by Savitri Hensman, community worker, author of “Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness” and LGBTI+ equality activist
Churches can be full of contradictions. This includes the Church of England, to which I have belonged most of my life. They are frequently warm and compassionate communities, especially at local level, where love of God and neighbour is evident. Yet often they fail the people who are most marginalised, hurt or exploited.
This is sometimes because leaders are uncaring or unwilling to listen to those outside their narrow circle. But even people of deep faith who are personally kind and thoughtful have sometimes, when in authority, let down those who should have been able to turn to them. Failure to act justly to victims of abuse, women facing sexism, black and minority ethnic communities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people has caused huge damage.
The problem in such cases may not be callousness or deliberate cruelty but misplaced love and loyalty which get in the way of calling the powerful to account. It may be helpful to look at the biblical story of Eli the priest.
A pious and caring priest with a weakness
At the beginning of the first book of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) Eli, who is in charge of the ancient shrine at Shiloh, sits near the door. He sees a woman praying silently and, at first, unfairly thinks that she is drunk. But when she explains the cause of her distress, that she is childless (also a source of deep stigma in her culture), he responds with pastoral concern.
God hears her plea and she becomes pregnant, giving birth to a son, Samuel. She pledges him to God’s service. He arrives at the place of worship and is brought up by Eli, who seems to be a caring, devout father-figure. When Samuel hears the Divine for the first time one night, tellingly he mistakes the voice for Eli’s and finds and wakes the priest, who eventually realises what is happening and explains how to respond. In time, presumably largely thanks to Eli’s mentoring, Samuel will grow into an outstanding religious and national leader.
Yet the priest has a weakness: his two adult sons. They are “scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people,” for instance corruptly seizing meat being sacrificed to God, in the midst of the ritual, threatening force against worshippers who objected. Also “they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting,” who presumably had no choice in the matter: this was abuse by men in positions of trust.
Eli tries to stop them, urging them to give up their evil ways. But they do not heed him; and he does not use his authority to stop them. In the end, they accompany the ark of the covenant, a gilded chest held to be especially holy, into battle with the nation’s enemies. The rival army triumphs, killing the two men and seizing the ark – though in time this is returned. When Eli hears the news, he falls down and dies.
One might guess at two reasons for Eli’s inaction, which sadly ends in tragedy for his family. It would ultimately have been better for his sons if he had challenged them more firmly. Wise love enables everyone to be the best they can.
The first reason is that, understandably, he has an especially deep bond with his sons, who have also been sharing his work. His pastoral care is genuine. But bias leads him astray. He has probably also learnt to shy away from confrontation with two characters who he knows can be thoroughly unpleasant if they do not get their way.
The words of a visiting prophet (1 Samuel 2.27-36) indicate a second reason: that he has been seen to benefit, at least indirectly, from the corruption. Eli is accused by God, through the prophet, of looking “with greedy eye at my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded” and sharing what his sons have unjustly taken.
There may also be an element of inertia – not wanting to disrupt a system that is working, however imperfectly, and offers some semblance of what is proper and orderly.
Sidestepping injustice today
Perhaps these are lessons for the Church today too? Love for, and empathy with, those acting unjustly can make it harder to take action on behalf of the oppressed.
The Church of England perhaps faces particular problems because of its institutional closeness to those wielding political and commercial power in the UK. However, church leaders, in general, may find it easier to bond and identify with people of their own gender, race and class. Such bias may be unconscious or intentional, for instance thinking people like them are better suited to leadership They may also be drawn to those who, in their society, are seen as “worthier” or “more important”.
So, even if leaders feel compassion for abuse victims, this may be outweighed by concern for alleged perpetrators to whom they feel more closely connected. Such leaders may be in denial about what happened or its seriousness, even to themselves. This may be reinforced by financial and reputational considerations: organisational as well as individual self-interest can make it harder to see and act on the truth.
To Christians in authority, the distress of men struggling to recognise women’s priestly calling, or white people challenged to treat black fellow-worshippers as equal, may seem more vivid than that of people suffering discrimination on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity. Fear of upsetting churchgoers opposed to LGBT affirmation, especially if they are also generous donors or willing volunteers, may overshadow harm to those who are excluded.
Yet failure to seek justice is contrary to the good news of Christ, who repeatedly upset the status quo and, through his act of sacrificial love, has offered the gift of life renewed. True reconciliation involves transforming old systems of domination and exploitation (2 Corinthians 5.14-19, Colossians 1.15-22).
This is not to suggest that people who resist greater equality should be treated harshly or ostracised. All of us fall short and have much to learn. Indeed, one way is for space to be generously set aside for people whose understanding of Scripture or tradition leads them to understand gender and sexuality differently.
However local and national leaders should be upfront about the emotional and spiritual costs of inequality and not adopt a pretence of neutrality which, in reality, favours oppression.
In response to injustice in Church and society, it is time to be bold!