Readers of this blog will know that I was present at a demonstration outside Church House Westminster as General Synod met for the final day of its February session. This was to show support for survivors of sexual abuse who had suffered within the church. It was a good experience to greet in person individuals whom I had never met beyond the virtual world of the Internet. With the survivors were other supporters like myself. Some were lawyers who had represented the survivor victims in their struggles to achieve justice.
After the demonstration was over, most of the demonstrators opted to sit in the public gallery to watch the Synod presentation on the topic of Safeguarding. I have never been a member of General Synod and it was of interest to be part of it for the hour and a half of the presentation. The speakers were keen to show that the church was doing a great deal to improve procedures for protecting the vulnerable and investigating past episodes of sexual abuse by its own employees. We were told in one statistic that the amount being spent on Safeguarding had increased five times in a few years. This money was being spent on ensuring that every member of the clergy or officeholder in the church was to attend training. No doubt this is a worthy effort but there was still something that I felt to be missing in this careful presentation.
Every member of Synod had received a short booklet entitled We asked for Bread but you gave us Stones. The booklet’s message, collated by Andrew Graystone, reveals the challenges of being a survivor and dealing with the procedures set up by the church. The common demand by those wounded is that the church needs an outside independent body to deal with complaints and the needs of victims. The complaint that is almost universal is that dealing with insurers and church lawyers is a worse ordeal than the original event. On paper things are progressing in the right direction but there is still something in the system that perpetuates and exacerbates the suffering of survivors. I have been struggling for the past 24 hours to articulate what might be wrong. What is it about the well-intentioned system that fails to engage the confidence of survivors so that they do not feel that things are genuinely getting better?
One of the slogans that permeates the discussion on survivors is that we need a ‘change of culture’ in the church. Evidently from Graystone’s booklet the legal and compensatory atmosphere of the current arrangements is failing to reach the survivors’ deep need for compassion and understanding. I have been reflecting as to what may be missing in the current ‘culture’ and how Church and victim could really meet in a place of healing. I am asking myself whether the traditional culture of the Church of England is similar to that of an old-fashioned English public school. Such schools are often an embodiment of a strong male attitude to life. In such places things like perceived weakness or vulnerability are typically ignored or despised. Such an all-male environment also does not value empathy and compassion. Success, especially physical prowess on the sports field, is celebrated. In contrast pain and failure are quietly pushed under the carpet. Thinking back to my own schooldays in a minor public school, I became aware of how important it was ‘not to let the school or house down’. Stories about individual pain, abuse or bullying did not fit the narrative of achievement as defined by this system. The culture wishes to make these stories go away or disappear. Looking at the church today, whatever may happen in the future, there has traditionally been a strong tendency to bury or avoid bad news. One of the complainants I met had spoken to a number of different bishops about his abuse. He was told later that there were no written records of these conversations. They had simply been forgotten. This is the kind of thing that perhaps is typical of a male-dominated institution where values of success and achievement are placed right at the top. Failure is forgotten or denied.
This suggested understanding of the church having the values of an all-male public school where weakness or pain is despised, leads me to point to a sign of hope. The group of survivors who welcomed me as one of their supporters were given a room in Church House to meet members of Synod who wanted to speak with them. I tagged along and found myself encountering several senior clergy. There were two senior women bishops in the room and I was impressed with their attitudes towards survivors. I discovered that Sarah Mullally, who is about to become Bishop of London, had read my blog post which came out at the time of her appointment. She is genuinely concerned that the Church puts right unhelpful structures and procedures for dealing with abuse. She also wants to see survivors and victims treated with the compassion and understanding they deserve. As she is yet to be enthroned as Bishop of London, she attended Synod as a visitor. In a powerful symbol of solidarity with the cause of survivors she sat in the gallery next to Gilo, one of those present at the demonstration. This was a powerful message to send to the members of Synod down below in the chamber. This speaks well for the future. If I am correct in seeing the reactionary attitudes of the Church of England embodying the masculine values of a public school, then a powerful woman is needed to call out and challenge this culture. The other senior female bishop present in the room was Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester. She with Sarah can do a lot to change the culture of the Church of England for the better, especially in this area of Safeguarding.
To summarise, the problem that I was hearing from lawyers and survivors alike is that the church needs to transform its procedures. It needs to lose the defensiveness and culture of denial with which it has worked so long. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is going to reveal massive failings from the past which will do harm to the reputation of the Church. It will need the help of a new kind of input which will enable it to move away from repression and secrecy to express and articulate both genuine remorse as well as proper compassion for the victims. Male cultures of bluster and denial do not serve the Church well. We need the insights of survivors such as Gilo to communicate the enormous seriousness of the issue of sexual abuse. We also need the intuitive, caring and compassionate qualities of senior women in the Church to neutralise the somewhat harsh controlling methods preferred by the male sex. I saw some of this new feminine approach yesterday. It gives me hope that the church may yet survive what may be one of the most profoundly threatening events to its existence.