I ceased to receive a stipend from the Church of England and the Church in Wales in 2013 having resigned my titles ('jobs'). I returned my licence to minister in 2015. The decision to hand back my licence had been a long time in the making but it was crystallised in a moment that remains clear in my memory. A friend had just told me of the sexual abuse she had suffered as a teenager at the hands of a priest. Presiding at Holy Communion later that morning, I stood behind the altar looking down the cathedral at the patterns of light and shadow. I simply thought, 'I can't go on doing this. I can't go on representing a church that talks about transformation, repentance and healing yet persistently turns a blind eye and a deaf ear to abuse.'
I say the moment had been a long time in the making. It began twenty seven years earlier just after my ordination when I reported some very damaging behaviour by a member of the clergy to my bishop. No appropriate action was taken so I resigned. The bishop was very angry. He thought I was breaking my ordination vows. I tried to explain that if this kind of behaviour was evident in my former place of work (a hospital) it would be expected that it was brought to the notice of managers as it was a danger to others. Nothing in my ordination vows required me to support or keep quiet about such behaviour. In that conversation, my eyes were opened to the insidious corruption in the way power was exercised in the church. This was 1989. Discussions about whistleblowing were quite common in the health service. We didn't call it safeguarding in those days but assertions that 'we didn't know about safeguarding back then' are disingenuous. We certainly knew that some kinds of behaviour were wrong and posed risk of serious harm to vulnerable people. We knew they should be called out, investigated and fairly dealt with.
I returned to nursing. But the church has a reach that's hard to escape. It wasn't long before I gave in to pressure 'to forgive' and 'to remain faithful' and returned to ministry. Over the next twenty five years as a theological college lecturer, a parish priest, an archdeacon and a dean, I witnessed and experienced further abuses of power in both stark and hidden ways. Perhaps the most worrying aspect was the unwillingness of people (all sorts of people but especially those in authority) to face unpleasant or difficult truths. This would usually end with the person raising the issue being belittled, blamed or excluded. There was a deep-seated cultural tendency to think that, as long as things appeared to be all right, awkward testimonies could be ignored or downplayed. Reputations were put before facts. Sometimes wrong simply wasn't acknowledged as wrong.
To get back to that morning in the cathedral, there was something about the play of the sun and rainclouds through the nave windows that helped me see that every person stands either in shadow or in light. You can step from one to another but in order to do that you have to make a decision and take an action. I would have stayed, I longed to stay, ministry was where I had made my life. And yet?
In the words of the psalmist, I asked myself, 'How much longer?' For twenty seven years I had mostly done as the church had conditioned me. When witnessing abuses of power and the appalling treatment of those who speak out I had tried to protest but often given up too easily, accepting at face value assurances that 'steps were being taken'. I had not followed through sufficiently effectively to support those justly complaining of behaviour that not only would not be tolerated in wider society but that is, to quote IICSA, in contravention of the 'moral purpose' of the church. So I finally I chose to step out of the shadow and step away. I had believed I could help to make a difference for all those years but the evidence really was that little had changed.
Why am I writing this now? Well, because I see so many within the church doing what I have sometimes done in the past. Seeing but not acting effectively. Suspecting and feeling helpless. Wringing hands but being reluctant and slow to change. Thinking 'it's awful but it's not something that happens here'. I read reactions from bishops that show, even after 5 years of IICSA, the Ball case, the Bell, Smyth and Fletcher allegations, the suicide of a survivor and numerous other convictions and complaints, they don't get it. They don't feel personally responsible and they are insufficiently motivated, as the leaders of the church, to take decisive action. I hear clergy, while complaining about other aspects of the church's attitude to power and sexuality in relation to themselves and their ministries, say, 'This is blown out of proportion; it happens everywhere, not just the church.' I hear lay people, even in dioceses that have had significant numbers of convictions, say, 'It does't happen here, really. It's just a few bad apples.' Imagine, for a moment, this was any other charity. If leaders, employees and volunteers responded to a report on abuse in the organisation by saying, 'We ourselves are not taking responsibility to change anything, it all happened elsewhere, in parts of the organisation that are beyond our control', people would rightly walk away from the charity.
Andrew Graystone, who has been something of a champion for survivors of abuse in the Church of England, posed a question that spoke to me. 'Don't comment,' he said, 'before telling us what action you have taken to prevent any further abuse happening.' In the years since I left ministry I have tried to educate myself about what happened. I've attended AGMs of various organisations that support survivors where I've learned a great deal (some of it very shocking) from survivors and lawyers. I'm training as a psychotherapist and seeing in my placements the life-long effects of abuse. I'm writing and I'm engaged in an arts project that seeks to explore the connection between certain kinds of theology and the use and abuse of power in the churches.
Is it too much to ask that the Church of England and the Church in Wales step out of their shadows and take speedy, transparent, effective action in the light of IICSA's recommendations? At the very least,
Independent oversight of safeguarding including, crucially, the bishops' role.
Prompt, thorough investigation by transparent, consistent, properly administered processes.
Compensation and funded therapy for survivors.
Full acceptance of responsibility.
Investigation into how power is exercised - what is explicit and underpinned by theologies, what is tolerated, and what 'unconscious' behaviours are present?