I wonder if I am alone in thinking that the child abuse scandal so badly damaging the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church shouldn’t be worrying the Church of England and its sister churches more than it does. I am thinking not of the abuse itself but of the conditions which made it possible. In other words, the cultural and organisational predispositions that were dangerously about their business.
Sexual and emotional abuse violates bodies and hearts; it is also, always, an abuse of power, whether by the adult over the child or by a more powerful adult against another. The power may arise from sheer force of personality (or even plain, straightforward physical power and the threatened or actual use of it); often it derives from a role or office which itself confers power – such as that of parent, or teacher or priest.
It is here that the notfiable condition known as clericalism is relevant, for it is about power. I don’t suppose many Anglicans think much about this. The term is used to describe church structures in which control is largely or entirely vested in the clergy. But it goes further than that – it is a condition which has the effect of infantilising the laity, firewalling those in control from any real reciprocal accountability, and creating the conditions in which abuse (misuse of power) can both flourish and be got away with. The current crisis in our sister church arises from the abuse itself and the structural conditions which fostered it and the way in which it was responded to by those with ecclesiastical power.
Amidst all that has been said about the scandal, what has struck me as the most encouraging has included opinions from laity and some clergy in The Tablet and on some Roman Catholic online sites, in which clericalism is identified as a major component of the unfolding scandal and as a significant obstacle to the church being a faithful vehicle of the Gospel. Those adopting this analysis call for a radical transformation in the way in which power is exercised within the church. Amongst other things, it must see an end to clerical dominance and bring about the true emancipation of the baptised within the household of the church.
Now, has any of this any message for the Church of England? I believe it does. We, too, are a clerically-centred church – in some settings visibly similar to the Roman model, in others apparently radically dissimilar. The ‘office of priest’ or that of ‘minister’ tends to be not only the organising but the dominating principle of the local church. True, this is often in ways which embody all that is best in the role: service, attentiveness, seriousness about the Gospel, professional competence and maturity, generosity, involving others. Yet it is not unknown for it to be heavy handed, preoccupied with self, bossy, controlling and even exploitative or plain lazy. These are extremes of the clerical bell curve. But not unknown extremes. The priest remains, to a great degree, the organising principle of the local church – to which many will say, ‘of course - so what?’ And many clergy might add ‘and if I did not do ‘x’, it would not get done at all’.
Perhaps so, though I wonder how often such a claim is really tested. I know Christian people who do not attend church because their experience has been that it is predisposed to a model they find infantilising. It makes one wonder whether the reverse is truer than we care to think: that many of those attracted to church are attracted because of the power structures and their infantilising aspects. It is safe to claim that within the Church of England may be found local churches of all traditions displaying some or all of the characteristics which may foster or actually be, the abuse of power: a dominant leader free to operate without effective accountability; centralised decision-making; immature emotional dependencies; subtle favouritisms; the freezing out of dissenters; insistence on conformity of thought.
Diminishing congregations are sometimes attributed to creeping secularism, a self-centred society and other entertainments which captivate and entrap people. Perhaps, in part, this is so. What we seem not to consider is that models of power within churches are increasingly unappealing to conscientious people.
We humans can exercise power in abusive ways ranging from the obviously blatant to the carefully disguised. Most of us at times practice this second, oblique, kind and, if we are conscientious, spend a lifetime seeking to transform the habit. Clergy are professionally equipped (and often personally inclined) to be good in the ‘soft’ skills. Embarrassingly, ‘niceness’ is the quintessential hallmark of the fabled ‘vicar’. It can easily conceal – and become an obstacle to the transformation of – harder attitudes and styles.
None of this is limited to the parochial foot soldiers. Bishops exercise power and one might note, from report and occasional experience, that they do not always do so justly or wisely. Again, a bell-curve, this time episcopal. The same appears to be true of some archdeacons and deans. And it can be true of all of us in circumstances in which we hold organisational and structural power and are not effectively accountable and where we can get away with it. (For all the discussion about women bishops, I’ve yet to see any discussion of what bishops are for, how they ought to operate and in what ways they are accountable – surely relevant questions at a time when that office is being discussed in so fundamental way. It is a missed opportunity).
William Stringfellow - 20th century American, Episcopalian lawyer; white; middle class - who was radicalised by his experiences in Harlem and his reading of the Gospels, is a writer who continues to inspire. One of his great contributions is in the area of the ‘powers and principalities’. He of course recognised the church as a ‘power and principality’ capable of corruption within itself and of corrupting others. For him, the question of power was fundamental to the Gospels, and its proper and humanising use was a sign that the Gospel was at least partially understood.
The scandal of the clerical abuse of children must disturb us deeply. More than this, it must provoke us to better understand the predisposing factors of abuses of power within our own part of the Body of Christ, and how we might address them. This is a difficult challenge, because there is little consensus that such a problem exists and many will say it does not. As with all ideologies and organisations, those of us within them can be strangely blind to the obvious about them. Aware of the defensive responses such a claim will surely provoke, it seems to me that the starting point must involve facing up to the linked features of clericalism and a disenfranchised laity as they exist within our own part of the Body of Christ. A graphic lesson has been played out – is being played out – before our very eyes. What are we to learn from it?
Published in the Church Times (London) 2010