by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge
For the time being, the Church of England’s excoriation before the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) is over. We are all left trying to come to terms with the dreadful things we have heard and to work out why and how such things happened. But it’s too easy to reach for ready-made explanations, for ‘buzz words’ that seem to carry everything before them and need only to be uttered to be taken as pinning down definitively what the particular malaise affecting the Church of England has been.
I suspect ‘clericalism’ is one of these words. In a church with an ordained ministerial hierarchy, with separate training for ordination at colleges and on courses, with distinctive dress, with all the private jokes and private language that goes with any assembly of clergy (and anyone who’s attended a gathering of clergy will know what I mean), it’s very easy to assume that our ills come essentially from clergy seeing themselves as a “specialized, privileged elite”. These are those for whom the rules are different – those who need no advice from anyone, who look out for each other (or at least they believe they ought to), and so on. For all I know, that is what happened in the Diocese of Chichester – a lot of the IICSA evidence certainly points that way.
But it’s curious, this leaning on the idea of ‘clericalism’., For in a way the whole history of the Church of England – and in a sense, even its very identity – has been a long battle to rid itself of clericalism. At the Reformation clerical exemption from secular law and taxation disappeared. The ‘parallel world’ of the religious life was abolished. Mandatory celibacy, that badge of clerical apartness, was ended. Clergy largely ceased to be part of a separate, privileged professional ‘order’: they were one profession amongst many. In time, one of the more devastating indictments of Anglican clergy was the accusation of worldliness: they were too much like everyone else around them, preoccupied with property and patronage, and enjoying too much of the same worldly pleasures as others. At a stretch one could even argue that the Evangelical and High Church revivals were in part a reaction against this ‘worldliness’, in favour of a certain kind of clericalism – an earnest, self-sacrificing kind.
Yet even then much in the modern history of the Church of England has worked against that. Even in the nineteenth century parishes were not run by clergy only, but by cooperation between clergy and vast teams of lay co-workers. Lay assemblies have become an intrinsic part of church governance. University theology departments have been emptied of the clergy who once staffed them; academic theology is mostly now a lay enterprise. The recruitment of clergy has leant more and more heavily on those who have already had other careers: the average age at ordination has crept up into the thirties. The Church nationally, and dioceses locally, have emphasized the importance of lay ministry, and sought to build it up.
This is a strange background to the assumption that the Church of England has yet to purge itself of some presumed, residual ‘hangover’ of clericalism. Of course, all professions have their codes and private language, and their defensive strategies. I’m sure, as IICSA turns its attention to other areas of national life, we’ll see these things emerging in social work and social care, in medicine, in education, in the police, in local government, and in politics, to name but some.
We have to get beyond the buzz words and try to understand what has really happened, from within the institution. If we really want to understand clerical pathology – and therefore just why abuse could be handled so incompetently as it seems to have been – then we have to understand the social milieu and social implications of the various strands of theology abroad in the Church. This is a very big question, and I can’t hope to cover it here. Maybe I’ll try in a future blog. But as I say constantly to my students, it’s not enough to attribute motives to people, from the outside, as it were. You also have to try to get inside their heads, and understand how they themselves see things. The vast majority of clergy genuinely try to live out what they believe. Perhaps ‘cover ups’, the failure to deal with or confront problems adequately, the readiness to hand over responsibility to someone else, come as much from a misplaced attempt to be kind to colleagues, to be reluctant to assume the worst, to be truly collegial, and so on.
I’m reminded of the cardinal who, in the late nineteenth century, fearing the damage to the Church, is said to have resisted opening up the Vatican archives to wider access on the grounds that ‘charity always comes before truth’. He wanted to protect the Church he loved, and perhaps to protect colleagues. But as we know, that is a fatal capitulation to a mistaken assumption that people have to be shielded from the truth. On the contrary, truth must come first. Only when we face the truth honestly can we begin to tackle our difficulties.
Clergy, I have no doubt, do often avoid tension and conflict, and fail to act effectively. But I’m not sure I believe – except in some hard cases – that it happens because of an inherent assumption of superiority, so much as from a fear of being seen to be hard and critical, and so of undermining the ethic of love that stands at the heart of the Gospel. We have to keep reminding ourselves of the indivisibility of love and truth. That’s why IICSA has been so sobering, and so necessary.
We have to learn all over again how avoiding the truth usually ends up harming those very people we think we’re trying to protect.