I have been very hesitant to make any comment about the scrutiny of Chichester Diocese in the Independent Inquiry in Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) for many good reasons. The issue is so deeply painful and complex, and it touches on many interrelated issues in church and society—but that hasn’t prevented several people from giving their own opinion, and these have prompted some reflections of my own.
First up, as is often the case, was Martyn Percy, Dean of Christchurch Oxford. As usual, Percy’s piece was erudite and witty, and, also as usual, it offered a platform on which to play his well-worn record of bashing the Church of England and in particular its bishops and anyone ‘in the hierarchy’. After a considerable run-up, and an energetic hurling of the ball, which pitched up nicely, Percy then hit it for six by identifying the culprits at the heart of the problem—those with a different theological outlook from him, in the form of Anglo-Catholics and Conservative Evangelicals, whose true nature has been uncovered by these cases of abuse.
It might be possible to set aside the manifest contradictions in Percy’s comments—such as complaining at those who treat the Church of England as a ‘homogeneous gloop’ when he has consistently treated it in entirely monolithic terms. It might also be possible to set aside the irony of someone in Percy’s position—as the highest paid clergy person in the Church who sits at the heart of a bastion of elitism and privilege—criticising the sense of hierarchy and privilege he sees in the Church. But I am sure that I wasn’t the only reader who found it deeply distasteful that he should use the suffering of others and the exposure of failure as a vehicle to push his own particular theological and personal agenda. And, even more distasteful, Percy’s argument read like a thinly veiled power-play. The idea that one particular theological tradition (his) can save us from the perils of the abuse of people and power is nothing much more than a mirror image of the catastrophic compliance we saw paraded in Chichester Diocese. Where in the past people would not question a priest, Percy now asks us not to question the liberal theological configuration he urges on us.
A second comment came from a friend of Percy’s, Linda Woodhead. Whereas Percy had disguised his theological agenda by deploying language of ‘strategy’, ‘competence’ and ‘culture’, Woodhead has the virtue of putting her theological cards on the table: ‘Forget culture. It’s a new theology we need‘—and of course the particular theology we need is Linda Woodhead’s. This is one where, as she has argued previously, the Church’s doctrine is not shaped by a process of reflection rooted in the Scriptures (since Scripture is hopelessly incoherent and contradictory), but where we sum together the theology of all the people who happen to attend the C of E—or even somehow identify with it—and take the average. The aspiration is to be like some of the Nordic churches, who are wonderfully inclusive, though just happen to have very few people who ever actually attend. But even in this vision there are manifest contradictions. On the one hand, the claim that ‘the scandals in Chichester and the wider Church were tied up with a crazy idealisation of the clergy’ is uttered by someone who recently commented:
Imagine, for a moment, that all regular Sunday worshippers disappeared overnight, leaving only the clergy. Obviously there would be a financial crisis, the current parochial system would have to be radically reformed, a great number of churches and vicarages would need to be sold off, and the Synod would have to cease or change.
But the Church would remain, and its most influential activities could continue…
On the other, like Percy, she blames two loci of theology—the Calvinist and the Catholic (nice to alliterate when pointing the finger)—but liberal theology of course has no such problems. The difficulty here is that she doesn’t offer a very convincing understanding of either, since caricatures will suit her argument best. But the theological difficulties here are illustrated well by an Easter comment by another ally, Rosie Harper, the Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, who suggests that we can talk about Easter and the cross by focussing only on ‘peace’ and not focussing on sin. Never mind that Zechariah looks forward to the coming of the Messiah by the proclamation of ‘the forgiveness of sin’ (Luke 1.77), or that the heart of Jesus’ proclamation was the invitation to ‘repent and believe’ (Mark 1.15), or that his ministry was not to the righteous but to ‘call sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5.32), or that Jesus’ declaration of resurrection peace immediately flowed into the forgiveness of sins (John 20.21–23), or that for Paul the reason we lacked peace was because we were enemies with God because of sin (Rom 5.10), and that sin rendered us spiritually dead but the cross and resurrection brought us life and peace (Eph 2.5). (No wonder that someone said to me, when I suggested engaging with this perspective, ‘What is the point, when Rosie’s piece has so little in common with any reasonable understanding of Christian faith?’) But what is truly astonishing is the idea that, at the same time that IICSA is exposing abuse and depravity where we might want least to find it, someone can suggest that we are focussing too much on sin. Perhaps we are not focussing on it enough.
Come to the book launch for my new commentary on the Book of Revelation on Thursday April 19th.
A more refreshing perspective was offering by theologian Miroslav Volf, in a paper offered last week to the Society for the Study of Theology meeting at the their annual conference on the campus of the University of Nottingham. Volf reaches precisely to the Reformed configuration of theology that Percy and Woodhead so denigrate to offer a better account of both human sin and God’s grace:
Among theologians, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther is famous for celebrating the utter gratuity of God’s love. Significantly, he affirmed the unconditionality of God’s love while insisting on the pervasiveness and indelibility of human stain. Short of the radically new life in the world to come, humans cannot achieve a better moral and existential condition than to remain always both sinners and just at the same time, and that in every aspect of their being. No matter how much we improve, every one of our deeds bears a stain, and every one of them inserts itself into a stained world where it always benefits from and effects both blessings and curses.
A person need not embrace Luther’s account of sin to affirm the indelibility and pervasiveness of human stain. A great 20th century Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner (1978), used a simple example to make the point. We cannot take a single bite into the soft flesh of a banana without being left with an aftertaste of the sin of the world, the sin of all the people that made that banana land half-peeled in our hand: the owners of the plantation and all those with whom the plantation owners jostle for space to make profit, the overworked and underpaid workers, the global traders and the transporters, the sales people, even those who made the clothes we wore and the car we drove as we went grocery shopping. It would be easy to give a more extensive and fine-grained description of the net of sin into which consuming a banana pulls us, but the point is clear. Over everything we do and enjoy hover sighs of suffering and the self-satisfied laughter of selfish indifference and oppression.
As the example of the banana suggests, human stain always bears the stamp of a given time and place, but the stain itself is universal because it is an aspect of the human condition, tangled up with the character of our materiality, temporality, sociality, self-transcendence, and freedom. Stained as we are, we can mend but we cannot save—neither the world nor ourselves. Salvation will either come from outside the world or it will not come at all.
It is worth noting here that Volf, a Protestant theologian, is offering an exposition of Luther’s position by drawing on a Catholic theologian. Good theology is not confined to one tradition, just as sin and abuse is not absent from any. Without such an integrated vision of human sin and divine forbearance, then we cannot address the hidden underside of the IICSA enquiries: what do we do with sex offenders who no longer offend? Next to Linda Woodhead’s piece in the Church Times was a most poignant reflection from an offender.
When there are so many ex-offenders who have turned their life around and become fruitful servants of the Church, and can be a great witness to Christ, why does the Church make special measures for sex offenders?
God calls all to holiness, even sex offenders. Yet we draw our own line. Why don’t we exclude those committed of fraud from doing the accounts; those guilty of drink driving from driving the minibus; those with alcohol and drug problems from serving at the bar during social events? Because that is not what the Church is about. Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.
I look to examples such as Jesus calling St Paul, and how Jesus can make the vilest offender clean. This gives me hope, hope that is, sadly, continually removed by the Church.
Dispense with sin, it seems, and we also dispense with the possibilities of forgiveness. In order to make any sense of these issues, we need theological resources that hold together idea of the seriousness of sin, and the radical possibility of restitution—somewhere that will articulate the wrath we feel at abuse without losing sight of grace. Perhaps there are some resources to be found in the remarkable juxtaposition of imagery in Rev 20.11 of ‘books opened’ alongside ‘another book, which is the book of life’. The first ‘books’ are the records of all deeds done by human beings in their lives, but the other book is the list of those who have been saved by grace through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus, the ‘lamb standing, as though slain’. Neither set of books obliterates the other, but they stand in an awkward tension, as though salvation truly matters, but only makes sense in the context of the awful reality of what humans are capable of. (A shame this is dismissed as an optional ‘blood-drenched apocalypse’ by Woodhead.)
There are two other issues here, one of which has received attention—but the other remains as yet unexplored.
The issue that has been highlighted is the ‘culture of deference’ which Justin Welby argues must end: ‘respect, yes, but deference, no.’ I confess that I have struggled to make sense of this, not least because ‘respect’ and ‘deference’ as terms have a very large semantic overlap. And I cannot make out what this might mean in practice. On the one hand, I increasingly find that, as a clergy person, I am not actually treated with very much deference. People don’t hold back from swearing in my presence on public transport; my views are as likely to be dismissed on social media as anyone’s, my social position notwithstanding; and deference has not led to the clergy stipend and pension being paid in line even with the Church’s own recommendation (in the report Generosity and Sacrifice). On the other, what should change? Should I no longer address the archbishops as ‘Most Reverend and Right Honourable‘? Should I desist from called bishops ‘Bishop [Name]’—after all, no-one ever calls me ‘Priest Ian’? Should we expect to see some dressing down—since apparel is the most tangible expression of ‘otherness’ and power, and most invites responses of deference? As I noted previously:
There is one final and serious objection to the wearing of mitres. I noted how important these things can be in our visual media age—and we need to reflect on what such clear visual signals communicate. To most, and I would suggest especially the young, the sight of bishops in mitres puts them in another world. It is world of the past, a world of nostalgia, a world of deference—and mostly a world which is quite disconnected from present experience and values. It confirms for many the impression of a church irrelevant to modern questions, contained in its own bubble of self reference. And in its hierarchical understanding of authority, it is a culture of which contemporary society is becoming less and less tolerant, possibly for good reason. In her damning report on the handling of the evidence relating to Peter Ball’s abuse of children, Dame Moira Gibb highlights the problems in the culture of the Church:
We were struck during this review by a manifest culture of deference both to authority figures in the Church, particularly bishops, and to individuals with distinctive religious reputations—or both. This deference had two negative consequences. Firstly, it discouraged people from “speaking truth to power.” Then, on the few occasions where people did speak out and were rebuffed by a bishop—the summit of the hierarchy—there was nowhere else to go.
Nothing symbolises the ‘culture of deference’ like the wearing of mitres. It is time for them to go.
But there is a final issue, which to my knowledge is one that no-one has yet mentioned, let alone explored: the question of the personal virtues of courage and honesty. One of the most striking, poignant and admirable virtues that has been made manifest in this whole sorry saga is the personal courage of victims of abuse, courage that has often had to sustain them through years of personal trauma and institutional neglect. It is courage that is required for others who become aware of abuse to blow their whistle rather than collude in silence. And it is courage that is often lacking when people try to pass the buck, blame others, or shift attention to other issues. Courage is most needed when those in positions of power are insecure, and have found their own security and self-esteem from their position within the hierarchy of the institution. This is where I think Martyn Percy’s analysis is most clearly at fault: the people who have been guilty of allowing abuse to go unchecked have not done so because they ‘love the Church’, but because they love themselves—because the downfall of the Church will also mean their own downfall, since their own sense of value and self-esteem is too heavily invested in their status in the institution. And to ask questions of people in such a situation demands courage, and (as I know from experience) asking too many questions can be costly.
There are many things that need to change is abuse is not to go unchecked—investment of resources, a change of culture, and quite possibly a farewell to ‘deference’. But above all we need a Church inhabited by people of virtue, who will be courageous enough to ask questions and pursue the good.
Come to the book launch for my new commentary on the Book of Revelation on Thursday April 19th.
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