Writing the two last blog posts has left me feeling fairly dispirited. The reason for this is that I have been writing about the enormous harm perpetrated by named and unnamed representatives of the church. I have to ask, in thinking about such things as sexual abuse, as to where can true integrity be found. If when outwardly good people do evil things, did they ever in fact possess this integrity? Was it a case of a good person going bad having done many good things or was there a badness from the beginning and the perpetrator simply pretended to be good. It is also a judgement that has to be made about institutions as well. Where can we find individuals and churches which can demand our loyalty and trust?
I spoke in the last blog about the way that the clergy of the Diocese of Gloucester wanted to believe in the integrity of the Bishop and effectively allowed their assessment of what was going on to be clouded by a collective state of denial. You could say that we were all too much identified with the diocese and its leader to be able to face up to any unpleasant facts that would upset our sense of belonging. The comments made by the judge at Peter Ball’s trial are pertinent and apt. He said:
‘Thus it is that, in addition to the damage done to individual victims by your abuse of power, the established Church, by its inability, for a long time, to recognise the truth of much of what was being said against you, itself has suffered damage to its reputation and its collective sense of itself as a just and compassionate body. This too is a consequence of your misconduct.’
The judge was thus talking about the way the damage from the crimes escalated outwards from the victims to the church at large. The first damage beyond the victims was to the church’s reputation and standing in society. At another level the church has been damaged in its own internal sense of what it is. Those of us who work for the church have wanted to depend on a sense of its fundamental institutional soundness. Just as a healthy child is encouraged to grow up with strong self-esteem and a sense of her fundamental goodness, so those who work for the church want to believe that the church is fundamentally good. We have in the church as the judge put it, ‘a collective sense of (it)self as a just and compassionate body.’ That collective sense boosts the effectiveness of our work and the standing and trust that we receive from society. But now that trust and standing can no longer be taken as a given. The misconduct of one person has in no small way corrupted and contaminated the whole. That is the nature of membership of corporate bodies; when one sins, all experience the fall-out and the damage to the reputation of the whole. Every member of the church sadly shares to some extent in the shame revealed through this trial.
In writing this I am reminded of the long journey that the German and Japanese people had to make to be rehabilitated after the last war. Both countries were demilitarised and even today British troops are stationed in Germany. I am no expert in what has been going on to make reparations for the last war by these nations but it would appear to be true to say that both nations have played a full part in helping the world community to flourish economically. In summary they have each overcome their narrow nationalism to serve the world as a full part of the community of nations. Even if Japan may still be guilty of supressing aspects of its wartime history, both nations have fully cooperated with others, acting with considerable humility and making their rehabilitation possible over the 70 years since the war ended.
What must the Church do? I feel that the example of Germany and Japan need to be remembered in dealing with the present crisis over Bishop Ball. This is a tale, not of one man failing in his vows and responsibilities, but of an institution that has to deal with an identified cancer which threatens other organs. This is not a case of one bad apple in a barrel because as the judge pointed out, other issues in the church now need to be faced and reflected upon. This is why the Archbishop of Canterbury has so quickly set up an enquiry. There are indeed many aspects to this saga, including the collusion of all the people who knew Bishop Ball from the beginning, those who heard the accusations and rumours but felt that the institution was more important than those rumours. The issue of the church’s strange and inadequate way of dealing with sexual issues is also on the line in this sad episode. That such a culture of flagellation and ritual nakedness could even have been imagined in a church setting points to a deeply unhealthy pre-history of sexual ethics in some Christian circles. The Church needs to show that it is prepared humbly to face up to a whole variety of questions about its past and its way of doing things. Above all it must be prepared to show that it is interested in its integrity. It must show that that all its representatives are men and women who follow not their narrow self-interest or even the interests of the institution they serve, but they are followers of the master, Jesus Christ. That may take a very long time.
I have sometimes pondered the alternatives to facing up to the weaknesses of an institution, the church, which appears to find it difficult to retain its grasp on complete health and integrity. It would be tempting simply to abandon it and set off on one’s own to search for God for oneself. Sadly we cannot in this case journey alone. We need to carry on the struggle to find others with whom we can share and whom we can trust. The idea of church is not something that is either possible or easy to abandon. The word church, ‘ecclesia’, literally means those who are called out of a wider group. God of course talks to individuals but he nearly always seems to bring them into contact with others. Although, as we have seen in this blog, the church is sometimes destructive, damaging and full of human vanity, there does not seem to be any real viable alternatives to seeking out others with whom to travel. We may be betrayed, let down or even damaged but we can never completely abandon the search for others with whom to travel. Somehow we have to pick ourselves up and carry on, though a little humbler and wiser than before.
STOP PRESS. After a lengthy silence from Nigel Davies, the blogmaster of the Brentwood blog, I rung him on his mobile. It appears that his computer connection and his phone have become unusable for over a month. I suggested that there might be dirty tricks about but he was not able to confirm this. He is planning to post another update on Tuesday, so I shall be able to inform my readers on what is going on the Essex front. As I have said many times on this blog, the report(s) to be made by John Langlois will be of great interest and importance for understanding church abuse wherever it occurs. This report should be with us very soon as well as the second approved attempt at an investigation by two ‘friendly’ Pentecostal ministers. It will be instructive to compare the two accounts if both are published.