by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of the Province of Canterbury and member of the Archbishops’ Council
Last Tuesday was perhaps the most shameful day in the history of the Church of England for hundreds of years. Forensically, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) catalogued the personal and institutional generational failures which led to the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults by people in trusted positions in the Church. Whilst many say that the failure to address this issue over decades amounts to ‘reabuse’, some even saying that it is worse than the sexual offences once committed, none of us can escape the responsibility that this has taken place on our watch and that we have the duty to put it right. Some are even calling for a Truth and Reconciliation process like that of post-apartheid South Africa. It’s an idea worth exploring.
I was struck therefore by a forceful response to what seemed to me to be sincere statement of sympathy for survivors and victims of sexual abuse by Bishop Sarah Mullally from one of her priests in the Diocese of London. Father Robert Thompson described Sarah’s words on Twitter as ‘virtue signalling vacuousness’, pointing out that he has raised 4 safeguarding concerns with the Diocese of London concerning the treatment of LGBTI+ church members in some evangelical and charismatic congregations and has not had a proper response to any one of them. Lest this should seem like special pleading from him (or me) for a particular group within the life of the Church of which we are part, we should note that the IICSA report makes specific what we have known for a long time: that our hypocrisy and dishonesty about sexuality has without doubt contributed to the culture in which sexual (and I would say) emotional and spiritual abuse has been allowed to exist.
To be fair, however, we must not assume that being LGBTI+ in and of itself makes one a vulnerable adult in safeguarding terms. Still, for as long as I can remember I have had to listen to simply dreadful stories emerging from certain evangelical and charismatic churches, usually when a church member comes out or refuses to toe the line taken by ‘the leadership’ (which usually means the clergy). They find themselves silenced, removed from every ministry and leadership role, and generally treated like pariahs. The failure of many of these congregations to be able to discuss matters of sexuality or to live with diverse opinions has wreaked a dreadful emotional toll on many LGBTI+ church members and has contributed to what can only be described as a culture of fear, the subtle and overt withholding of love or placing conditions on it, and silencing of dissent. It is, by any stretch of the imagination, a form of abuse.
Some within the tradition have felt uncomfortable about this for a long time. David Runcorn, a long-standing and respected Evangelical theological educator and spiritual director, has attempted to provide an Evangelical theological narrative based on openness, generosity (including to those who take a conservative view) and pastoral care. His recently-published Love Means Love addresses these concerns with an eirenic spirit that is admirable and biblical, although as a straight man he cannot necessarily summon the sense of righteous anger that those of us who see the damaged lives that have resulted do. Other evangelicals within General Synod, effectively kicked out of the Evangelical Group in General Synod (EGGS) for simply wanting to explore a line similar to Runcorn’s, have coalesced into a new group in which a different, honest expression of dissent can be aired, within a caring atmosphere far different from the stifling atmosphere of EGGS which, over my twelve years as a member, became increasingly reminiscent of a Soviet-style party meeting. It gives me no pleasure to admit I often felt afraid. Father Thompson notes the way in which especially some large churches in this tradition use their financial clout to exert leverage over dioceses: do what we want, or else, is the message.
The tragedy for the Church of England is that there is much within evangelical and charismatic traditions that the rest of the Church of England desperately needs. Missional zeal, social justice and deep personal faith were once the hallmarks of Evangelicalism, things that attracted me to Christian faith, even if these days I feel excluded from the evangelical tradition. Ever the optimist, I remain hopeful that the tradition most committed to the theological concepts of personal sin and repentance can see the beam in its own eye instead of projecting it onto its LGBTI+ members and their friends. Some of those most urging change in the Church’s traditional position are senior evangelical bishops who have come to see that for themselves.
In the meantime, we await the publication of Living in Love and Faith. I am committed to the process, more perhaps than many sceptics among the LGBTI+ community in the Church. But even I want to sound a word of warning. As we engage with scripture, science, theology and much more in the months ahead, we must not forget that, within parts of the evangelical and charismatic wings of our church, brothers and sisters face emotional and spiritual abuse. Conservatives and hard-liners within these traditions will want to focus on the intellectual issues – many will immediately want to rebut anything that smacks of a chink in the wall. But we must hold them and the wider church to account for this often unacknowledged abuse that is being inflicted in the name of “truth” and “sound doctrine” – including persuading those like Bishop Sarah who are I think very sensitive to issues of abuse that this is unfinished safeguarding business. I urge her and other bishops to take seriously the sort of allegations and concerns that Father Thompson has raised. There are plenty more where they came from.
We must not forget those who are most vulnerable to bad religion and who remain at risk of the ongoing abuse that has shamed the church so obviously in recent days, and continues to do so where so-called ‘truth’ silences love. As I said at Archbishops’ Council recently, any defence of the gospel or the church that sees that as more important than protecting the vulnerable will lead us back to the place we are being shamed into leaving hopefully once and for all. Ironically, the evidence of such abuse is the clearest example of why the theological position held by conservatives is biblically untenable.
By your fruits you shall know them.