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Angela Tilby: Equality has a friend in chastity 

03 November 2017


Disgraced: Harvey Weinstein (right), who has been accused of a torrent of sexual assaults and harassment, on the red carpet with Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz

Disgraced: Harvey Weinstein (right), who has been accused of a torrent of sexual assaults and harassment, on the red carpet with Hollywood stars Leona...

AFTER Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood, it was the world of fashion, then TV, then the British and European Parliaments. Historic and present-day sexual harassment of women by men is everywhere, it seems, including in the Church.

But there are some particular features about bad sexual behaviour in the Church which are worth pondering. The first is that many instances are initiated by men who have pastoral responsibility for their victims. This is shocking and deeply regrettable. But we should not blind ourselves to the fact that some offending clergy might have deluded themselves into believing that their attentions were helpful, even healing.

It sounds offensive today, but there were some wacky ideas in the counselling worlds of the 1960s and ’70s. Therapists following Freud and Jung occasionally speculated that troubled women could be cured by sex.

This was part of a wider picture in which the Bible was regularly invoked to prove the neediness and inferiority of women. I remember a booklet on sex published around 1965 which stated that women were physically and emotionally incomplete without men, and that married women should submit to sex even if their husbands had to use a degree of force. Even at the time, this felt wrong, but the author was a respected married woman and her name carried weight.

For years, I have worried about what I was once told by a former school friend about her relationship with a priest. She had mental-health problems and struggled with her faith. She went to see a well-known priest who was renowned for his pastoral sensitivity. On several occasions, she told me how helpful he had been to her. But she also told me, once, that he had touched her. What she actually meant was not clear, and I was not sure whether or how to pursue the issue.

Afterwards, I wondered whether she might have misinterpreted an innocent action. On the other hand, perhaps he was one of those who thought he could “cure” her by touching, holding, and hugging. Perhaps this went too far and he ended up leaving her confused and betrayed. Perhaps her vulnerability awakened a vulnerability in him, and he thought that they could help each other through mutual affection. Perhaps it was all much, much worse.

Both have died now, and the truth has died with them, but I have since heard similar stories. I am not comfortable writing all such men off as Harvey Weinsteins. But I have come to think that, when men cross sexual boundaries, they often do so because, consciously or unconsciously, they hold to persisting notions of female inferiority and neediness.

Priests and others who offer pastoral care need to consider why chastity remains an essential Christian discipline, one that happens to be liberating both for women and for men.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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