by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
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.