Spiritual Blindness & its Root of Fear

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News

Jayne Ozanne (3)

Do you believe in Spiritual Blindness?  I must admit, I do.

I define it as something spiritual that happens to people, often because of something that has happened to them in their past, which then stops them seeing what everyone else can see plainly.

Sadly, you can’t rationalise with people when they are like this, it’s almost as if they’re wilfully blind to the truth.

We’ve seen a perfect example of this just this week with the Republican supporters of Judge Moore, who are blaming their fellow Republicans – rather than the conduct of their candidate – for the loss of one of the safest Republican seats in the Senate.

More broadly speaking, we see it at work in the US with the right-wing evangelical supporters of Trump – who believe that despite all the evidence to the contrary, their President is beyond reproach.  They will therefore continue to support him at all cost, believing him to be God’s anointed man for the White House.

And we see it here in the UK when dealing with the issue of sexual abuse and power within the Church.

Perhaps most clearly, though, we see it in the harsh unloving treatment of the LGBTI community by so many self-styled conservative believers.  Despite all the scientific and medical evidence, despite all the heart-wrenching testimonies (and sadly even suicides), despite all the biblical exegesis about our God being a God of Love, who welcomes and embraces all they stand resolute, defiant to the last.

I would like to believe you can talk and discuss things with everyone in the Church – but my personal experience has shown me that not all are seeking a dialogue, but rather an opportunity to “explain” to you why you are wrong and how “clear” the Bible is.  Any alternative view is seen as mistaken at best, and sinful at worst.

I have been reflecting what the root cause is of this irrational blindness.

I believe it stems from a root of fear.  A fear of a God of wrath, a God of anger and a God of judgement.  A God who seems to have mislaid the Gospel of Love.  It is Zeus with his thunderbolt, not Jesus with his open arms on the Cross.

This terror of God – a seed of an image of God planted often in youth, and watered through the years with the tears of unanswered prayers – is not a Godly fear.  It is one that sadly reflects a lack of assurance of the unconditional love of Christ, who gave Himself willingly so that all may have life.

Lest we need reminding, this self-sacrifice was an act of love – indeed, it was the ultimate act of love.  Conceived in love, born of love and lived out in love.  To the very end.

If there is one thing I could shout from the rooftops, it is this – the cross is not a place of fear!

It is a place of awe and wonder of the Amazing Love that is lavished on us all, wretched sinners that we are.

I state this purposefully, words so familiar to so many of us, because I believe it is this foundational belief which seems to be where we actually really disagree.

It has been at the core of my own struggles, replacing a warped image of a God of wrath and anger with a true image of a God of LOVE.  More than that, a God who loves us unconditionally.

As we are so often told, there is nothing that we can ever do that will ever make Him love us more (not even choosing to be celibate!).  Similarly, there is absolutely nothing we can to make Him love us any less (even if we have committed the most heinous of crimes).  That’s what unconditional means.  It’s what Christ showed to us whilst hanging on the cross, and even then showing unconditional love to the man hanging next to him.

If I may, can I suggest you read that last paragraph again, and again, and again – until the enormity of it seeks in?  It has taken me over 40 years to begin to grasp, and I’m still grappling with it on a daily basis.

How can I be so sure of this, of the love of God for me?

Because I know there is NO fear in love – as the Apostle John tells us (1 John 4:18).  We so often quote the second half of this verse, that “perfect love casts out fear”, without understanding the first half.

But where there is fear, then sadly the devil can have a field day!

It is this fear that, when fully grown, can eventually stop us seeing things which are in plain sight.

For instance, it is fear that stops parents admitting that they know their children are gay, even though the evidence is right in front of their eyes from a very early age.  It is this fear that stops us seeing the domestic abuse that is going on amongst our friends, even when we can plainly see the bruises – both physical and emotional.

It is this fear that stops us making certain decisions we know to be right as a Church for fear of the financial implications that they might reap, or the impact on our reputation – not that the latter can get much worse.

The only antidote to fear is of course LOVE.

Does this mean that we have to love those who are spiritually blind?  Well, if we believe we are Christ’s agents of love on this earth, the answer has to be a resounding “Yes!”.

And we then have to trust that the Holy Spirit will do the rest.

 

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Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne | 9 Comments

Power, Abuse and the Sense of Entitlement

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester

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Ten years or so ago we learned that significant numbers of UK politicians were taking an extremely generous view as to what constituted legitimate expenses. In the last few weeks we’ve discovered that many even more well known figures, here and across the globe, have abused their position by demanding sex, or at least acquiescence to woefully improper remarks, from those more junior to themselves. Between these two lies, I believe, a clear connecting thread, it is their sense of entitlement

Many MPs had felt their salaries were artificially depressed by the likely public backlash to any government awarding them a large increase. Surrounded by lobbyists and senior figures whose pay packets suffered no such restrictions, they felt entitled to more than they were receiving. They saw the expenses system as a way of getting their due. The more recent revelations, beginning with the exposure of an American film producer, have a similar foundation. Powerful men, used to getting what they want, felt entitled to receive, or at least ask for, sexual favours from those who needed their backing or support.

The language of entitlement is, first and foremost, the language of the rich and powerful. They have succeeded, and promote their entitlement to the full spoils of their triumph. One of the most powerful symbols of success is the ability to control and determine the language in which conversation can take place. Other groups in society, including the marginal and victimised, are then forced to adopt the same terms, to stake their own entitlement, in competition. They may have occasional victories, but the underlying power dynamic is at best only lightly challenged.

But what if there were a different language to speak?

To my way of thinking, Christian theology provides us with just such a vocabulary. It gives us words such as grace and justice, liberation and self-emptying, and it populates their meaning through a rich range of stories.

The call to self-emptying, kenosis as the Greek word puts it, is a call to those with power to model themselves on the Christ who “did not cling to equality with God”, but became like us so that we might become like him. This early hymn on the incarnation, which reverberates with particular strength in Advent, is a call to place ourselves on a level footing with those whom secular opinion would set us above. Self-emptying makes room for grace, the recognition that our hope lies not in what we deserve but in what is given us undeserving. Liberation then underpins our understanding of a justice that is not simply a restoration of what has been lost but a journey into a new freedom and empowerment.

Lest this all sound rather abstract, or relevant only to the most churchy issues, let me offer an example from well beyond the altar rail. As chair of the Manchester Homelessness Partnership Board, I encourage the exercise of kenosis by insisting that no meeting takes place unless there are enough people with personal experience of life on the streets for them to have power and voice among us. Whether around a table or working by less conventional methods, everyone has equal status and is part of the answer. Grace keeps us from stigmatising or blaming those whose life events, and sometimes their choices, have led them to fetch up sleeping rough. Justice holds before us an image of a society where the basic necessities of a safe and secure home, shared with ones chosen household, are there for all, a vision to which all our efforts must strive. Liberation reminds us that we will only achieve this vision when we set people free from the chains that bind them, be they mental health concerns, addiction or the loneliness of lost relationship.

Our meetings and events have an energy and sense of purpose well beyond many others I attend. And whilst the challenges are huge, and the ever increasing numbers of homeless daunting, I do believe we are ditching the tired battle between entitlement claims and creating a new culture, one with the possibility for real change.

My Advent prayer is that the powerful and public figures of our society, including faith leaders like myself, can consistently speak this better language.

 

Posted in Bishop of Manchester, Church of England, Sexual abuse | 5 Comments

“Cassock Chasers” and Compromised Clergy

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

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Some recent blogging about sexual abuse and harassment in the Church of England has referred to ‘cassock chasers’. When I read it, it was a phrase new to me; but finding out what it meant was a revelation, in two ways. It’s not only that women are afraid to complain about male clergy harassment because they’ll be dismissed as ‘cassock chasers’, women who pursue priests and look for revenge when their feelings aren’t reciprocated. But it’s also that some male clergy actually do stereotype women in this way, similar to how many men inside as well as outside the Church may see women, not as people, but as sexual stereotypes – ‘gels’, ‘slags’, ‘slappers’ or worse, to be defined by men’s desires and fears, not understood for who they really are.

Some will say, ‘It’s just a joke’, the dishonest defence of bullies everywhere But it isn’t, is it? That the phrase even exists, that any cleric could think of a woman as a ‘cassock-chaser’, that any woman could fear being treated as one, is a symptom of how deep-rooted the problem of patriarchal control is in the Church of England. To call someone a ‘cassock chaser’ is no joke, but a shallow, stereotyped and sexualised male-centred response to a person’s pastoral need.

There are many people we encounter in pastoral work who long for love, affection and intimacy. Some may respond to the loving pastoral care of a priest or other caring person by transferring their feelings to them, perhaps projecting onto them their image of an idealised partner.

A professional and caring pastor will handle those feelings carefully, and find ways to help the person concerned, even if because of the person’s mental illness, or because of the transference taking place, they aren’t able to help the person directly.

An inadequate pastor will be flattered or frightened, or assume that it’s all about me the pastor rather than all about them the person in need. If the pastor is also emotionally vulnerable, they can exploit the vulnerability of the person in need who is drawn to them – hence so much emotional and sexual abuse in the church and in other caring organisations. And so the need for robust pastoral structures and practice, proper supervision and the confessional, and for pastors – and men in particular – to know themselves well and be getting help for their own emotional issues. If you don’t understand what transference and projection is, you shouldn’t be in pastoral ministry – you and others will be at risk.

Part of the same picture of the need for robust structures and practices is the growing call from survivors of abuse like Gilo and others including some bishops* for the Church to set up independent structures for safeguarding and discipline. This should cover the compromised ministry of bishops, who have to administer both pastoral care and discipline; the close relationship between the Church’s main insurer and the Church itself; and the difficulty of trusting bishops and clergy to discipline themselves, set as they are within a network of personal and professional relationships and a complex and difficult legal framework.

Whether it’s about pastoral care or safeguarding, abuse or harassment, or issues around clergy discipline, the lack of trust generated by many years of poor practice in the Church needs a more urgent and radical response than has happened so far. That response needs to help victims and survivors find help and justice. It should also help bishops and clergy themselves to be secure in their work and ministry, and so reduce the stress on clergy which leads to greater vulnerability to pastoral and personal breakdown – and so the cycle continues. And it needs to stop.

Let’s pray for the House of Bishops in their reflections on all this when they meet soon. It’s a hard call to agree a vision for the future, and then to change how things are done, when it means admitting the implicit or explicit criticism of how things have been. But it also offers hope, not only for silent victims and struggling survivors, but also for all who work in ministry, that together we can find a way forward that sets one another free.

Posted in Church of England, Dean of St Pauls, Sexual abuse | 4 Comments

Does “Othering” Exist in Our Church, and Does this Lead to Exclusion?

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

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As Director of Lay Training for the Anglican Diocese of Leeds, my team will shortly be rolling out unconscious bias training throughout the Diocese which is likely to have a huge impact on many church communities.  I’ve been to some localities that are diverse, vibrant and integrated with superb relationships based on egalitarian inclusion as we learn, one from another, what it is to be made in the image of Christ.  In other communities I am aware that women and men still form complementarian societies despite some of those women holding entire communities together in their voluntary and/or professional lives.  Yet others are diverse but somewhat segregated with a sense of very genteel yet tangible white superiority. For some unconscious bias training will feel good, affirming, expansive, full of grace and truth. For others, it might be somewhat painful as being faced with one’s own unconscious bias’ often is. Yet it brings light and growth to the open-mind and open hearted.  No doubt there will be those for whom it is enormously threatening whereby the basis upon which much of their understanding of the world and human relationships is built is shaken, with their personal convictions and faith/belief systems feeling profoundly challenged. It can be terrifying to have the walls of one’s castle levelled and to find that the world outside is nothing like the one we have created inside where we live in a hall of mirrors with ‘people like us’.

I myself can recall a time when as a lay person I witnessed people from different sections of the community being discriminated against overtly.  I recall both a Ugandan and a person with dyslexia being taken off the readings rota because people were not patient enough to listen through another’s accent or to take the odd malapropism with good humour, given that in the main it was very clear what was meant, as we all had the readings to hand. The individual’s themselves dearly wanted to read.  I also recall a time when members of the LGBT community were removed from the church rotas simply for coming out – single/celibate or not.  It was with a wry smile that I noted that leaflet distribution and toilet cleaning was never a point for such sanctions, and how I wish I were writing that for dramatic effect.  Maslow’s hierarchy of church rotas, perhaps?

So I have to ask myself, what will I do if it transpires that lay people (i.e. ordinary folk who go to church to worship and leave again to serve God in the world by living out their faith in works of service both within and beyond their faith group) come to me to describe the kinds of exclusion I’ve noted above? How, as lead for Lay Training, will we enable all lay people to find not only their God-given vocation in life both within and beyond the church, but the place in which they are free to explore and develop it whichever community they originate from or belong to?

There are now many places in the church that are open and inclusive. Many Evangelicals are owning their tribe again and declaring that LGBT exclusion, for example, is not a specifically evangelical trait, but a conservative one (it’s just that some evangelicals also happen to be conservative). There are churches that are moving away from ethnically based identities and choosing instead to integrate Iranians with UK born citizens, Pakistani with white English Christians and better still those that hold half a dozen ethnic backgrounds within the folds of it’s skirts.  Some have even moved beyond the basic hearing loop, ramp and toilet for those with mobility challenges to develop new ways to worship and provide hospitality for those for whom the traditional service is not accessible, and I must say I’ve been really impressed by this Diocese’s Disability Forum and Officer, and their wide-ranging commitment to enabling those with Different Learning Abilities, for example, to be fully included as leaders and creators of worship.

But as was the case with slavery and gender, as the pendulum swings towards the liberation of a minority or dis-empowered people group, there is an equal and opposite reaction from those for whom a power base is challenged or dearly held beliefs are rocked. We have seen something of the rise of white supremacy in the US and Russia.  We hear strident voices on our own shores and for some Brexiteers that the shores that require “shoring up” is indeed all about the fear of being ‘taken over’ by ‘others’ whomever ‘they’ were perceived to be.  I wonder if we can’t be somewhat heartened by the fact that the tide is at least turning? For when the tide turns the waves coming in hit the waves going out and the sea looks a lot choppier than it actually is. To put out in one’s boat requires the knowledge that we can trust that beyond these choppy waters calm is on the horizon – and there the rolling sea will take us ever deeper into this journey we call faith, and the One for whom we long – and to whom we all belong.

Posted in Church of England, Hayley Mattews, Human Sexuality, Social Justice | 4 Comments

Twitter Moments – The General and The Particular

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool

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A brief Twitter conversation last week between Madeleine Davies, Andrew Graystone and me, and a reflection from Rachel Mann which was prompted by that conversation – these things form the backdrop to this blog.

Madeleine tweeted as follows:

Madeleine

That sounded right to me so I replied:

Paul and Madeleine

And Andrew’s comment was:

Andrew G

Rachel reflected on this by painting a picture of the life and ministry she and her community share in Burnage, and you can read it here (it’s well worth reading): The Rachel Mann Blogspot: In Praise of ‘Church’: the Parish as a Place of Glory & Grace

Anyway all this got me thinking about the general and the particular: “How the general can so often get it wrong, and how the particular can so often rescue us all – and how we may need the general just the same.”

When I was a curate in the Newcastle Diocese, at the end of the 70s, there was only one black guy in the youth club. He was a second or third generation Geordie and he sounded like it. He was a tall young man and the rest of the kids called him “Chokka” which stood for “chocolate man”. Apart from this racist tag they seemed to treat him like any other person in the club. One Sunday another club member brought a leaflet to our meeting. He had been given this by a member of the National Front outside the local football ground. It spoke in very abusive and lurid terms of the threat of the UK being “swamped” by people of colour. The kid had been persuaded by this leaflet and he used the “N” word freely and angrily. Chokka, overhearing this, said mildly “Howay man, you’re talking about me”. To which the kid replied, “Nah, Chokka, nah, it’s not about you man. It’s about all these n*****s in the country.” And the conversation, and conversion, began there.

An aunt of mine lives in Bradford, where I was born and grew up. For many years, fed by her newspaper and its constant harping on “immigrants”, she had expressed discomfort about the growth of the Asian community there. All these Asians, all these Asians. At the same time she uses local taxi services, almost all of which are staffed by Asian drivers. Every single driver she has ever met has, she reports, been kind and helpful and courteous, “a right nice person”. And the conversation, and conversion, began there.

In a world where it is in the interests of so many to emphasise division and to foment distrust, it seems that this is most often how change happens and the conversation and conversion begins. The hard and general falsehoods of racism and ageism and sexism and homophobia are dissolved by connection with real people in a real place.

This is because the local and the particular is all we will ever see with our eyes. If I enter the real local life of a place I will see the unique rainbow of the particular, the old and the young, the people of colour, the LGBTI+ people, the people together. In their faces and lives the word “inclusion” becomes concrete and real and the abstractions of a hateful rhetoric or of a dry and scholastic book-learning dissipate, as they did when Jesus walked among us in a particular place and we woke up to God’s presence on our doorsteps, in our neighbour’s face, surprising, local.

God in Jesus chose to be there and not here, then and not now. God in Christ is everywhere by the Spirit, but God in Jesus Christ had once been somewhere in the flesh. And so when the Church acts as an institution, the institution is constantly and rightly measured against the specific and against the local. Measured, and found wanting. “The Church” bad, “my church” good.

Our Twitter conversation underlined this. In its institutional life, when it is remote from the particular, when it seems to have what Andrew called “power”, the church loses what Andrew called “effectiveness”.

And yet the specific and the local is somehow not enough. If it were, why would we bother to be angry with “The Church”? Why not simply and joyfully leave it, or disband it, or destroy it? Isn’t this institution – aren’t all institutions – good for nothing?

This is a wider question, asked by millions today. When it comes to institution and structure disappointment, leading often to casual contempt, is marked these days – and goodness knows it is often well-earned. But this contempt – “Drain the swamp!” – does not always lead to good. In the US and across Europe today, institutional contempt has connected with a growing desire on the part of millions to surrender their lives and their authority to populists and autocrats or to the tyranny of the majority, no matter how small the majority may be.

All this makes for social turbulence and for personal pain. But it seems to me that as Christians, with our own disappointing institution to handle, our theology and our history provides us with tools to handle this turbulence properly and wisely – not colluding with institutional power and yet not despising the poor but real efforts of a community to shape an accountable and honest common life.

As a bishop I believe I am called to add to these poor efforts – to gather Christian people trans-locally, to care for them and share with them, to reflect with them the love of Christ, to lament with them when we fail and fall short, as we do daily. I am a particular guy in a particular (Liverpool! – fab) place, and yet I am also called to be a general guy, not a General mind you, but a general guy who wants to connect the local, to link, to relate, to honour and to share the local with all the other localities that can be enriched and blessed by it, that can enrich and bless it.

This general stuff is not a calling for everyone. It is not at all a calling restricted to bishops, though bishops often hold it, and more often than not receive the anger that comes upon it when it falls short. All who offer themselves to the counsels and the councils and the synods of the general Church share it – in our Church of England for example, lay people and clergy alike, more lay people than clergy in fact, as it should be.

And I hope, if you’re the praying sort, that you will spare some prayer for all those who are called to the general, called to be human there, called to oppose a general harshness, a general fear, a general and impersonal aloofness, called to bless and attempt a general love, called in the end to enrich the particular and to bless it. Spare some prayer for them, of your charity.

 

 

 

Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Church of England, Human Sexuality, Social Justice | Leave a comment

How Do Churches Die?

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

Jeremy Morris

In the 1960s and 1970s, faced with the rapid contraction of churchgoing in Britain, sociologists, social commentators and theologians often predicted the demise of the mainstream churches.  Traditional Christianity, it seemed, was in headlong flight: once popular organizations, such as the Mother’s Union and the Church of England Men’s Society, were subsiding into irrelevance; numbers of trainee clergy were falling; whilst Roman Catholicism seemed a little more secure, the Free Churches were contracting as rapidly as the Anglicans.  Much was blamed on what were seen as outmoded views, language, and practices.  The churches were faced with a clear challenge – adapt, or die.  Nothing would be left within a couple of generations, unless the churches changed.

Half a century on, they’re still here.  Why they are is a complex story.  In the 1960s no one really foresaw the effects of rising immigration on urban congregations, nor the infusion of energy and enthusiasm from the Charismatic movement and from a resurgent Evangelicalism.  Nor did anyone really foresee the growth of independent, free Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.  And anyway the diagnosis of a crisis was perhaps premature.  Patterns of decline in churchgoing were easily exaggerated, extrapolations from them sometimes misplaced.  The Church of England in particular recovered poise in the 1980s and 1990s, rediscovering its social mission in the wake of the Faith in the City report, and finding strategies for making do with smaller numbers of full-time clergy, and developing non-stipendiary and lay ministry.

There are even today some counter-indications of growth.  The growing literature produced by the ‘church growth’ movement – including some fascinating studies put together by David Goodhew (Church Growth in Britain, 2012) – suggests that, in some towns and cities, there are growing churches, both inside and outside the Church of England itself.  A lot of work is going into the Fresh Expressions and Emergent Church movements.  There are definitely many people seeking some sort of affirmation of God’s love for them through association with communities of Christians.  Sometimes this is spoken of as a new spiritual hunger, a quest for meaning and transcendence in a world otherwise empty and meaningless.

But the question remains whether, rather than sudden collapse, the Church of England – to focus just on that – is facing a long, drawn-out death instead.  Even the most pessimistic commentators fifty years ago did not foresee the communications explosion of the digital age, and the opening up, through the market and consumer spending, of a range of lifestyle choices which seem to leave religion floundering in their wake.  Although decline has slowed down, most indices still point relentlessly downwards.  The religious education that shaped the minds even of those who never really attended church has almost disappeared.  There is little left of the common religious culture – the knowledge of the Lord’s prayer, familiarity with hymns, knowledge of Biblical stories – that half a century ago the vast majority of British citizens shared.

But recently I’ve begun to wonder if the situation isn’t actually even worse than I had thought.  The seeping away of a ‘default’ Christian culture in Britain is one thing, and serious enough.  But put on top of that an extra layer of crisis, a sense of betrayal by the Church’s leadership and a sense of popular dislocation from that leadership and from what the Christian Church represents, and you might wonder how the Church can survive.  It’s common to talk about the Church’s ‘obsession with sex’.  But it’s not an obsession with sex that drives the current crisis, so much as a deep sense of anger at stories of sexual abuse and harassment, at the abuse of privilege, and at the marginalization of gay, lesbian and transgender people.  ‘Sex’ here is a cipher for how we treat people.  Sex is a human urge, life-giving and love-affirming, and necessary to hold in place with relationships of trust and respect.  When people think they see leaders who ought to be icons of love and hope covering up terrible institutional failures, trust fades, and what remaining shreds of respect they might have – even when they have no active belief – are torn away.

Is this how churches die?  When the cultural hinterland of historic Christian faith is thinned out almost to vanishing point, will a crisis of confidence in the Church’s leadership (and I mean all ‘official’ representatives, not just bishops) administer the final coup de grâce?  Will we see – even despite some islands of growth – a final, catastrophic draining away of support from most of the congregations currently struggling to hang on?

I hope not.  I’d want to mount a strong defence of the institutions of the Church, and of its leadership, despite their flaws.  We all have flaws.  Churches are not necessarily any better than other human institutions at facing up to their problems, but generally, in the end, they’re obliged to do so, and sometimes – sometimes – they do that with integrity and faith.

But ultimately if the churches are to recover their sense of purpose and mission, they’re going to have to do more than just try a bit harder.  I don’t have an answer to the problem of looking after all those wonderful medieval churches – that’s a challenge and a half on its own.  But I suspect that top-down, ‘managerial’ solutions are not enough.  We will have to start again at the most basic level, from bottom up.  The Church will have to reinvent itself completely as a servant church, assuming nothing, opening itself up for all, making no judgements about the lives of others, but living for others.  You can’t take an inherited position for granted.  We’re going to have to start all over again, somehow, somewhere.

 

Posted in Church of England, Jeremy Morris | 3 Comments

My Confusion Regarding Claims of Sexual Harassment

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury

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Part of my partner’s job is to deal with disciplinary complaints in his workplace. Among the matters he has to investigate are allegations of sexual harassment and other forms of inappropriate behaviour. As an outsider to his working environment I can easily see how people get themselves into trouble on this matter. Close working relationships blur professional boundaries, signals are misinterpreted, social media compound the problems, and sometimes personal slight, hurt, mental health issues or even a desire for revenge become the pretext for launching formal complaints. In the complexity of human relationships, genuinely bad, dangerous and harmful behaviour clearly occurs. Scripture reminds us that “all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God”. We do well to remember that all of us leave behind us a trail of damaged human relationships of some sort or another.

In my naivete I like to think that such matters are black and white, and that anyone who has been harassed or assaulted will want to come forward and make their allegations known to be dealt with by due process. But it doesn’t seem to be as straightforward as that. I recognise that there is a power dynamic that exists between (mainly but not exclusively) powerful men and less-powerful women, often compounded by seniority in the workplace/parish, that makes coming forward or challenging bad behaviour hugely risky. I also see that there needs to be robust enough processes to ensure that there is confidence to know that allegations, when made, will be dealt with appropriately. When matters are not addressed formally, for often understandable reasons, we find ourselves in a very unsatisfactory situation, where claims of harassment are shared between friends and supportive colleagues outside of due process, in a way that make them entirely unsubstantiated rumour. In such cases one is naturally forced to assume that the person who claims harassment is telling the truth, or has understood what can often be a complex situation accurately. Hence the large amount of rumour swirling around, with very little firm allegation. This is deeply confusing to me and I fear it easily poisons the wells of reliability when it comes to formal processes.

ViaMedia has recently published anonymous testimony of two clergy people who told stories of harassment in church contexts. None of us are in a position to judge the claims made because they are by their nature anonymous and as such there is only one side of the story known. This is made more complicated by inadequate institutional responses which diminish the seriousness of the accusations, or the bad advice of sympathetic friends, who advise a complicit silence.

Having been the victim of serious false allegations of an entirely different sort myself – whether malicious or foolish I don’t think I’ll ever know – I have a degree of human sympathy for those who are accused without proper process. But I am acutely aware that I have, culturally and by dint of my personality, a lot of power, which can prevent me being as aware as I perhaps need to be about the problem. Therefore, I feel genuinely confused about the current swirl of concern about sexual harassment in the church and in wider society. I need some help.

If I’m brutally honest what won’t help is inverse mansplaining about how I don’t understand the problem because I’m a man. But if I and others who are as confused as me can show our willingness to understand better, then we should take a stand by providing safety and support to those who need to come forward and turn their silent suffering and often their sense of shame and humiliation into empowered formal complaint. Without that, I fear I’ll just remain confused!

Posted in Church of England, Sexual abuse, Simon Butler | 5 Comments