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Monday, 19 March 2012

Should communities of faith be safe?

The previous blog did not do full justice due to the length of the post to the issue of how the church deals with issues of sexual abuse and power, one of the issues that the Declaration process for people exercising leadership in parishes was designed to address.

Some of the processes developed by denominations to deal with failings in this area seem to me to be clearly appropriate, particularly those are targeted at training people exercising responsibility for teaching, training and leadership of the vulnerable, particularly children. The Diocesan leaflet Safe Communities of Faith highlights some of the basic requirements and processes.

The concern to prevent sexual and emotional abuse of the vulnerable and the unconscionable abuse of power by those in leadership in the church is absolutely right. The use of the language of safety in an unqualified way runs the risk that it can become overriding and culturally shaped in a way that occludes some elements of the characteristics of discipleship and community that are not, in the terms of the prevailing culture, safe. Let me see if I can unpack my concerns.

The leaflet commences with reference to the two great commandments of loving God with all our heart, soul and mind and loving our neighbour as ourselves. It then goes on to say:
These commands guide our behaviour in our relationships and provide the basis for the establishment and exercising of safe activities and events, run in safe environments in an abuse-free Christian community. We seek to build and maintain safe communities of faith by:
  • fostering relationships between members and those of the wider community based on the teachings of Jesus Christ;
  • providing a safe and secure environment where all people can feel respected;
  • providing responsible and loving Christian leadership and management practices built on a scriptural base; and 
  • ensuring that cases of alleged abuse, neglect or ministry misconduct are handled in a consistent, unbiased and thorough manner.
The language of "safety" carries the obvious meaning of freedom from harm, and abuse of power, particularly by those claiming to be motivated by love of God and neighbour. The term carries the wider connotation of freedom from danger that is wider than the particular issues of abuse that are being addressed and carries a wider cultural connotation that we ought to be able to ensure control over all our circumstances and that nothing should go wrong. 

Rather than safety being the term of choice, should the Christian community be concerned to develop a community that is characterised by mutual accountability and trust, so as to accept the responsibility to call one another to account and to be able to rely on each other's presence as in the process outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18?  The problem with the language of "safety' in a community called to follow Jesus is that he seemed to think that following him would not be a safe process and was more than likely to bring one into conflict with family and the broader society.

Kimberley K Smith in the context of reflecting on Wendell Berry's discussion of the significance of 9/11 to Americans gets close to what I am trying to argue for here when she comments that ... the world is not and never will be a safe place. We must learn how to live awfully human life in a dangerous and unpredictable environment - not by seeking godlike control over the conditions of our existence but by cultivating those virtues (moderation, prudence, propriety, fidelity) that allow us to live gracefully in the presence of fear. (p.49)  ("Wendell Berry's Political Vision" in Wendell Berry : His Life and Work edited by Jason Peters)

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