Jean Vanier was a French-Canadian Roman Catholic lay philosopher and theologian, until recently best known for his establishment of the network of L’Arche communities that aimed to integrate the lives of the able-bodied with the disabled, so that each learned from and supported the other. He was originally an academic, completing a PhD on Aristotle in Paris, and he wrote over 30 books. But rather than continuing in academia, he sought a more ‘spiritual’ ministry; through a priest Father Thomas Philippe, he became aware of the plight of those with mental disabilities who were institutionalised, and his invitation to two men from one such institution to come and live with him formed the basis of the first L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil in France. There are now 147 such communities around the world.
Vanier’s work was of remarkable significance in a world which appears to have an increasingly utilitarian approach to human worth. You are welcome, we are told, if you can contribute something economically and practically to the world—but if not, you are worth little. In an age where those with Down’s syndrome can be aborted without question of their dignity and rights, and where migration is based on economic worth, this is a startling and counter-cultural message. But it was not just Vanier’s work that impressed people; it was the radiance of his own personality that went along with it. The tribute paid by Justin Welby when he died last year articulates this powerfully:
Jean Vanier lived the Gospel in such a beautiful way that few who met him could fail to be caught up in it. I join countless people around the world in deep sorrow at his death, and great gratitude for his life. His generosity of spirit and Christian hospitality embraced the whole world – supremely those with learning difficulties. His L’Arche communities were places for the so-called weak to teach the self-perceived strong.
His love for Christ overflowed into every relationship with abundant grace. To meet him was to love him, to be loved – and in turn to love all others he loved. Such a luminous goodness was combined with humour, wisdom and practicality. His goodness was also combined with learning; his lyrical commentary on St John’s Gospel is the most beautiful piece of writing.
I had the privilege of spending time with him on several occasions, and always came away with a sense that here was someone whose whole way of being spoke of the goodness of God.
If that was the impression of someone who only met him, then it is hard to imagine the shock for those who worked with him closely and knew him well, and those working in L’Arche, at the news last week that he had for thirty-five years had a series of coercive sexual relationships with six women in France. In fact, his friend and mentor Father Thomas Philippe had been guilty of abuse, and Vanier had denied knowledge of this even though he knew about this, probably as early as the 1950s. The L’Arche community appear to have handled this all impeccably; contrary to most reports, they did not investigate the claims of the six women (made independently from one another) internally, but brought in an outside agency to investigate, and then made the results known (an approach that other institutions could learn from).
The investigation was carried out by GCPS, an independent British consultancy specialising in abuse prevention and reporting systems to investigate further. They also looked into his historical link to Father Thomas Philippe, whom Jean named as his spiritual father…
There is nothing in the investigation to suggest that Jean Vanier harmed people with disabilities.
Professor Irene Tuffrey-Wijne was profoundly shaped by joining a L’Arche community in London when she first came to the UK, and went on to become a professor in intellectual disabilities and palliative care, shares the sense of shock and disorientation.
Here is some seriously bad news. A man who was loved by thousands, respected by millions, a man who has inspired people across the world and who has articulated values that so many people (including myself) have taken to heart – that man turns out to have been a serial sexual abuser…
Learning of Jean’s sexually and spiritually abusive behaviour makes us feel deeply betrayed, sickened, confused, ashamed (how could this happen under our noses? Are we ourselves tainted by implication?). Distressed beyond words for the women who suffered…
This was going to affect so many people in so many different ways. The shock and betrayal. The breaking of trust. But also the echoes: many people in L’Arche have themselves been victims of sexual abuse. As with a death, when painful memories of previous losses are forced to the surface, news about sexual abuse is bound to evoke people’s own memories of being abused.
We pray in this moment not only for the six women, but for those in the L’Arche communities who will be profoundly distressed by these revelations.
But alongside praying, we would do well to reflect. Why is it that the apparently saintly can still fall in this way? How do we perceive and treat them in such a way that this is allowed to happen? I was struck by the comment of ‘Digital Nun’, who is a member of a small Catholic cloistered community, about how Vanier was revered:
I was once at a meeting where Jean Vanier spoke. What he said was inspiring, but I felt uncomfortable at the way he was being treated. At any moment, I thought, someone is going to genuflect before him. Happily, no-one did, but it was clear that no-one was going to challenge anything he said, either. Every word was received as incontrovertible wisdom. The sense of santo subito [‘make him a saint!’] in the room was palpable.
This sense of unquestioning reverence had a direct impact on the power of Vanier to coerce the six women:
One of the women described to investigators the power that Vanier had over her and others: “I was like frozen, I realised that Jean Vanier was adored by hundreds of people, like a living Saint”…
What they had in common was that Vanier, who never married, held great psychological sway over them, the report stated. Often, he was their spiritual adviser. “The relationships … are described as emotionally abusive and characterised by significant imbalances of power, whereby the alleged victims felt deprived of their free will and so the sexual activity was coerced or took place under coercive conditions,” the report stated.
One victim said Vanier told her: “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret.”
In response to this, Sarah Bingham, who is a Baptist minister, commented online:
We need to stop putting people on pedestals – everyone is fallible. Barth lived with a woman for years but never married her… Bishops and theologians and ministers and visionaries have all been found wanting. We will never know whether they were racked with guilt over it, or considered it their due, but we do know they, as we, will need to look God in the face and talk about it.
I think we can use people as milestones… ‘I’d like to pray as well as…, I’d like to be as compassionate as …, I’d like to be as organised as …’, but perhaps no one should be a complete role model except the God-man we’re following?
This comment has a striking resonance with Jesus’ own teaching about our attitude to one another, calling for a radically egalitarian attitude to those in the Christian community:
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matt 23.8–12 RSV).
This is very striking, given that Jesus himself has called the Twelve and commissioned them—but he is very clear that it is his teaching that they pass on, and not their status, that is important. And alongside putting everyone, from the greatest to the least, in the community that he is forming on the same level, he is elevating himself above them all. The only one they should look to as above reproach, and the source of all authoritative teaching, is Jesus himself.
At the weekend, a friend who had worked with John Stott speculated what it would be like for evangelicals to discover some scandal about Stott—that is something of the impact of this for Catholics. My own hero from teenage years was David Watson—but Watson took seriously this teaching of Jesus. Despite his remarkable ministry of evangelism and teaching, he refused to allow people to revere him, and always said that, in a group setting, everyone together sat at the feet of Jesus, including himself; no-one sat at his feet. I think I was quite aware early on that he was not a perfect figure, and in the following years I came to take a different view from him on a number of issues—surely a sign of his healthy attitude to influence and power.
And this approach is modelled by the apostle Paul. In his ministry, he always worked with others. In his letters, he never exerts his authority as an apostle, but seeks to appeal and persuade. And in Romans 16, he lists the women and men with whom he has worked in partnership—and from whom he has learned and benefited, making special mention of those who are ahead of him in the faith.
This leads to some important practical considerations about sin, influence and power. One is how we receive the teaching and ministry of flawed and fallen human leaders. Article XXVI of the XXXIX Articles holds together both the need for discipline but also the value of ministry even by ‘evil men’. The logic here is that any ministry and teaching of real spiritual value has its origins in Jesus, and not in the individual concerned.
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments…
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.
In our media age, where sexual abuse is the unforgivable sin, it is sad but inevitable that all Vanier’s writing is to be immediately withdrawn by its publishers. But it would be a double tragedy if the work of the L’Arche communities was allowed to be similarly tainted.
Article XXVI also highlights some strange elements of our other debates about the relationship between sexuality and ministry. Again in the last week I have been told (as I have heard numerous times before) that, because people in same-sex partnerships enjoy fruitful ministry and lead growing churches, this shows that we should change our understanding of marriage and confirm the holiness of such relationships. I wonder how that would look if applied to the ministry and relationships of Vanier?
In terms of ministerial practice, there has been much derision of evangelicals who follow the so-called Billy Graham rule, where male leaders avoid spending time alone with unmarried women (though I think in the practice of people like Nicky Gumbel of HTB, this would extend to avoiding time alone with any woman). Yet it is sobering to note that, had Vanier followed this rule, his coercive relationships would never have happened. The BG rule doesn’t just protect men’s reputations; it was protects women from abuse. (For a good critique of its use in practice, where it is used to exclude women, see this guest post by Kate Wharton.)
That in turn might lead us to reflect on the differences between men and women. Why is it that so much damage is done by powerful men? Moving beyond our sense of existential despair at the continued damage that is done, there is actually a serious answer to this. In terms of personality description offered by the OCEAN or ‘Big Five’ personality inventory, men tend to be lower in ‘agreeableness’ and in ‘neuroticism’; in other words, they are often more focussed on changing the world, and less bothered about what people think about them. That can be wonderful, if you are wanting to start a movement that fundamentally challenges the dominant values of the world you live in. But it also makes it much easier for you to coerce people in private.
Add to that differences in physical strength, the physical and sexual drive in men created by the presence of testosterone, and the physical and emotional vulnerability of women, and you can see reasons why we need structures of social relating that must take these issues into account. The average man has 40% greater upper body strength than the average woman, and leaders in all walks of life are taller and larger than average; I am nearly 70% larger and stronger than my wife. With these physical and psychological differences, it is unhelpful wishful thinking simply to say ‘Men must stop abusing women’, as if mere will power is the answer to this. We need patterns of relationship, and in particular structures of accountability, to create spaces in which all can be safe.
We have moved from a worldview where women are the primary agents of sin, through their weakness and seduction, to a worldview where men are the primary agents of sin, through their power and coercion. I hope that the tragic case of Vanier will pull us back to the truth that ‘all have sinned’ (Rom 3.23), recognising that both women and men sin but in different ways. This sobering reality should lead us to develop pastoral practices that protect all from the effects of sin, and allows no-one to stand on a pedestal over us as infallible teacher.
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