by the Revd Canon Anna Norman-Walker, Rector of Streatham and past member of General Synod
Perhaps Holy Week is the perfect time for the Church to be putting its beliefs to the test.
Death happens and with it the all-important grieving process. Those of us who walk with people up to the point of death and subsequently with their loved ones in its aftermath know that there is a truth surrounding this journey; there is such a thing as a good death. Good deaths involve important conversations, honest expressions of hope and fear, a process of letting go and an acceptance of the inevitable. Ultimately there is a moment of submission into death’s strangely kind embrace made so particularly through the gift of faith in the one who is both scarred and risen.
There is also such a thing as a bad death. Bad deaths involve denial, the clinging on to illusion and the refusal to face facts and to talk about it.
The voice of the Bishop of Chichester in the recent IICSA public hearing bore all the hallmarks of a man preparing for a good death when it comes to matters of safeguarding in his diocese. There was an honest acceptance that the former practice of collusion, cover up and the abuse of power had come to an end. There was a clear expression of regret regarding the ‘thoughtlessness, pride and arrogance’ of the institution something which must have taken some courage to give voice to, considering that many of those who have behaved in exactly this way are still living.
However, the good death will not come until the Church of England as a whole lets go of its independence regarding matters of safeguarding. This is the only way in which we will navigate another, not so comfortable death, that is taking place in society. The death of trust in the Church.
We have been exposed and nothing short of a new and transparent system for dealing with matters of safeguarding (both historic and current) will do. The former Archbishop of Canterbury knows it and has said so. He knows it from the inside. He knows just how much of this stuff bishops are dealing with in their Dioceses and he knows how underqualified and compromised they feel under the weight of it all. Our present Archbishop has said he has learned to be ashamed again of the Church and was visibly moved on camera, but this is not enough. For the victims of abuse, assurance of a different future is what is needed.
To continue to cling onto our defunct systems, which have led to a spectacular break down in trust, would be just another step towards a very bad death indeed.
Of course, what this requires is the relinquishing of power (as with any death), and for an institution that has enjoyed its privilege for hundreds of years this is a tough call. Perhaps if we were to rediscover the subversive power of weakness as modelled by Christ himself on road to Golgotha we might find a place from which to find the confidence to let go. Humbling ourselves always hurts.
Trust can be restored but it will take a good deal more than words; things need to change not just in matters of safeguarding, but in much of our self-understanding and practice within the Church. In a society now largely ignorant of our history and the privilege it has afforded us, the time has never been more right to take stock and rebrand. Shameless marketing speak I know; but the old model is no longer fit for purpose. The product is a timeless treasure, we are custodians of it and urgently need to change the way we go about our business.
People often quote Charles Darwin as the one who coined the phrase ‘The survival of the fittest’, but this is a mistake. Darwin was far more intelligent than that. His theory was that it wasn’t the fittest (the most powerful) who survived, but the most adaptive.
The environment has changed, and we need to adapt; and in doing so, some things need to be given a good death.
In the final scene of the film ‘The Theory of Everything’ the character of professor Stephen Hawking brilliantly played by Eddie Redmayne, is asked the question – ‘You have said you do not believe in God, do you have a philosophy of life that helps you?’
He responds ‘Where there is life there is hope’
It received a standing ovation, but for those of us with faith in Christ, this is a rather bleak summary of the meaning of everything and not the best final word…… because we believe in Christ, we believe that ‘Where there is death, there is hope’.
Perhaps it is time to put our faith to the test and start dying well?