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