Thursday 30 August 2012

My church: Chichester found wanting

I have lived in the diocese of Chichester for thirty years. This is my church, my diocese, my patch. I have been uncomfortable here since Chichester became one of the havens for priests who think that the universe will crumble if someone receives communion from a woman. But it is my home, just as the Church of England is my spiritual home. So today's news, "Archbishop of Canterbury condemns child abuse failings", is a cause of sorrow and grief that strikes far too close to home. I feel hurt, I feel bruised, I feel angry. Not nearly as angry as those who suffered the abuse in the first place. But angry that this has been covered up by people acting in my name.

I have known for some time, as we all have, that there was much amiss in the way the diocese handled disciplinary issues with its priests. Much like the Catholic church on a larger scale, the diocese seemed to think that a) buggering boys wasn't that big a deal and b) the reputation of the church was much more important than the lives and souls of the many children abused by priests for whom the diocese was responsible.

Lives have been ruined by priests who pretend to be godly. Those priests have been knowingly, deliberately and persistently protected by others who pretend to be godly. We have even seen an abuser of children ordained as a priest, despite four bishops and an archbishop knowing the truth about him. That was thankfully a long time in the past, but the most horrifying thing is that we cannot be certain even now that such a thing could not happen again. Wallace Benn, the current bishop of Lewes, was recently criticised for sitting on a CRB check that revealed data he did not want to have to act on. The complaint had to come from his own diocesan safeguarding group. The most horrifying section of the BBC report, to my mind, is this: “The inquiry by the Archbishop of Canterbury's office said "fresh and disturbing" aspects of the way abuse claims were handled keep surfacing.” They keep surfacing – this suggests that, not just bishop Wallace, but people all over the diocesan hierarchy still have not told the truth about what they know, and are still not prepared to act to prevent further abuse.

Where is the Christianity in this? Where is the principle, the godliness?  In my view – nowhere. The most charitable explanation involves the idea that it was a slippery slope, that one minor action led to another minor action, and that it all escalated to a point that nobody ever meant it to. It probably involves ideas about na├»ve forgiveness, thinking that someone may have been bad in the past, but that he'll be better now, won't he. It's also probably tied up with the fact that Chichester has been designated as a refuge for those in the church who just can't deal with women, and it has therefore collected more than a few. What we have in the diocese now is a toxic pile of people who are unable to deal with sexuality and power in any way other than patriarchal misogyny. What that often hides, and does in this case, is a persistence of sinfulness that the ungodly can only dream about.

Sin is very often not major, not transcendent. It is in the minor actions, the scores of cheap decisions we make that gradually weave a web around us. But that is precisely why every decision matters, every single small step takes us either towards evil or towards good. And the people who hold office and are trained and practised (allegedly) in the ways of Jesus – our bishops, priests,  synod members, and so on -  ought to know better than to allow things to slip, because, slip by slip, sin becomes monstrous. Everybody who has been involved in the continuing and deliberate protection of the abusers is part of a nest of vipers that needs to be cleansed. That means everyone who ever made any kind of positive decision to keep things quiet for the good of the church, and thus denied truth and justice to all the abused. If that includes any of the current incumbents, so be it. I hope that this clear and pointed report will be followed by equally pointed action. I know that as a Christian I am supposed to forgive. But forgiveness has to be sought, and it seems clear that those involved still do not seek forgiveness. And in any case, forgiveness does not involve leaving people in a position to commit the same follies again.

My final thought is this. Many, many people have criticised Rowan Williams for being too wishy washy, not showing enough leadership as archbishop. I have not agreed with that, and this scandal is a very good example of why. I cannot think of any archbishop in my lifetime who would have been willing to issue such an uncompromising report. I will be sorry to see him go when he steps down as archbishop. I will be much less sorry to see the back of every single so called Christian in this diocese who has had anything to do with this monumental scandal.

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