When St Paul began writing his letters I doubt he expected them to become as copied, shared, dissected and analysed as they are today. He wrote to help and support people he knew, sometimes in exasperation, sometimes in inspiration, and at other times in personal relation. Later generations came to recognise within these texts the work of the Holy Spirit, so they preserved them and passed them on to us as scripture.
Letters are important in the life of the Church, and we should certainly be open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit has not given up on them as a means of communication.
Churches are having a difficult time at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, and it will be the turn of other faith communities in due course. As I write, I have just heard that the Chair of IICSA has delivered a scathing indictment of the Roman Catholic Church for prioritising the reputation of the Church over the welfare and protection of the vulnerable.
When the Church of England meets for its General Synod at York in July, we shall again be under the spotlight at IICSA. Another range of victims will be sharing their experiences, and I have no reason to doubt that those stories will be every bit as distressing as those reported in the interim report on the Chichester Diocese and the activities of Bishop Peter Ball.
To complete the picture, the CofE has just published its own figures for cases under consideration which show that in 2017 there were 3,287 safeguarding concerns recorded. This is a 50% increase – though hopefully that may simply represent better reporting.
Yet, as in biblical times, news arriving from afar can lift the spirits. Most of the Church of England’s agenda may be shaped and crafted in Lambeth Palace, Bishopthorpe and Church House, but this good news arrives from the Diocese of Blackburn. Last week the the Diocese published a letter which did indeed lift the spirits and it deserves to be widely circulated for its pastoral wisdom and support for the broken.
The senior Blackburn Ministry Team wrote to the clergy and safeguarding officers of the Diocese. The letter’s authors include the Evangelical Bishop of Blackburn Julian Henderson, the new (female) Bishop of Lancaster Jill Duff, and the Anglo-Catholic Bishop of Burnley Philip North, who has had his own trials and tribulations with the Church (which perhaps might assist him in empathising with the victims for whose benefit this letter is partly intended). Having such a diversity of authorship and being unencumbered by formal responsibility for the kind of reputational management issues which have cause Archbishop Vincent Nichols such difficulty, they write as good, caring and sensitive pastors, offering thoughts to their colleagues and rooting their approach in two vital virtues. The first is repentance, and the second is humility.
We can approach this as we might a Pauline letter. It begins with a call to repentance: it is not ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’ who have sinned, but ALL. Few will have been direct offenders, but a great many more will have passed by on the other side, either indifferent, incurious or blind to the needs of the broken. So many of us are so busy with other priorities. Victims can easily be designated ‘somebody else’s problem’, which is certainly how the General Synod treated them as the stories began to emerge decades ago.
One of this letter’s great virtues is that, like all good pastors, the authors have listened and are sensitive to the needs of those who need lifting. As I read: “..when the contemporary church fails to respond properly to allegations from the past, this becomes a form of re-abuse, adding a fresh layer of hurt and harm to those whose lives are already damaged. Trite, formulaic apologies will not do”, it occurred to me that it could have been taken from any number of emails which I have received from victims.
There is a pleasing collegiality about the letter. They are not trying to say ‘leave it to us, but rather to grasp what many have been saying – that our whole church culture needs to change. So the letter urges all who read it to engage directly and personally with the report. That is a big ask: it is a lot of reading, but big sin needs big sacrifice, requiring the many to read about the consequences of their past indifference.
The letter also has practicality. It underlines the importance of taking policy, training, and good practice seriously, but one cannot read it without seeing that its underlying message is deeper than that: “We need to understand that safeguarding is not just about ticking boxes and following rules.”
In stressing the need to set our relationships right, the letter again echoes what I hear victims say all the time. Though they may sporadically receive advice and response, too often there is insufficient continuity of care. They are passed around as each church member reaches the limits of ‘my job’, and are sometimes left in limbo for months without support.
The letter does not pretend to have all the answers, being content simply to set out some key questions, and of course we can all add to that list. But the willingness of these pastors to embrace the need for us all to take responsibility for advancing the discussion is refreshing. There is no pretence that ‘Trust me, I’m a bishop’ is an adequate answer anymore; rather we all have to be involved in shaping the right responses.
Recognising that real structural change will be a necessary part of culture change is a bold and subversive step, given what has gone before. The authors are probably right that changing structures will force us to consider the functionality of our old approaches, evaluating what (if anything) works, and equally importantly what does not.
The letter seems open to the discomfort that might flow from such recognition even though all of the authors hold high office. Putting the victims first is a welcome move towards humility, which has not always characterised our responses in the past. They write:
To spend proper time with the report is a powerful emotional experience and the overwhelming impressions we were left with were those of sorrow, guilt and deep sadness. We must keep in our prayers all who have suffered at the hands of those claiming to represent the Church. And we must promise to listen properly to those who have for too long felt silenced or who have been mistreated when coming forward.
At one time the response would have been been, “Thanks for telling us – now run along while we put it right, and get on with more important things.” This letter is different: it puts the right people at the heart of the discussion.
Pauline letters were similarly bold. St Paul can be trenchant and disrespectful, but only because he cared deeply that sin and its consequences must be put right. In a similar way the Blackburn authors are not frightened to quote one of their most severe critics Andrew Graystone, who is permitted to school the Church on theology. He rightly highlights that how we treat our victims is a measure of how we treat Christ – a real challenge to our past complacency.
If few of the early readers of Paul’s letters fully appreciated what treasures they were, other letters were perhaps not preserved for just such a reason. Yet we ought to have good reason to recognise that this letter from Blackburn is a potential modern-day ‘game-changer’. That assessment does not simply arise from the text, but the responses to it.
No sooner had it been published than a buzz went around the victim community. They immediately recognised this letter as a huge step forward in how the Church of England relates to them. They copied it, shared it, re-tweeted it, and their supporters joined in. Here at last was a letter from the Church which they could relate to.
One of our harshest critics welcomed it as “authentic”; another said it was “fantastic”, only regretting that it had not been sent some years ago from further up the episcopal hierarchy. Gilo tweeted: “The Blackburn letter is having wider impact… thank you for striking a very different path from the anodyne response of senior hierarchy and for recognising that structure is key.” Stephen Parsons on the ‘Surviving Church’ blog wrote compellingly, asking: “Are we seeing in this letter the beginning of something new, a combination of deep sorrow and genuine feeling for the needs of survivors and those wronged by the Church?”
When a pastoral letter elicits such widespread approbation from those who have been estranged from us for so long, is this not something to be seized upon, shared and celebrated?
So when General Synod gathers in York, and (yet again) has no substantial motion on the church’s poor responses to victims, what is to done? We can ask a few disparate questions and receive yet another updating presentation, but nothing more substantial. This has been the pattern for some time. We have not debated the Elliott Report, the Gibb Report, the Past Cases Review, the Carlile Report or the Briden Report; nor is the promised review of the Clergy Discipline Measure to be offered for debate this session. I was contemplating asking those who set the agenda: “Don’t you want to hear what the representatives elected by the people in the pews have to say on these important matters?” It is not such a bad question.
The Blackburn letter, however, has put me in better spirits.
Here, like a gift from the Holy Spirit, we have a letter that catches the mood and lifts the spirits of a wide variety of people who are united by a desire to take the needs of the Church’s victims seriously. The authors and those commenting on their work come from widely disparate perspectives, and yet this letter has the capacity to unite them around a common text. This is surely something to be seized upon and celebrated?
Could not the General Synod of the Church of England pass a motion thanking the Blackburn Diocese for writing their pastoral letter, and pledge to adopt their approach as an exemplar of our future work in this field? By doing so, we could coalesce around a short foundational document and thereby encourage all who have any leadership responsibility in the Church to engage seriously with the IICSA report and its implications.
In order to ‘catch that wave’ we would need General Synod members to read and understand the value of the letter, and we would need our two Archbishops to agree to Synod organisers finding a little time to debate such a motion. The letter was published after the deadline for business had passed. I cannot in principle see why a happy event cannot be an ’emergency’: if a potential breakthrough of attitudes towards reconciliation isn’t worth a bit of holy disruption, I cannot think what is.
Alternatively, we could ignore this beacon of progress, settle back into our holy huddles, and argue about gender and sexuality for the umpteenth time.
I know what I’d do.