by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and Member of the General Synod
It has been an extraordinary experience listening to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) on its excellent live streaming site. I heard some detail that is new to me, although the basic stories are sadly familiar. But it felt so different.
The reason is simple. At long last these witnesses have been listened to and taken seriously. The whole point of the hearings is to bring into the light that which the institution has tried so hard to keep hidden. Anyone who previously spoke out for the truth was cast as a trouble maker and utterly disloyal. This applied to individual survivors, their legal teams and their supporters.
It will take some time before we know where this will all go. We will get Part 2 in June and doubtless there will be many more revelations and more attempts at robust defense. There will also be more apologies along the lines of: ‘We have done wrong and we are sorry and beg for forgiveness.’
The spotlight over Easter is on forgiveness and the combination of very public apologies and the ongoing marginalisation of survivors has got me thinking.
What do we actually think forgiveness is? Who does the forgiving? And – this is the critical – what has it all got to do with God?
If I hit my neighbour over the head and then go to church, confess this sin to God and feel confident that I am forgiven, what’s going on there? I didn’t hit God on the head, did I? But being forgiven, I can tell myself that I’m basically a nice person who did this ‘sin’ and now it has been dealt with and I’m nice again. Objectifying sin lets you get right on with your life.
You see, my issue with all the mea culpa that we have heard in these three weeks of IICSA is as much with the intent as the act.
That is surely what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5:27-28: ‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’
The problem with sin is that the act is secondary to its roots. If my husband cheats on me my pain isn’t just that he has slept with someone else, but that he has become the sort of person who would do that.
The horror of what we learnt in the three weeks of the hearing is that the Church is run by the sort of people who are prepared to cover up and lie, and who have it within them to protect the institution rather than the very victims they have created. They proclaim a gospel of love and then treat survivors appallingly.
It’s Easter and we make a huge song and dance about the resurrection. Rightly so, but we frame it as a moment – whereas the gospel seems to imply that it is the completion of a long and demanding process. The whole story of Jesus’ life is about resurrection: the difficult choices he had to make and the dark places he had to travel through until he emerged still fully human and restored and healed and complete. There is no puff of magic. There wasn’t for Jesus and there isn’t for us either.
If we want our churches to be safe places, we have to work a whole lot harder than just saying sorry and expecting a puff of forgiveness to sort it out.
The easiest image is the resurrection of spring. This year especially it has been tough. Tiny little shoots. The frost gets some of them. They fight their way back into the light over many weeks.
The real work of repentance is hard and often painful. Really tricky questions need to be answered, like: ‘What is there within me that drives me to put up a wall of silence to protect my chums rather than attend to the person lying beaten up on front of my very eyes?’ Why do I find it possible to talk about putting the survivor first and yet find it impossible to pick up the phone and talk, impossible to open my heart and wallet to make generous reparation?’ ‘Why, when we now know that the Church has damaged people do we continue to blame them for being damaged?’
It’s Easter and it is a time of hope. I sincerely hope that what we are hearing from the Church amounts to the first tiny little shoots.
But make no mistake these shoots are very small and very fragile. We have a long way to go before the deep healing that forgiveness can offer has fully taken place.