October 8, 2023

A Sermon for Safeguarding Sunday

The Church of England invites its clergy to preach on safeguarding from time to time, as part of its response to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

A Sermon on Safeguarding by Canon Simon Butler

Sunday 8th October 2023

If you have any concern about the safety of a child or vulnerable adult in your church please contact your Parish Safeguarding Officer. At St Mary’s, this is Debbie Apostolides. More details here


Today is Safeguarding Sunday.

I can almost hear some of you asking, “how does that affect me?”. What do we mean by safeguarding? It’s about making sure that everyone who comes to St Mary’s is safe. We are particularly concerned for the safety and well-being of children and vulnerable adults and safeguarding is about the steps our Church takes to promote a safer culture here. That means we are committed to promote the welfare of children, young people and adults. It means we are committed to working to try to prevent abuse from occurring. It means we will do our best to protect those that are at risk of being abused and we will do our best to respond well to those that have been abused. And it means we will take care to identify where a person may present a risk to others, and offer support to them whilst taking steps to mitigate such risks.

And whose responsibility is it to ensure that St Mary’s is a safe place? Well, that’s where we all come in; all of us are responsible; each and every one of us. Of course we a Safeguarding Policy which is up on the wall at the back of church. We also have people who have been identified as having some responsibility for promoting safeguarding: Debbie our Safeguarding Officer, Emily who assists her as well as the clergy and Church Council. But when push comes to shove, we’re all responsible. That’s what a safe church and a safe culture is all about. If you see something that doesn’t look or feel right, then you need to do something about it. You can’t just hope that someone else will have seen the same thing, or that someone in authority will do something. Regardless of circumstances, if you see or hear something which makes you think that a child, young person or vulnerable adult may be being neglected or abused in any way, you should not hesitate to report your concerns to Debbie. It’s not your job to investigate or resolve the situation – you are not expected to sort out the situation or become a safeguarding expert – you just need to be aware and to report it.

If in doubt there are 4 Rs to help you: Recognise, respond, refer and record. Recognising is the most important of those because you can’t do any of the other three until you have recognised a concern. What does that look like? The best place to start is to say this: trust your instincts. If you see or hear anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or just doesn’t sit right with you, have a quiet word with Debbie or a member of the clergy. It may be something simple: someone turns up looking like they’ve not looked after themselves, someone tells you something about the way someone has treated them which seems a bit unusual. Very often, when things get worse or when an enquiry publishes a report on a serious safeguarding situation, very often in the history there will be someone who said they heard something or saw something but didn’t do anything about it at the time. Trust your instincts.

Of course no-one wants to be part of an organisation where suspicion is at the heart of our relationships. But if we believe that we are all unique and made in God’s image, then it’s part of our care and love for one another that when we see or hear something that makes us feel uncomfortable or that someone might be at risk, it’s part of our care and love to do something about it. And what we do is to respond.

Safeguarding is at the heart of our Christian faith. We believe is that we are all made unique and in the image of God. At the beginning of the book of Genesis at the Creation we are told that God made us in his image. That means that each of us is almost infinitely precious and valuable. And in our Gospel reading Jesus reminds the scribe that loving our neighbour as ourselves is part of the greatest commandment. I know what we may not always feel that about ourselves or even about other people, but if we believe this to be true, then it must affect how we behave towards other people. We know that there are far too many stories of abuse and cover-up – in the church and in society – for us to pretend that this isn’t the case. Cover-up isn’t just about someone deciding not to report something or someone because people are more interested in protecting the church than doing the right thing; sometimes cover-up is simply deciding to ignore that nagging feeling that something isn’t right or not being alert to the warning signs. The Church has repeatedly apologised for its failures in the past. But in the bible repentance is about more than saying sorry; it’s resolving to go in a different way in the future. Part of our repentance in the Church of England is having a different sermon like this from time to time, when we all focus and learn a bit more about how to keep people safe from harm in our churches. So safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility.

But I want to say something more than that. I want to talk about part of what it means to be a safer church is about healing and truthfulness. And that has two elements.

One of my new colleagues in Guildford was telling this week me about a recent sermon he preached on safeguarding, after a recent high-profile case involving a priest in Watford which had hit the press. Because Ben was talking about abuse and safety, a door was opened for some people. He said that after his sermon a handful of people spoke to him privately to say that they too in times gone past had been the victims of abuse, some of it perpetrated by clergy and other church leaders.

Some people carry this kind of burden with them for years. Some of them simply don’t recognise what happened to them as abuse until a door is opened to such realisation, and just maybe that is happening here right now. Some never talk about it because they don’t feel the need to, and that is fine; but others are frightened, ashamed, anxious about disclosing abuse or other kinds of harm. I simply want to say that if you decide you want to talk to someone about something that happened to you, our responsibility is to treat that and to treat you with the utmost care, respect and seriousness, because you are loved by God and are made in his image. While there are plenty who never share this kind of experience, a good number realise they desperately need to unburden themselves. You and I are friends and fellow-church members with some of those people. Some of them are here this morning. The last verse in our reading from Isaiah says something true about the God of the Bible and God’s heart for the victim and the vulnerable: For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you.’

The other thing it’s really important to add about healing and truthfulness is to those who have, or indeed still, harm or abuse others. The recent history of the Church of England, most of all the reports of Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, gives us no reason to believe that those who abuse or harm children or vulnerable adults, whether sexually or otherwise, are not part of our churches. We would do well to remember that there will be those who do such things, or have harmed other people, among us here. We all know that, even those of us with good intentions can act in ways that hurt others. Most of us know when we do that and most of us know that we should put that right where possible. But when the person is a child or vulnerable adult this is when we get into safeguarding territory. I do recognise that sometimes people feel hurt by others and can use safeguarding as a way to try and get redress. Many of these situations are not really safeguarding situations as defined by the law of the land, which doesn’t mean Christians should not be held to a higher standard, but it is important to recognise that safeguarding isn’t the route to redress for everyone who feels hurt by someone.

But where it is, and for those who this morning are sitting here feeling that they might have just harmed others, maybe even to the extent of even criminal or abusive behaviour, confession and forgiveness are part of the mix. First of all, it is important to be honest with yourself about this. Harming others is wrong and a Christian will want to acknowledge and confess that. Sometimes that means facing up to the consequences of our actions. For some showing remorse and repentance means accepting the need for criminal or other investigations. Telling the truth about this is vital and I encourage any of you feeling the burden of past actions to talk to someone about it, even if you’re not yet ready or able to speak to the person you might have harmed. It’s important to do this because it will lift the burden of guilt from you, and although there may be consequences, except in the most extreme circumstances, we can help you take steps to put the wrong things right.

And the reason why we can is that, for the Christian person, condemnation is not the final word from God. We do live in a society now where abuse of others is an easy accusation to throw around and the consequences of it can be very serious. I recognise that: we are in time when we are acutely aware of making up for the mistakes of the past. But for those who harm as well as those who have been harmed, church is a place of healing, acceptance and, in the end and despite all the dangers of this word being misunderstood, a place of forgiveness. The last word for any of us – saint or sinner – is God’s love not God’s condemnation. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy that is wider than the sea,” we sung earlier. Faber also says this, “For the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.”

So I have to say one final thing. I assume there are both victims and perpetrators of harm among us – remember, sometimes people are both – so we need to be very careful about the “f” word. Forgiveness is complicated and just because we know that God is far more merciful than us, that doesn’t mean that the flawed and limited human standards of justice and the putting of wrong things right should not be used even in the church. Victims need to hear the acknowledgement of wrong a long time before many of them can even begin to think about forgiveness. Those who do harm need to accept that telling the truth is one of the consequences of harm in society. Some of you will know that I once faced allegations of harm to others that were eventually found not to be true. I know only too well that I have work to do on forgiveness and I cannot yet say that I have forgiven my accuser. This is all incredibly complicated, sacred and holy ground. There is no cheap forgiveness, but there is divine love to help us acknowledge harm, accept responsibility, face the consequences and, in God’s good time, bring healing.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made people, made in God’s image, beloved by God. We are also complex people, fallen from perfection and with the potential to hurt and harm. So while we live in that world and in that complicated reality, we are called as God’s people at St Mary’s to remain as much as we can people of grace, care and forgiveness. First and foremost we are also called to be those who look to protect and care for those at risk. We cannot undo our past history of abuse in the Church overnight. But we can take concrete steps, in God’s love, to begin to do better. And that starts today.

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