Responding to the abuse reports -what next?

We’ve been hit hard by a series of reports and investigations into abuse and bullying over the past few month including Acts29 and Steve Timmis, RZIM, John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher.  The response has been intense and emotional. 

It’s included a lot of good, helpful and right things

  • Deep probing questioning as people have wanted to get to the truth
  • Expressions of repentance, corporately and individually
  • Concern for the victims to see them supported and get justice

These things are all good and healthy responses. Sometimes though the responses have not seemed healthy. There have been frustrations expressed, unfounded accusations, expressions of distrust and blame switching.

Before we go any further, I want to say something about what we are witnessing and experiencing at the moment. The painful confrontation with truth, the mixture of the helpful and unhelpful, expressions of emotion and hurt coming out in raw anger are all part of a normal and expected response to something like this. I want to say this because all though it is difficult to go through this, it is also an expected and indeed to some extent essential part of the process of confession, repentance, forgiveness, restoration and healing. Indeed, if there is at times that explosive mix of guilt, denial, anger and negotiating then perhaps that suggests a form of grieving at work right now.

So, how do we respond?

First, as Chris Green comments in his helpful article here, we sadly need to be ready for the possibility that this is the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who has experience of teaching or working with young people will know that when there are bullies and gangs, there are the first ones to get caught and there are the craftier, subtler bullies who stay further back in the background. Furthermore, if there has been fear, then we should be ready for there to be more victims out there. It is important then that people who are affected by the abuse are able to safely report what has happened to them or what they have witnessed and to get support.

It is possible to raise these things through The Thirtyone:Eight Trust. 

Secondly, our immediate concern should be for the victims. It is important that they are listened to, loved, supported.  This also means that there is a matter of justice here and that does mean that where there has been serious, persistent and public sin then there needs to be proper church discipline. This is vital for the witness of the church, the safety of the body and for the restoration of those who have sinned.  This means that proper repentance will mean that where there has been criminal behaviour that the police are involved and that victims are supported through that process too.  It also means that the churches where abusers have been members explicitly and formally follow 1 Corinthians 5 church discipline processes and publicly confirm that those in sin are now formally excluded from membership. In other words, they cannot simply rely on Anglican processes being followed to remove licences etc. There needs to be a clear statement from the whole membership of a church where an abuser has been allowed to act that the abuser concerned is under church discipline.

 I believe it is important in a case like this that following discipline from a specific congregation, that the wider church publicly affirms that discipline. Athough unprecedented, I think this needs to include formal announcements from networks, associations and events such as The FIEC, Affinity, The EA, Word Alive and The Keswick Convention as well as the CofE and micro-networks including Co-Mission. 

Thirdly, there are still so many questions arising out of these horrific disclosures. Twitter and social media are also perhaps not the best places to get them and that has at times been where the frustration has poured out. Meanwhile, I suspect that 99% of Christians remain unaware of Jonathan Fletcher or John Smyth and the scandal. On the one hand that may remind us that the specific type of abuse was limited to particular context.  Yet, we also have been recognising the way that influence can be indirect “from the shadows” and the need to look carefully at our culture.  So, how do we facilitate a wider conversation?  I think that one thing we will need, as soon as pandemic restrictions allow will be for face to face conversations in groups where all questions are permitted.

Fourthly, we need to stand firmly with those who have courageously stepped forward and spoken up. I’ve been disappointed to see some attacks on the IAG members and those victims who have gone public. It has been costly for them to do so and implying that they are politically motivate dor doing the devil’s work is not on.  Criticism, challenging and questioning is uncomfortable but necessary. Everything I’ve seen from the IAG has modelled firm but gracious engagement with no evidence of trouble causing. It could be that some people have reacted to second hand reports. If so I would urge them to check the facts for themselves and those reporting to make sure that they do so accurately too.

Fifthly, we need to do better at the conversation.  Some of the social media traffic has been unhelpful and whilst some comes from those directly affected expressing anger and hurt there also have been harsh and unfair words spoken leading to some who were willing to engage to step back and others being decidedly more cautious about taking questions.  There is always a risk too with these types of situation that they become an opportunity for every grievance to be aired.  However, we cannot simply respond by dismissing and rebuking as that will silence the conversation. Rather, healthy, gospel centred conversation needs to be taught and modelled.

To be explicitly clear here, whilst it is discomforting, especially if you are more used to a form of dispassionate discourse to be confronted with raw emotion including anger, frustration and pain, it is not wrong to express those emotions. What is wrong is to make accusations without evidence and to attack character based on hearsay. Hence it is important that where false accusations are made that these are refuted.

Finally, we need to keep pointing people back to the Gospel. Whilst reforms of structures and systems may be needed, ultimately this is a spiritual matter. The devil’s aim in this is for us to lose confidence in Christ and to attack his bride the church.  This is why I find hope that these things are hitting us just before Easter. The good news we celebrate this weekend reminds us that yes we are sinners and failures. It reminds us of our tendency like Peter and the disciples to boast loudly before denying and fleeing. Yet Christ chose to love us and to redeem us. 

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