Monday, June 10, 2024

Your sermons on integrity are a bit rich, archbishop, given your faith in Paula Vennells (Contribution)

Canterbury Justin Welby admits ...

The archbishop of Canterbury moved with impressive speed when the general election was announced, to remind everyone to behave nicely. He urged people, “of all faiths and none”, to prioritise, above all, “good grace and a commitment to truth and integrity”.

By some miracle, the election news had already constrained coverage of a potential disincentive to listening to the further exhortations of J Welby: the appearance at the Post Office inquiry of Rev Paula Vennells, the former Post Office CEO and Church of England adviser.

Archbishop Justin, it is reported, once wanted this pious retweeter of his own insights to be bishop of London. True, Vennells didn’t get the bishop job, she “stood down” as a part-time curate and is no longer the church’s go-to governance authority, but while no Anglican archbishop would consider himself infallible, it can’t help when a favourite is exposed as contributing to untold injustice and misery.

That’s if Vennells wasn’t more like a mentor. In the preface to his 2018 book, Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope (published after 555 postmasters had already launched legal action against the Post Office), Welby says she “shaped my thinking over the years”. 

It was odd, you might think, for a spiritual leader to pay tribute to a CEO whose theological scholarship, even if she was inspired by King Solomon, seems limited to a part-time course and volunteer officiating. 

But perhaps Welby’s Church of England is closer, spiritually, to L’Oreal, Unilever, Argos and other landmarks on the Vennells CV than the average non-believer can comprehend.

By the end of her recent cross examination, any claim Vennells might once have had to Welby’s recommended “integrity” had, of course, been comprehensively trashed. Her “commitment to truth” didn’t look much better. Why had this ordained minister told the business select committee in 2015 that remote access to branch transactions was impossible? After reports and warnings stating the opposite?

As for the “good grace” the archbishop urges us to cherish, the weepy Vennells would be reminded, among many inglorious episodes, of a “triumphalist” email from 2014. Following an item on The One Show about subpostmasters whose lives were devastated, Vennells said she had been “more bored than outraged”. 

Unfavourable content was dismissed as “hype and human interest”.

Around that time the C of E could still, possibly, have organised some coherent-ish explanation for ignoring hundreds of postmasters whose claims the Post Office, of which Vennells was CEO, was fighting. 

But even after a high court judge ruled, in 2019, that there was a “material risk” shortfalls had been caused by the system, the church failed to grasp that less controversial business experts might be preferable, if only for appearance’s sake.

Over a couple of years, the respective timelines of Vennells in the secular world and Vennells at the Church of England, indicate, on the one hand, only causes for concern, on the other, continuing approval. 

In 2019, she was invited on its Ethical Investment Advisory Group, in 2020, she joined the archbishops’ pandemic coordinating group, leading on governance; the Church Commissioners benefited too, from her “Lessons Learnt” commentary on a previous church buildings report. Reasons it failed, Vennells advised, included: “gaps in leadership and at times poor behaviours”.

Imperial College NHS trust and Dunelm were also, inexcusably, recruiting her in 2019, the same year the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy successfully put her forward for a CBE. Grim. 

But Dunelm isn’t telling political leaders to volunteer. Imperial College NHS trust isn’t inviting the public, like the Church of England, to say daily pre-election prayers based on its edifying “thematic reflections”. Day two, Integrity: “it is right that citizens should expect integrity, honesty and humility of those who wield power over the lives of others”.

Vennells returned her used CBE before it was formally removed, the Cabinet Office later announced, for “bringing the honours system into disrepute”. 

To date, the church has shown distinctly less interest than the UK’s already blighted honours system in separating its own reputation from that of Paula Vennells, who retains holy orders. 

Welby concedes only that “more questions should have been asked” before she was given a series of appointments after the Horizon scandal emerged, such that “we will need to reflect on it”. 

If Lessons have indeed been Learnt, there is little outward sign.

Some clerics expect more. 

One, after the disclosure that Welby favoured Vennells for bishop of London, the C of E’s third most senior role, called for his resignation. 

Another has tabled a private member’s motion for Synod’s consideration (if it gets the required support): “That this Synod, in the light of the central role of Paula Vennells in the Post Office Horizon scandal, and the comment by the archbishop of Canterbury that ‘Paula Vennells has shaped my thinking over the years’, request that a full review be undertaken of the influence of Paula Vennells on the culture, decisions, appointments, and strategies of the House of Bishops and the wider church.”

As much as a non-congregant is probably disqualified from debating managerial as opposed to theological approaches to running an established church, it seems reasonable for religious outsiders to expect some explanation for his apparent misjudgment from Welby the House of Lords member, moral figurehead and busy, if unelected, politician. 

A recent Spectator interview was headlined: “Justin Welby: why shouldn’t bishops be political?” 

It looks like we may have an answer.

That his recent contributions on Rwanda and the benefit cap have appeared enlightened, only makes seeming sustained indifference to a massive miscarriage of justice more incomprehensible. 

The association with Vennells continued long after the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance said it was “stunned” by her CBE, awarded after the Post Office had “brought so much suffering”. 

To be fair, numerous businesses were likewise unconcerned. 

Maybe, as the testimony of Paula Vennells has already indicated, we just expect too much virtue from prominent clergy. 

Lesson Learnt.