by Father Richard Peers, Sub Dean of Christ Church, Oxford
Extract from: Final Report – Independent Lessons Learned Review for Emmanuel Church Wimbledon (March 2021)
“Theme 17: Homogeneity
The Review illustrated that one of the biggest difficulties in identifying and disclosing the behaviours was the myth of homogeneity. The Review evidenced that a person who possesses positive characteristics and is widely highly-regarded could nonetheless display entirely inappropriate, abusive and harmful behaviours which render them ‘unfit for their office’.
Furthermore, those who wish to disclose abuse or harmful behaviours can be caused to question their experience and reality where the predominant narrative outlines the positive traits of an individual. When this is combined with a narrative of protecting the gospel above all else then this becomes a powerful barrier to disclosing abuse or harmful behaviour.”
It was in 1987 that the Pet Shop Boys released their single It’s A Sin which provided the title, and elements of the soundtrack, for the recent Russell T Davies mini-series on gay life in the 80’s. Whether it was 1987 or a little bit later my strongest memory of dancing to this iconic song was on a Sunday night (gay night) at The Academy in Boscombe, just outside of Bournemouth. It was an exhilarating time for me. I had met and was with that night, the love of my life, a housemate was performing on stage with a live snake (don’t ask). Like the housemates in the recent TV series it seemed that there was nothing that could poison our sheer delight at life.
Three decades later watching It’s A Sin touched many unexpected raw nerves for me and I am not embarrassed to say I wept watching it.
During lockdown I have done a fair bit of online teaching in the form of seminars for various groups including ordinands at Ripon College Cuddesdon and Cranmer Hall in Durham on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, better known as Confession. I have heard a fair number of confessions in the last 20 years or so. One of the key tasks of a confessor, it seems to me, is to help the penitent identify what is and what is not sin. Many people come to the sacrament filled with shame, self-loathing or in need of healing.
We live in a society in which the language of Christianity is tired and worn; it is hard for people to understand. Sin is a key concept that is much misunderstood. Yet the older I get the more important I think sin is. The more I believe in its reality. We all know that when anyone says “Human beings are divided into …” some trite simplism is going to be uttered. If only it was so easy.
The older I get the more aware of my own sin I become. I am a deeply flawed human being. If that sounds like I am beating myself up. I’m not.
The older I get the more aware I am that we are all sinners. We are all capable of deeply flawed behaviour. My favourite image for sin (not sure who invented this, perhaps it was me) is a bicycle on which the front wheel is slightly askew. We human beings just can’t cycle straight. We need to constantly adjust for the reality of our askew-ness (sin). That’s mostly what the Christian life is about.
At the top of this piece there is an extract from the investigation into abuse at Emmanuel Church Wimbledon by Jonathan Fletcher. For me it is the most important passage in a very important report. The review highlights how a combination of fear and putting people on pedestals made it impossible for victims to report abuse. It also calls for a wider understanding of vulnerability in situations where individuals wield considerable charismatic and institutional power. These are all important lessons to learn. But it is this myth of homogeneity that is, I think, the most important lesson and the most difficult for us to hold on to.
The American pastor and writer Brian McClaren talks and writes about :
“Confirmation Bias: the human brain welcomes information that confirms what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks.”
“Complexity Bias: the human brain prefers a simple lie to a complex truth.”
It is easy to believe that there are good guys and bad guys. The truth is almost always more complex.
A friend of mine was one of the young men who formed part of the residential community associated with the serial abuser Bishop Peter Ball. It was a transformative and wonderful time for him, all blessing. Another friend spent much of her life as part of l’Arche communities. She is the leader she is now because of that experience. She has spent the last year grieving the revelations about Jean Vanier.
What can we learn from this? Nothing simple.
I can’t write a line, or come up with a phrase that explains this. All I can do is offer the Christian faith. St Paul is often mocked for the complexity of his writing; his endless and sometimes seemingly incomprehensible sentences. But he was on to something. Perhaps no one has understood sin better. We human beings are all sinners. There are certain characteristics that we associate with something we call ‘holiness’. I am deeply sceptical of them.
When we pray the penitential material in our worship and in Scripture it is not a reason to beat ourselves up. It is a reminder that every human being is a sinner. I am with St Augustine, and the Pet Shop Boys: It’s A Sin. I find the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” to be tremendously liberating. This is who I am. This is who everybody is. As I say to people when they begin the journey of Spiritual Direction with me: there are no gurus.
As we move into Holy Week there are simple questions we can ask. Why do we need Jesus? What do we need saving from? And the simple answer is: ourselves. As Walt Whitman put it “I contain multitudes”, and some of them are not very nice.