Living to survive church – a reflection on the IICSA hearings

Various people have written blogs and commentaries on the IICSA hearings that have been taking place over the last three weeks. I found Stepehn Parsons’ insights on his Surviving Church blog one of the most helpful.

Surviving Church – exactly! I feel I am surviving church in multiple ways. A survivor of abuse in childhood, my experience of the Church of England continues to be one of surviving systemic abuse. The church has the greatest difficulty understanding this, at the national and local level. Stephen’s insights help me understand why this is.

He listened to the testimony given on Monday by Graham Tilby, the National Safeguarding Officer. Much of his testimony was frankly boring, said Stephen, concerning his work of bringing safeguarding practices in England up-to-date and closer to current professional standards. Stephen asked himself a question: Why would this seem so alien to the dozens of individuals known to him who have been through an experience of abuse at the hands of church leaders? His answer: because the professional experts in safeguarding are speaking from a totally different perspective from the survivors.

Stephen says people within an institution like the church will normally see most things from the perspective of that body. They learn to talk in a special coded language. They will have absorbed a distinction between the insider and the outsider – ‘us’ versus ‘them’. This seems to be not only the perspective of an employee like Graham Tilby but of the apparent ‘groupthink’ of the entire House of Bishops. Having arrived in the House, most of them find it difficult to imagine what it is like to be outside the group.

 If an outsider is challenging in any way to the institution that gives church leaders their sense of security as well as status, then that person will be a special foe. Almost everything that was said by Graham Tilby seemed to echo this perspective.

When Graham talked about what he considered the necessary set of skills required to be a Safeguarding Officer he made no mention of the skills that would be sensitive to the dysfunctional structures in which perpetrators flourish - social psychologists, psychotherapists and other mental health workers. What is required, comments Stephen, is the ability to manage, monitor training and organise structures. What seems to be totally absent is awareness of the human reality of abuse, the human pain and suffering that can be so intense as to be life threatening. Stephen urges that the needs of survivors must always be kept in mind.

David Walker, bishop of Manchester, also wrote a blog, posted on viamedia, having given testimony  on Monday at the IICSA hearings. Stephen Parsons’ blog is titled ‘Safeguarding – reconciling two perspectives. A second perspective is exemplified in Bishop David’s blog which comes from the ‘groupthink’ mentality within the House of Bishops.

Noting the popular image of St Francis of Assisi as a gentle lover of nature, David draws attention to what he says is an equally important, if less immediately attractive, aspect of Francis’s Way. Late in his life, Francis prays that he might feel in his own body, as much as he can bear, the suffering of Jesus on the cross. David notes that the prayer might be construed as belonging within the family of monastic masochism practised in the flagellant movements of his era. But Francis’s desire to share in the suffering of his Lord is entirely in order that, thereby, he may experience in his body as much as he can bear of the love for which Christ willingly went to the cross. Love is what matters, suffering is the price that it willingly pays.

David says debased theologies of suffering abound as much today as they did in Francis’s world, often associated with the maintenance of regressive imbalances of power. He says he read with horror of how some of the victims of Peter Ball testify that he groomed them for abuse by inviting them to embrace punishment and suffering as part of their spiritual growth.

Had Bishop David explored the relationship between Christian teaching about suffering and the way of the cross and the unconditional, infinite love of God revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus, he might have contributed a commentary more helpful to the IICSA hearings and the wider Church.

Suffering is a fact of life. We experience suffering through the inevitable events of life: loss, sickness, bereavement, physical and emotional pain. These are of a different category from the pain of abuse of any kind, inflicted on us by an abuser.

The Church of England is systemically abusive. Christian culture, Christian teaching and theology and Biblical exegesis create and underpin this abusive culture. There is a direct relationship between theologies of the cross and the abuse of power over people in the Church. The Church system uses and abuses the crucifixion to justify a culture which consciously and unconsciously abuses people.

Is suffering necessary for us to be formed more deeply in the image of Christ? This is how Bishop David ends his blog. Is extreme suffering necessary, such as experienced by Jesus in being crucified, or are ‘normal’ levels of suffering sufficient? Are we unable to develop empathy, be filled with compassion for the pains of others, and develop a quality of invincible and overpowering love akin to Francis without being subjected to an intense level of suffering?

What kind of God do we believe in? What kind of God does the Church of England and her bishops believe in? What kind of God did Jesus believe in? Do we believe in a God of unconditional, infinite, intimate love, first and foremost, above all else? Or do we believe in a God of conditional love, requiring costly sacrifice and experience of suffering as not simply needful but essential if we are to develop ‘real’ compassion for others?

What kind of God will the church be praying to, singing hymns about, and preaching sermons about this Easter? What kind of God is constructed in the teachings and theology of the Alpha Course and Fresh Expressions? The IICSA hearings reveal a church in which the hierarchy fails to understand the multiple ways in which the culture of the church is systemically abusive and how this abusive culture is directly related to Christian teachings understood to be orthodox and traditional. I challenge that belief. I am living to survive church.