I was reflecting with someone the other day about the horror of recent scandals within the church and the ongoing challenge for the many of us who are concerned about how such scandals have been made possible and may reflect other deeper cultural challenges.
My friend expressed concern that we may be seeing the growth of a new culture and industry around the problem of abuse in the church. I think they might be onto something. I wonder if what we really need is new organisations and external inquiries? I wonder if what we really need is the multiplication of conferences, training days and books all of which seem to come with a significant price tag?
Let me go back to the point about inquiries. Each of the recent high profile UK cases seems to have followed a pattern. Stories have begun to circulate, often on social media and often moving into the secular press too about historic bullying and abuse. People have shared their stories, multiple witnesses have been heard. Others have offered commentary on the nature of such problems and what the Bible has to say about abuse and how it should be dealt with. Then eventually an external organisation is asked to deliver a review. The review tends not to be a judicial hearing and often by that stage, the people in question have moved on of their own accord.
Now, if we are honest, have any of those reviews delivered new information that wasn’t already in the public domain? Have any of those review with their long lists of recommendations told us anything that had not already been suggested? The primary difference seems to be that the review body carries some kind of additional authority. But I am left asking whether or not we should have needed the review in the first place.
Please hear me correctly here. I’m not saying that the reviews weren’t needed. It seems that the only way to get change in some places has been the pressure of stories leaking out into the wider public domain and then a recognised external body coming in.
My questions are
- Should we have needed those reviews in the first place?
- Will those reviews actually deliver the change that is needed?
It might help to answer the second question first. You see, if a lot of what has been shared by such reviews is taken on board, as intended, by the wider church not just the original institution, then we may well see some good here. You see, in general, they point to things intended to prevent abuse and abuse cultures. However, the risk with relying on external bodies is that we sit back and think “It’s okay. Responsibility lies with the external body, not with us.” We can also assume that if an external review hasn’t happened, or if the review came back with minimal recommendations then everything was okay.
So, coming back to the first question, I don’t think we should have needed those reviews. Sadly we did. However, we shouldn’t because we should have had cultures as well as policies in our churches that reflected the Bible and the Gospel. Those cultures should have shaped.
- How we organise and interrelate. This would include: plurality of leaders within the church. A sense of whole body ministry and accountability, voluntary and trusting interdependence with other churches.
- An appropriate Biblical respect for the Law and relevant authorities. This means that churches should not be places where criminality is encouraged or hidden. This is why one of my frustrations has been the tendency of some to play down the importance of legal safeguarding measures.
- How we identify and train leaders. Part of the problem has I think been a tendency to identify leaders based on worldly views of gifting and success. We need to identify leaders based on what the Bible says about godly character and train them in a way that cultivates that character.
You can have all the reviews, reports and conferences you like but if we don’t address these things then we won’t really deal with the root issues. What is more, the issues we need to deal with are not just about structures and polity, not even about culture but about heart issues.