The Stonewalling of Sexual Abuse…

by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, Director of Lay Training, Leeds Diocese

Pam Ayers

As a young child this limerick amused me no end, but as an ordained minister in the Church of England I’ve been bemused at the ready use of stonewalling in circumstances when one might expect ‘the very stones in the walls cry out against you [perpetrators]’ (Habbukuk 2:11) as we exercise our vocation to speak up and speak out for those who most need it.

Running through the scriptures like a silken thread that cannot be a broken we are reminded time and again to ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed.’ (Proverbs 31:8-9); directed as an imperative ‘Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act (Proverbs 3:27-28) and taught that an intrinsic part of our faithful discipleship of Christ is to ‘Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless [read powerful advocate, not ‘orphaned’] (Isaiah 1:17).

It is notable to me that the prophetic, legalistic and pastoral texts all speak of our need to break impenetrable walls of silence that protect only those hidden behind them.  This reinforces the call as global, not just for some brave individuals who have particular prophetic calling, or social-justice activism.  This is an undergirding call to each and every Christian, irrespective of age, position, gender, status.  We are called to speak out for those suffering any form of injustice both within and beyond the walls of the Church.

Having once found myself hemmed in by an actual dry-stonewall, I can attest to the utter frustration they add to a difficult journey. I had simply walked too far, for too long, and in my exhaustion thought I’d espied the next stile in the corner of an enormous field. The mud was deep and rain filled the footprints of those who had struggled through before me. With legs now shaking with exhaustion, I could have wept to discover that my eyes had failed me.  This wall was long, and high. ‘Fine,’ I thought, ‘I shall climb over it’ and in my defense, I can climb over most things given my army training. What I hadn’t accounted for was the skill of the dry-stone waller. Every stone was tightly packed to it’s neighbouring stones, and the smooth faces gave me no rough corner for a toe-hold. I pressed here and there to see if anything would give, if I could just get enough of a foothold to gain purchase, but nothing. Not even finger holds, so tightly packed were these stones. And so very cold, and silent. At that moment in time nothing felt more impervious to my (relative) suffering; the wall had nothing to give me and was incapable of resonating with or yielding to my plight. As I turned to survey the field, barely able to walk for cloying mud, all I could see were the two trajectories of wall as far as the eye could see, and no way out.

I cannot begin to imagine how that transposes to the experience of a victim of sexual abuse with a person to whom one has turned in good faith.

These walls of silence need to be dismantled and however painful the process for the institution, we need to be reminded that we are specifically called to ‘Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not S/He who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not S/He who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will S/He not repay man according to his work? (Proverbs 24:11-12).  What could be more deadly than having one’s body and soul pillaged by one in whom we trusted?

Lent is a time of fasting but giving up chocolate or alcohol or social media simply will not do.  ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6).  Whether or not the timing of the IICSA is coincidental, there is no better time in the Church year to bring to light the sins of commission and omission through the use of stonewalling, addressing them – once and for all?  No, that is surely not what we would want.

For the book of Amos yearns that ‘justice [will] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5:24) – yes, historical justice must be done and closure brought to many who have remained trapped in a place where their journey towards healing, life and ongoing faith in the Church, others and even God could not continue. But we must work towards much, much more than that. This process needs the healing streams of ongoing justice to keep flowing that – God forbid – any further abuse takes place by or within the church, the victims of such abuses will know that they can and will receive justice.

Perhaps then it will be time to build a new stonewall. One that refuses to allow injustices to persist, or to find a way through robust safeguarding procedures. A theological undergirding for all Christians that is not based on a naivety that lauds position, politics and presence – or even visibly good works – but one that looks to the heart of a matter, grasping the possibility that profoundly gifted individuals can also be deeply flawed and behave completely inappropriately.  Perhaps also a wider understanding that Christians – or people of any faith group – are not meant to perfect, but those who know better than most their need of God.

Deuteronomy undergirds the religious underpinnings of five major faiths and in these words reside: ‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’’ (Deuteronomy 27:19).  Far be it from me to curse anyone or anything, but may those appalling, unjust, silent stonewalls crumble to nothing.

Posted in Church of England, Hayley Mattews, Sexual abuse | Leave a comment

Church on the Ropes…

by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge


We are just a couple of weeks into what will be many months of painful interrogation of the Church of England’s safeguarding record by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), and already some outlines of what we must come to expect are becoming clear.  The press commentary is likely to focus – rightly – on issues of personal responsibility: who knew what, what action did they take, what were their priorities, where did they place child safety in relation to institutional reputation, and so on.  But a vital subsidiary theme will be information – what kind of records were kept, how was information handled, what should be done with confidential information, and so on.

Anyone who has troubled to look at the IICSA website will be astonished not only at the rapidity with which testimony is being transcribed and indexed (presumably audio transcription software is being used, but it must be of a very high quality), but at its sheer volume.  When the hearings on the Church of England are finished, what will be in the public domain will provide a remarkable, completely unprecedented insight into the intimate workings of parts of the Church.  Usually the records of near-contemporary developments and situations are on restricted access, under a thirty-year rule – a bane for historians like me, but obviously necessary to protect individuals in contexts in which the implications of complex decision-making processes may still be unfolding.  Here it is all going to be on view, with facts, allegations, personal views or prejudices, insights into how decisions were actually taken, supposition, all mixed up together.  It is already, I would argue, a formidable archive of events and opinions in the public domain, so far bearing specifically on the recent history of the diocese of Chichester.

It is much too early to draw any firm conclusions from what has been revealed, but when you read about the uncertainty with which church people faced allegations of abuse against colleagues, and made catastrophic decisions based on their assumption of essential goodness, it is hard – at least to me – to avoid thinking that too much discretion has been given to church leaders in the past, and that mandatory reporting of allegations of abuse is the way forward.  I can see that there are all sorts of drawbacks to going down that road, not least that some people might be put off registering suspicions by the thought that the implications of doing so will be so serious for the people concerned.  But there is a remorseless logic about the evidence being presented to IICSA: if there is a possibility that abuse is taking place, or a risk that it may do so in the future, then we cannot afford to balance probabilities when a child’s welfare might be at stake.

But there are two particularly tricky questions to which we’re going to have to give some thought.  One concerns data retention.  Here two contradictory pressures are bearing in on the Church.  One is the development of personal data regulation, soon to hit us in accelerated form through the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation coming into force shortly.  According to that, essentially organizations are going to have work on the assumption that individuals have a ‘right to be forgotten’ – they can demand the erasure of personal data.  Organizations will have to justify data retention, at risk of heavy fines.  The other is the need to keep full, accurate records of allegations made against individuals, with their correlative circumstances.  Anyone who has been involved in pursuing disciplinary matters within an organization will probably know the immense frustration of being told ‘such and such a meeting took place’, only to find no permanent record of it.  The right to be forgotten, but the need to record accurately and permanently.  How will these things be reconciled, especially by small, poorly-funded organizations, by local churches and charities, for example?

And the second question concerns the long-term effect of having a vast archive of material in the public domain that essentially presents the bleakest possible account of the internal workings of the Church over the last three or four decades.  It will not be possible to ignore all this material.  Nor should it be.  But there will be little else available of such granularity and scale to balance out the account.  So how will we assess the modern Church of England in the future?  From the point of view of safeguarding and child protection, of course, it is absolutely vital that the woeful failures of process and intention should be exposed, and practical solutions adopted to prevent such things happening again.  But are the failures all there is to say about the Church?  Is the modern history of the Church simply a catalogue of catastrophe?

I don’t believe so.  But it is going to be an uphill struggle to make that case.  It was a brave and, I think, laudable decision to volunteer the Church of England as a first substantial test-case for IICSA – better to make a clean breast of things, and face the storm early.  But that doesn’t in any way ease the challenge of acknowledging the extraordinary efforts church people do make to live out their faith and to help others.  Churches somehow have to hold in view a double truth, with equal vehemence on both sides – they fail frequently and have to face bravely and openly the possibility that even the most seemingly ‘nice’ people are capable of great harm, and that nonetheless most people in the Church live out their lives with conviction and integrity as they try to follow the gospel.  That’s a very difficult balancing act.  And for a long time the news will all seem to run one way.

We are on the ropes!


Posted in Church of England, Jeremy Morris, Sexual abuse | 3 Comments

The Slow Death of Patriarchy

by Jayne Ozanne, Director of Ozanne Foundation and Editor of ViaMedia.News


On International Women’s Day 2018 we learnt the sad reality that nearly two-thirds of women have experienced sexism in Church, with over half citing “institutional sexism” as being the primary reason for blocking their progress and “being all that they are called to be”.[1]

On the very same day we heard the Counsel to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse quote from a statement by Roger Meekings (who produced the 2009 report into known cases of abusers in the diocese), that: “The dominant or prevailing culture of the Diocese of Chichester with regard to women may have had a significant influence” in regard to safeguarding.[2]

Indeed, only a few days earlier we heard a former diocesan safeguarding officer, Shirley Hosgood, suggest that safeguarding in the Chichester diocese was “impeded in part by tensions over authority arising between senior male clergy and female lay church officers, including herself.”[3]

These are shocking indictments for a 21st century Church in modern day Europe.

What is even more shocking, however, is that for many of us this is not news at all!  Quite frankly, we have been aware of this for years, and yet relatively little has been done to address it.

This begs the question “Why?”

Why has the Church, unlike any other public institution been allowed to continue with such deference to a patriarchal way of being – in a way unlike any other?  It seems even more unfathomable when we reflect on the fact that over 65% of the UK Church are female[4].

I have a rather uncomfortable suggestion to make….

Maybe it is in part because over 65% of the UK Church are female!

You see, an organisation with such a strong bias towards female members is likely to actively attract male leaders who, let’s face it, like to be in dominant positions of authority over women.  For those who believe in a male headship model, this type of institution is a dream!  The Church can provide a place, unlike any other, with lots of subservient women just sitting there waiting to be lead.  Many of these women have imbibed a message of male headship without even questioning it, underpinned with teachings enforcing God as “Father” and Jesus as “male” without any counter teachings of female narratives, such as Wisdom being referred to as “female”.

Controversial as I know this sounds, I can’t help feeling that one of the reasons we are where we are today is because of our desire to perpetuate an unhealthy co-dependent relationship between those with a pathological need to lead with those with a pathological need to follow.

The problem is that ultimately co-dependency always bears bad fruit – and it is this we are finally being forced to recognise now.  The most tragic of which appears to be coming out in the IICSA hearings, where the concerns of a female safeguarding officers appear not have been heeded.

Thank goodness there are now those who are actively looking to address this disastrous imbalance within the Church – but it will take more than a few senior female appointments to do so.

Whilst the appointment of Bishop Sarah Mullally to the third most senior position in the Church of England is a welcome start, it will require a determined change of heart by all those within the Church – both lay and ordained – for the over-riding culture to be changed in the longer term.

And for that we need to address the underlying power issues, and that requires thousands of men (who love being in charge) to be willing to relinquish their power.  A first step would at least be to recognise the barrier that they have been to the mutual flourishing of their fellow Christians.

Yes, of course there are issues of theology at stake here, but that too can be a smoke screen for a more imbedded misogynistic culture that has been allowed to continue unchecked.

So how do we help facilitate this change?

My proposal would be for a formal act of repentance and contrition by the Church for the significant harm that has been done by institutional sexism – which has constantly preferred men over women.  In this season of Lent, let us look to recognise and repent of the flawed teachings that have sought to subjugate women and keep them from fulfilling their God-given callings.

“But what about the Five Guiding Principles?” I hear people cry. “Would such an act be consistent with that?!”

My firm answer is “Absolutely, yes!”  In fact, without it, we cannot hope to truly embrace the Five Guiding Principles as there has yet to be any formal recognition that a significant part of the Body of Christ has, for far too long, been purposefully kept from flourishing.

So, Church, are we prepared to finally recognise the damage that our sexist teachings have wreaked over the years?  Are we willing to repent and commit ourselves – at every level of the Church – to a new way of thinking, that values the gifts and callings of all?

Will we call out bad behaviour when we see it?  Will we challenge sexist attitudes when we encounter them?  Will we speak out when we see female colleagues treated as “less than”?

For Christ’s sake, I hope so, as then future generations of women may finally begin to flourish!


[1] “Minding The Gap” research report, Page 12-13, issued by Sophia Network March 8th 2018

[2] Day 3 of IICSA inquiry

[3] Church Times, March 9th 2018

[4] “Minding The Gap” research report, Page 6, issued by Sophia Network March 8th 2018

Posted in Church of England, Jayne Ozanne, Sexism | 1 Comment

Divine Headship Meets Woman Bishop

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral

David ison 2

I’ll be taking part later this week in the ceremony at which Bishop Sarah Mullally will become the first woman Bishop of London, 24 years on from the first ordinations of women as priests. Most of us in London are looking forward to working with her in living and sharing the Christian Gospel in this city.

And there’s an opportunity and a challenge here; how to hold together as a diocese in a Church which affirms that women can truly be bishops, and that its members can believe that they can’t.

Anglo-Catholics who don’t accept women as priests or bishops do this because much of the rest of the Church of God  (in particular the Roman Catholic Church) does not: if that church did, however, most of them would. But there’s a particular problem for conservative evangelicals: thus the organisation Reform believes in ‘The unique value of women’s ministry in the local congregation but also the divine order of male headship, which makes the headship of women as priests in charge, incumbents, dignitaries and bishops inappropriate.

I grew up as a Christian in a lively conservative evangelical church on the edge of London, whose vicar is a lovely fellow-member of General Synod for whom I have great respect, who is a long-term member of Reform, which was started in 1993 following the passing of legislation allowing women to be ordained priests. He’s written an article about Reform in this month’s edition of New Directions magazine, on the occasion of Reform’s 25th anniversary.

He and I would (I think) agree on the core message of the Christian gospel, and disagree on some of the ways in which that works out in practice. We would agree on the authority of Scripture, but not on all the ways in which Scripture is interpreted and used. Both of us would regard ourselves as working at being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ our Saviour, and have questions about how the other is doing that. And I want to pose a particular question which this raises, as we move to having a woman bishop in London as a practical reality rather than a theoretical possibility.

In the Reform statement above, it looks like the word inappropriate really means ‘just plain wrong, but we don’t want to make it a resigning matter’.  After all, most clergy can avoid working under the authority of women – until they become their archdeacons or bishops, of course, and in London this will now be a reality for all clergy in the diocese, whether they choose to admit it or not. How they will respond with integrity will be an important test of the Five Principles by which the Church of England has agreed to order its divided life on this issue.

But the phrase that really needs to be questioned here is the divine order of male headship. The use of that adjective divine seems as inappropriate as in the phrase ‘the divine right of kings’.  Referring to a divine order of male headship claims that God has ordained that men will hold authority, headship, over other men and all women, and that this is therefore not a human choice but a divine command.

Remember that people went to their deaths or left the Church of England over the biblically sanctioned doctrine of the Christian monarch being anointed by God as His representative on earth. The Book of Common Prayer still prays for the personal government of the king – or queen, which is curious if divine order requires male headship. But in an age of universal education, when autocratic force has been replaced by democratic government, who now believes in ‘the divine right of kings’? We have to be very cautious about appropriating God inappropriately, to give sanction to human rather than divine will.

Unlike ‘the divine right of kings’, parts of the Church uphold the assertion of the divine order of male headship, leading in some instances to inappropriate conduct in relation to women incumbents and other women clergy, and to the necessity for institutionalised discrimination against them in the name of safeguarding the conscience of others. Women still bear the cost of men insisting that only they should be in authority. And Bishop Sarah in London will have to work with those who will not accept her spiritual authority, on the grounds of divine order, simply because she is a woman.

Those who argue for male headship do so on the grounds of particular scriptures. But note the conclusion of Dr Ian Paul in his 2011 Grove Booklet Women in Authority: The Key Biblical Texts. After looking at the most commonly used verses, he concludes that they do not support the divine order of male headship, but rather that they emphasise the interdependence of men and women in church leadership. He says:  ‘On a personal note, engaging again with these texts has been a challenging and transforming experience for me…. I have been struck afresh by the radically egalitarian and counter-cultural nature of what Scripture says about gender, and the challenge to the church to be constantly reformed and reshaped by Scripture’s perspective, even if that means letting go of cherished traditions of interpretation.’

Reading one booklet doesn’t usually change people’s minds, when their view is supported by a whole tradition of church teaching and practice, though writing the booklet caused Dr Paul to change his. But to call male headship a ‘divine order’ when Scripture is not clear that it is, and when we believe in God who is neither male nor female, is to overstate the case – and is itself inappropriate.   As is disassociating ourselves from our Christian sisters and brothers with whom we disagree.

Dr Paul clearly states that in scripture the issue of headship is different from that of same-sex relationships. But the issue remains of how with regard to that issue, as with headship and in other areas of Christian disagreement, Christians with different views are going to be open to welcome and challenge and transformation of ourselves and each other, unless we engage in depth with one another and refrain from referring to what we currently believe as divine.

There’s a spectrum even of evangelical thinking on these issues, not because some are ‘revisionists’ or ‘liberals’, but because like Dr Paul they have been challenged by Scripture and the Holy Spirit to be re-formed in their thinking, in all sincerity: and understanding that those with different views are still committed disciples of Jesus Christ will help us to listen more closely to what God is saying – to each of us.

All of this is part of the richness and diversity of the Church, where we need each other’s perspectives to be continually semper reformanda, as the New Directions article notes, always reforming, always being renewed by God; as we also need the Catholic emphasis on sacraments and depth of prayer, and the Anglican application of reason.

We need different perspectives because all of us have a view which we think is the right one: a view which is built, not only (and not necessarily) on encounter with God in Scripture and the Spirit, but which is also derived and maintained from a whole range of other sources; from what our parents and friends and teachers thought and think, to our life experience and our cultural context, including our own psychological make-up.

From metrosexual London to rural Africa, all of us need challenging by the understanding and experience of God which our fellow-Christians have to share, and to be enriched by it. But in order to have both challenge and growth, we need to listen to one another, and not live, as we tend, to in separate worlds where people with different views in a diocese or in General Synod don’t have dialogue in depth with each other about what we have in common and why we disagree.

Let’s see if in the Diocese of London it can be different.

Posted in Church of England, Dean of St Pauls, Sexism | 8 Comments

Disgrace by Association

by the Revd Canon Anna Norman-Walker, Rector of Streatham and past member of General Synod
Anna Norman-Walker

On Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago the Diocesan Bishop called, he lives in my Parish and invited me to accompany him on a visit to our local Oxfam shop on the Streatham High Road. He wanted to offer a word of kindness and affirmation to our Oxfam volunteers in the wake of the recent Oxfam Scandal. The response of the staff moved me; they were genuinely touched by the visit and readily opened up about the impact the headlines had had on them.  The deputy manager described her sadness and how she, and others had felt something of the disgrace of the scandal ‘by association’, despite being entirely disconnected from it at a personal and high street level.

There is no doubt that the behaviour of Oxfam workers in Haiti was deplorable, the subsequent management of reputational damage disgraceful, and the offering of a ‘dignified exit’ from the organisation to those responsible at the time entirely unacceptable.

I could not help but draw parallels with my own experience of priestly ministry. As I sat in the cinema watching the quite brilliant film ‘Three Billboards outside Epping Missouri’ I squirmed during a scene where the local priest visits the home of an angry grieving woman and is balled out by her because of the organisation he represented:

“You’ve got your colours, you’ve got your clubhouse, you’re, for want of a better word, a gang. And if you’re upstairs smoking a pipe and reading a bible while one of your fellow gang members is downstairs f*cking an altar boy then, Father, you’re culpable. Cos you joined the gang, man. And I don’t care if you never did shit or you never saw shit or you never heard shit. You joined the gang. You’re culpable.”

A little cheer rippled through the cinema as the monologue ended that night in the cinema and for a moment I shared in the experience of ‘disgrace by association’.

The cost to Oxfam is yet to be fully measured; 1,200 people have cancelled their donations and a cry has gone out to withdraw the 32 million pounds of government funding given to support the charities international work. This is a pity, because those who ultimately suffer are those in most need in the world. What perhaps needs to be more urgently addressed is the issue of accountability for those who work in the name of any organisation, and especially those who claim altruistic values.

There will always be an appetite for celebrating a fall from grace of those who have set out to ‘do good’ and the Oxfam story has done nothing to quench the cynicism that exists especially within the media. Andrew Mc Leod in the Daily Mail writes “ jobs in international aid attract pedophiles and other predators who benefit from the power the aid industry confers upon them”.

The same might be said of the Church  of course, given our historic case list.

Which is why safeguarding, safer recruitment, the holding accountable of those who cross lines, must our very highest priorities. We need to learn to say sorry, even for those things of which we had no personal involvement. We did, after all ‘join the gang’.

Lent is a season of repentance and it leads us to the Cross; it is here that we meet our ‘gang leader’ who is prepared to bear the shame of ‘disgrace by association’ with all humanity, despite the many dreadful things we are capable of doing and so should we.

We must not however, lose sight of the fact that on the ground every day, all over the world people are living out the values of the founding men and women of Oxfam faithfully and they are making a tremendous difference.

In the same way disciples of Jesus Christ are following in their saviour’s footsteps and as they do glimpses of his hope filled kingdom are made known.

These are things that corrosive cynicism will never destroy and the reason why those of us who are serving ‘gang members’ of Oxfam, the Church, or any other organisation seeking to do good, can and must press on.

Posted in Ann Norman-Walker, Church of England, Social Justice | 3 Comments

“There are No “Problems” – There are Simply People!”

by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, Chair of the Human Sexuality Group on General Synod


‘There are no problems here, there are simply people’ said the Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of last February’s debate at General Synod. Readers of this blog will be well aware of the debate: the Bishops’ report on Marriage and Same-Sex relationships. The debate was only a year ago – feels to me like another eon!

It was, for me, very refreshing to hear the Archbishop moving the conversation forward within the C of E. For too long, LGBTI+ Christians have been seen as a problem to be solved –  both by the senior hierarchy within the church and by conservative Christians who have often embraced ethically unacceptable approaches such as conversion therapy.

I’ve been involved in these conversations for over thirty years, during which time the debate has gradually morphed;  in the late 1980’s we used to have secret meetings at which people would arrive incognito, with private circulation lists and real fear amongst attenders. Even amongst those who supported us, there was absolutely no doubt that we represented problems to be solved, and there was invariably tension and anger present in the room whenever LGBTI+ issues were discussed.

So the openness and the cross-church engagement which we are now experiencing, and the time and energy going into finding a way forward together – not just among those who want change but also among many who take a conservative position– are very refreshing. And energising.

Today I have a collision of ideas.

The readings set for today are Genesis 17.1-7 and Mark 8.31-38. The liberals among you may need reminding that these are  the renaming of Abram to Abraham and the giving of the covenant by God to him and Sarah, and the Markan call for us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ.

I have also reread, recently, the wonderful book by Lewis Hyde: The Gift – the ‘classic exploration of the value of giving over receiving.’ It has become clear to me recently that the self-giving love of Jesus at the heart of Christianity is not only right at the heart of our faith but should also be right at the heart of our practice as Christians.

Seems to me that our primary calling is to enable God’s love to be given into the situations in which we find ourselves, so the question we are called to ask is  not ‘what’s in this situation for me, how can I benefit from it?’ but ‘what’s in this situation for other people? How can I ensure that they benefit from it? What can I offer them, as a symbol or sign of God’s love for the world?’

In other words, there are no problems here, there are simply people.

So I am starting to wonder, tentatively, if there isn’t the possibility of reframing the current debate over LGBTI+ inclusion.  I wonder if there isn’t the possibility of seeing those to whom we are traditionally opposed as a gift. And whether we aren’t called to try to be gifts, ourselves.

Perhaps we, who want change, are offering the gift of encouraging the church to reflect on the nature of a good response to the inclusive challenge of the Gospel.  Perhaps those who resist change are offering the gift of encouraging the church to be thankful for the constancy and strength of its traditional witness. And perhaps, together, we can model a generous reflection of God’s self-giving love here in England. Maybe there is the possibility of a mutual exchange of grace.

Pie in the sky? Perhaps. Or perhaps, a faint image of something which might be possible. With God’s help.











Posted in Church of England, Giles Goddard, Human Sexuality | 1 Comment

Is the Church of England Guilty of Ageism?

by the Revd Canon Prof James Woodward, Principal of Sarum College, Salisbury


“It has been widely said that whatever many may say about the future, it is ours – not only that it may happen to us, but it is in part made by us”    (Dr Ethel Andurus, Social Activist 1844 – 1967)

 “To deny old age is to invite anarchy into our lives.”

The World Health Organisation defines Ageism as the “stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people based on their age”. Given the subjectivity of the ways in which we construct our attitudes and the way they shape action it is difficult to know how widespread ageism is. There is, however, a persistence in our negative visualisation and stereotypes surrounding the older person, which cumulatively has the potential to have significantly harmful effects on older adults.

In my pastoral experience of listening carefully to older people, I have come to understand how ageism for older adults is an everyday challenge. Sadly this is particularly the case in religious institutions and communities where there might be anxiety about decline and particular perceptions about the predominance of older people in such places. There is well-documented evidence that older people are overlooked for employment, restricted from social services and stereotyped in the media. In the light of this we might conclude that ageism marginalises and excludes older people in their communities.

Although there is substantial evidence about the many contributions that older people make to their societies, they are frequently stereotyped as dependent, frail, out of touch, or a burden. These ageist attitudes limit older people’s freedom to live the lives they choose and our capacity to capitalise on the great human capacity that older people represent.

When we consider the diversity of human life and its flourishing we rightly celebrate the fact that there is no typical older person. Older age is characterised by great diversity. Some 80-year-olds have levels of physical and mental capacity that compare favourably with 20-year-olds. Others of the same age may require extensive care and support. We might ask how we work together to improve the functional ability of all older people.

This diversity in older age is not random. A large proportion of the diversity in capacity and circumstance observed in older age is the result of the cumulative impact of advantage and disadvantage across people’s lives. The physical and social environments in which we live are powerful influences on our flourishing. The relationships we have with our environments are shaped by factors such as the family we were born into, our sex, our ethnicity, and financial resources. Equality, justice and a commitment to reducing such inequities amidst diversity of choice and opportunity must form part of our desire to root out age discrimination. If flourishing and justice are linked then we hold onto the fact that  older people with the greatest health-related needs often have the least economic and social resources available to meet them.

In some organisations, but particularly the churches, there can be a tendency to stereotype older people as being resistant to change, lacking creativity, overcautious, slow in judgement making, uninterested in change and difficult to motivate into different ways of looking at life and especially the inner life of the soul. These attitudes formed the basis of age related discrimination.

In the stereotyping of older people as fixed within a paradigm of diminishment and decline we should be aware that only a small proportion of older people are dependent on others for care. In fact, older people make many contributions to their families and societies. Contributions older people make through taxation, consumer spending and other economically valuable activities were worth nearly GBP 40 billion more than expenditure on them through pensions, welfare and health care combined.

Ageist prejudice can involve the expression of derogatory attitudes, which may then lead to the use of discriminatory behaviour. Stereotyping and prejudice against different groups in society does not take the same form. Age-based prejudice and stereotyping usually involves older or younger people being pitied, marginalized, or patronized. This is described as “benevolent prejudice” because the tendency to pity is linked to seeing older or younger people as “friendly” but “incompetent.” The perception of incompetence means older people can be seen as “not up to the job” or “a menace on the roads,” when there is little or exaggerated evidence to support this. Prejudice also leads to assumptions that it is “natural” for older people to have lower expectations, reduced choice and control, and less account taken of their views

We have acknowledge that a persuasive ageism exists in both Church and society. There are forces that combine to keep older people on the margins, to make them redundant, useless, a statistic to be feared as part of the picture of decline. We need to ask why we have so few positive images of ageing or perhaps ask how we might nurture and generate a range of positive images that allow us to see how older people might liberate us into a different perspective on living flourishing and faith.

Some years ago an Archbishop of Canterbury was asked in a media interview to describe how he saw the Church today. He said he hoped that the Church would grow progressively younger. The Church today seemed to him rather like a very old grandmother, who sat by the chimney-breast muttering to herself, ignored by the rest of the family and out of touch with its culture.  This image could be said to be typical of the Churches ageism, with which we collude. We seem unable to embrace and affirm an all-age Church, within which older people are valued partners. Taken further we might ask what older people might have to teach us about the shape and practice of faith. The question, in the light of our awareness of ageism and stereotyping is whether in our processes of reflection about age we see older people as a resource rather than a problem.

We might want to take a different view as we take stock of the age-profile of our communities, with a view to celebrating the contribution that older people make to the life of both Church and society. Consider who holds positions of responsibility. Reflect on the hidden work of care — unpaid care of older family members, the love and encouragement of grandparents, and the acts of kindness expressed by neighbours who have time to consider the little things that help life along, such as shopping, advice about heating, benefits, or a difficult letter. Go further, and see these people, grey and slower as they may be, in the time-line of the past decades of your church, and imagine their sustaining presence amid all the changing fortunes of history.

Age can be a wise and challenging teacher. Older people can show how little time we give, in all our bureaucracy and busyness, to consider what substance and depth mean in being human. It is no accident that older people become more spiritual, and that they can help us to perceive that age is essentially a spiritual task.

How might the Churches work together in moving age, older people, and our responsibility to them further up the political agenda? How can those with the power to engage with ageism deal with the impoverishment of living that some older people embrace?  We might act as advocates for older people in helping them to negotiate the complex world of health and social services. All Churches should help people to voice their concerns to professionals.  We can ask those who set policy how older people might enjoy all the benefits of a modern society. In this way, we can ensure that the needs of older people are moved up the political agenda.

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