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Who shall be found worthy?

14 November 2014

ONE of the most poignant moments in the whole of the New Testament is set in the heavenly court at the time of God's final judgement. God holds the seven-sealed scroll, presumably of human history, while an angel proclaims: "'Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?' But no one in heaven or earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll and look into it."

I was reminded of that verse in the fall-out from the resignation of a second Chair appointed to the inquiry on historic sexual abuse. Alderman Fiona Woolf and her predecessor, Baroness Butler-Sloss, were both forced to stand down because of victims' concerns that they were too close to Establishment figures.

The dilemma is a serious one. It is hard to think of anyone with the skill and experience to lead such a wide-ranging inquiry who is not, in some sense, a member of the Establishment, if only by virtue of his or her education. Nobody is seriously suggesting a counter-Establishment figure - Russell Brand or another edgy celeb.

The desire is for someone wise but untainted, as though it were possible to have a Chair who was both experienced and yet, in some way as yet undefined, innocent. The problem is that we have no idea of the real scale of historic sex abuse or any obvious way at getting at the truth. Hypocrisy abounds in this area.

What could be more outrageous than the carefully orchestrated raid on Sir Cliff Richard's flat, designed for the media with police helicopters and the BBC in tow? Yet the police and the BBC can hardly claim innocence, having both been involved in notorious cover-ups. The guilt of sex abuse has become like a game of Pass-the-Parcel: the one who drops it is out.

The search for one worthy to open the scroll in Revelation led to the announcement of the Lamb: the innocent sacrificial victim who alone had the authority to reveal the secrets hidden by time. Behind the demand for an untainted Chair is a longing for something no public inquiry can provide: atonement.

We have no language for this in the modern secular state. We speak of responsibility and blame, but the victims seem to be asking for a different kind of resolution. Their witness has been costly and now needs to be understood and absorbed, and made the basis of a wider repentance that involves us all, and not only the obviously guilty.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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