The goings on at Christ Church, Oxford over the last four years have been bewildering for all disinterested observers. I’m in the position of knowing people on both ‘sides’. I’ve known Martyn Percy for many years, and hold him in great esteem. I don’t know if he’d count me as a friend, but I’m very grateful for the warmth and support he’s shown me over the years. The conflict between him and the Studentship/Fellowship must have been incredibly painful. Like Martyn, I’ve been a Head of House, and I’ve been in conflict with my own Fellowship. I feel badly let down by many of them, and I’m as good as certain that some have been craven, and that some have kept quiet or perhaps even lied about what they knew or didn’t know. Anyone who’s been caught up in the febrile atmosphere of ‘safeguarding’ complaints and counter-complaints in the university world will know that even when you think you have done your best in difficult circumstances, you will be found to have failed somewhere, somehow, and that you will not be forgiven for that failure. It’s a hard time to carry significant responsibility in Higher Education. And even in relation to the Church, I’ve had my share of bad experiences.
But these conflicts are never neatly categorised or described. If you follow the website ‘Thinking Anglicans’, as I do, it’s sobering to see what people contributing to the ‘below the line’ comments seem to make of things. Sometimes I think the website – an amazingly well-maintained and informative one – ought to be renamed ‘Shrieking Anglicans’. There is the most grotesque parade of accusation, sweeping generalization, and sheer lack of Christian charity on display at times. And all this, when it’s almost certain that many of those commenting do not actually know the people involved, or the situations in detail, on which they have such strong views.
One of the problems – and I’ve seen this time and again – is that individuals who bring complaints against institutions are generally at liberty to say what they like on social media, and perhaps even in traditional print media. But generally speaking the institutions concerned are not at liberty to respond in detail, because they’re bound by the responsibility of confidentiality and would be open to accusations of further abuse were they to try to respond. But then again, an institution is only a collection of people, and people, as we know, vary enormously in their reliability, their integrity, their trustworthiness, their grasp of the issues with which they’re confronted, and so on. Yes, sure, there are faulty processes, but in the end the responsibility for implementing, reforming, protecting processes is a personal one.
So sometimes we see institutions behaving appallingly, covering up abuse, protecting abusers, or letting them slip through the gaps in processes ill-suited to what they’re supposed to be dealing with. Sometimes we see people in positions of responsibility juggling difficult, challenging problems on multiple fronts, and unsurprisingly getting things wrong. Sometimes we see people who exercise a general responsibility for overseeing a department or an activity or a group of people unfairly targeted with a venom which – if appropriate at all (which, frankly, as a Christian I doubt) – ought to be reserved for the perpetrators of abuse (think, for example, of Sharon Shoesmith). But it won’t do just to blame the institution en masse: matters have to be quarried down to the question of actual, personal responsibility.
The Church of England is no different in all this from other churches, and from other charities and other institutions. Is it better than than the Catholic Church, public schools, residential care homes, the police…? Sadly, no. But then, as a friend of mine says when she’s approached by would-be ordinands, ‘You do realize that the Church of England is an abusive institution? – not because it’s a Church, but because it’s an institution’. This is the sad stuff of life. And it’s not to say that there isn’t an urgent need to reform, to improve, to care for and protect the weak and vulnerable, for of course there is, and to the extent that we fail to do this, we’re culpable and ought to be held to account.
But personally I don’t accept that ‘institutional’ failures – which, as I say, in the end are personal ones – cancel out the value or even necessity for ‘institutions’. I can’t follow Martyn down the path of separation from my own Church. For me, the Church is always at fault, always faltering, always problematic and riddled with failure. People suffer at the hands of church leaders or church members, just as they do in any other association. There are appalling cases of abuse and deliberate cover up, and yet there are also very mixed situations in which good intentions have got mangled, attempts to be even-handed have appeared to be callous, processes have been fitfully followed, and so on.
What did we expect? Paradise on earth? The kingdom of God is here, and yet it is always becoming. I don’t believe the bishops are rotten to the core – far from it. Yet they make mistakes, as everyone does, and sometimes those mistakes have serious consequences for people. But I don’t believe the Church of England is rotten to the core. When I think of its many failures, however, I find myself going back again and again to the words of Austin Farrer who, in a memorable sermon he preached first in 1960, and again near the end of his life in 1968, confronted the problem of being in an imperfect church. The sermon was called, on publication, ‘On being an Anglican’, and it’s quite startling today for its sharp criticism of the doctrine of infallibility. That apart, to me it’s a steadfast defence of staying in the Church of England, the Church of my own birth, baptism, upbringing, marriage and, I hope, death. I’m quoting a few passages, of course, but to me Farrer’s words acho strongly (and the uninclusive language is of its age):
“[F]undamentally we are just Christian priests, priests in the Church of God. Did not Christ establish sacraments, and an apostolic ministry, and a visible company of faithful men? And have we not to make the best of it, by the grace of God?…Suppose the organization is antiquated, the leadership weak; we shall not help to modernize the former or invigorate the latter, by deserting our stations…
…The Church of England is not the Church; there is only one Church, as there is only one Christ. The centre of the Church is neither Rome nor Canterbury; it is the heart of Heaven. There is a company of saints who enjoy the society of Jesus Christ more intimately than his disciples ever did on earth. We, who know him only by faith and touch him only in sacraments, are no more than outposts and colonies of his sacred empire…
…[W]e are Anglicans because we can obey Christ in this Church, by abiding in the stock and root of his planting, and in the sacramental life…The Church mediates Christ: her sacraments make Christ present, her creed presents the lineaments of his face, her fellowship incorporates us into his body. To be a loyal churchman is hobbyism or prejudice, unless it is the way to be a loyal Christian. Christ is our calling, Christ our life; he whom the cross could not daunt nor the grave retain will make our dry bones live, and restore to the universal Church that peace and unity that are agreeable to his will, that we may be one in him, as he with the Father and the Holy Ghost is one life, one love, one God.”
(from The End of Man, 1973, pp. 49-52)