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.

This entry was posted in Ann Norman-Walker, Church of England, Social Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Disgrace by Association

  1. Alan Birt says:

    Yes, ‘guilty by association’ seems to be a common error in human thinking. During my thirty-years service in the Armed Forces I have known abuse, unjustified slurs, and wildly inaccurate accusations from people, especially after some deadful incident has happened often thousands of miles away from me. In my experience, members of the CND movement and ultra-pacifists are particularly prone to this error.

    I deal with it by regarding the mistaken attitude as ‘yet another cross I have to bear’. There is no point in trying to reason with these people. They regard themselves as “so right” in their supposed intellectual superiority although quite often their language skills indicates a low level of basic education.

    Sqn Ldr Alan Birt


  2. Tony Roache says:

    EEee! I’m currently living and working in North Yorkshire and since moving here, 10 years ago, I’ve noticed that my levels of cynicism have risen exponentially (to be fair, it’s probably nothing to do with where I live). Each new scandal involving dirty doings and misbehavings of public figures, or people who have the public trust, adds to the hardening of the compassion arteries as that which flowed freely gets sludgy and claggy.
    Your post has blown a wind of change through my considerators and I am vowed to think again before casually condemning whole classes of people for the actions of the few. I too am part of a gang (two actually) and I have sat in the living room that your totemic priest sat in – I have to admit, I cried afterwards. Thank you for a lovely lot of words.


  3. Erika Baker says:

    I’m in two minds about this. Yes, I don’t want to be disgraced by association, especially when I feel I have a lot to offer. But I have to see it as more than my cross to bear while following in the footsteps of Jesus.

    I don’t want to be pressurised into giving to a charity just because “the poorest will suffer” otherwise. That’s a level of emotional blackmail that, if coming from representatives of the charity, can possibly be read as “it doesn’t matter what we do, we can still make sure people become part of our cause”.
    Reality is that other charities are available.

    Whenever we feel aggrieved at being tarred by association, we can either reject and ignore the message, or we can become part of a solution.
    Saying that the transgression in question is outside our remit isn’t enough.

    If there is corrosive cynicism, then it is my role to become one of the people who fight against it – by admitting mistakes and being a visible agent for change.


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