Safeguarding, Clericalism and the ‘Reputation’ of the Church of England

Safeguarding, Clericalism and the ‘Reputation’ of the Church of England

With much else going on in the news – a serious international incident over the poisonings in Salisbury at the top of the list – it may have been fortuitous that reports on the recent hearings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) were rather overlooked by the mainstream media. However, a lack of media prominence can only be a minor sidebar in what has been an extremely damaging six weeks for the Church of England.

The focus of IICSA was on historic child sexual abuse in the Diocese of Chichester, where there was a very sorry history of incompetence, lack of attention to the voices of victims and a general willingness to believe that clergy, who appeared saintly and devout, could be capable of such an offence against the vulnerable and against God as child sexual abuse. The catalogue of horrors that was laid before the Inquiry was summed up by the Archbishop of Canterbury (himself called as a witness, though not responsible for historic oversights) when he said, “I want to put on record again – I don’t know how to express it adequately – how appalled I am and how ashamed I am of the Church for what it did to those who are survivors and are coping with this. The apologies are fine, but you have got to find ways of making it different and we have got to do it as soon as possible.”

While today the landscape of safeguarding has changed, and there is a clear legal duty upon all office holders in the Church of England to report allegations or concerns about the abuse of a child or vulnerable adult and the consequence of discipline if failure occurs, there is much to learn and escape from. Among the most serious habits into which the whole church has fallen is a culture of clericalism, where clergy are invested with an almost unchallengeable status and where too often we defer to the dog collar as though ordination confers infallibility. Sadly, too often clergy like to be deferred to and do not expect to be challenged. A false sense of status can be gained. We have to be very careful – with the subtle hierarchies that exist even in the most inclusive parish community – and which are underlined by the ways in which we shape our liturgy, our ministry and our decision-making processes. If you find me behaving in such clerical ways, please in the name of the good God, point it out. But clericalism is two-way street as well. Sometimes, congregations and those who are not ordained like to defer to the clergy; it’s a subtle way of not taking responsibility for the life of the church as a one of the baptised, a culture of avoiding commitment to the direction and mission of the church. As John Betjeman famously quipped, “When things go wrong, it’s often quicker to go and blame them on the Vicar.” The horror of child sexual abuse in the church, and the incompetence of failure to follow advice or best practice, is but the worst consequence of clericalism and deference. I hope we can work together to ensure that St Mary’s is not a place where clerical superiority and congregational infantilism is allowed to flourish.

As many of you will know, I’m currently a member of the 19-strong Archbishops’ Council, which is the trustee body for the national Church of England. So I’m very much living and breathing the issues raised by IICSA as they are going to remain central to our life and work for the foreseeable future. There remain two further hearings in the year ahead. The Church of England is in for far more of a rough ride yet, and rightly so. However, we should not be afraid of our loss of reputation, even though such bad publicity will depress some and discourage others from belonging to the church. We serve a Saviour who “held his reputation of no account” (Philippians 2:5), and the humbled church is the Christlike church. Ultimately, while we should be completely signed up to the safeguarding agenda and ready to face the consequence of historic failures, it is the loving, gentle, and safe welcome that we offer in the local church that will persuade both sceptic and enquirer that the church is a safe space in which to thrive. We do well to remember that 80% of child abuse happens in the home or family setting. As Archbishop Justin said to me only a couple of weeks ago, what a gift the church could be in every community if it were known to be a safe space for all. Let’s work at that…clergy and laity together.

Simon Butler

Do you have a safeguarding concern at St Mary’s? If so, contact our Parish Safeguarding Officer, Emma Tasker, [email protected], and she will listen to your concern.


A Pastoral Letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York follows under a separate link.