My Struggles with Fear & Distrust

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester

david-walker

As part of a team training exercise in Manchester, I recently redid my Myers-Briggs personality type. I haven’t changed from the previous occasion, at least a decade ago. I’m a firm ENTP, fortunate to be surrounded by a mix of colleagues of different types. I love exploring, in a logical and evidence based way, how things can change and be better. And I really enjoy meetings that I go into with an open mind as to where the Holy Spirit will lead us, rather than ones that are constrained towards a very particular conclusion. If only life were always like that! But it isn’t, and being the person that I am, I need to be sensitive to the emotional dynamics that are going on in meetings and conversations, not least to pay attention to what might be happening subconsciously within my own head and heart.

I’ve been thinking a bit in recent weeks about two particular areas of feelings: fear and distrust. What does good engagement look like when fear is high and trust is low? I’m often perceived as being the person, or the representative of the organisation, with considerable power in a conversation. Others may have good reason to fear and mistrust both of who I am and what I represent. It may be because of what I and the Church might be going to do; perhaps through Pastoral Reorganisation or the Clergy Discipline Measure. Or it may be because of things done in the name of the Church in the past, but where the wounds are rightly still raw.

So, I’ve been asking myself, what are the steps I can take to prove myself less scary and more worthy of trust? It’s still very much a work in progress, and what I offer here does not pretend to be more than a few baby steps along the way. But even the longest of journeys is made up of many small movements forward.

In some of my early meetings with representatives of Manchester’s diverse Jewish community, I was advised to pop my pectoral cross into my breast pocket. I needed to understand that what for me was a symbol of the crucified saviour, the one who must always been on my heart and in front of me, was for them the sign in whose name they had been persecuted, exiled and murdered repeatedly down the centuries. Making the cross less visible was not denying my belonging to Jesus, it was simply removing a cause of fear. As we have got to know each other better, there have been fewer occasions when it has gone into my pocket. Fear has reduced, trust has grown. My personal accoutrements no longer get in the way.

I could take that simple course of action because somebody bothered to make me aware of the issue. And awareness seems to be a key. So, for example, if I am conscious that any or all of the facts that I am a tall, White British, heterosexual male, with an Oxbridge education and a doctorate can be a barrier, then I can work with those with whom I am engaging to put those facets of my identity in the service of us all, not as instruments of domination and power. And slowly, as with my Jewish friends, they cease to overshadow our conversations.

But it’s not just about me, it’s at least as much the institution I belong to. We not only carry an inheritance of racism, sexism, homophobia and a failure to grasp the damage done by sexual abuse, there are still too many occasions when the words and actions of those within the Church suggest we are still to be feared and distrusted, especially by those who have been hurt and abused by things done in our name. The temptation is to dissociate myself from the damage done; to shout “not in my name” as loudly as I can. That might help me to feel that I had exonerated myself, but it would be little more than virtue signalling.

Owning what I am caught up in, and seeking to be the change I long for, feels the better way.

Part of that is recognising my own fear and lack of trust. Some of the places I may need to go will require as a condition of entry that I make myself vulnerable. That’s scary, because there is a real risk of my being hurt.

I realise that in doing so I may need to put my trust in people who have experienced deep betrayal by the Church. My own fear is that some of these people might believe that betraying the trust that I have put in them will in some way help them on their own journeys.

So I have come to realise I cannot do this alone. I in fact will need their help.  They, the fearful and the mistrusting, will in fact need to help me with my own feelings of fear and mistrust, and together we will seek to engage and rebuild that trust. I’m aware that this is an incredibly hard ask, but I believe it is a necessary one as the work is too important for each one of us to let it slip simply because I am unable to do it unaided.  As such we find common ground in our vulnerabilities.

As ever and above all else I will need to deepen my own worship and prayer life further, so that through abiding in the love of God that casts out fear, and trusting in the one who is truly trustworthy, I can fully play the role I hold.

And so I ask for your prayers too – for me, for the institution I represent and for those who find themselves having to engage with us despite all our fears and distrust.

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7 Responses to My Struggles with Fear & Distrust

  1. Jo says:

    I think it’s correct to say that the most repeated commandment in the bible is ‘do not be afraid’. By insisting on this, God must therefore be saying ‘trust’.
    I don’t believe it was easy for Jesus in Gethsemane when he was perhaps at his most vulnerable. And that moment was the culmination of many other instances where he made himself vulnerable to the actions of people with power. So the decision of how much to compromise is always before us, and the balance, we learn from Jesus and from scripture, must always be towards trust. It is only by prayer and the gift of the Holy Spirit that we can learn to love enough to do this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A moving and honest article, Bishop David. Thank you.

    Many of the things along the frontiers of our certainty and uncertainty, trust and mistrust, fear and security, are probably too open and delicate to voice here on a public website. So I’m not seeking a response.

    I think from the standpoint of those who may feel mistrustful of the Church as an institution, and who might wish bishops would sometimes have the courage to break with collegiality (which would indeed make them vulnerable and exposed) the following are a few of the issues you might care to reflect on privately and with your friends, which bear upon the hurt, mistrust and emotional distress of good people somehow marginalised by church dogma and the status quo:

    1. Archbishop Justin has said publicly he simply does not yet know if gay sex is a sin. He says he has not made up his mind. And yet… gay clergy, gay ordinands, lesbian clergy, lesbian ordinands – and all their partners who they may love dearly – have an imposed celibacy required of them. I ask you, where there is clear uncertainty in the Church right to the top, is that a fair imposition? Is it fair on the psychological wellbeing of the clergy and ordinands, and is it fair on their partners… when celibacy is being demanded on principles that even an Archbishop cannot (or dare not for fear of Communion reaction) enunciate?

    Those you mention, in the church, who feel mistrustful: they understandably (I think) ask ‘Why do bishops not speak out? Are they afraid to? Do they just hide behind collegiality?

    The whole issue of the church *still* officially saying gay sex is sin, even though that’s not the view of most members, leads to many churches avoiding the issue, staying silent, and that in turn leads to a kind of erasure that can make lesbian and gay people feel unvalidated and ‘wrong’ in an integral part of their lives and who they are. This can be particularly difficult for young Christians who are lesbian and gay, as you know all too tragically in your area. Is it enough, for bishops to hold silence – for fear (?) of offending people with conservative views? Is it enough to compromise expressed opinion? Is it enough to talk of ‘radical inclusion’ but still avoid actual acceptance of gay lives? These are difficult, and I know painful, borderlands. I just commend Nick Bundock and his church, for confronting the consequences of sitting on the fence, and finding the courage to become truly inclusive and affirming. It doesn’t force anyone else to be gay. It just says to gay people, we value you for who you are, and you are fully included. Should more bishops have Nick’s courage? Can silence of the institutional church leadership – and episcopal collegiality – be acceptable? Or is it a kind of infantilisation, a kind of subservience to a dominating hierarchy? None of this is comfortably, least of all for lesbian, gay and trans people themselves. We take the abuse on the street. We take the stigma. And then the Church stigmatises us some more.

    2. When transgender people start transition, their lives are incredibly vulnerable in many cases. They are often spurned and rejected by their relatives or family; they have difficulty with employment and accommodation; they are exposed and sometimes reviled on the street; they suffer the continuing dysphoria of physical traits not yet resolved by surgery; they often feel misunderstood by the church; their friends start disappearing; they may feel isolated and worthless, and all these factors combine to contribute to serious health risks and sadly, in quite a lot of cases, suicidal ideation or attempts.

    So a second point for reflection: was it compassionate that the idea of transition prayer and liturgy – public affirmation in church of the start of transition – was kicked into the long grass or elided with baptismal vows? At this desperately vulnerable point in a trans person’s life, the sharing of their transition journey, and its affirmation by a daring church, would be a huge thing. It would say, “People may spit at you in the street, people may abandon you, you may feel lonely, worthless, rejected… but God sees you, God loves you, and we the people of God will treasure you and share your journey. What can a bishop say or do to retrieve this possibility, at least for churches that believe in this radical love?

    Lastly (although of course I have lots of other frontiers and hurts that gay and lesbian people carry with them) I do agree so much with you, that deepening prayer is indispensable and indeed a great privilege. May the God who knows and loves you, and dwells within you – right at the secret and centre place of your soul – draw you repeatedly to that quiet place, that stillness, that quiet place of meeting together… intelligent, mutually given and loving… opening us up, opening us up to love, giving us security, giving us hope. May God bless you, Bishop David.

    with love from Susannah

    Liked by 1 person

  3. English Athena says:

    Well, thanks for this. But. If you can harm me, but I can’t harm you, there is always that imbalance of power between us. A Bishop who doesn’t know that before she is consecrated is an insensitive clod wholly unfit for that office. There are many ways of harming someone. In your position, the commonest is blanking. Other people do the bullying, shall we say, you do nothing. Or not replying to letters. If you want me to trust you, though there’s no reason that you should, you need to set up a scheme in your Diocese where those who feel things aren’t right can go and talk. Where they won’t be betrayed by a quick phone call to the alleged perpetrator. And where they can be helped to put a stop to it. No point telling someone if the guy who’s doing it is kept in post and keeps on doing it. Over to you, brother.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. charlesclaphamskycom says:

    I think it is commendable that Bishop David has written on this theme, and been willing to share his some of his dilemmas. I can also see that a lack of trust is a big issue at the moment in the church, and in particular, a lack of willingness from many of all sides for various reasons to trust bishops. Who, under these circumstances, would want to be a bishop?

    But despite all of this, I still think that much of this is something that the current bishops in the Church of England (collectively and individually) have imposed on themselves. Clergy and laity who style themselves as ‘conservatives’ on LGBTQI matters, for example, will not trust David Walker because they fear he is too liberal. But those who are supporters of LGBTQI full inclusion in the church (like me) do not trust him because he is too silent, and appears to lack the courage to articulate what I suspect (?) he truly believes.

    So I’m afraid I’m with Susannah Clark on this. What I am looking for is a bishop who has the courage (amongst other things) to argue the case publicly and repeatedly for equal marriage in church, and for the ordination of gay clergy in such marriages – rather than simply leaving it to LGBTQI people themselves, or to sympathetic cisgendered heterosexuals like me. I am quite happy to talk openly and consistently about my support for full LGBTQI inclusion in the church, both in private and publicly (from the pulpit), and willing to risk causing offence and losing support if need be. (In fact, such views gain far more support than they lose in most congregations, in my experience.) But if clergy like me can do it, why can we not find a bishop able and willing to do the same?

    I imagine that Bishop David has taken the view that keeping quiet on these issues is the best strategy. But it will only continue lose him trust on all sides.

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  5. davidsja says:

    Thank you for a very thoughtful and heartfelt article – displaying the transparency and humility of a Franciscan follower of Christ or the “intentional vulnerability’ of the Northumbria Community Rule of Life. A few thoughts :
    (1) The early Christian church decision to accept St Paul, the converted persecuter despite their trauma and loss was due to go-betweens such as Barnabus. Acts 9:26-27.
    (2) TransactionalAnalysis teaches us to act as adults not overbearing parents or infantilised victims in ALL interactions.
    (3) perceptions and assumptions make an ‘ass of u and me’ – you surprise me that you are ENTP (I am INTJ) as I assumed you were a definite I on MBTI, Self-disclosure is the way forward to dispel common but misplaced perceptions. How can we create safe spaces for this to happen eg. Transsexual priests or bishops ? Sexual abuse victims etc .?
    (4) I recommend the Polish film KLER Out currently (Odeon) of 3 priests with childhood wounds coping in a hurting and hurtful church – powerful movie.

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  6. Sid Rees says:

    Dear Bishop David,

    By displaying your apparent trust in the (now) widely discredited “Myers Briggs” schema you have laid yourself open to having the whole of your article interpreted as little more than “Virtue Signalling”.

    A recent BBC radio 4 programme will inform you about the the origin (and correct demise) of the “Myers Briggs” system.

    A google search for “BBC What is your type” should bring you to this link:

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0000nlv

    You also ask ” . . . . what are the steps I can take to prove myself less scary and more worthy of trust? . . . .”

    Allow me to suggest that a quick browse through the pages of a book entitled “Serve to Lead” will give you much to ponder. (I am sure that you can work out where the title came from!)

    The document contains the distilled and constantly updated advice on what is required in order to lead people. It has stood the test of time. Some of its “lessons” predate the Bible.

    One of the key tenets is competence.

    It is available as a PDF at this link:

    https://www.army.mod.uk/media/2698/ac72021_the_army_leadership_code_an_introductory_guide.pdf

    Also, davidsja (above) should perhaps have included a little more about Transactional Analysis. An understanding of Transactional Analysis may give you a “language” to examine issues such as “Authority Gradients” within the context of failures in general communication. N.B. Please be aware that the words “Parent” , “Adult” and “Child” have quite specific meanings in this area.

    Regards,
    Sid

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