Safeguarding in the Church: have we got a mental block?

“How do you find the time to …?” is a question I am often asked. “Read, pray, meditate, prepare talks …” and, of course, “do social media”. However, my use of Facebook and Twitter is a broadcast, not a conversation. Partly because I think it is best to regard it this way, and that’s one of the things I tried to teach pupils when I was a Head. I like the verb curated when used of media in this way, and prefer the term digital to social. Writing blogs or Tweets is work, it’s not how I relax.

Occasionally I get drawn into a conversation. My friend Ian Paul (aka @Psephizo ) often tries to tempt me with a tasty question! But generally I resist.

My review of Alan Wilson and Rosie Harper’s To Heal and Not to Hurt, was widely read. It also created some comment. What was most interesting to me was that the comments were all from people who had not read the book. I have yet to meet anyone else who has, which I find disturbing. Comments all concerned matters other than safeguarding, which is what the book is about. There was a good deal of what I can only describe as prejudice about Bishop Alan. Someone said “How can you be so positive about anything by him?” For many, perhaps most, I have talked to, there was a feeling that Wilson and Harper are deliberately trying to undermine the church, to use the abuse crisis as a way of destroying the gospel. This is a serious accusation for which I find no evidence at all in the book.

I have no axe to grind, I have met Alan and Rosie once. No doubt they regard my Anglo-Catholic fervour with bemused curiosity. That doesn’t worry me.

I could have been a little more critical in my review. The authors use the term “spiritual abuse” which I think is unhelpful. “Emotional abuse” must include the abuse of the spirit and of religious things but the word ‘spiritual’ is over-used. In a few paragraphs they link physical abuse in some evangelical circles to a belief in substitutionary atonement theory. I don’t think that link is proved. There was plenty of physical abuse by Roman Catholic Religious.

What does worry me is the failure of almost anyone to engage with the substantial issues raised by abuse and addressed in this book. There is a significant literature about abuse. Very little of it is theological, very little about our own history in the Church of England. Harper and Wilson have written an accessible, important book. It is the only one of its kind. Even if we disagree with some aspects of what they say engaging with this book is important. We are fortunate that a bishop of our church is addressing these issues.

The abuse crisis is existential for the church. The world is watching to see how we respond and how we engage with survivors of abuse. If we are to demonstrate the love of God to survivors it will be by paying attention to them. This book could help us do that.

When I talk about safeguarding with Headteachers I have never once had a Head (in the state sector) even mention the reputation of the institution. Since I wrote the review the reputation of the church, the ‘optics’, has come up in almost every conversation. We still have a very long journey to make. This is why I think, and agree with Harper and Wilson, that independent systems are needed. Headteachers do not identify themselves with their schools to anything like the extent clergy and others identify with the church. The church is a lifelong institution, we are too invested in it to manage these processes ourselves.

Repentance is hard. It involves changing the deepest parts of who we are, identifying our mental blocks and habitual patterns. In the church we know that it is very hard to do that alone. We need help, spiritual direction and accompaniment, a community to sustain us. If we find it hard to talk about abuse we need to repent and we need to seek help to do that.

The House of Bishops meets soon. I wonder how many of the bishops will have read this book?

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