There are many different theologies and understandings across the different traditions of the Christian church about the proper relationship between Church and State. However, the fact is that Churches are public organisations which, like other organisations in our society, are subject to the law of the land. Churches may claim God’s authority over their mission but, their activities in the here and now in pursuit of that mission, are subject to the authority of the State, expressed in laws created by parliament.
"Churches may claim God’s authority over their mission but, their activities in the here and now in pursuit of that mission, are subject to the authority of the State"
There are certain things that Churches may not do and there are other things which they are obligated, by law, to do. Additionally, and probably more significantly when it comes to their safeguarding responsibilities, Churches are expected to take reasonable steps to follow good practice guidance given by the government. Churches are charities and the government body with responsibility for the regulation of charities is the Charity Commission.
The way in which the Charity Commission holds churches to account and insists on certain standards in relation to safeguarding, is by focusing on governance arrangements, systems, policies and procedures. In charities, and churches are charities by law, the organisational structure, whatever that looks like, comes under the umbrella of the trustee board.
This is the body ultimately responsible for the public trust vested in the charity and therefore the trustees are tasked with directing and overseeing the management of the totality of the charity’s activities. Trustee boards have the job of managing risk and some of the biggest and most high-profile risks facing Churches today are to do with safeguarding. These risks include the risk of the charity’s beneficiaries being harmed, but they also include the risk of harm to others too, such as to the charity’s employees, volunteers and all who come into contact with the charity.
"Trustee boards have the job of managing risk and some of the biggest and most high-profile risks facing Churches today are to do with safeguarding"
The reputation of the charity and the trust in which it is held by the general public also needs to be protected, so reputational risk is a further priority. The trustee board consists of a number of trustees who are, from a legal perspective, jointly and severally responsible for the charity. These individuals, who are not allowed to be paid, are expected to embody the charity’s values and ethos and they are ones who are held to account when things go wrong. The buck stops with the board of trustees.
In a recent report published by the Charity Commission on the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham the duties of charity trustees are spelled out as follows:
Trustee duties include taking reasonable steps to protect people who come into contact with their charity from harm. This includes people who benefit or come into contact with their charity through its work, staff and volunteers. It is important that all charities take reasonable steps to protect the people they come into contact with, including those for whom they have a specific duty of care. The Commission’s role is to hold charities to account for the steps that they take.
Churches safeguarding practices have been put under the spotlight through the IICSA review and Churches have been, and are continuing to be, heavily criticised for ignoring, minimising or covering up abuses. What is different about this report is its focus on “failings in the oversight and governance of safeguarding” and the trustee board of the Birmingham Diocese is held accountable for these failings.
Before initiating the inquiry, the Charity Commission gave the Board of Trustees an opportunity to put together a response to these serious concerns but was not satisfied with their plan, saying that it was insufficiently robust and lacked urgency. By the end of the six month investigation, on publication of the report, a Charity Commission spokesperson said that they were pleased with the progress that was being made but that more needed to be done.
Reflecting on these events from the perspective of an independent local church some questions arise for Church trustees:
- Do you have sound understanding of your safeguarding responsibilities as a trustee?
- Have you received any training, as a trustee, on your safeguarding responsibilities?
- Do you, as a team of trustees, have a grip of the safeguarding practices within your church?
- Are you able to evidence the way that your organisation has dealt with any safeguarding concerns that have arisen?
Form more information see our training specifically for charity trustees.