Trauma, grief and response to abuse

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Over the past few years, I’ve written and spoken quite a bit about the problem of abusive cultures particularly in the context of church life. First of all, my concern is to see us doing better in letting what we believe affect how we live so that doctrines of grace lead to cultures of grace. Secondly, there have been the specific examples of high-profile abuse cases in the church (and less high profile ones too) that challenge us as to how we missed them. We want to do better at protecting the flock from wolves.

When the reports about the Fletcher case first came out, tis prompted a lot of soul searching, discussion and questions on blogs and social media. You may remember that at the time, I warned that not every way of talking about things might be helpful but also that there needed to be patience, compassion and understanding here because we were seeing a natural response to trauma.

In the last few week, I think we’ve seen more examples of that as some victims of abuse have expressed hurt at how the scandals have been talked about but also as we’ve seen the specific pursuit of particular leaders in the context of accusations of fear cultures and cover ups. It is now emerging that some of those senior leaders were themselves victims of the reported abuse. This has led to some compassion and understanding but sadly also others pushing harder in arguing that those leaders should have acted and responded differently over the past few decades.[1]

So, I wanted to make a few observations that I hope will be helpful here.  It is important to remember that there has been a double dose of abuse here. First of all, what is clear is that the Fletcher and Smyth abuse cases both in their own way caused significant personal harm to a number of people within the conservative evangelical Anglican constituency and beyond.  Secondly, the way in which the abuse has come to light has inflicted a second blow causing secondary pain.  There are three aspects to this. First, there is the shock and sense of being let down as the truth comes out about abusers.  Secondly, there is the reflected pain of realising and hearing about the horrific pain that friends you know and love experienced and have been carrying on their own for years. Thirdly there is the sense of failure, regret, shame.  A lot of people will be asking themselves “How did I not spot this? Why didn’t I join the dots together? How come I was unable to act properly even on the feeling of discomfort I had or the little warning signs that were there?”

This means that there are numerous individuals who have been living with trauma for decades. The affect of abuse and trauma means that it is possible on the one hand to function not just normally but at a high level. At the same time it is possible to struggle with other aspects of life. Furthermore, it is natural for victims to repress and lock away their own specific memories. 

It also means that I think we are now seeing churches and networks experience a collective trauma and along with that a form of grief now.  This is why I’m not surprised by the kinds of conversations going on even if they are hard.  You see, we know that with grief comes anger, regret, blame, denial, numbness, negotiation etc before acceptance.  I think we’ve seen all of those responses over the past few months and I expect that to continue for some time to come.

In the light of this, I would encourage everyone to exercise the love, patience, compassion and grace I mentioned above. It means we need to guard our own hearts and voices as we respond to things and to be aware of the affect that what we say and do may have on others.[2]

It also means that our long term response needs to keep focused on justice and healing for victims and reflection and reformation where needed in our churches. It means that we need to keep coming back to how the Gospel is the good news that we all need for a time such as this.


[1] If this sounds all a bit vague or oblique, I apologise but I suspect that many of my readers will know the specific examples I’m referring to and if not I don’t think the details are necessary to the points I’m about to make below.  I have been uncomfortable with the way things have at times been personalised and how stories and rumours have been circulated. I’ve been asked to publicise/circulate at least 3 stories that I have chosen not to because I considered it unhelpful both in terms of helping victims to find healing and justice and encouraging reflection and reformation within the church.

[2] We need to be alert that even unintentionally we can say and do things that act as triggers for those who have experienced bullying and abuse.