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The world’s largest thesaurus containing over 230,000 categories with 800,000 meanings is being updated this week to include the word “bishop” as a synonym for “bully”, Oxford University Press has said.

The decision to add “bishop” as a verbal equivalent of “bully” was taken by chief editor Professor Verity Wordsworth along with her team of four co-editors following the first day of hearings by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which began on Monday in London.

What drew the attention of the Oxford Thesaurus editorial team to the pathology of power among bishops in the Church of England was the headline in the Church Times reporting on the first day of the IICSA hearings, a press release from Oxford University Press stated. “Bishops were ‘perfect accomplices’ for ‘nauseating’ Peter Ball, IICSA hears”, the headline read.

The Oxford Thesaurus team who read through the IICSA transcripts were struck by the Rev Graham Sawyer’s testimony. Sawyer suffered unimaginable sexual abuse at the hands of Peter Ball, former Bishop of Lewes and later Bishop of Gloucester. When Sawyer tried to bring Ball to justice, bishops closed ranks and ganged up to bully Sawyer into silent submission.

“Let me make this clear – the sexual abuse that I suffered at the hands of Peter Ball, pales into insignificance when compared to the cruel/sadistic nature meted out to me by the Church of England,” Sawyer told the hearing.

Sawyer sketched in stark detail the bullying tactics adopted by the Church of England’s bishops – making it clear that bullying was embedded into the very DNA of bishops in Anglican churches all over the world.

“Well, there’s an expression used in Australia to refer to the bench of bishops, they don’t refer to the bench of bishops, but they refer to the ‘purple circle’, and the purple circle exists pretty much in every national church within Anglicanism. It no doubt exists in other episcopally-led churches. They support one another in a sort of club-like way. If anyone attacks one of them, they will, as a group, as a sort of collective conscience and in action, seek to destroy the person who is making complaints about one individual,” Sawyer testified.

Oxford Thesaurus’s editorial team consulted one of Oxford University’s most distinguished ecclesiastical historians, Prof E. P. Scope, to verify if the culture of bullying by bishops was only recent or had historical precedent.

“‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ What most people don’t know is that this dictum by John Dalberg-Acton refers to bishops, not politicians. Lord Acton was writing to Mandell Creighton, Bishop of London, in 1887 when he coined this memorable aphorism,” Prof Scope said.

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The monsters in mitres are absolutely corrupted by their absolute power because they are accountable to nobody, is how one columnist summed up the first IISCA hearings on sexual abuse in the Church of England in March 2018. The most damning statement against bishops is on page 132 of the transcript of the hearing’s opening session: “diocesan bishops are not formally accountable to anyone”.

At the latest round of IICSA hearings on Monday, Sawyer labelled the episcopal hierarchy “an ecclesiastical protection racket”. “Anyone who seeks in any way to threaten the reputation of the church as an institution has to be destroyed. That is the primary thing, and that is the culture within Anglicanism,” he said, describing how the church uses its “considerable financial wealth to bully and discredit victims by use of highly aggressive legal firms”.

The press release from Oxford Thesaurus’s editorial team pointed to supporting arguments as to why they chose “bishop” as a new synonym for “bully”. It cited evidence from the union Unite in 2010, reporting that workplace bullying of the clergy had become “rife”. Unite set up a hotline where clergy can report bullying and abuse.

“Bishops have got a lot nastier,” said the Reverend Gerry Barlow, chair of the faith workers branch of Unite. “Bishops can treat people shamefully. The most common experience is a priest gets called in for a pastoral chat, to ‘see how things are going’, within half an hour he’s telling you he’s going to fire you or take your licence away,” Mr Barlow said. In 2017, the Church Times confirmed that clergy membership in Unite had risen by 16 per cent to nearly 1500 and nearly half come from the Church of England.

In 2016, Anglican cleric Lorraine Turner wrote her doctoral dissertation on Formulating a Response to Bullying as Experienced and Interpreted by Church of England Clergy within one Diocese. The dissertation submitted to Anglia Ruskin University does not mention the name of the diocese, so terrified is the author of reprisals from the hierarchy.

“The view promulgated by the House of Bishops, that bullying is rare, is out of touch with the day to day experience of clergy,” she writes. Turner describes how she went to her diocesan bishop who told her that “the union Unite had written informing him that the bullying of clergy is rife and yet he is not aware of any bullying in the Diocese”.

“The Bishop’s initial comment had the effect of silencing me because a curacy is a training post, a time to become demonstrably ready for ministry,” she writes.

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Meanwhile, a number of bishops dismissed the addition of the synonym “bishop” for “bullying” as a “publicity stunt” and as “Christianophobia”.

“People call us socialists, Marxists, communists and Leftists. We do passionately believe in equality and so we cannot be bullies. Can people not see any difference between the House of Bishops and Stalin’s Soviet Politburo?” Sarah Mullally, Bishop of London retorted.

Her indignation was matched by Vivienne Faull, Bishop of Bristol. “Women can never be bullies. Hence, more women bishops will solve the problem. I was accused of being a bully when I was Dean of York, just because I stopped the bell-ringers from ringing the bells for health and safety reasons. Anyone who accuses a female bishop of being a bully is sexist and misogynist. I am considering suing Oxford Thesaurus for hate speech,” said Faull.

Oxford Dictionary defines “bully” as “a person who habitually seeks to harm or intimidate those whom they perceive as vulnerable”. Thesaurus lists a number of synonyms under the category of bully: persecutor, oppressor, tyrant, tormentor, browbeater, intimidator, coercer, and subjugator.

“The dictionary definition strikingly matches behaviour that is now typical of bishops in the Church of England. Our editorial decision has been taken on the basis of available evidence. It is in no way motivated by Christianophobia but based on what people perceive as the increasingly tyrannical behaviour of bishops,’ Prof Wordsworth said in her defence of her team’s decision. “Moreover, we have received support from the Archbishop of York himself,” she added.

John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, pointed out that there was no reason for the Church of England to be ashamed of the new synonym. “Archbishop Justin and I consider it a huge honour that Oxford Thesaurus has chosen ‘bishop’ as a verbal equivalent of ‘bully’,” a press note from Bishopthorpe Palace stated.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, nevertheless, had his reservations about the new synonym. “I don’t think it is fair to call Anglican bishops bullies. On the one hand, the media accuses me of being wobbly on a number of issues. I have been called a spineless evanjellyfish, when all I have done is encourage good disagreement,” Welby tweeted.

“I am either wobbly or I am a bully. One cannot be a wobbly bully. A compilation as prestigious as Oxford Thesaurus will unfortunately preserve such a misnomer for decades to come,” Welby sounded off in a second tweet.

Church schools named after bishops like Bishop Ramsey, Bishop Arden, Bishop Wand and Bishop Henderson will consider re-naming these schools, observed Nigel Genders, Chief Education Officer for the Church of England. “Once 'bishop' becomes a synonym for 'bully', you will have teachers and kids challenging bullies and saying, ‘Stop being a bishop’ or ‘Don’t behave like a bishop’. That would leave the reputation of bishops in complete tatters.”

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Jules Gomes

by Jules Gomes

The Rev’d Dr Jules Gomes, BA, BD, MTh, PhD (Cantab) is a journalist and academic.

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