All posts by Stephen Parsons

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

Christians obsessed with sex – a short history

There must be many people both inside and outside the church who wonder about the current obsession among some Christians over issues of sexuality. Why is it that Christians in some circles seem to define themselves by the position they take on abortion or same-sex marriage? A recent book entitled: Moral Combat: How Sex divided American Christians and fractured American Politics helps to answer this question. More importantly it shows how the issues around sex have divided Christians for at least the past 100 years. The actual topics that were under discussion in this period varied enormously.

The forces of conservative Christianity, particularly the Catholic variety, were rallied against new thinking about contraception during the 1920s. The battles fought by the pioneer Margaret Sanger in America to promote the cause of women beaten down by excessive childbearing were bitter at times. But in the 20 years between 1910 and 1930 public opinion shifted decisively in favour of planned parenthood. By the time of the Anglican Lambeth conference in 1930, it was regarded as acceptable to many liberal Christians that married women should have access to means of birth control. In noting this we pass over quickly the fact that some Christians then and now cannot imagine the sexual act being anything other than a means of procreation. It was not just the Catholic Church that took this line but also some other branches of conservative Protestant Christianity.

Another area of human life that caused division among Christians throughout the 20th century was the degree to which censorship was required to control the portrayal of sex in literature and in other entertainment. The writings of DH Lawrence especially were deemed to be morally dangerous. Some Christian leaders both Protestant and Catholic demanded that the strictest rules be applied to protect the public from displays of indecency. The problem for the censors was knowing where the boundary between art and gratuitous pornography should be drawn. Conservative Christians were normally on the side of complete suppression of any representation of the sexual act, whether in words or simulation. What these early 20th-century Christians seem to have found so difficult was the thought that the sexual act might enrich life and have a purpose beyond the creation of new life. Good living Christian people were never to be corrupted with the idea that sex could be something to be enjoyed.

A further issue, of more relevance to the American situation at the beginning of the 20th-century than our own, was that of race. The motivation for many of the lynchings committed by white males against black American men was a widespread belief that white women were always in danger of being raped by black males. Any idea that a black man should be allowed to have sexual relations with a white woman filled the conservative Christian imagination with horror. Passages from the Bible about the different races and the way they had been geographically separated were read. These suggested to white conservative churches that God approved of the races living apart, with one subservient to the other. These same Bible passages had been used to justify slavery in the previous century. Equally the offspring of any black/white union was treated with distaste and shunning. Much of the segregation that was practised right up to the middle of the 20th century and beyond was tied in with ideas connected with sexuality. The word ‘miscegenation’, or mixing of race, was a word which filled white Christian people with a particular frisson of horror. The white race of America was designed to be kept pure and not ‘polluted’ by black or Negro blood.

Bringing the story of sex obsessions more up-to-date, conservatives and liberals in the Churches clashed over their response to the issue of sex education. Christians of a conservative bent only wanted to hear a narrative of sexual behaviour strictly within a patriarchal model of family life. Sexual education threatened to give women ideas of autonomy and even independence from the wishes and demands of their menfolk. The publication of the Kinsey reports in the late 40s and early 50s showed to the reading public that the fantasy of a controlled ordered sexuality among women was in fact a myth. The model of subservience and obedience by women to men proved to be existing more in the male imagination than in fact. It is not surprising that the idea that women might have choices in their sexual lives was regarded as the result of the influence of Communism into American society. The demand for sex education was seen as a communist plot to subvert Western civilisation and its values.

Communism was also seen to be undergirding the debate about abortion which took hold in America in the 1950s. Conservative Christians and Roman Catholics once again combined to challenge the demand of women to make decisions about their bodies. In America the debate reached some sort of conclusion in 1973 with the Supreme Court (Roe-Wade) coming down in favour of abortion in certain situations. That decision has been challenged ever since by conservative Christians. The debate is still strongly contested within political/religious circles in Trump’s America.

In the light of all these debates that have gone on over the past 100 years it is not surprising that many points of difference between liberals and conservatives should still centre on sexuality. It is of course an area of life that touches everyone deeply and can rouse enormous passion. When we look at the history of debates about sexuality in the churches, we see how many of these could be said to be about men controlling women’s sexuality. Thankfully conservative Christians have quietly abandoned their opposition to interracial marriage, birth control and the promotion of sex education in schools. Censorship is still an issue with the rapid spread of pornography on the Internet but few people would regard the writings of DH Lawrence as corrupting today.

The pattern of the past hundred years would suggest that there is a pattern in the way that Christians and society have approached questions relating to sexuality. On the one side there are liberal Christians whose approach to sexual topics is not largely different from the rest of society. In some cases, liberals take a forward prophetic view on sexual matters as they did with the gay issue in the 1960s. On the other side are conservative Christians who only learn to catch up with the overriding consensus long after the rest of society. The Catholic Church is still against contraception officially but it spends very little time in speaking on the topic. It knows it has decisively lost the argument in the court of public opinion and among its own followers. Public opinion has learnt to accept the existence of gay relationships and it would seem only a matter of time before the conservative churches discover that they do better not to keep speaking about the subject. A younger generation who think quite differently in matters of sexuality will eventually silence the aggressive Christian homophobic condemnations uttered by their elders.

The lesson of the past hundred years is that Christian ‘truth’ is the area of sexuality is fairly fragile and porous. It is especially weak when dictated by primal fears. How much better would Christians do if they focused their energy on promoting reconciliation, love and justice in the world?

‘Independent’ investigation of abuse – a word that gives us hope

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in beginning to hear evidence, is producing results. There is a definite sense that all the Churches who are going to be examined by this Inquiry are working to put their houses in order. No longer are letters on the topic of past abuses being ignored by those in authority. The Church of England at any rate is realising that all its actions relating to child abuse, past and present, are going to be examined in minute detail. Even if there are failings still to be uncovered from the past, the Church of England has to show that from now on it will always act responsibly and professionally. This applies both in the manner accusations from the past are responded to and in ensuring that proper care for survivors of abuse is offered. The letter sent to Gilo by the Archbishop of Canterbury (even if not totally satisfactory to Gilo!) is an example of this new attempt to put things right for the future.

The new reality that gives us hope that things are changing for the better is in the word ‘independent’ as applied to the Inquiry. A group of highly professional people who make up the Inquiry are looking dispassionately at institutions, religious and secular, that have hitherto proved incapable of managing to root out the evil of child sexual abuse. It is my understanding that public bodies, such as the police force or the Health Service will always go outside their body to seek help when a major issue arises that demands scrutiny. For too long the churches have persuaded themselves and society that they can police themselves. The advent of IICSA marks the end of this kind of arrogance, one that has tragically failed many people.

This past week an individual who had been a witness in one of the police investigations into child abuse within the church told me how pleased she was to receive a prompt answer from IICSA in answer to a letter. She felt she was dealing with a highly professional set-up which contrasted well with other dealings she had had with the church on other issues of abuse. No doubt she would agree with me when I say that the professionalism was bound up with the fact of IICSA’s complete independence from the bodies that are being examined.

Many of the witnesses to the John Langlois 2015 Report into Peniel Church at Brentwood expressed their sense of relief on being heard for the first time by an independent person. Previous attempts by that church to police itself over allegations of abuse broke down due to a complete lack of trust in the process. The 200,000 words of the final Report form a unique document in the history of spiritual abuse within a congregation. The witnesses were able to speak articulately about their sufferings, knowing that the independent listener, John Langlois, was there to establish the truth. We must be grateful to John Langlois for persevering even though the church tried to shut his enquiry down. As he says in the forward to his report, the fact of the church withdrawing their support enabled him to be independent and clear-eyed about what he was hearing from his 70+ witnesses. Independence is an essential aspect of any enquiry into an institution accused of perpetrating or tolerating abuse. I have great hopes that whatever the findings of the IICSA, procedures and safeguards will be far stronger in all the churches and institutions examined. The old pattern of institutions doing internal investigations into their own behaviour is simply not good enough. Independent scrutiny is essential.

Another letter received by an acquaintance throws possible light on a tightening up at another institution, this time the Charity Commission. Without going into too many details the individual had written numerous letters to the CC about an independent church where there was circumstantial evidence of financial wrong-doing. These letters had been written over a number of years without any reply being received. It was as if the Commissioner felt unable to challenge a religious institution even if charity rules were possibly being broken. I can report that in the past month a proper reply has finally been received. This invited him to send documentation to the Commission. Do I detect that the Charity Commission has suddenly woken up to the fact that IICSA may ask questions of its oversight of religious organisations? Now that criminal behaviour by religious organisations is no longer a far-fetched idea, overseeing bodies have to be seen to be doing their work. Any denominational structure or an overseeing organisation like the Evangelical Alliance has to wake up to possible questions about their role in supervision. Unanswered letters of complaint to these organisations can no longer be tolerated. The murky world of independent conservative fellowships also has allowed too much unsupervised authority. Maybe IICSA will shed some fresh light on the way that some church congregations have allowed unethical and sometimes criminal behaviour to exist inside their ranks.

I have the strong sense that the Church of England and the Charity Commission are waking up and potentially tightening up their oversight of congregations. The process of scrutiny that is coming to many institutions from IICSA may have other effects. It may improve conditions for other vulnerable people in those institutions. My hope is that public scrutiny will go eventually beyond the issue of child sexual abuse and look at all examples of the abuse of the vulnerable. Historically women and the disabled have suffered at the hands of exploiting leaders. Also we have become aware of the persecution of sexual minorities and the way they have sometimes been treated appallingly. That is perhaps something for the future. But it is important that independent voices, such as those who follow this blog, continue to make their own protest on behalf of the powerless, the weak and the defenceless when they suffer at the hands of the church. This independent scrutiny of child abuse has begun something. Let us together work for an end to bullying, exploitation or any kind of cruelty towards the vulnerable. May exposure to the church never be a negative disempowering fearful experience. May it rather be a path into fullness and joy.

Defeating Power Abuse in the Church -Hopes for 2018

Over the past three months there have been significant events in the Church that suggests that many more people are waking up to the reality of power abuse. Two Commissions are in the news. One, the Royal Commission on Child Abuse, has reported its findings in Australia. The other, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has begun to hold open hearings in the UK. Further, we have seen the publication of the Carlile Report over the events around Bishop George Bell. This has naturally reminded us of another Report produced by Dame Moira Gibb back in June. This had been commissioned by Archbishop Welby to investigate the events around the Caution and later imprisonment of Bishop Peter Ball. Back then we were able to read an account which showed a level of poor decision making at the highest levels of the Anglican Church.

Three further episodes remain to be mentioned. First we have seen the publication of Gilo’s correspondence with Archbishop Welby on the treatment of survivors like himself. Equally impressive and encouraging is the way that Gilo has obtained the support of all the important names professionally involved with safeguarding issues. Gilo’s campaign has become a significant part of a move towards real change in the mentality of the church towards the interests of the abused within the Church.

The second event, the topic of the last blog, is the appointment of Sarah Mullally to be Bishop of London. While she will be fully occupied with many cares in this challenging post, her responsibilities for the sexually and spiritually abused will not be allowed to disappear from the agenda of the House of Bishops.

Finally, (news only arrived of this today) there is the setting up of the Ozanne Foundation. Although Jane Ozanne is at the forefront of moves to bring justice for the LGTB community in the church, she is also personally aware of many of the issues to do with safeguarding. She herself is a survivor of sexual abuse in the church. She is also a prominent member of General Synod and on the Archbishop’s Council. The Bishop of Liverpool, in his address at the Foundation opening, appears to understand the way that conservative theological ideas can oppress vulnerable people. This has always been a key motif of this blog.

This blog has never meant to focus on sexual abuse, but all these episodes I have mentioned are of direct relevance to our concern for the general problem of power abuse in the church. Cover ups, secrecy pledges and non-disclosure agreements only happen in the context of the powerful protecting their interests against the victims and survivors. In other words, in all the child abuse cases we always find the strong using their power against the weak in the church.

These last three months have then witnessed some significant shifts in the old pattern favouring strong male leadership over the interests of women and children. Society and the church has started to become more aware of the way that male power has been used against the weak. It is no longer acceptable for vested interests and institutions to protect abusers. Traditional authorities, such as bishops and other powerful people, are being challenged effectively and devastatingly by victims.

What do I hope for in 2018? In summary I would hope that all the episodes mentioned above will gain traction. The Independent Inquiry in the UK will do its work and concentrate the minds of church leaders on the failings of the past. The Australian Royal Commission has been recommending mandatory disclosure for all who learn of abuse. This of course is being resisted by the Roman Catholic authorities. They fear that the sanctity of Confession may in some way be undermined. I am puzzled by this fear. I had understood that forgiveness was always withheld in the face of serious criminal activity. Surely both in Australia and in Britain the Sacrament of Confession would not preclude an insistence that the offender go to the authorities when serious crimes are confessed. The closed world of the Benedictine Brothers at Ampleforth, Downside and elsewhere has been shown to be hiding behind this excuse for a long time. Over half the Brothers at these institutions have been implicated in serious abuse allegations. The structures of authority made no move to discipline them or bring their crimes to light.

The Independent Inquiry which is soon to focus on the Anglican Diocese of Chichester will open-up many old wounds. Some of the crimes committed by clergy in the diocese go back decades. Once again, we are likely to see evidence of a floundering and failing regime of oversight. In the case of the Chichester Diocese we may see something worse than that, collusion and cover-up.

Although both Inquiries are focused on the sexual abuse of children, we can hope that in Australia and Britain there will be increased professional competence in general safeguarding. One thing that will be extremely important is that all the earlier reports that have appeared in the past few years will be read and studied carefully. I was somewhat alarmed to discover from a comment by Janet Fife that a safeguarding officer at Lambeth was simply unaware of some of these reports. Reports reveal two things. They expose the failings of management structures in the past. They also remind us of the ongoing suffering of people in the present. History does not go away once the events are over. It lives on in the painful memories of those who were part of that history. As I study the history of Peniel Church in Brentwood, I realise that many of the recorded memories of survivors of that church are still alive. It will never be good enough simply to say forget and move on. The past lives on in the present and must be faced by all concerned.

My hope for 2018 is that there will be better attempts to understand all that has happened in the past. At the same time my hope is that the structures of power may shift in such a way that the interests of the weak and the least powerful may be elevated and placed at the centre of concern. The safeguarding failures of the past have been failures of oversight leading to an incompetent and often abusive use of power. We must understand it and learn from it. Perhaps if we do then the structure, the institution we call the Church may be a healthier place for all its members. The grace of God will then be able to flow through it better to reach and transform all its members.

The new Bishop of London – some Concerns

On the face of it the appointment of Sarah Mullally as Bishop of London is excellent news for most of us. She is, first of all, a woman, and this bodes well for the participation of other women in the future within the Church. In second place, from the perspective of this blog, she is someone who has insight into the issues of power abuse in the church. She was asked by Archbishop Welby to oversee the implementation of the Elliott report which came out 18 months ago. The basic thrust of the Elliott report was to push for all Anglican dioceses to adopt a common safeguarding practice. How much has actually been done in fact to change the practice of Anglican Dioceses and their Bishops is unclear. The recent Carlile report does not give us an enormous amount of confidence that Bishops and their advisers always understand problems of implementing good safeguarding practice. Janet Fife’s contribution to the previous blog suggests that there is still considerable ignorance among those appointed to safeguarding posts about the history of abuse issues in the church.

Alongside our congratulations and delight in this appointment there are some concerns. The Diocese of London is well-known as the centre for a variety of fundamentalisms, both the high church and the evangelical varieties. I was remembering last night a joke connected with fundamentalism. The question is asked. What is the difference between terrorist and a fundamentalist? The answer is that a terrorist may be willing to negotiate. Whether I remember the joke accurately or not, this version makes a point quite well. There are in the Church many people for whom changing their minds or their grasp on facts is completely impossible. In some situations when dealing with fundamentalists, there is the sense that one is facing an immovable object and an irresistible force at the same time!

When I was last a vicar in an English parish there was a group in the church who had learnt the faith in such conservative places as St Helens Bishopsgate in London and St Aldate’s in Oxford. The common feature of this group of conservative parishioners was that they never changed their minds about anything. Nor were they prepared to learn anything new, at least not from me, an Oxford educated liberal. Truth for them was fixed and unchangeable, a version of which they had learned decades before. It is a style of Christianity which I found very off-putting. I cannot imagine that, for all their talk of evangelism, they were able to draw any new people into this way of thinking. There was something barren, dry and totally unattractive about this style of message. In some ways the Diocese of London is like my old parish in Gloucestershire. Of course, the scale is massively different. Considerable numbers of Christians in London nevertheless hold conservative views on issues like the ordination of women and sexuality. For many of these Christians the test of one’s orthodoxy and thus salvation is whether you hold correct opinions on these issues

We have pondered many times on this blog about how and why the issues around sexuality have become so important in the minds of many conservative Christians. Such Christians will make life fairly difficult for a bishop who is both liberal and tolerant of the same sex community, even while she does not promote formal marriage for them.

The placing of Bishop Mullally into a profoundly conservative diocese is a high-risk strategy. She may have many qualities both personal and professional. But there is however, no doubt that she will face enormous pressures from a large body of Christians who think that anyone who does not agree with them must be shut out. Has she the stamina to put up with such relentless opposition?

A few years ago there was a television programme about St Paul’s Cathedral when Lucy Winkett was first appointed to be a Canon Residentary. Who can forget the way the television cameras showed us rows and rows of empty seats in the Cathedral which had been reserved for Diocesan clergy? It was said that a full 50 % of the clergy in the Diocese signalled their disapproval by simply not turning up. This kind of intransigence is still alive and well in the diocese as far as I know. Bishop Chartres has preserved a level of peace by refusing to ordain women. He has worked with them but delegated their actual ordination to his suffragan bishops. This was never a satisfactory solution. By not resolving this and other anomalies in the diocese the somewhat provocative appointment of a woman is even more of a shock in this profoundly reactionary institution. It remains to be seen how things will pan out.

Bishop Mullally is only 55 and she may be in post for another 15 years. She needs a great deal of prayer to stand up against strong reactionary forces which seem so thickly concentrated in our nation’s capital. She also needs our prayers to further her work of safeguarding. She is still needed to challenge the power structures Gilo has identified which work against openness and justice. Let us hope that she can hang on in there, buoyed up by the thought that her presence in London is an important symbol for the whole church. As a woman in an institution which has been a bastion for patriarchy and male privilege for so long as well standing up for survivors, she is helping us all. It matters a great deal that Bishop Sarah will have the grace and the strength to persevere and defeat all the obstacles that no doubt will be put in her way.

The Carlile Report on George Bell – some reflections

The Report from Lord Carlile about the George Bell case is due out today. It is expected to say that the process through which George Bell, the distinguished former Bishop of Chichester, was deemed guilty of child abuse was deeply flawed. One does not know whether to be pleased or sad from this outcome. On the plus side it is probable that the reputation of George Bell will be eventually salvaged from this hasty and, by all accounts, incompetent investigation. The George Bell Group has provided a great deal of information in their work of defending Bell. They spoke to witnesses alive at the time and it has been suggested that the main witness, being then a child, could well have been confused as to who her abuser was. There was also the testimony of George Bell’s biographer, Andrew Chandler. He was never consulted but he had definitive evidence to show that George Bell was abroad at the time when one of the episodes of abuse was said to have taken place. The review of all this evidence is for the future. Meanwhile we can celebrate this probability that George Bell’s name will be eventually vindicated. I have a personal memory of the man himself. Contrary to what some reports have indicated, Bell spent the last few months of his life in Canterbury. He had been Dean of Canterbury in the 1930s and he returned there to die. Every day he would walk from his home in in Burgate in Canterbury and we would watch him with his distinctive walk. We knew him, not as a retired Bishop, but as a former Dean.

The Lord Carlile report will confirm for the Press as well as for its well-wishers that we cannot trust the Church of England to manage this task of child protection without help. In what appears to have been an attempt at transparency and openness, the Church seems to have poured its venom on the wrong man. In contrast to this, the Church has often defended living perpetrators in their attempt to defend the institution. Someone made the calculation (perhaps the Report will make it clear who it was) that if money was paid out to Bell’s alleged victim and an apology made, then the church would enhance its reputation for good practice. In fact, this decision had appalling implications. Not only was it, as we will see today, an appalling abuse of process but also the besmirching of one of the very few 20th-century heroes of the Anglican Church. When an individual, like George Bell attains the status of having their own day in the Church of England calendar, you question their posthumous reputation only with very strong evidence. History does have to rewritten from time to time but one does not destroy an Anglican ‘saint’ without very good cause. Here the evidence of wrong doing was apparently extremely weak.

Gilo’s case against the Archbishops and their advisers will be strengthened by Lord Carlile’s report. It is quite clear that a decision to pay money to the alleged victim of George Bell was a solution thought up by legal minds. An action that speaks about liability and compensation comes out of the world of legal thinking backed up by insurance interests. Clearheaded pastoral care for individuals who may have suffered should surely be a first priority. When the current Bishop of Chichester apologised to the woman victim, ‘Carol’, for what his predecessor had allegedly done, we were supposed to see pastoral sensitivity at work. What we in fact saw was a planned calculated gesture. The cynics among us might suggest this was planned and controlled by mysterious people in the background who were trying to ‘manage’ the public face of the church. These were no doubt the same people that Gilo was up against when his own complaint against the Church was being determined. It would be interesting to know about all the meetings the Bishop of Chichester had with lawyers, insurance companies and his fellow bishops prior to this apology. Whether the Carlile report will unpack the process when it comes out today I have no idea. Clearly things went wrong at many stages.

It is ironic that the one diocese that is to be examined by the Independent Inquiry on Child Abuse is the Diocese of Chichester. The irony lies in the fact that one probably innocent Bishop of Chichester has had to suffer damage to his reputation through a flawed investigation. Other more recent bishops in that diocese have been allowed to abuse children or at any cast a blind eye to such abuse. Chichester is thus already a byword for how the church can get it so wrong in this area of safeguarding. Let us hope and pray that the mistakes and tragedies of that part of the country are not replicated elsewhere. May it provoke a determination in other dioceses throughout the UK to get things right. One day we hope that the young and the weak in our society may always find in our churches a place of safety and care.

Church faces pressure on abuse issues – the tempo increases

In recent weeks we have seen an increased tempo in the press coverage of church abuse stories. As I wrote last week there have been some revelatory scenes at the Independent Inquiry on child sexual abuse. It appears now that even after the Nolan report, which was a response to earlier Catholic sex scandals and came out in 2001, some Roman Catholic bishops and religious orders in Britain have done very little to improve safeguarding within their Communion. It is as though many Catholic clergy are completely unaware of all the scandals that have occurred in America and Ireland. These well publicised stories have done much to diminish the Catholic Church and especially its leadership in these countries. Apart from suffering enormous reputational damage, the Catholic Church in the States has had to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to survivors. This has virtually bankrupted some Catholic dioceses in that country. Equally, similar scandals in Ireland have seriously lessened the influence of the Catholic Church on Irish society. One by-product of this social change is that it is now very hard to persuade young Irish Catholic men to join the priesthood.

Up till this moment, one would have liked to think that the problems of the Church of England are nowhere near equivalent to those experienced by the Catholic Church in Ireland and America. What is being presented to us now, in great part thanks to Gilo, is a glimpse of the lack of readiness on the part of the C of E to face up to its own scandals. In other words, there is no sense that the Church is putting in place the necessary procedures to deal with any fresh allegations of past misdemeanours by its clergy. There has been some decisive action to deal with the criminal perpetrators of child abuse in the church, but this has been more at the instigation of the police and the courts. The impression given to us by Gilo is that the church’s part in the process of dealing with past felonies is to huddle together with lawyers and insurance company representatives and discuss the amount of money that should be paid to victims to avoid legal liability. There is no sense in the correspondence received (or not received!) by survivors that the church understands or grasps the enormous damage and devastation caused to these survivors. Financial settlements may be part of an answer. Far more needed is the offering of healing. This could involve acts of open penitence by leaders, a readiness to go the extra mile in admitting the failures of an institution that has allowed these things to happen. As I said in a published letter to the Church Times two weeks ago, there needs to be a fresh understanding how every example of sexual abuse is made possible by a church culture that for too long has tolerated bullying and power abuse. Also, a conservative theology that makes leaders or a book ‘infallible’ is also one that tolerates destructive power games. These can do so much damage.

The energy of Gilo over the past few weeks, as articulated in his open correspondence with Archbishop Welby, has brought up several important issues. Some of these he shared with our blog several months ago. Gilo has identified, over and over again, the way that safeguarding in the Church of England has been unhelpfully confused with the concerns of lawyers and insurance companies. In other words when a claim of abuse is made, the first response of the Church is to go into a defensive mode. They seem then to have no concern for the welfare of the survivor; they rather worry about a potential financial liability. When a survivor is met by this kind of legally defensive response, they may find themselves totally discouraged. Many of the survivors may be among the least powerful members of our society. They may also be carrying the burden of emotional damage from their abuse. They will simply not have the stamina to endure this kind of adversarial confrontation. Neither should they. Their memories, their account of events may be challenged and disbelieved. Gilo through his articulacy and stamina has rightly challenged the church to see how inappropriate this kind of adversarial approach is to a group of hurting vulnerable people. His vigorous challenge to the Church authorities to improve the process of helping and supporting survivors has been supported by a powerful group of 20 church people and theologians who are concerned with these issues. Each of them in different ways calls on the Archbishop and General Synod to put in place a new system for dealing with the victims of sexual abuse which is open and built on care and respect. All of them agree that the task of dealing with cases of past sexual abuse must be backed up with mandatory reporting to the police. The days of dealing with erring clergy can no longer be left to ‘in-house’ methods of discipline. Mandatory reporting will help create a new climate and culture of integrity and transparency.

Last week I published an extract from a legal opinion about compensation and apologies. I am still hoping that this sentence will be relayed to the church leaders who appear to believe that defensive denial is preferable to pastoral care and support. I am hoping that once this piece of legislation is recognised as being of relevance to the whole practice of safeguarding in the church, that it may help to create a new spirit of openness, love and care.

Two survivors known to me personally have recently made formal complaints of sexual abuse against church leaders. It will be interesting to see whether their complaints receive a better hearing because of Gilo’s efforts. I certainly hope so. I finish with some of Gilo’s words. ‘There doesn’t seem any ownership of the crisis … these need the clear call of leadership required to shift the church into structural and cultural change and towards authentic justice.’ Amen to that.

Bankruptcy of morality among American Evangelicals?

Various commentators in America, both secular and Christian, have noticed that the word ‘evangelical’ has become damaged in recent months. Christians in the UK who still want to use this word as a self-description may need to be aware how many Americans regard this word as, at the very least, suggesting moral insensitivity. The Christian Right which represents the bulk of white evangelicals in the States has become aligned with a number of appallingly behaved individuals in American politics. No longer is a strong moral character demanded of the politicians who represent the conservative evangelical voter. Next week we may be witnessing the election to the Senate of the unrepentant paedophile Roy Moore. To vote for him involves effectively jettisoning ethics, truthfulness and straightforward honesty in favour of crude partisan politics. The Christian Right has apparently narrowed down morality to a couple of issues – the non-availability of abortion and the end of gay-rights. Every other moral principle can seemingly be discarded.

The recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel is also part of Trump’s attempt to keep faith with the Christian Right. We have to remind ourselves why this disastrous piece of American foreign policy matters to the hard-Right Christian tribe. It matters because these are the Christians who believe in the imminent Second Coming of Christ. The books they read suggest that the complete occupation of the Holy Land by Jews is part of the end time scenario. In one version of the belief in Christ’s return, the whole world is going to be catapulted into a state of disaster, war and ruin. It is only after this ‘Tribulation’ that Christ can return. A belief that our world is hurtling towards a Biblically ordained destruction helps to explain why many Christians simply do not care about nurturing the environment. There is thus an unholy alliance between right-wing Christian apocalypse thinkers and others who would rape and destroy the world’s resources for economic advantage. It is chilling.

Although I had hoped not to write about President Trump again, I find that it is difficult not to comment on the way that public discourse in America has been cheapened and coarsened in such short time. Even a year ago the evangelical voters who support Trump would not, I believe, have wanted to throw their lot in with an outrageous character such as Roy Moore. Something has drastically shifted in a very short time inside the spirit and conscience of many formerly decent people. What has happened to allow Moore even a small chance of winning? I think that the answer has to lie in the fact that conservative Christians have traditionally been required to think in terms of a strong polarisation between good and bad, truth and falsehood. Because right and truth could supposedly always be found in the Bible, discussion or debate was unnecessary. The conservative voter never learnt about the subtlety of debate. So now he has little ability to discern truth in a maelstrom of falsehoods and declining moral behaviour within political life. Because honest political discourse within the Republican party has been largely destroyed by the falsehoods and immorality at the top, the loyal base is forced to sacrifice moral conscience to continue their old loyalties. The need to defeat their political enemies has become the issue, not personal morality or decency.

I hope that this crude type of evangelical political thinking does not spread to our own country. At present we are fortunate in not having a political party closely aligned to apocalyptic right-wing Christian thinking. Although the gay issue is still important to many individuals, it has not created itself as a dominant idea in a political party. We also do not have to face individuals who want to challenge decades of scientific research in favour of a free for all, anti-ecological, model of economic development. But there are dangers and we need to be on our guard.

In the first place we need to understand and educate our children to see how dangerous polarised binary thinking is. We cannot have proper debates about anything when it is assumed that one side has all the right answers and the other has absolutely nothing to offer. That is the totalitarian pattern. Political decisions have to be made about economics and other issues of government. All of us recognise that because one course of action is being taken, it does not mean that the alternative path is without merit. It should be possible in schools to conduct debates and show this principle at work. For every decision that is made there are others that might have been made. A policy is made after other options have been considered. Few leaders, outside Trump’s America, genuinely believe that anything is black-and-white or that they can have a monopoly of truth.

Christians in many places are unfortunately encouraged to think in this highly polarised manner. They are led to believe that there are always biblical answers to complex problems. That is how the Christian faith and indeed the Bible is being presented to them. They are being failed both spiritually and intellectually. One has to say to such people as they consider truth in both politics and religion: ‘Look at the world and realise that there are precious few black and white issues in either politics or religion. The world is full of ambiguity and uncertainty. Decisions may be required from politicians and leaders of all kinds, but these will often be hard to arrive at. Even when they are made, such decisions are not infallible. A decision, the best possible we hope, is the result of an exercise of judgement and wisdom; it does not arise from some pre-existing infallible knowledge.’

Many evangelicals in America seem to be heading to a dark place. Because their teachers have been encouraging them to think in a binary way for a long time, we have this current tragic support of immoral deplorable political candidates without conscience or a proper grasp of truth. Truth, honesty and integrity seem to have slipped out of the qualities looked for in political representatives. Thus, these qualities even seem to be despised. Teaching black-and-white thinking, failing to encourage informed debate among their congregations – all this has resulted in the current moral and intellectual bankruptcy that we see today among so many American evangelicals. We never expected this to happen quite so quickly.

It is OK to say sorry in Church abuse cases

Recent church abuse cases have often ended up involving both lawyers and insurance companies. When such a legal process begins, communication between a victim and the church institution that harmed them has normally ceased. This is because of the common understanding that any apology or expression of regret by a church body is tantamount to an admission of liability. Thus, a victim such as Gilo, whose abuse was a matter of historical record, faced blanking and unanswered letters the moment that he sought legal redress for his abuse. An institution like the church is surely one where we would hope to be able to see an equal concern for justice and love in operation. From recent cases, not just Gilo’s, the legal response has been to shut down and try to shut out a victim who seeks a remedy from the courts.

According to an article written by legal expert, Professor Dominic Regan in the New Law Journal, this assumption that an apology to a victim is equivalent to an admission of liability is completely wrong. His actual word is ‘tosh’. There is a passage in what is known as a Compensation Act of 2006 which makes the following statement: An apology, an offer of treatment or other redress shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty. These few words are, according to the article, a restatement of existing law. But for people like Gilo and others who have experienced abuse from the Church, they are of enormous importance. Many people would have their sufferings considerably relieved if only the offending body felt itself at the start able to express regret, sorrow or apology. In the case of the Church, such an expression of regret might include the offering of pastoral care. There is a famous case of two children who died while on holiday in Greece by carbon monoxide poisoning. The company involved, ‘for legal reasons’, refused to apologise thus making the acute suffering of the parents far worse. Similar situations occur in medical negligence cases. A victim of a medical accident, by being shut off or treated as an enemy throughout the legal process suffers as much because of this blanking as from the original event. What the law is saying very clearly is that this kind of treatment is not justified by what the law in fact states.

It is hard to imagine how much extra suffering is endured because many institutions seem to be incapable ‘for legal reasons’ to say sorry. I mentioned last week the example of the social worker battling with the authorities of the Benedictine order. These men were presumably acting under the legal advice that to offer regret or apology to a victim was tantamount to laying themselves open to compensation claims. This misreading of the law enhanced the suffering of many survivors and all this additional stress is little short of scandalous. One wants the Compensation Act 2006 to be compulsory reading for every legal advisor acting for the Church in abuse cases. If ‘sorry’ is allowed to happen right at the beginning of the process of seeking justice, then some of the cases might never need to come to court. The Church as a body should be the one institution wanting to demonstrate a passion for truth, justice and love. It should never have to supress its expression of love because of the say-so of lawyers who, in this case, are not up to date with what the Law actually states.

In the article that I am quoting, Dominic Regan mentions a claimant who suffered a near fatal industrial injury in 2001. It resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder and this was by far the worst part of the injury. The initial absence of an apology from his employer made him angry and stressed with the consequence of poor relationships with his family as well as a drink problem. It took a court case for an apology to be forthcoming. Meanwhile the victim of the accident had died without ever hearing the apology. The small word ‘sorry’ would have made a tremendous difference for this particular individual. No doubt many church cases might have better and healthier outcomes if the institutions involved could feel able to apologise and do what they can to help without the fear of presumed liability.

It is a matter of deep regret that the bulk of the lawyers who represent churches are simply ignorant of this particular piece of law. I am thinking of the lawyers representing Trinity Church Brentwood. They repeatedly shut out victims and made it impossible for the church to make more than feeble statements of apology. We have course no means of knowing in this case what the church really thought about abused former members. Other churches are in the business of robust apology and self-examination. Gilo, whose case against the Church has been mentioned several times in different posts, seems to have met plenty of lawyers and insurance companies who seemed interested only in limiting liability for their clients. I would love to know whether Safeguarding Officers and Bishops up and down the country are aware that it is okay to say sorry. It will not make legal problems further down the line.

It would be right to say that having read this article by lawyer for others in his profession, I am left feeling angry. I am angry that something of such fundamental importance to the conduct of abuse cases in the Church seems to have been overlooked for so long. How many people who are the victims of church abuse have also been left uncared for and outside the orbit of pastoral care because of this legal ignorance? In this case the Law is providing a way that encourages and makes possible compassion, open communication and forgiveness- all Christian virtues. So this blog piece is saying in summary: it is okay to love, show compassion as well as apologise to someone who has been wronged without being accused of accepting legal liability. The Law in short allows us to be compassionate human beings trying to deal with a situation of suffering and pain.

IICSA – listening in on the Inquiry on Child Abuse

One of the events going on at present, relevant to our blog, is the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). This commission set up by the UK government has faced numerous teething problems, including the resignation of two chairmen. Finally, we have reached the stage where witnesses are being heard and this public process began this past week. In the Inquiry there are to be several sections. The Anglican diocese of Chichester is to be investigated as well as scandals connected with children’s homes. To help those of us who are interested in the process, the entire public hearing is being streamed on the Internet with a five minute delay. This afternoon I spent an hour ‘eaves-dropping’ on this incredibly important Inquiry.

Today I listened to the evidence of a senior social worker who had been trying to work with the authorities of the Benedictine Order and others from outside who were concerned for sexually abused victims at their schools such as Ampleforth. This social worker explained to the hearing the complexities of dealing with an organisation so different from what is normally found in society. The Benedictine Order and the Abbot of Ampleforth Community have internal rules and lines of responsibility not easily understood by those outside. Above all the Benedictine structure instinctively resists any outside questioning and challenge. The witness today mentioned various problems he had encountered in around 2003/2004. In the first place he commented on the way that the institution he was facing seemed to be incapable of working proactively for child protection. The existence of probable abusers in the school had been known by four successive abbots but little had been done to protect children. One brother who was sent to prison in 2006 had been seeing a psychiatrist for decades. A poignant moment when the social worker read from an official statement put out by the Order. This declared that the first responsibility of the Abbot was towards the monks of the community. This appeared to supersede any responsibility for child protection.

The social worker’s evidence was describing a secretive and protective institution. Crimes were being committed and for a long time no one had the will or the courage to do anything about it. It will not be unexpected if we hear similar things about the culture of the troubled Anglican Diocese of Chichester. A culture which places great value in keeping secrets so as to protect the wider institution is dangerous. When institutions behave like this, vulnerable children may suffer and are damaged for life.

A further comment made by the social worker concerns the role of solicitors. It was noted that some of the responses by the Community were filtered through solicitors and other legal advisers. It did not give the social worker the sense that everyone was working for the same end – the safety of children. He realised that an institution which is governed by special rules and hierarchical structures will always want to protect itself against scrutiny and outside examination. It is to be hoped that the publicity that is being given to the Inquiry will help all the churches to have a better understanding of where their first responsibilities lie. Society already understands that the protection of children takes priority over every other institutional or financial interest.

In this blog we have spoken a great deal about belonging to a coercive group. I am reflecting on the way that any group which demands our allegiance for whatever reason will easily corrupt our thinking. There is something that happens to us and the functioning of our consciences when we shift between being ‘I and me’ to being ‘we and us’. Something changes. We start to think about the other people who make up the ‘we’. It is natural for us to be protective of them. When a institutional protectiveness has been going on for centuries, as in a religious community, it is likely that the individual conscience and morality is strongly affected. The strongest desire will be to protect to protect the community. That desire will be stronger that the promptings of conscience. Community, in short, may be stronger than individual goodness and conscience.

The Inquiry about child abuse in children’s homes and churches, Anglican and Catholic alike, will have to face this untidy overlap between a loyalty to an institution and the working of individual conscience. It is always a useful task for each of us to look at the way that our consciences are affected by the groups we join and the loyalties we possess. There is bound to be a tension in this double belonging – our conscience and our tribe. But as these child abuse revelations become more and more widely known through the Press, it will be important for Christians in particular to reflect on the human choices that have been made. Some thought they were doing the right thing in favouring the group. Membership of a church has made us naturally group people. But hopefully we never arrive at a place which covers up or fosters the evils of others. Nevertheless, we need to reflect on the way that otherwise good people have chosen to behave this way.

I will of course be returning to the IICSA hearings and to report some more of what they reveal. Little of the information will be brand new but the emotions of those involved, as they are streamed into a home, are a revelation in themselves. We need to ponder on the fact that it has taken a secular organisation to bring to account the Churches for their toleration of the abuse of children. This is a cause of shame but also source of hope that the future of nurturing the young may be done with the greater determination and love. Let us pray that love will overcome the evils of the past.

Power in the Church -analyse in order to understand

I have been reflecting on the way that power is exercised in society, but above all in the church. I want to share with my readers a classification of power loosely based on Max Weber’s ideas. This may help us to think more clearly about what power is and how it manifests itself in institutions and relationships. The sociologist Max Weber spoke about the power given to an individual to exercise on behalf of an institution. That kind of power was authoritative power. There is also another kind of power which he described as charismatic. This is a power that an individual may exert because he has a vision he wants to share. In and through his words there is shared what we would describe as inspiration or a new sense of direction. This resonates with a longing that people have. A third form of power is what is known as social power. This is the power given to an individual because of wealth, expertise, education or the kind of self-confidence that goes with a solid upbringing.

Some people manage to combine all three forms of power in themselves. Usually only one of these types of power is dominant at one moment. These three manifestations of power have one thing in common. Each of them can be used well or badly. They can coerce, control and generally take advantage of another person. In some cases, they may involve actual violence. Such violent exercise of power is unlikely to happen in the church unless a slow process of grooming and seduction has been gone through. In the church, just as anywhere else, power given to individuals can sometimes be used to abuse and exploit another person. But equally and hopefully each of the forms of power we have identified can be used to strengthen and empower another person.

The problem for all of us is that it is not easy to be analytical in the situation where power is being (ab)used. Our attention is drawn to the results of that power, particularly when someone is hurt. We naturally focus on the abuse rather than looking at all the factors and dynamics at play in the situation. When, however, we can see what is going on as a whole, we can hopefully help both sides of a negative power encounter take a new perspective. With the help of this new perspective, some of the pain and humiliation of the abuse can be alleviated. To take one example which Chris would identify with. An illiterate person in a congregation is made to feel bad some way by someone who is trying to be well-meaning. There is harm caused but this is because the person exercising social power lacks insight as to how this power is experienced by another person. Even in the worst cases of sexual abuse and cruelty there may be things to be discovered about the perpetrator and their abusing power which need to be understood even if not excused. People who criminally abuse power in some way are nearly always themselves victims of an abuse crime in years gone by.

The dynamic of charismatic power in Weber’s sense, is the most interesting. In its church manifestation we see that many people will feel very privileged to be close to a person who is thought to have a special charismatic gift or blessing. But relating to a charismatic guru is a bond which may in turn totally disempower an individual. They have entered a situation which can be only described as dangerous. The relationship may start reasonably well by providing hope and an initial experience of empowerment. The danger is that further down the line there is a likely outcome of dependence and an exploitation by the leader of the vulnerabilities of a follower. The reason for this sad outcome is, first of all, that the charismatic figure at the centre is a human being. He (normally a he) enjoys his status as the centre of attention and is not necessarily concerned for the vulnerable needy people who are attracted to him. They serve their purpose by feeding his narcissistic cravings. This kind of relationship is never going to be healthy. It will, as we say, probably end in tears.

Every time that power is exercised in a church setting, we have to recognise that there are two sides to the encounter. If we are pursuing our analytical quest, we will be asking what is happening to both sides of the encounter. Sometimes the encounter is good and healthy for both sides. On other occasions we may detect that the interaction is being exploited by the one with power to bolster up the self and in order to gratify other deep emotional needs. Everyone who uses power of any kind in a church needs to examine how it is undertaken. We may discover, not just occasional lapses, but a whole pattern of entrenched behaviour which is regularly causing harm. As I write this I am thinking about senior individuals within the church who because of their position never need to have their use of authority questioned or challenged. Little by little, the lack of such criticism, internal or external, has made them habitual bullies and creators of havoc and misery for the institution they serve.

I am reminded of the passage where Jesus speaks about power. ‘Kings and governors make them feel the weight of their authority, but it shall not be so with you.’ Jesus commended the way of service and perhaps this word ‘serve’ is the single most important idea to be inserted into our discussion of power. The first thing I am asking for is a greater sensitivity and awareness in the church about how power works. Having gained a greater understanding of what is going on, both inside the one who administers power and the one who receives it, then we need to try to insert this word ‘service’. Because there is up till now so little clear thinking in the church about power and the way it operates, we continue to suffer from its abuse in so many situations and contexts. Child abuse, spiritual abuse and all kinds of bullying and exploitation are made worse through our lack of awareness about the way power operates in institutions of all kinds including our own. We need to understand power and how it can be turned on its head when we internalise Jesus’ command to serve.