Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 3rd September 2017
Theme: Safeguarding in the Church
Readings: Psalm 91; Matthew 18:1-7
Jenny is in a bit of a state.
A couple of weeks ago she came home one day to find her husband unexpectedly home from work. He broke the news to her that he was leaving her to move in with someone else. He packed a bag and left. Jenny is, frankly all over the place. She tries to hold it together, she puts on a brave face, but at church last week it all came flooding out. People were really kind, as they usually are in these circumstances. But she’s very vulnerable and fragile and the church needs to be careful and thoughtful in how it cares for her.
Jenny has two kids: Adam and Hattie. They’re 11 and 6 and the familiarity of their lives has just come crashing down around them. They have only seen their dad once in the past fortnight and everyone was very upset. At church, in the Junior Church, Hattie has been especially withdrawn and Adam hit one of the other children last Sunday. It was all very out of character. The leaders of Junior Church have spoken to the Vicar about how to handle the situation. She took advice from the Diocesan Safeguarding Officer, not only about how to care for Hattie and Adam, but also how to handle the situation when Adam gets angry and lashes out at other kids.
This sort of everyday family crisis is all too familiar these days. We naturally feel for all of those involved and we seek to ensure that, as individuals and as a family they are supported at a very difficult time. But there’s also another dimension to this domestic tragedy, because the whole family are members of a church. Churches are caring communities. Christians are called to love and care for one another, and to have a special heart for the vulnerable. So Jenny, Adam & Hattie’s church need to care for them in a way that offers them support and love, but also takes sensible safeguarding precautions to protect them – and, where necessary, to protect others. Because when people are vulnerable sometimes, they also present a risk to themselves and to others.
This is the sort of background to what I want to say this morning about a concept that will be familiar to many of you who have contact with schools, hospitals and many other institutions, but which also has a real bearing on church life as well. That concept – and it’s a word I’ve used twice already – is that of safeguarding. We used to call it Child Protection. Now we call it Safeguarding. The Bishop asks his clergy to preach about this subject from time to time, because the whole church is responsible for safeguarding.
A little bit of basic theology first. We believe in a God who cares. “Cast all your anxiety on [God],” says Peter in our second reading, “because he cares for you.” One of the things that makes churches Christlike communities is the care and compassion of Jesus that defines what it means to be a Christian and a Christian community. When a child or adult is in a vulnerable situation – maybe in a situation like Jenny, Adam and Hattie’s – Christians are called to act compassionately. We care for victims of all kinds – victims of violence, cruelty and abuse. And we do that because, in our hearts and in our God-given humanity, we are made to care. One of the defining things that I think defines what it means to be made in God’s image is the way humans are altruistic – we care for people not connected to us. We seek their best, their wholeness, and sometimes at physical or emotional cost to ourselves. That, of course, is what we see in the ministry of Jesus as well. A God who has compassion.
But not only do we serve a compassionate God, we serve a protective God as well. I love Psalm 91 – at times when I’ve been afraid, deeply worried or upset, its words have proved a great comfort. Not being one with a tremendous belief in angels, nevertheless that image of God’s protective arms around me has, at moments in my life, brought great comfort and assurance. We also see this protection in the ministry of Jesus and in our Gospel reading, Jesus utters one of his great “Woe to you” statements on those who lead a child away from God. So it’s in the very nature of God to protect – those in danger, those at risk. I wonder if you’ve ever been in a situation when you’ve prayed for God’s protection – a serious operation; a moment of danger; a sense of crushing fear? God wants to protect us. He wants us to trust him to see us through. All too often, we go blithely through life in our own strength, trusting only in ourselves, when the mercy and protection of God is there to strengthen, guide and protect us. I wonder whether some of us feel we ought to be able to cope on our own? We don’t have to, you know? God wants to give you his protection, his strength and his care in whatever you or I face. That’s what faith – or trust, to use another word, means. It’s an active thing, not simply an intellectual concept.
Coming back, then, to the idea of Safeguarding, all of this reminds us that protection and care – which is what Safeguarding is all about – isn’t just about children and their welfare. It’s potentially about all of us. The Guidelines we have received and adopted as a church are for the Safeguarding of Children and Vulnerable Adults. The vulnerable adults thing is quite new and it’s important. Each and every one of us at some point in our lives is likely to be vulnerable: a bereavement, the end of a relationship, redundancy are all possible reasons, alongside the more familiar ideas of an episode of poor physical or mental health. What our church now is asked to try to do is to ensure that it has policies and procedures in place to ensure that church life, church activities and church buildings are all places where children and adults who may be vulnerable are safe, secure and cared for.
Some of the things we do to ensure this are to do with the way we organise the life of the church: everyone who now works with children or vulnerable adults needs to have a check done on them to make sure that they are suitable to work with people who might be vulnerable. It may seem like a sad state of affairs but, despite what some papers say, it is [and probably has always been] necessary for such checks to be done. We can be grateful in our age that technology is there that helps us to do this, in the form of computerised checks and the like. There are times when this may seem like an unnecessary step to have to take. It’s certainly often an inconvenience. But, perhaps it’s a sign of the goodness of our hearts that we find it hard to believe that someone in our community could be capable of harming a child or vulnerable adult. The reality is, though, that such people do exist and they look just like you and me. We have such checks to avoid both suspicion and to provide assurance to people that, when their child is in our care, they are just that: cared for and protected. Equally, it’s not just the unfairly maligned computer checks that safeguard children and vulnerable adults: it’s a whole range of other things, like a good and well-monitored Health & Safety Policy, proper training for those who bring vulnerable adults to church or who take children or young people on church outings, even (and watch this space, welcomers) basic training in the use of a fire extinguisher. These prosaic things are all ways in which we demonstrate God’s care and protection for the most vulnerable among us. It’s far from political correctness gone mad. It’s about the Gospel.
But it’s about far more than policy and procedures. It’s about the attitude of each and every one of us. Safeguarding is about how we act towards one another, it’s about the sort of church we are and the kind of welcome we offer. Many of us value privacy a lot. We don’t like other people knowing what’s going on in our hearts or lives. But such a desire for privacy has a cost: it means that the sort of personal sharing of our struggles, fears and vulnerabilities is extremely hard to do. Sometimes that makes us appear quite hard and brittle on the outside as we sometimes struggle to hide the turmoil or worry within. Being private like this is something I personally think is not good for us as people. When we share our problems in a safe and trusting environment, we allow the opportunity for healing and perspective on them to grow. And, for the truly vulnerable, a church where they know it is safe to be vulnerable (without, in all honesty, using that vulnerability in a manipulative way, which we’ve probably all seen from time to time) a church where people know it is safe to be vulnerable is a church that will draw to it many more of the wounded people for whom Jesus cared the most.
Jesus reached out to the last, the lost and the least. Most of us, whether we care to admit it or not, will fall into at least one of those categories during our lifetime. To be a church that safeguards its children and vulnerable adults, is to be a church for everyone, not just for what we might call “people like that” (the Jennys, Adams and Hatties of our church) but also for “people like me and you” (who at some point in our life will know what it means to be vulnerable – and maybe that moment is now).
Safeguarding is not political correctness gone mad. In the end, a safe church is a more holy, Jesus-shaped church. May we be known as a community where it’s OK to be vulnerable and where those who are find a place to be held and to be healed. Amen.