by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and Member of General Synod
‘The vows you are about to take are made in the presence of God, who is judge of all and knows all the secrets of our hearts.’
I get the point. The truth is the truth even when it is well hidden.
If you believe in a personal God who relates to you rather like a human but with super-powers, then this is a bit creepy. A bit like a cosmic stalker. As a child I used to worry about this idea that God was watching me all the time; not just seeing what I was doing (even going to the loo) but knowing my thoughts and my motives. When I was about eight I accidentally broke an elegant large green vase that my father had just given my mother for their wedding anniversary. Money was tight and I knew he’d saved up hard to afford it and she was delighted with the gift. I worked out that the best strategy was to deal with it straight away. ‘Mummy, Daddy, I’ve done something awful and I’m so, so sorry. You are going to hate me.’ ‘Darling , you know we would never hate you.’ I thought that if I went in hard like that they’d imagine something monumental and be relieved that it was only a broken vase. The strategy worked a treat. I overheard them talking later and although they were fed up about the breakage they were so proud of their daughter who had been really contrite and had owned up to her mistake. I felt terrible. A real sense of shame. Not so much because I’d been manipulative but because of the weight of thinking that God knew and was disappointed in me.
What we choose to reveal and what we choose to hide. It’s powerful stuff, and mostly it is driven by fear and shame.
There are good secrets.
That delicious time when only you know you are pregnant! When you are engaged but haven’t told anyone yet. Maybe, I wouldn’t know of course, when you have won the lottery and keep it under your hat. But most good secrets are transitory. You hug your good news for a while and then have great fun sharing it.
There are sensible secrets.
I’m guess that you, like me, think it is wise to keep some stuff about yourself under wraps. I have grown less and less prone to doing that. For example, I made myself a promise that I would try never to preach anything I didn’t believe. I don’t like that script that says ‘if only they knew what I really think.’
Then there are bad secrets.
The most obvious is the abuser who tells their victim ‘this is our special secret’ This is a hugely powerful way of exerting control. For a child there is a toxic mixture of shame and fear that can chase them through the rest of their lives.
Secrets that are imposed are usually abusive, and the bible is not at all keen on such secrets: Mark 4.22 – ‘Everything that is hidden will be made clear and every secret thing will be made known.’
The biblical principle seems to be that openness, transparency and mutual accountability are the way to go.
So why is the Church rife with bad secrets? It operates at a personal level.
Lizzie Lowe had a secret. She should never have had to believe it should be a secret. Sadly such was the Church culture that she believed her secret – that she was gay – was so shameful that it drove her to take her life. Many, many other men and women have kept their sexuality secret, sometimes even from themselves, and it has almost destroyed them.
It also operates at an institutional level in a weirdly inverted way. Churches are one of the very worst places for confidentiality, and the leaky sieve is usually prayer.
In the realm of the hierarchy of the C of E secrecy comes naturally.
We are all waiting for ‘Living in Love and Faith’ – the work is hidden. There are, I believe, copies circulating but not for the plebs. If the Pilling Report process and text had been less secret squirrel we might have been able to challenge the ridiculous reliance on cod-science. Secrecy rarely make things better, but it does make those in the inner circle feel important.
At General Synod we have the opportunity to ask questions. The idea is that we hold our seniors accountable, but the whole process is risible. Almost every answer amounts to ‘I am sorry I can’t tell you that – it’s secret.’ I asked how many Non-Disclosure Agreements the Church has entered into and the answer was exactly that. Sorry Rosie – it’s secret.
It’s a fine demonstration that information is power. It matters because the NDAs mean that victims have to choose between financial recompense and bringing their wrongs into the light so that others can learn from them. The Church likes them because it saves them an expensive court case, the perpetrator because no-one gets to know what they have done and they may even be free to do it again, but the survivor gets given an other secret and of course secrets is often where it all began – they are still being controlled. In most cases NDAs are abusive. Secular society is recognizing this but the Church holds on tightly to its culture of secrets.
There is a parallel biblical strand about darkness and light. The very best thing about flying is leaving a dark rainy airport and rising above the clouds. And I sit by the window and feel the sunshine on my cheek and bathe in the light, and feel nearer to God.
We are called to walk in the light…