A Via Media in Safeguarding?

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury 


Via Media is billed as Rediscovering the Middle Ground. Among the polarisations within the church today is the one that exists between what we might not-quite-helpfully identify as the “institutional church” (which is of course is real people doing real jobs) and the survivors of sexual and physical abuse in a church context.

The temperature rose once more a week or so ago when the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England published a range of texts, prayers and readings for use in the context of Safeguarding. Although the resources issued were for use by many groups in the church, the publication of these texts prompted an unhappy, regretful letter in the Church Times from a group of survivors claiming that the consultation that was reported was not adequate and implying that the resources themselves were, potentially, harmful.

It was in this context that I received an email from a survivor which I offer as another perspective upon this polarisation. I reproduce it in full and with permission, although understandably the author wishes to remain anonymous.

Dear Simon (if I may),

Can I say how glad I am for the work you are doing on clergy well-being in the national church. Although we would disagree about some important issues facing the Body of Christ, I do want you to know of my appreciation for this work and assure you of my prayers as you continue.

The prompt to email, though, isn’t directly about well-being. It’s about safeguarding. I’m a clergy survivor of sexual abuse in the Church of England. This is something that has affected my ministry and my personal life for many years. I’m careful about who I talk to about it, and I’ve not thought that a survivors’ group would be a very healthy place for me, although I’m glad that they exist for others. My journey over the years has been difficult but, by God’s grace, I’m able to function and minister to my congregation and local community in what I hope is a faithful and reasonably effective way – you’ll have to ask them I suppose! I know how much I rely on the grace of God and His Church here in [name removed].

But I do feel I want someone to know among the ‘powers that be’ that I could not have been more supported by the Church than I have been. My bishops in….[name removed]… have been without fail sensitive and understanding, they have listened and provided me with prayer and practical support. I’ve confided to a few key people in my leadership team who are amazing prayer warriors for me in the moments when the memories return and it affects my ministry. I do believe God is slowly healing me.

I decided to get in touch because I’m aware that this isn’t the story that often gets told by survivors publicly – typically the Church comes in for criticism, and often rightly so – but my story is also part of the story of survivors of sexual abuse. The way the Church treats us is sometimes far better than some of the louder voices make out. I’m very reluctant to criticise fellow-survivors, who have been through enough already, so all I want to ask is that the Church authorities listen to as wide range of survivors’ stories as they can and not just the ones who often pop up? I keep seeing some names in angry letters and blogs I do wonder sometimes how representative they are.

If you can make any of this heard with those in General Synod, please do so, but I do not want to be identified. I sometimes get asked to see a survivor in my diocese to provide some support, but I think it would be unwise for me to stick my neck out beyond that: it would just bring a lot of the bad memories back and I try and move on rather than dwelling on the past too much.

In Him, John [name changed]

I was very touched by this honest letter.

Not long ago I was pleased to be described by Gilo – a much-respected survivor – as a ‘natural ally’ of survivors. I hope I am. I’m aware, as a member of Archbishops’ Council, just how much work and resource are being done and provided to address past failures and to make the church a safe place for all. Much more remains to be done until, as Archbishop Justin said recently, churches should be the safest places in our communities.

So I share this email as an ally of survivors both angry and content in the hope that some way can be found to de-polarise the current climate. If we are to avoid ‘othering’ – the making of one group not part of ‘us’ (and it seems to me that both the church and survivors risk doing that of the other party which is really not good for anyone) then we all need to find a better way of engaging. Without doubt, the Church must take the bigger step here so that, as far as possible, survivors’ are not rebuffed, as some, but as we can read above, not all clearly feel.

At the same time, while recognising that survivors’ groups that exist cannot speak for the whole body of survivors and that being consulted and involved does not necessarily always mean getting one’s own way, can a way be found for survivors themselves, both those with a rightful sense of anger and those who feel well-supported by the Church, to make supportive and constructive criticism of the institutional church, not chiefly as ‘survivors’ but as fellow, equal members of the Body?

Is it time for some proper mediation?

This entry was posted in IICSA, Sexual abuse, Simon Butler, Spiritual Abuse. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Via Media in Safeguarding?

  1. Pingback: The Trouble With Fish…. | ViaMedia.News

  2. JayKay8 says:

    Hello Simon. As a survivor I’d love to find a way to de-polarise the current climate. However, I understand that mediation can only work if both parties are truthful. How do you suggest a situation can be dealt with if the diocesan bishop is not being truthful and refuses my suggestion of meeting to discuss the issues? (Do feel free to contact me via my e mail address.)

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  4. Thanks, wise words.
    Just as “survivors” are not one person but many, with different experiences and contexts, so “church” is not one thing. Some parts of the church, some dioceses, some bishops, some parishes and some schools engage very differently to others. Some genuinely make safeguarding a priority, and some do not, this is demonstrably true at every level. This means that just as one “survivor” representative cannot be expected to speak the whole truth of all survivor experience, so “the church” and its representatives find it hard (impossible) to speak the whole truth of the whole church.

  5. English Athena says:

    I think you see the same names popping up talking about failures in protection, prevention and in ministry to the damaged, not necessarily because everyone else is happy!, but because many of those who are not are afraid to complain. I am delighted that many people are content with their treatment. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to improve in order to include more survivors in that list. Institutional sin is the theological equivalent of corporate responsibility. It does exist. The ethos of protecting the powerful, not unique to the church, for example. The caste system, natural primate behaviour, but hardly a fit model for a Christian group. The idea that Bishop carries no responsibility for what goes on in their diocese, and therefore need take no responsibility for sorting it out is sinful in itself. Individual responsibility, yes, of course. The abuser should stop, the onlooker should stop them, and support the abused, and the boss should see to it that both these things happen. There may be a company custom of supporting the powerful, but there is no Nuremberg defence. But I would suggest that if there are bad habits that prevail in an organisation, the boss does indeed carry personal responsibility for putting it right. Over to you my Lords and Graces.p

  6. English Athena says:

    No reply? Simon, the problem is, some of us know that the church does not consider us to be equal, but “other”. Personally, I’d love the church to consider me one of the body. But since it doesn’t, of necessity, I join the survivor’s group, rather than be alone. Perhaps you should work on those who have excluded us from their company?

Any thoughts?