THE BISHOP of Buckingham, the Rt Rev Dr Alan Wilson, has apologised to people in Tylers Green who suffered abuse or distress at the hands of the former vicar of St Margaret’s, Michael Hall, as the Church of England launched an official review into the Rev Hall’s tenure as vicar between 1981 and 2000.
A private investigation has so far heard of examples of spiritual abuse, financial abuse and sexual activity in front of children between some members of the congregation.
Now the general public is being urged to send its experiences involving the Rev Hall to a safeguarding review, which is being led by a former police detective. Michael Hall died last June aged 88.
The investigation began following the suicide of an unnamed former member of St Margaret’s congregation in January 2020. Following the death, the present vicar, the Rev. Mike Bisset, raised “serious concerns” with the Diocese of Oxford’s safeguarding team about the Rev Hall’s past behaviour.
Over the past two years church officials have been taking statements from some members of St Margaret’s congregation during Michael Hall’s time.
Spiritual and sexual abuse
A statement from the Diocese of Oxford says: “The allegations made against Michael Hall relate to spiritual abuse, nakedness and sexual activity with some adult members of the congregation which took place at St Margaret’s church, in the parish rooms and also in people’s homes, where according to survivor accounts, it was witnessed by children and young people.”
It adds: “Archive correspondence also indicates ‘belligerent and unreasonable’ behaviour by the Rev. Hall towards many individuals, including members of the parish council and the residents’ association. Hall ruled congregants with a rod of iron and a flaming temper’.”
It concludes: “Victims of abuse sometimes experience guilt or shame if they did not immediately challenge the behaviour or report it right away. The ‘freeze response’ is a common response to trauma. It is never too late to report abuse or inappropriate behaviour of any kind’.”
The investigation is also covering the Rev Hall’s previous two parishes in Nottinghamshire.
The Rt Rev Dr Wilson said: “I have heard stories that books weren’t allowed in the church, it was only the word of Michael Hall that carried weight. Anyone who didn’t fit in was apparently bullied and cajoled by him until they did, or they walked away.
“Sexualised behaviour between some members of the congregation and Hall appears to have been witnessed by children and young people and then spiritualised by him as acceptable.
“The people I spoke to described feelings of being trapped and experiencing distorted family lives that persist to this day. I am in no doubt that what happened was wrong and I think that there can be no excuse for Hall’s actions.
“I am truly sorry for what happened here in Tylers Green and encourage anyone with further information to come forward.”
The Rev Hall’s family has been offered pastoral support by the church.
How to give information to the inquiry
This is a safeguarding case review commissioned by the Diocese of Oxford to discover what actually happened during Michael Hall’s tenure in Tylers Green. Later in the year the diocese will commission an independent Lessons Learned Review.
The diocese is particularly keen to hear from anyone who came into contact with Michael Hall and also the parents and children of those who encountered him.
A confidential independent helpline, under the auspices of Victim Support, is available for those still emotionally or psychologically affected. You can call the Safe Spaces helpline on 0300 303 1056 or email email@example.com
You can speak to the inquiry with information by contacting the charity Thirtyone:eight on 0300 003 1111 (option ⌗3) and say “Tylers Green” to be directed to a specialist.
You can email the diocesan safeguarding team directly by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Your message will be seen by trained safeguarding professionals.
You can write to Safeguarding Team (Tylers Green), Diocese of Oxford, Church House Oxford, Langford Locks, Kidlington, Oxford OX5 1GF.
A church spokesman said: “We will never publish or distribute the names of those who contribute to the review or share their experiences with us.
“Where identification of vulnerable individuals could be surmised by external readers of a future published report, we will do all that is in our power to ensure such identification cannot be made.”
The vicar who courted controversy
YOU COULD like or dislike Michael Hall, but you could never ignore him. He thrived on controversy.
Here’s just some of the more dramatic issues during his 19 year tempestuous reign:
- He evicted the Penn and Tylers Green Residents’ Association playgroup from the parish rooms after insisting they begin each session with a prayer and they refused saying not all of the children were Christians. He also evicted the local Darby and Joan group because of “overcrowding”.
- He spent £20,000 on an unsuccessful appeal against a council decision not to allow him to fell three trees in St Margaret’s churchyard and a further £45,000 on legal advice and consultants. As his legal controversies grew he told the Daily Mail he had spent £100,000 on various legal actions, all of it, he said, contributed by the congregation.
- He built a sauna and a spa in the parish rooms saying it was “the church’s answer to the problems of modern-day life.”
- He objected to the Penn Seven charity race being held on a Sunday morning, taking it on himself to remove traffic cones placed by the police in Church Road to enable the runners to have clear access for a few minutes.
- The former Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Rev Simon Burrows, after several parishoner complaints, unsuccessfully tried to dislodge him in 1987. He said: “I wrote to Michael Hall asking him if he wishes to be considered for another job and got a very shirty letter back saying that he has not felt the Lord calling him elsewhere.”
- A year later, when Earl Howe, as the Patron on the Parish, asked him to step down the Rev Hall sued him for defamation. The issue was settled after considerable legal expense out of court with what today we call Non Disclosure Agreements.
- He vehemently opposed the ordination of women. He stopped St Margaret’s dues to the Diocese of Oxford and placed St Margaret’s under the oversight of a “Flying Bishop”, a scheme set up by the Church of England at the time to cater for parishes opposed to women priests.
- He stopped St Margaret’s from serious fire damage by running from the vicarage next door to douse flames after a man, spotted running away, had soaked the church door in petrol and set it alight. It was thought to be the work of a disgruntled parishioner. On another occasion police were called after he and his family received hate mail.
The Church looked the other way. It must learn from its mistakes.
Comment by Peter Brown
I’LL BE honest. When I first met Michael Hall I thought he was a charming, decent and honourable man.
Our five year old daughter Claire had just died from leukaemia and, although my wife and I were not religious, we felt in need of emotional and spiritual support.
We visited St Margaret’s the Sunday after she died and Michael provided the support we were yearning. I wrote in my diary at the time that he was “a friend in need and a friend indeed.”
That was in 1983, less than a couple of years after his arrival here. He was still finding his feet and acquainting himself with the area, proving popular as he did so.
But the honeymoon was short lived. What happened over the ensuing years I find so tragic, so sad and so unnecessary.
Michael became more and more bombastic, more and more unreasonable and macho and at times quite obnoxious. I was convinced he was mentally ill. Being a vicar, dealing every day with the highs and lows of life, is a stressful and unappreciated job.
The end for us came one Sunday morning when Michael, in a rambling and incoherent sermon, suddenly picked up a copy of the Bible and, to make some point, threw it with some force to the back of the church. Our eldest son, seven at the time, turned to his mum and said: “Mummy, why is the vicar so angry all the time?” (the experience influenced him: he went on to become a Humanist).
I had worked with a close colleague in the newspaper business who went through the same sort of emotions as Michael: high as a kite one minute; in the depths of depression an hour of two later. One day carefree and jovial; the next aggressive and argumentative.
The newspaper management, not particularly known for empathy, helped my friend and colleague with his mental problems and he happily improved. I assumed, quite wrongly, that the Church of England management would do the same for one of theirs.
As Michael became more extreme I wrote to various church authorities, including the Bishop of Buckingham, the Bishop of Oxford and eventually the Archbishop of Canterbury expressing concern about Michael’s mental health and the distress and heartache he was causing to many individuals I knew in the village, suggesting that the Church surely had a duty of care to its own clergy. On each occasion I was politely fobbed off.
An aide to the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote: “When professional people find that their performance at work lies under the shadow of ‘public accountability’ they can be constrained and inhibited by the anxieties and fears which that can engender.
“Few of us, probably, would wish the parish clergy to be constantly looking over their shoulder in case they are taken to task by their professional bodies in the way some professions now seem to be.”
That was in 1993. Today it is different. As the Bishop of Oxford says in the Michael Hall statement, “Safeguarding is now part of the mission of the church. We see learning as central to the culture of a safe church which includes learning from the review that is planned in this case.”
The Church of England itself has to take some responsibility for the unhealthy situation that was allowed to fester and grow in Tylers Green. It is to its credit it is prepared to learn from that.
I will be sending a thick pile of correspondence, news cuttings and, frankly, cruel recollections to the inquiry. I hope all those who had dealings with Michael Hall, including those who stoutly defended him and later realised their misjudgement, find it in their conscience to submit their views to the inquiry too.
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