Abuse in the Church: the book we have all been waiting for

To Heal and Not to Hurt – a fresh approach to safeguarding in Church Alan Wilson and Rosie Harper DLT 2019

As I write, in Easter Week; Lent and Holy Week are only just done. Few clergy will have turned yet to which Lent course to use in 2020. In the continuing storm of the abuse scandals in the church innumerable apologies have been made by Archbishops and bishops. Services have been held. Liturgies celebrated. Laments prayed. But the abuse scandal is not going away. We all know that there is more to be brought to the light. That the wounds are still open and that defendedness is the predominant response. It would be a powerful statement of our intention to deal with this scandal thoughtfully if the Church of England’s two Archbishops proposed that every parish use this book in Lent next year to do theology and to think practically about how we respond to abuse, and how we become a safer church. Near the end of their book Wilson and Harper pose two questions: What sort of God do we actually believe in?What kind of community does the church have to be? This is theology at its most fundamental, raw and vital.

Twentieth century theology could be characterised as Holocaust theology. How do we deal with this deep evil at the heart not just of humanity but of Christian culture? Twenty-First century theology will have to be a theology of abuse, a response to this profound evil which is at the heart of every church. Yet To Heal and Not To Hurt is a hopeful book. “We hope”, the authors write, “it will not harm, but heal the Church, helping it to rediscover its primary pastoral identity and task.” “Insofar as the Church can bring itself to walk in the light about the evils of abuse within it, it may be able to recover some sense of what it actually means to be the body of Christ, and to live that out in the real world, not the fantasy places of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. A church that manages to be half of what it claims to be would, indeed, be good news in a broken world.”“The Church of England needs to regain a humble confidence in its own calling, and to become what Leonard Sweet has hauntingly called:a Church with a big heart, dirty hands, and a beautiful mind.(Tweet of 11.08.2018 at 0816)” Calmly written, easy to read, although never an easy read, this is the book on safeguarding that I have been looking for. Theological, Scriptural, human, honest. It begins as it must with the survivors of abuse and listening to their stories. Amalgamated and combined into 15 representative stories of abuse (‘Tales from the Crypt’) involving all parts of the Anglican spectrum and different types of abuse, the stories are not at the extremes. They are, disturbingly ‘main stream’, none of them is a story that I have not heard in my life as a priest and for which I could not give similar accounts. These accounts are used throughout the book to exemplify the call for doing things differently. A summary table in one of the helpful appendices is a good reference point to recall what the accounts are about and a list of the characters involved further aids the memory. One of the accounts, that of Mark, is re-written towards the end of the book as if everything had been done well, it shows how getting things right changes lives for the better. I still hear in the church attitudes about safeguarding as a bother, something that gets in the way, makes life too complicated and even of victims as if they exaggerate the effect of abuse on their lives. Wilson and Harper clarify what needs to take place when working with survivors of abuse including taking into account:

  • Psychological harm and the ongoing support needed
  • Life chances changed by the abuse, and possibilities for retraining, coaching and career support
  • Financial hardship, including loss of income and lack of pension provision
  • Spiritual deficit. If the survivor so wishes a spiritual friend could help detoxify faith as a resource for living.

To Heal and Not to Hurt is, as would be expected of the authors, good theology. It is clearly Scriptural, an important appendix charts some of the abuses of Scriptural texts and the account of the Good Samaritan is used throughout as a leitmotif of how the Church could behave: “whenever the Church actually behaves like the Good Samaritan, rather than the priest or the Levite, it earns trust and respect. Only by doing this can it recover authenticity, confidence and credibility.” “Picking up the phone and saying, ‘How can I help?’ is what a Good Samaritan would do. Picking up the phone to the legal team, then hiding behind the guidelines sounds more like what a Levite would do. Prioritising theology and the Church’s reputation feels like what a priest would do, passing by on the other side.”

My own professional life has mainly been in education. I would not dare hold schools and education up as the answer to all our problems but the authors do make comparisons with education that show just how far the Church still has to move. The authors’ critique of the Clergy Discipline Measure is excoriating and surely ought to move the reform of this to the top of Synod’s agenda: “It could well be that when the clergy disciplinary system was devised it was not imagined there would ever be a significant number taken out against bishops. In practice, legal professionals say privately that pro rata ten times as many CDMs are taken out against bishops as against other clergy. It may be that there are bishops who have indeed experienced disciplinary consequences from having breached safeguarding policy. Nobody knows. Nothing goes to a tribunal. Everything is kept, incestuously, within the purple circle.”“As complaints against bishops escalate, absurdity abounds, way beyond anything those who framed the CDM can have envisaged. One archbishop could have to hear a complaint about how his fellow archbishop had handled a particular case. At the same time the other archbishop could be presented with a complaint from the same complainant about how the first one had handled another aspect of the same case. Both respondents would simultaneously be advised by members of the same tiny circle of ecclesiastical lawyers. It’s cosy, but inquiring minds will wonder, how can it be justice? For any disciplinary system to work properly, justice must be seen to be done.To be credible, the whole system requires independence at every level.”

Reform of the CDM, mandatory reporting together with a national safeguarding system independently run and independently accountable are the four stand out actions that this book highlights. I cannot see any argument that stands up against these calls. Reform, as the authors point out will be expensive. At a time when the Strategic Development Fund is spending millions of pounds on mission the abuse scandals are among the most profound obstacles to mission. It would be money well spent to spend it on new independent systems which allow bishops to be bishops. The authors add recognition of Spiritual abuse, spiritual accompaniment of survivors, restoration and redress, and a healthy culture of whistle-blowing to their suggested actions. More controversial, certainly for Catholic Anglicans among whom I find my home, is the reference to sacramental confession. The seal of the confessional is now held up by some as if it were an article of the Creed. It cannot be so. Although the call is gently put, it is clear that Wilson and Harper believe that mandatory reporting should extend into the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Dostoevsky’s point remains powerful that, “if the suffering of children goes to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.” “The seal cannot be absolute in all circumstances or the Sacrament becomes what the Bible calls ‘a cloak of maliciousness.’ Disclosure of a serious crime likely to put others in danger, past or future, needs to be responsibly handled.There has been much debate around the seal of the confessional and its potential to cover up abuse. There have to be circumstances under which the rights of the abusee are placed before those of the abuser, and disclosure of crime is reported.”

In eight powerful chapters Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, and Rosie Harper his chaplain, have done what no other writing on abuse in the church that I have read has done. It is all too easy to describe any book as ‘essential reading’, but this must be it, not just for clergy but for all who care about the gospel. To do theology is to try and make sense of things, to see the meaning in them, to learn from them; not to claim that God wanted them to happen but that through them we learn more about ourselves and God. The fifteen ‘ailments of the Curia’ borrowed in the book from Pope Francis would make an excellent annual examination for any priest or bishop. The chapter on “How do they get away with it?’ must be part of the toolkit of everyone working to create a safer church.

Part of the twentieth century church’s reaction to the Holocaust was to develop the concept of the crucified God, the wounded healer, and to find it hard to talk about power. All abuse includes power, because all relationships involve power, even when equally balanced. Reading To Heal and Not to Hurt will help us talk about power and to recognise that when we do so it is healthier than ignoring it or pretending that it is not there. It will help us see that systems and processes far from restricting us set us free. As a priest it is my joy to celebrate the Eucharist every day. To repeat and fulfil Jesus’ command to do this ‘in remembrance’ of him. The spiritual life is a journey to the Eucharistic heart of God, the Eucharistic heart that is God’s desire for each of us. As the author’s write: “The Christian faith is rooted in Remembering. Knowing that he was about to be killed Jesus said, ‘remember me’ and gave his friends a way to do that which is repeated constantly in churches around the world. The Eucharist, at its best, can turn re-living into remembrance, a form of love and thankfulness.

A Church with a Eucharistic heart should be a good, safe, and healing place to do all kinds of remembering.”