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A look over the edge of the abyss

16 October 2015

"PEOPLE with a strong desire for God often have a strong desire for other people." This was said by a former colleague in theological education, in the context of a conversation on sexual misbehaviour among the clergy.

It was a remark that has come back to haunt me in the light of the scandal about the former Bishop of Gloucester Peter Ball. Pictures of him in his heyday show a warm figure with an attractive smile, very much at home in his episcopal persona. No wonder he drew vulnerable young men to try their vocation in the upbeat-sounding Community of the Glorious Ascension. He must have seemed like a rock in a storm, a father-figure with arms held out to welcome and embrace.

Of course, we know now that Bishop Ball was a sexual predator who damaged the lives of those of those who had trusted in him. Comments at his trial implied that he was a sham through and through, who merely exploited his position to satisfy his lust.

But I do not accept that religion, for him, was merely a cover. I think that his aspiration to holiness was genuine, and that his desires, however warped, came ultimately from the same source as his longing for God. I suspect that he desired union with God at the same time as he desired union with particular human bodies. His problem was that he could never quite distinguish between the two.

If that is true, it would explain why he was so plausible. He was an innocent in his own eyes. Church authorities were content to cover things up — first, because they half believed him; and, second, because doing so protected them from scandal. There has been a deep-seated institutional instinct to overlook and excuse erring clergy, to accept priest-perpetrators’ story at face value, or, at the very least, to strive to keep disturbing reports out of the media.

The Church has done this for years for adulterous priests, often leaving their spouses to carry the burden of shame and guilt. It is criminal abuse that has made the Churches wake up and look into the abyss of unruly desire, perhaps for the first time.

Not all that appears sane and sweet is healthy: there is a split in many Christian souls between holiness and sexuality. When the Church is no longer trusted to distinguish between good and evil, it is left to the secular authorities to do so.

We all need to reflect on why, when it comes to sex, even wise and holy people can be strangely out of touch with truth.


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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