Sunday 31 January 2010

Anonymous Tosh?

Every now and then an envelope arrives like this one from Slough yesterday. I tear it open expectantly, and the first thing I look for is the address at the top and the name at the bottom...

Oh dear! I am disappointed because, to put it as kindly as I can, although the writer has rather trenchant views about a Vicar in Bucks, s/he seems to have forgotten to give a name or address.

I used actually to read letters like this, but these days I don’t. Out the back of the Chaplain’s office lives a good and faithful servant called Erik the Shred. These days I invariably take letters which people have forgotten to put their names or addresses on out to Erik. He shreds them so that they can be turned into compost and Lucy uses that to grow delicious runner beans. We find that is a life-giving use for anonymous letters.

This may seem like a slightly extreme thing to do. After all, I’m a nosy person and would love to know what everyone has to say, surely. The trouble is I can’t not know what I do know, even if it’s wrong, if you get my drift.

I believe I owe my colleagues a basic loyalty where if someone was ashamed to put their name to their letter, that’s the end of the matter.

I remember people saying to me when I was a parish priest “Rector I shouldn’t be telling you this.” The simple answer, which accords with my Scots Presbyterian genes, is “well don’t, then.” Bitterness, slander, gossip, words that say “Raca” arising from thoughts that breach the ninth commandment, grow from such roots. best strangle them at birth.

It may be that the letter I never read was the sort of letter that made the writer feel better to have written, but should, in fact, never be read in its original form. There are letters like that. I hope this is one of them. It may be that they really want to draw to my attention to something with words for which that they can take responsibility, in which case I’d be delighted to hear from them. It’ll get here even quicker with the correct postcode (“9BG” not “9BD”)

Erik is a hungry lad. He has only had two such snacks in the past five years, which, given the amount of mail we get, is high testimony to the basic character and decency of people out there. I wonder if my “straight to the shredder unread” policy is a bit hard-nosed, but suspect it’s the correct thing to do... surely?


Lesley said...

:) Sounds like a great policy to me Bishop Alan. Think I will apply it myself. I once got an anonymous letter when I was a lecturer telling me what the recipient thought of my teaching. It was an extraordinary attack and utterly different feedback than I received through conventional channels. Nonetheless I shook me for a long time. Anonymous letters can be pure vitriol, best to preserve sanity and not read them!

Pete Broadbent said...

Completely agree. I have the samne policy - though my shredder has no name...
If people can't take repsonsibility for their comments/complaints, then they don't get a hearing - or a reading.

Frog said...

I absolutely agree with shredding principle - I'm afraid unsubstatiated letters come much more frequently than twice a year - the bin does the trick with me.

Ernest said...

Your treatment of the letter was the best and only fair one.

As you say, if someone wishes to make some sort of allegation and complaint, they should have the integrity to back it up with their personal details.

Archdruid Eileen said...

Does the use of a printed label imply that every bishop in the Province received an appropriate letter? A kind of hate-mail-merge?

Charlotte said...

Slightly different tack (not that I disapprove at all of your way with anonymous letters, Bishop Alan).

My shredder (call her Ruby, after the local grapefruit) gets frequent meals, what with the sales, solicitations, advertising flyers and so on that arrive in the mail daily.

Can you explain how you use them in compost? I didn't know one could, though I do have a compost heap.

My tomatoes and green beans thank you.

Robin Usher said...

Good to see you applying some 'supra-canonical' common sense. (I must give my shredder a name - considering all the good work it does!)

David Keen said...

Do people here shred Anonymous comments on blogs? I tend to apply the same rules to them as to the rest: nothing offensive and don't use a comments form to advertise your website.

Encouraging that you've only had two.

Ron, BSG said...

Great policy, Bishop Alan. And I like it that your shredder has a name. Thanks for sharing. Hope all is well. Tobias Haller and I were on winter retreat in New York together with the community last week. We were agreeing that we enjoy reading your blog.

Ronald Fox, BSG
Chicago IL USA
Episcopal Church of the Atonement

Anonymous said...

Bishops, their senior staff and office staff and chaplains use the shredder to lesser or greater extents
I wonder if the Clergy Discipline Measure has decreased the number of letters binned.

Archbeship Anthony said...

Hi Bishop Alan,
I have to Confess that I looked up the Addresses, that I wanted to Send anything to on the Dioceses Website first.

I Know I would try speaking to the Vicar Concerned, before I sent the letter.

I would probably write the letter, Save it and print, then wait 24 hours and then revisit the issue, if needed, in a calmer state. Therefore I would be in the correct frame of mind to take out any sentences that I deemed to be Nasty.

If that person wishes to remain anonymous surely they must realise that them doing so severely reduces the chances of you taking the correct action with the concerned vicar and thus the chances of any good coming from this similarly very slim.

On Tuesday Evening, I managed to start 3 Conversations all about the same subject - Compass Bearing for London or Amsterdam (3 degrees different) and on Wednesday Incidentally served a friend of yours on at the Co-operative Store in Olney, who also would like to attend my Presentation on Living With Autism. This Time Next Week I hope to have a time and date. I was talking about the photo you took during your visit to Cape town. On the Evening before,
Many Thanks

Anthony Tull

Simon Marsh said...


Thank you for your loyalty and all the refreshment that flows from it.

Erika Baker said...

In principle, yes, Erik's a very useful chap.
And in principle, it's good not to read what you can't later un-read.

But there are legitimate reasons for writing anonymously. Frightened people tell anonymously of abuse. That's why the Samaritans or Childline accept calls from anyone.

Bullied people tell anonymously about what happened to them. And you have just given out very clear signals that you are committed to doing something about bullying in the church.

I agree that 99.9% of anonymous letters need to become Erik's breakfast. Can you be sure that without at least glancing over them you don't miss the one genuine one?

Ann Memmott said...

Hope the autism event goes well for you, Anthony.

Anonymous hate mail certainly is a challenge. I tend to get a fair amount through email from people who aren't very keen on autistic people existing on the same planet as them. Good job God loves us all.

Anonymous said...

I have my doubts about the breadth of the policy, because I think that you took a prior judgement about the seriousness and credibility of the content before shredding it. You would not, for instance, have shredded concerns being expressed about children.

I think a bishop has to have a wider vision; and fairness to the incumbent has to be balanced with half an eye on what is or might be going on in the parish.

Without having any clue as to the precise allegations contained in the letter, it's hard to judge. I suspect that it was vitriol rather than serious criticism, but the fact that it has been written is itself evidence of something even if it is simply of the serious disturbance of the writer.

People stay anonymous for a wide range of reasons. I've seen too many serious cases where the initial symptom was an anonymous letter ever to dismiss them.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for helpful comments, all. I did mean the question mark in the last line, mainly because of the danger that someone might anonymously allege abuse or bullying. Had the writing been a child's, I wonder if I would have read it? Having said that, not knowing who the person was makes it well-nigh impossible to do anything about what might be said.

If the letter had said "I am a child being bullied or abused by Reverend Bloggs" what would I have done? I can share the letter with Reverend Bloggs, but bear in mind I do not have the writer's permission to do so, something I would always have to seek if I knew from whom to seek it? I am also running the risk that Reverend Bloggs will identify the writer in a way I cannot, with bad results. Do bear in mind two other realities — the law of defamation does apply to this letter, and unless the complainant can be encouraged to identify themselves, no action can be taken against a member of the clergy through CDM...

Erika Baker said...

In your original post you said you shredded anomymous letters unread.
If so, you cannot know the content, you cannot know who might have given you permission to do what.
If we assume a possible case of child abuse, for example, I suppose there are protocols for investigating those with particular emphasis on not alerting the suspect, whoever he is. You assume it's about Reverend Bloggs, but not having read the letter, you cannot know that and it may not be about him at all.

That's the problem I have with shredding letters unread - we simply do not know what they were about.

TommiAquinas said...


With devil's advocate hat firmly on, should the Police not follow up any leads given to them through Crimestoppers?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

T/Aquinas, if I may say so, nothing diabolical about your perspective at all, or yours, Erika, if I may say so. I am not Crimestoppers or Childline. Crmestoppers and childline are. Every child protection policy should include designated non-clergy people to whom disclosure is encouraged, and a general duty to disclose on all helpers and workers (never, of course on the understnading that you don't know who the victim is). In addition we are setting up a network in Bucks of trustworthy people outside the hierarchy to whom bullying disclosure can be made. But in the final analysis this is not quite that...

I am coming to a slightly eccentric conclusion, but bear with me. If someone says something in confession my duty is not to reveal it, or even the fact that they have been to see me for confession. If I were to treat such information as revealed in a semi-confessional context. My duty, then, would be to read it and then shred it — in a confessional context, in one ear, weigh it, give absoution then out the other. There are things that could be said in the confessional that should, to use conventional terminology, be reserved to the bishop but then, hey, I am the bishop.

Ann Memmott said...

Just general info for interested parties reading the comments - If any of us receives a communication from a child or vulnerable adult who is declaring bullying or abuse, we have excellent guidance available through the CofE policies on this available through the CofE website, (and some info on our Diocesan website too).

Erika Baker said...

you're now assuming it's about child abuse or a genuine crime. It may not be.
And you're assuming that everyone knows about the administrative workings of Bucks and that someone being bullied in their local church, or observe such bullying, would know how to access it. Or that they fully understand the role of a bishop.

In my experience, people's lives aren't like that. They have a problem that troubles them greatly. For whatever reason, they cannot see a way of solving it locally. They may have read about you in your Diocesan newspaper, or heard you preach in their church a while ago. And they may simply think "he'll know what to do". But because they're so entrenched locally, they don't trust the system enough to give you their name.
Who knows - they might have given an email address in the letter, one that allows contact to be made and trust to be built, without immediately revealing identity. And, of course, a reply could simply be an explanation from you about the appropriate routes and processes in Bucks.

But you'll never know whether it was anything like that if you don't at least scan the letter.

If you can do "in one year, out the other" in the confessional, can you not also do "in one eye, out the other" when it's print?

Tim Chesterton said...

So often in Christian circles we treat Matthew 18:15-20 as optional.

Thanks Alan - I agree.

I once sat through an excruciating deanery meeting in which my regional dean proceeded to pass on to us all the anonymous complaints he'd received about us. It was awful, and because they were anonymous it meant that everyone in the parish was suspect.

Erika Baker said...

I wasn't suggesting that all this anonymous tosh should be taken seriously. I only suggested that at least one person should briefly scan it before feeding it to Erik just to make sure that the very very rare but genuine cry for help isn't missed.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...


I think I was open to the possibiity of "in one eye and out the other." I have to say I did read another anonymous one a while ago and it was the most toxic attempt to manipulate me into thinking badly of a colleague who was struggling, but needed help not condemnation. I was a bit orientated on child protection when I said what I said, because I think I would be more inclined to read one of these things if it manifestly came from a vulnerable person. I'd still have the frustrating problem of how to follow to up ethically, though. I hope I don't now get a flood of anonymous letters, that's all!

Bishop Alan Wilson said...


I think I was open to the possibiity of "in one eye and out the other." I have to say I did read another anonymous one a while ago and it was the most toxic attempt to manipulate me into thinking badly of a colleague who was struggling, but needed help not condemnation. I was a bit orientated on child protection when I said what I said, because I think I would be more inclined to read one of these things if it manifestly came from a vulnerable person. I'd still have the frustrating problem of how to follow to up ethically, though. I hope I don't now get a flood of anonymous letters, that's all!

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