by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and Member of the General Synod
Time to think about General Synod. I always find it a very complex experience, and working through last week has been made even more challenging because of the Oxfam issue. The actress Minnie Driver resigned as an Oxfam Ambassador not because of the abuse that has been happening which she named as abhorrent, but because of the way the Oxfam failed to respond adequately. Their deputy chief executive Penny Laurence resigned saying that she was ashamed and took full responsibility.
So I have to face the scary question: Is it right to stay within the institution of a church which treats its weakest with such disdain?
In his excellent booklet ‘We asked for Bread but you gave us Stones’ Andrew Graystone quotes our Archbishop: ‘The silencing of abuse victims is itself a form of abuse as bad if not worse than the first betrayal’. Yet, on Saturday morning we were given a presentation which began with edited quotes from survivors some of whom were sitting in the gallery and were more than capable of speaking for themselves and could quite easily have been invited to do so. We then heard how much more brown stuff was going to come our way in the next months, and how we now have upgraded process and resource to meet these challenges. It was admitted that the bit we hadn’t yet got right was the response to survivors. I sincerely believe Archbishop Justin when he says ‘The victims are the people we care about most. They really, really matter.’ The truth is that we are nowhere near making that the way we actually respond.
What if it is impossible? More than that. What if the whole idea of The Church of England as a spiritual rather than a cultural institution is smoke and mirrors?
When you walk round Church House during Synod its very quickly apparent that there is no such thing as ‘General Synod’. It’s a collection of different groups and individuals who form coalitions of convenience on certain issues and will go back to their home churches and do pretty much what they want to do anyway. I sometimes sit next to people whose God is so radically different that I am not at all sure it’s the same God.
As part of national identity the Church of England still resonates, and we have Royal weddings and babies on the way, but I wonder how things will change with the death of the Queen. Our historic buildings of course and the glory of a special but niche form of Church music are culturally deep, but can you organize what goes on in people’s hearts?
The response from the Evangelical Alliance to the recent CDM judgement on Tim Davis which upheld allegations of spiritual abuse shines a light on this. There is a way of doing organized religion where the leaders feel entitled to tell people they don’t even know how God wants them to live their lives. Even if you thought God worked in that way, the potential for confusing your own opinions with those of God is vast and has often led to abuse.
It’s been nagging at me over the past few months. Is there something inherently abusive about organized, institutional religion?
Think of the philosophical illustration about the Prince and the peasant girl. He fell in love with her, but disguised himself as a peasant because he knew that the only love he wanted from her was that freely given. He could not and would not order her to love him. Once organized religion moves from the functional and cultural it steps into a space in people’s life of faith where power and control have no right to be. Worse than that we start making judgments about the depth and validity of other people’s faith.
Jesus related to people through acts of love and through open questions. His tough words are mostly reserved for the professional guardians of the faith.
The antidote to General Synod for me is to get back to the local. People pitch up for all sorts of reasons and I don’t judge any of them. People share their stories of faith if they choose to and help each other along the way. They are bound together by friendship and acts of kindness far more than by theology, and so they find God far more though love than through judgement.
That is how I answer the question about staying. Sit light to the institutional stuff but try to help, and hold the local and personal as most precious.