The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a speech yesterday to the Parliamentary Press Gallery – a group made up of privileged journalists and reporters who mill around Westminster hour after hour, day in, day out, with the aim or hope of conspiring in leaks, digging the dirt, fabricating spin or relaying briefings about dog control orders. Apparently, Archbishop Justin heckled twice before standing to address his audience: the Lobby seemed to appreciate his directness, honesty, spontaneity and openness.
The full speech may be read HERE (and it is indeed worth reading and reflecting upon, not least for its missional acumen, media shrewdness and constitutional clarity: “The job I have is a strange one because it has absolutely no power at all..”)
But it is the questions which followed the speech which are generating the interest and headlines. And perhaps rightly so, because they were concerned in part with the Church of England’s sordid little secret: it seems, just like the Roman Catholic Church, the BBC, Parliament, sundry children’s homes and many boarding schools, the Church of England has been a hotbed of rampant child abuse (and “rampant” is the Archbishop’s own word). The Established Church is charged with the pastoral care of the nation. To hear that it, too, has been an active participant in the systematic emotional, sexual and physical abuse of children is a bitter lamentation.
The Telegraph reports that the Archbishop broke down in tears with the “shredding effect” of the tales of rape, torture, abuse and neglect. He said some of it is “beyond description – terrible”. And he rightly says that the failure of the Church was greater than other institutions because it purports to hold itself to a “far, far higher standard”.
But, unlike his predecessors at Lambeth Palace and many of those national and global institutions whose instinct has been to whitewash, shred, conspire and cover-up, Archbishop Justin holds himself to a far, far higher standard. Under his leadership, the Church of England is engaged in trawling through decades and thousands of clergy personnel files, actively looking for evidence of abuse which has gone unnoticed, unremarked, unpunished and unrepented. There is “more that has not been revealed”, he admits.
Jesus wept. He is probably doing so again over the stench of hypocrisy which covers this chronic corruption, exploitation, injustice and egregious violations of innocence.
“We will systematically bring those transparently and openly first of all working with the survivors where they are still alive and then seeing what they want,” Archbishop Justin says. “The rule is survivors come first, not our own interests and however important the person was, however distinguished, however well known, survivors come first.”
This is the essential compassionate heart of the man: this Archbishop of Canterbury is not sitting in his palace meditating upon Aquinas, aloof, callous or indifferent: he meets regularly with real people – the victims of abuse. He gives them a coffee, listens to their stories, and weeps. He isn’t concerned with institutional façades or appearances of holy propriety: for him, the sufferers come first. He will shine a light into their childhood darkness, and they will see justice.
The Church’s failure to protect children from paedophiles is perhaps the most egregious failure and moral corrosion. Children have a special place in God’s heart: But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. To molest their consciences and rape their innocence is an unutterable evil. As the Archbishop says: “When you abuse a child or an adult you mark them for the rest of their lives.” You only have to hear a single account of the months of nightmares and years of loneliness, self-loathing and emotional dysfunction to appreciate that to abuse a child is to inflict a hellish, almost unforgivable agony. For a priest or some other spiritual authority to pillage their chastity and plunder their purity is not only a moral failure, it is a shameful betrayal of vocation and a stain on the holiness of Christ. The Church is charged with nurturing, loving and the pastoral care of souls. What cold climate must these children must have slept in? What image of a distant, disconnected God must they have harboured? And what kind of haughty, heartless and utterly indifferent institution must their parents have judged the Church of England to be?
We get a clue from the Mail, which tells of a mother whose three sons were abused at a Church of England school:
Marilyn Hawes says she had tried and failed on several occasions to get an apology from the church, before finally getting a response from Welby.
Ms Hawes, a former music teacher who now runs an anti-abuse charity, first wrote to Rowan Williams in 2003 after her sons’ abuser was convicted. The headmaster was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
She wrote: ‘I have been an active church-goer my whole life – 50 years – and for the first time I am doubting, not my faith, but the sincerity, value and integrity of a church community.’
She received a two-paragraph, routine reply from an official, but decided to try to contact the church again after Welby was appointed as archbishop of Canterbury last year.
She wrote that the church community ‘abandoned’ her, saying: ‘I went on to have a nervous breakdown and suicidal thoughts. People would cross the road or exit the Post Office rather than face me. Nobody from the church cared.’
Her sons, now adults, had ‘achieved great things’, she wrote, and had ‘overcome the sexual abuse’.
However, she added, ‘Nobody in any church has shown them any active help.’
Setting aside the depressing fact that this grieving mother “tried and failed on several occasions to get an apology from the church”; setting aside the fact that she wrote to Lambeth Palace, but received “a two-paragraph, routine reply from an official”; setting aside the fact that that this coldness caused her to to doubt “the sincerity, value and integrity of a church community”; setting aside the fact that she felt “abandoned” and “went on to have a nervous breakdown and suicidal thoughts”; and setting aside that “Nobody in any church has shown them any active help”…
No, these things must not be set aside. And while Justin Welby resides at Lambeth Palace, they will no longer be, for they are intrinsic to his mission and central to his vocation. He is not concerned with monistic moral theories or conformity to fragmentations of outmoded tradition. He understands the essence of the cura animarum and the primacy of pastoral care. He combines a priest’s ministry with a bishop’s leadership and a deacon’s heart. In this post-structuralist, postmodern, pluralist context of sexual ambiguity and material supremacy, Archbishop Justin speaks the language of love and forgiveness from the experience of faith. There is in him a charismatic spark, a flame that is mystical but deeply attractive. It resonates a shared harmony and shines a peaceful benediction. You might want to carp, criticise and condemn. He only wants to greet you with a kiss, give you a coffee, wash your feet, and weep.