holy week cross kneeling sin
Meditation and Reflection

Holy Week: dealing with deep sin is horrible, messy, prolonged, humiliating and painful

As we enter Holy Week, the most sombre time of the Church calendar, I am sure I’m not the only one left reflecting that my Lenten observance has not been all that it could have been. Family events, political controversies, irritations at work or struggles with bureaucracy all intrude into our complicated lives, so that our alignment with Jesus’ 40 days of reflection in the wilderness become a poor and pale shadow of religious observance. Yet all is not yet quite lost. There is still Holy Week.

In this week, the pace of the story of our redemption picks up. Jesus begins to move decisively in his challenge to the worldly order – religious and secular – and goes up to Jerusalem for the great confrontation, the culmination of the work of his life on earth.

He will put the fear of God into his disciples, and they will fail him. It is a week of mounting trepidation.

To make up for my prior inadequacies, I shall be using these next few days to reflect upon and pray for those in a similar state of fear and trepidation: I refer to the various victims of our church who have been let down dreadfully by us, and now ask themselves whether there will be a glorious dénouement or a tragic death of hope and faith. I can save that statement from near blasphemous equivalence by saying that Holy Week points us to one solution, to one hope, and that is the redeeming love of Christ.

The disparate victim community has been seeing movement within the church that is both positive but also scary. New policies to reduce the risk of future abuse have been developed, but then we hear of resistance by foolish clergy on the ground who think they know better. New people, outsiders, have been brought in to shake up our official bodies, yet have they the power and resources to be effective? That is uncertain. We can certainly pray for them in Holy Week.

On Channel 4 News last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury seemed to give hope to the victims of John Smyth, that the long promised inquiry into the official cover up of his crimes might actually happen. But then he hesitated, adding a caveat that the other parties necessary to get to the truth (Iwerne Trust, Titus Trust, Scripture Union) might not co-operate. In that hesitation we might see a prudent, honest man recognising the limits of practicality, but if I were a victim I might howl like a Brexit voter denied the promise of a decision respected.

If Palm Sunday looks like a triumph, Maundy Thursday arrives and the earlier hope begins to become confused; the descent into despair begins. This is how I hear our victims feeling right now, and I want to hold them in mind over the next few days as the two dramas develop over the coming week.

The Disciples began to prepare for the Passover meal. It was a big thing. Our victims are seeing the pace quicken, too. Some are getting ready to give evidence at the Independent Investigation into Child Sexual Abuse. Much hope is invested in this, but with hope comes fear. If this hope is not fulfilled, what then?

Other victims have received invitations to talk to the Church, including meeting with the very Church figures they say neglected and ‘re-abused’ them emotionally, through negligence, weakness, or deliberate fault. Those meetings have potential for both sides. All parties may earnestly want closure, but the participants will bring their own fears and uncertainties into those meetings. Will they be structured, facilitated and sufficiently carefully choreographed to make bridging the chasm possible? How does one best do this to give the processes any chance of success?

I know for a fact that some victims will enter any talks not having been able to share their experiences with closest family. I recently received an email from a victim I have know for some time who only now confides in me the extent of serious personal abuse s/he has had to endure for ‘bringing the Church into disrepute’. It was shocking criminal behaviour, yet the police also proved inadequate to the task. Others have talked to me of being shunned by clergy while premature forgiveness is urged upon them towards perpetrators.

Good Friday will teach us that dealing with deep sin is horrible, messy, prolonged, humiliating and painful on every conceivable level. Even God Incarnate wobbled at the prospect of what it would cost him, asking if the bitter cup might pass by.

The minority of heroic victims willing to fight down their fear, dredge up their recollections and shoulder the burden of telling truth to power will be no less gripped by fear and trepidation as they take up their crosses and drag themselves to the point of reckoning in the times ahead. Not all will be able to forgive those who know not what they do.

The more I reflect on these stories in parallel, however, the more I become convinced that the Easter story holds the only solution to these seemingly intractable problems. Grace is hard won. There can be no fast track to reconciliation, and we need to dare to go deeper than structural negotiating mechanisms – though they can be of help.

At the last General Synod meeting I spent some time discussing these matters with someone with whom I have had disagreement on how we best move forward. Because the Synod had not timetabled Safeguarding onto the agenda, we were free to talk less specifically and came to exchanging stories and confided in each other about how we had felt in some ways inadequate to the task ahead. It was a conversation where trust was needed and risks taken. It was clear that the one thing that united us was a sense of disappointment that we could not do better and do it faster. Jointly recognising our sense of failure deepened the conversation and built trust. Our future discussions will benefit from that.

I have come to appreciate that it is when we begin to dare to be vulnerable, to put aside our confidence and show our wounds that trust deepens and a sense of progress becomes possible. One cannot contemplate such things in Holy Week without reminding ourselves of Isaiah 53.5: ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

If we as a church truly believe that Jesus has taken the burden of your anger and my failures, of her indifference, their callousness, his pride and all our collective failures, then surely it matters not what the public, the media or even our insurance companies think. Surely if that is what we believe, we need to rush towards our broken brothers and sisters, bind up their wounds, kill the fatted calf and rejoice that through the sacrifice of Jesus, reconciliation becomes possible in the most unlikely of circumstances. Such reckless confidence in Christ is, of course, entirely predicated on humility, daring, and faith.

By Easter we shall be looking to the joy of resurrection, the rebirth of hope, and the lightness of restoration. As Christians we have to believe this improbable truth, yet it has been enacted many times before. We often like to see ourselves in the role of the forgiving innocent, but too often we actually play the part of the persecuting Saul. Yet such is the power of the story of Holy Week that the trajectory of grace can sweep us all up, even the most hard-hearted. Saul transitioned to Paul, never looked back with regret, but never fully got over his undeserved good fortune. Even getting close to Jesus with serious intent seems to bear dividend.

In his address to General Synod at the start of Lent, Archbishop Justin urged us to set aside cynicism. He is right. Let us renew ourselves during our Holy Week observance and invite into all our fractured relationships the One who knows the very worst of our human nature,  yet still saw enough in us to be worth the journey from Bethany to the Jerusalem upper room, to Gethsemane, to the Court of Pilate, to Golgotha and beyond.