IICSA – Is Clericalism to Blame?

by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Jeremy Morris

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.

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5 Responses to IICSA – Is Clericalism to Blame?

  1. Talking to the victims might give some insight. It amazes me how much the church leaves them out of the picture, particularly from the aspect of providing spiritual healing and consolation.

  2. Andrea Middleton says:

    Bravo! “ the truth will set you free”, however painful the process.

  3. J Drever says:

    Many thanks for this. I doubt that there has been a strong strain of anti-clerical thought in England. After all, there has been no genuinely popular rallying cry akin to “écrasez l’infâme”; indeed, lollard or reformation hostility to the clerical profession has been questioned by the likes of Christopher Haigh (‘Anticlericalism and the English Reformation’, History, v. 68 (224), Oct. 1983, 391-407). The situation was often fluid and dictated by local anxieties: Eric Evans ‘The Church in Danger? Anticlericalism in Nineteenth Century Britain’ European Studies Review v. 13 (1983) 201-23 or Nigel Aston and Matthew Cragoe eds ‘Anticlericalism in Britain, c. 1500 to 1900’ (2000). Clergy were often viewed as drones (as Adrian Hastings noted of the Anglican clergy of his Oxfordshire childhood), but the antagonism was sharpened by tithe liabilities (Evans ‘Some Reasons for the Growth of English Rural Anti-Clericalism c. 1750 – c. 1830′ Past and Present, v. 66 (1) (Feb. 1974), 84-109), even after they were commuted to rentcharge, since the relative burden tended to increase with the general collapse of agricultural incomes after 1870: witness the tithe wars of the 1930s, leading to the Tithe Act 1936, and the final extinction of the liability in 1977. Certainly, the puritan tendency had given strength to the notion of the priesthood of all believers, but it is noteworthy that the institution of a learned parochial ministry survived the deposition of Charles I.

    I read all of the IICSA transcripts on Chichester, and they rather validated my personal experience of worshipping in practically every parish of that diocese between 2009 and 2013. The allegations of abuse were, to some extent caught up in partisan turf wars, the chief victims of were the abused and, at length, the reputation of the Church (the evidence of Wallace Benn was especially unfortunate in that regard, and I expect him to be criticised severely in the final report).

    Hostility to the profession (insofar as it can be separated from a wider dislike of organised religion) is manifested by a presumption that its members are either actively or passively complicit in criminal endeavours and/or have validated a culture of oppression and secrecy that made that abuse possible. This then goes to the wider problem of Church policy towards sexuality and this, in turn leads us to the wider theology of scripture and the partisanship it spawns. A range of opinion towards the validity of scripture might have been tolerable had partisanship not been institutionalised by theological colleges. These seminaries mould many candidates into their own partisan image, whilst they appear to have become less inclined to adhere to wider developments in the subject as university theology faculties have become laicised, and as a function of their own relative isolation. This was the problem that afflicted the French Church in the nineteenth century: the thought processes of the profession were sealed, almost hermetically, in a seminarian education that was often reactionary: it was this that made the likes of Gambetta, Ferry, Combes, Briand etc., especially hostile to the Church, despite the ralliement of de Mun, Lavigerie or Piou. Thus, although a measure of theological education may be necessary for ministry to be credible, the benefits are clearly, and poisonously, off-set by the embedded partisanship and introspection that this partisanship entails. Whilst theological colleges constitute a very powerful and self-interested lobby, I consider their value added very doubtful (many of the NSM/SSM clergy or readers I have encountered are notably better informed and are more diligent than many of their colleagues who have been ground through three year residential colleges.

    I would abolish or defund the colleges. DDOs can act as educational mentors, and the Commissioners should establish an online library of learned journals, monographs, reference works, etc.

    Then there is anti-clericalism within the laity. Put bluntly, the parish share system accounts for >70% of most diocesan budgets. That arrangement is only the cusp of disintegration in view of the current demographic collapse. Since the parish share system is, effectively, the PAYG pension fund and wage bill, dioceses are left with a terrible dilemma: they must squeeze parishes in order to meet their contractual commitments to their past and present stipendiary clergy. The squeeze is increasingly intolerable. Thus, churches must die to secure the incomes of the clergy who have served them: a bizarre and discreditable paradox. Since, as I have mentioned, the value added of many clergy is highly variable and the buildings are frequently of fundamental importance to local identities, there is an increasing dissonance between the interests of the clergy and the laity who pay for them. This is only likely to be resolved by more aggressive moves towards non-stipendiary ministry and the nationalisation of church buildings funded by a partial dis-endowment of the Commissioners’ £8.1bn asset portfolio (which is only as large as it is because of the squeeze the Commissioners have put upon the dioceses as a function of the Pensions Measure 1997).

  4. Anne Lee says:

    Your comments in your 4th paragraph about the role of lay people in the church demonstrates that you simply don’t understand the issues. Yes, we are ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’ and General Synod has a House of Laity as well as a House of Clergy and a House of Bishops. As a lay woman I have learned over many years that I am at the bottom of the pile. If I want to get an idea across or an action performed I have learned at considerable cost that I need to find a man to promote it and preferably an ordained man. Coming out of IICSA we heard on a number of occasions how clergy believe other clergy because it is ‘inconceivable that a clergy person would lie’. Really? Clergy are flawed human beings as much as lay people are. I am really sad that you felt able to write this as usually I have a strong regard for what you say and do. But this post has made me weep. Yet again a priest is demonstrating absolute ignorance of life as a lay person in the Church of England. I am hoping you will be at the launch of the Ozanne Foundation later today so I can discuss this with you in person. But from this post I doubt very much that you will have the slightest idea of what I am talking about.

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Any thoughts?