In search of integrity

C-S-Lewis-Integrity-e1368209736261Writing 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.

7 comments

  1. EnglishAthena

    I don’t have an answer to your depression, Stephen. I even know a Bishop who says the concept of “institutional church” is nonsense. The institutional sin needs to be addressed. It gives rise to bullying, too. Not particularly because there are more bullies, though that’s a good point, in a caste system, but because it is the same sin to refuse to believe any bad, and to value the high status person (the abuser) greater than the low status victim. But don’t be too depressed. We all need to do what we can. You are doing valuable work here.

    • Stephen Parsons

      Thank you English Athena. You can be sure that I chose my words carefully to use ‘dispirited’ rather than ‘depressed’. Thankfully the only time in my life when my external circumstances might have tipped me over into depression, I managed to counter it by going on impossibly long cycle rides to work it off. I have always recommended vigorous exercise ever since! The last paragraph about going it alone in church life is one that I find myself facing now and then in retirement. I have learnt to see the situation from the layperson’s side, having to put up with poor presentation and weak material from the pulpit. That perhaps might drive me into depression more than worrying about church leadership. If I have the energy to write stuff, it must mean that I am still motivated!

  2. David Pennant

    I was reminded of King David by this post, Stephen, who blew it over Bathsheba. The bad fallout dogged him for the rest of his life. In fact, many of the major players in the Bible – Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Paul, had major weaknesses and sins, but God did not turn his back on them, but even chose to use them in his plan. I find that an encouragement.

  3. Cindy K

    I have been chewing on this same issue myself, and I always come back around to issue of people being fallible. Even though we try to develop safe places for people in need, if there are people involved, the system will always have flaws. Hopefully, though, good history, the kindness of good people, and relationships built over time can help us get over the failures that we find in every system — because people are involved. That’s especially difficult for someone in the middle of a crisis who “falls through the cracks” of human error.

    I always pray that my bad days and my omissions end up being insignificant and don’t dovetail with someone else’s time of need resulting in more pain for them. I put a lot of faith and hope in the Holy Spirit guiding me (and my attention to that guidance) to help remedy the element of human error.

    Today, I spent a lot of time thinking about what James wrote about true religion. When we visit the widows and the fatherless, we learn acutely that life can be messy and that people are messy. Yet at the same time, we should keep ourselves unspotted from the world. It is no easy thing, in my estimation, to accomplish both tasks all the time without some error. So much of my optimism depends on that faith in God’s ability to get each of us to where we need to be in heart, mind, and body. “Without Him, we can do nothing.”

      • EnglishAthena

        Yes, I think you’re right. I don’t believe that God will let someone else fall because of our inadequacies. That’s not to say that bad things don’t happen to us, or because of us. We’re not immune from just ordinary life. But if we’re doing our best, then no-one will go to hell because of us. God will send someone else, if we fail, or whatever happens, it will be alright in eternity. I think a lot of stuff will only come right in eternity, actually. Hopefully! 🙂

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