by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury
Some years ago I had the unenviable task of preaching a sermon to a congregation shortly after a member of the church had been arrested for alleged offences against a teenager in that congregation. The sermon would have been tough enough to preach had it not been for the fact that, after being released from prison where he had been remanded, the alleged abuser took his own life.
He was a lovely man and he lived in many ways an exemplary Christian life. He was kind, thoughtful and with real gifts. He was a natural evangelist. And yet, as I had to acknowledge in the sermon, that there was also a darkness that was part of his make-up, something that perhaps he didn’t or couldn’t acknowledge or face until matters we brought to a head by his arrest. You can imagine the complexity of the feelings of those gathered at his Requiem, myself included: horror at what it was alleged he had done, anger at what he had done by virtue of his suicide and the further abuse perpetrated on those he had already harmed once, deep sadness that a much-loved person had died in such a way, guilt that we had let him down and not been there. It was one of the hardest sermons I’ve ever preached, and I think, one of the most important.
I recalled this as I listened to a tearful member of General Synod express her feelings about what Reverend Jonathan Fletcher is said to have done to those in his care in and around his congregation at Emmanuel, Wimbledon in my own diocese. The speaker is someone who I disagree with profoundly on many issues, including the place of LGBT+ members of the Church, but in this moment I felt a deep empathy, as she spoke so movingly about what she had learned from this dreadful experience. And I felt it again myself, as the news broke over the weekend about the report prepared about the abuse committed by the late Jean Vanier against women with whom he was in a pastoral relationship.
These three men were very different, but it would appear that they shared a common fault, which could be characterised as a dark blind-spot in their psyches, which allowed them to act as they did, turning a blind eye to the imbalance of power in the relationships they had with their victims, which allowed them to justify – mostly to themselves – their abusive actions. When a person is a respected or even revered leader – whether in a local church, or across a tradition – it is vital to hold yourself accountable, never to be above challenge or contradiction, above all to be self-aware of the potential in yourself for your own blind spots to be the source of harm and hurt to others.
About ten days ago, I received an email from someone who was very angry with me. He spoke of me (because I advocate a progressive view on human sexuality) as someone who was “prepared to see the Church split and destroyed” (his words, not mine) and of someone else “providing fuel for those who hate the Church and the Christian faith.” Reading these words in the cold light of an email made them seem particularly dark, harmful and revealing. They were the sort of words I don’t think I could ever speak to another Christian.
But, I ask myself, what is the darkness in me that I cannot see that he can? Am I really that different to Jonathan Fletcher, Jean Vanier and my anonymous late friend?
To be sure, I cannot imagine myself taking the sort of advantage of another in the way they reportedly did, but that is not the only potential to harm we possess. How do those of us who take strong positions on LGBT+ matters – and on other matters that divide opinion in the Church – how do we ensure that we hold our views with conviction, integrity and passion, without ever allowing the unacknowledged, unseen darkness in us to leach out into our conduct or behaviour towards others? Is it even possible? Or are we condemned to inflict this sort of harm on one another, whether for the sake of advocating for LGBT+ people, or for the sake of biblical truth? Does it have to be a zero sum game?
On Wednesday morning I shall be in church with others receiving the sign of ashes. I shall – with abusers and victims, with angry correspondents, with those who long for a more truly biblical approach to human sexuality, and with those who fear that we are about to throw the bible out of the window – I shall stand before the judgement seat of God in prayer, and connect with a proper assessment of the darkness within, and with a merciful, long-suffering, forgiving God. I shall hear the words of forgiveness, and I shall resolve to try and live that forgiveness more fully. And so will many of you.
We all carry unacknowledged darkness. We wound one another, usually ignorantly, sometimes deliberately, occasionally criminally.
God give us strength and courage to see the darkness within, to face it in all its awful reality, to allow ourselves to be accountable and to do all that we can to avoid the harm that it can so easily cause.