Lessons the church can learn about process from the conservative party

Reports are currently circulating about a Conservative Party MP who has been accused of, and is currently being investigated by police on account of, rape. The name of the MP in question hasn’t been released, presumably because the investigation is ongoing. However, various questions surrounding the Conservative Party processes have been raised.

Specifically, there have been three questions raised. Firstly, over whether the Conservative Party Chief Whip – Mark Spencer – took the accusations seriously. That Guardian report that Spencer denies the alleged victim ever made such accusations to him. She states:

In an interview with the Times a week ago, the former parliamentary aide who made the allegations said she had told Spencer she had been sexually assaulted and then threatened by the MP.

She told the paper: “Our conversation was brief. He didn’t seem interested in the details of the allegations but spent most of the time saying how I shouldn’t worry about the threats. His response was: ‘Well, don’t worry, because the MP won’t actually carry out those threats.’”

The Guardian

Second, related to the first, over whether the Conservative Party were actually doing anything about the accusations at all. The arrest of the unnamed MP came about when the alleged victim took her complaint to the police because ‘Spencer had taken no action’.

Thirdly, questions have been raised over why the unnamed MP did not immediately have the party whip suspended. The Conservative Party have repeatedly stated that they would consider removing the whip after the police investigation had been concluded. However, Jess Phillips stated it was ‘shocking’ that the whip had not been removed and argued, ‘In any other organisation, were this investigation to be going on, this police investigation, somebody would be suspended while the investigation was taking place.’

Naturally, I do not know the details of the case. I don’t know who the MP in question is nor do I know who the alleged victim is either. I am certainly in no position to be commenting on guilt or innocence. But the questions that have been raised about process bear consideration. There seem to be issues of lack of transparency, problems of reporting, issues in taking the allegation seriously and, even now, an unwillingness to act in ways that would seem proper even under the circumstances.

For example, I think Jess Phillips is entirely right about the lack of suspension. It is common when allegations of illegal behaviour are received to suspend people, on full pay without prejudice, whilst investigations are ongoing. When those investigations are complete, the person is either reinstated or sacked depending on the outcome. That the Conservative Party won’t do that whilst investigations are taking place is, at best, a serious lack of judgement (to say the very least). Many will view it as an unwillingness to take such allegations seriously and will, no doubt, read all sorts of malintent into the move.

Now, my intention here is not to pore over the processes of the Conservative Party per se. Suffice to say, I think they are handling the whole thing extremely badly and showing little regard for the alleged victim. But I am interested in what the church can learn from such episodes.

At least three lessons seem to stand out. First, transparency is key. Nobody can have any confidence in raising issues if they cannot see a just process at work. There needs to be a clear and evident way to raise complaints and then a transparent process for how they will be handled. If complaints are upheld, fitting responses must be in place. If complaints are not upheld, clear and direct reasoning as to why they have not been sustained must be offered. Anything less will lack transparency and – even if the right decision (whatever that is) happens to be reached – nobody will have any confidence in the process in future. Transparency is key.

Second, the church needs to be seen to take the issue seriously. Whether the allegation is true or not, it must be taken seriously. Allegations must be viewed as potentially true and thus treated with the seriousness they deserve. Minimally, suspension without prejudice for serious matters – with no right to attend church meetings whilst investigations are ongoing – seems legitimate. When criminal matters are at stake, the police should be involved as soon as the allegation is received. Suspension while the police investigation is taking place is important, followed by removal from office and membership if charges are sustained. If the police deem something not to be criminal, the church nonetheless have further questions to ask about whether the matter was nevertheless sinful and bringing the gospel into disrepute. Attempts to not involve the police, failure to suspend somebody whilst investigations are ongoing and (potentially) unwillingness to bring in external investigators if required will all add to the sense that the church is not taking matters seriously.

Thirdly, the church should not appear less just than the world. There is a serious problem if the world can enact justice in a way that the church will not. Just as those who sin publicly and seriously bring the gospel into disrepute, so the church does the same when it fails to take issues of justice seriously. If our only question is, ‘is it illegal?’ then we are not caring for the flock and fail to rightly guard the purity of the Bride of Christ. If legality is our only concern, especially if we breathe a sigh of relief as if legal technicalities are all that matter, we bring the gospel into disrepute. If our only concern is how to protect ‘the ministry’, we are bringing the gospel into disrepute. If we are more concerned with the preservation of our institution than we are about those who have been damaged by people who claim to follow Christ, we are bringing the gospel into disrepute. If the world can legitimately look at our response to these things and say that we have failed to take them seriously or, worse, covered them up, we are bringing the gospel into disrepute. The reality is that as unhelpful to the gospel as it may be for sin to go public, it is eminently more unhelpful for the gospel for us to lack transparency and seek to cover it up. Ironically, our attempts to preserve our gospel witness will do far more to undermine it.