Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 1 Corinthians 1: 20-25
In the last few months, the Church of England and the Methodist Church have been grappling with the issue of historic abuse – that is, where children, women or vulnerable adults were abused by a minister, priest or lay church worker and the response to those victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse saw them silenced, ignored or further victimised. In many cases, clergy against whom allegations had been made were protected, and continued to remain in trusted positions of care and leadership.
The Methodist Church chose to undergo an extensive independent review, the groundwork for which was laid over the course of 2010-2011, and which took a little over year to complete between 2013 and 2014. The resulting report, which was published in May of this year, was called ‘Courage, Cost and Hope’.
“On behalf of the Methodist Church in Britain I want to express an unreserved apology for the failure of its current and earlier processes fully to protect children, young people and adults from physical and sexual abuse inflicted by some ministers in Full Connexion and members of the Methodist Church. That abuse has been inflicted by some Methodists on children, young people and adults is and will remain a deep source of grief and shame to the Church.
“We have not always listened properly to those abused or cared for them, and this is deeply regrettable. In respect of these things we have, as a Christian Church, clearly failed to live in ways that glorify God and honour Christ. Methodist Church 28 May 2015
Certainly the tone and approach of the Methodist church is substantively humble and penitent: there was a clear determination to thoroughly review responses and procedures, and recognise where proper safeguarding procedures were not properly carried out, or did not occur at all. What makes the report so important however, is that it attempts to honestly to explore how culture (explicitly the role of how those with power have abused it, and implicitly how misogyny and sexism drive that power imbalance) have both created – and perpetuated – the environment in which the abuse occurred and continued. Whilst not without its flaws, there is much about the report which is to be welcomed – it emphasises at several points how important it is that victims are heard, how their trauma and distress are increased when they do not feel heard, and how vital it is that having spoken they receive consistent and committed support having reported.
Once a disclosure has been made careful thought should be given to who provides support to the survivor/ victim. This should be a dedicated resource, ie not shared with others involved, and someone who can carry the role in the long term. A number of responses identified major difficulties that had arisen because the minister tried to support both the victim and the perpetrator. Any preference for a particular supporter expressed by a survivor/victim should be met whenever possible.
One of the key themes of the report is the importance of continued learning, and again, this is to be welcomed: it tried to address uncomfortable truths, recognising for example that even where a report of abuse is made and no charge and/or conviction results, that this does not mean abuse did not take place (p 33), and that ‘A good understanding and analysis of the power dynamics in the particular situation will be vital.’ (p 34).
How far this report will help to impact on the change of culture required can only be assessed in the long term, and it takes more than a report and changes in procedure to achieve that change of which the report rightly identifies is required.
One of the key elements to the necessary to change, which whilst touched on often is never explicitly stated, is the very thing which victims most require if they are going to be able to speak out – and it is the very thing which they are they most commonly denied: they are not believed.
The perpetrator is described as being very charismatic and members of the church find it hard to believe he is potentially harmful. [Case Study 9]
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong 1 Corinthians 1:27
For many, the on going delay in the Church of England submitting itself to an independent investigation is deeply frustrating, and unsettling. It’s own 2010 report, which followed an internal investigation, Protecting All God’s Children failed to address the deep rooted cultural causes of abuse, and did not in any real sense acknowledge the depth or nature of the CofE’s failure to those who had been abused it’s ministers.
Whilst the report by the Methodist Church highlights the need to distinguish between support for the victim and any potential ministry to the abuser, the CofE report conflated both from the beginning, reaching for trite theology and palatable answers. There was no recognition at all of power structures in abusive relationships, lacked focus and discipline – painting as did with brush strokes far too broad – and was rightly criticised by survivors for its lack of scrutiny.
Whilst there may have been good intent in the self investigation, the report was a mess and had no impact, other than that to further frustrate survivors. In part, this is because an institution cannot investigate itself; whether there was any real stomach to address the reality of abuse in the church is debatable.
But something vital is being lost already, as we plead to our church leaders to ensure the CofE opens itself up fully to an independent review, as the Methodists have now done: right now, as I write this, there are children and women and vulnerable adults being abused by ministers of the church; there are people in trusted positions of leadership who (known to the authorities or not) have watched, or do watch, abusive indecent images of children; there are victims of rape who can find no solace in the church, and spouses of lay and ministerial servants who are struggling under the yoke of physical, emotional and mental violence.
Right now. Not at some point in the past, when the managerial speak of a ‘safeguarding policy’ had yet to enter the lexicon of church language. But now. Today. This minute.
And its because, for all the safeguarding policies, for all the protocols and procedures, for all the layer upon layer of policy – if they were to speak up, people wouldn’t believe them. Protocol might be followed, but the church won’t be there for them, supporting them, hearing them, believing them, because our culture hasn’t even begun to acknowledge, to learn, to understand why it happened then, or why it’s still happening now.
Every day that goes by where the leaders, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, don’t announce that an independent review is going to happen, is another day that victims of abuse are told that they don’t matter enough – that they are not believed.
It is time for those in power in the Church to submit to an independent review of historic and current abuse – for the Archbishop of Canterbury to stop making comforting noises and work without ceasing in order to make that happen. It is time – it is long past time.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God