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Letters to the Editor

15 June 2018

Archbishop on EU, disparities in C of E resources, stalking, and the seal of the confessional


Archbishop’s comments on EU

From Canon Peter Williams

Sir, — Christians are called to be positive (where possible), prophetic (where necessary), and prayerful (always) about government. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s brief sentences of euphoric panegyric on the achievements of the European Union (News, 8 June) had no hint of the prophetic. That made his assessment of the EU as “the greatest dream realised for human beings since the fall of the Western Roman Empire” the more puzzling.

It is puzzling because such an accolade for such a highly contested institution across such a time-span invites a rather negative “Surely not!” reaction. Indeed, the Archbishop provided a much more sober and critical assessment of the EU less than two years ago.

Then he spoke of its self-interested “policies that are pushing and keeping large sections of entire countries in increasingly desperate circumstances, with no apparent vision for how the circumstance might be overcome,” and in Greece, as he graphically put it, creating “the biggest debtor’s prison in European history”.

It is puzzling, because many of the most perceptive church leaders closest to the EU in recent times have pointed in the opposite direction, drawing attention, for example, to its dangerous refusal to take Europe’s Christian foundations seriously.

Thus Benedict XVI, a natural Europhile, often spoke of how the EU had very consciously moved from a place where Christianity was part of its fabric to one where it might be granted a rather marginal role somewhere on its periphery. So it rejected all attempts to make any reference to Europe’s Christian roots in its Constitution. “Is it not”, Benedict pertinently asked, “a cause for surprise that today’s Europe, while striving to position itself as a community of values, seems more often to contest the idea that there are universal and absolute values?”

It is puzzling, finally, because the EU with its imperial ambitions and unrepresentative, centralising inclinations, raises many questions for those who look to the Judaeo-Christian biblical tradition for guidance.

That tradition distinguishes sharply between the calling of nations to build society and their need to have government. “Abrahamic politics”, Lord Sacks argues, as he explores the biblical roots of society and government, “depends on a strong civil society to counterbalance the power of the state, a power that has an inbuilt tendency to grow over time.”

The EU provides rich evidence of that “inbuilt tendency”. Arguably, it needs Christian analysis more than uncritical praise.

23 Sandmartin Close
Buckingham MK18 1SD

From the Revd Donald Reeves

Sir, — The Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for the European Churches to counteract “fear of the other” by demonstrating the hospitality, the humility, the service, and the love in a disciplined and virtuous life needs to be taken up in many directions — not least in supporting those Churches that are resisting the nationalistic and populist appeal, particularly in Eastern Europe. Many are resisting the expectations of governments who expect the Churches to keep quiet.

It is time to look again together, with German and other Churches, at the Barmen Declaration of 1933, which reminded Christians to worship Christ, not Hitler. Now we need a rallying-point, a new, generous European Barmen Declaration, for Churches and all religious communities. Any takers?

Director of The Soul of Europe
The Coach House
Church Street
Crediton EX17 2AQ

Disparities in resources in the Church of England: theory and practice  

From the Revd Roger Chamberlain

Sir, — I am unsure what makes me more mystified: the lecture in economics and “firm dynamics”, and the phrase “networks that are little to do with parish boundaries would be the way forward” (Letters, 8 June), or the deafening silence of the more well-healed dioceses in response to the call from financially struggling dioceses to “come over to Macedonia and help us”.

In Birmingham diocese, in response to an unsustainable deficit, we are told, there is a plan to reduce stipendiary clergy from 135 to 100. One proposal (thankfully, I hope, now kicked into touch) was to allocate clergy posts on the basis of one stipendiary to 17,000 population.

In my deanery, we would be looking at a reduction in clergy from the present seven to just over two stipendiary posts ministering to 16 congregations. Murkier still is the proposed selling of a huge swath of land by the Church Commisssioners for housing in our locality, about which local clergy have no information, but which gives the impression that “the Church” has lots of cash.

I and my parishioners may not know much about economics, but we still do believe in the parish system and will have a right in the future to ask why we aren’t getting a priest. A lecture in economic theory doesn’t help at all; some Christian generosity from the haves to the have-nots might.

The Vicarage, 75 Newlands Road
Baddesley Ensor
Atherstone CV9 2BY

From the Ven. R. J. G. Panter

Sir, — I was really pleased to see that the Church Times had allowed Bishop Philip North to raise an issue that has troubled me for a long time (Comment, 1 June). It isn’t just dioceses that are independent charities: parishes are, as well. So the sharing of valuable resources within dioceses, deaneries, and even multiple-benefice teams presents a spiritual challenge that we mostly fail to address. Each to his own — and “That’s not our problem” — prevails.

This situation is amply illustrated in Norris Green, which I know very well, having helped them demolish their irreparable building some years back. There aren’t that many local estate churches that are growing, but this one is. Their new church proposal is modest, appropriate, and desperately needed, and if any vicar had the ability to procure funding this one would. Yet the £1 million that they need just isn’t happening. At the same time, it’s not hard to find other projects in the diocese and further afield where new builds, halls, and extensions are being successfully funded, but where historic or human resources are completely different.

We do, of course, have a national problem with maintaining our buildings. In Liverpool, the mantra “too many broken buildings” has led to a significant number of closures. This generally involved combining congregations or relocating into existing alternative premises, but in the two cases where a bright new church building opened in an urban community, the effect was transformative for mission and the gospel.

Rather than withdraw from poorer areas and outer estates, we ought to be building new churches there when the opportunity presents itself, and Norris Green is a brilliant opportunity. But for it to happen, we need a better match of resources with needs. If the Early Church could do it, we can.

115 Papillon Drive
Liverpool L9 9HL

Stalker took his own life after Reader’s ordeal

Sir, — I read with interest your article about stalking (Features, 1 June). It is really not yet appreciated as the potentially life-changing problem that it is.

I am a female licensed Reader in my late forties, and have recently been stalked by a man on the fringes of our church community. It has been a terrifying ordeal. For months, I was afraid to leave my house, but also frightened to remain indoors, owing to the unpredictable nature of the stalker’s character.

As a holder of a public office in a village community, my church duties are, of course, very much in the public domain; and, as a single mother, my movements are predictably determined by the school run, etc. I have had to live my life constantly glancing over my shoulder.

How frightening being stalked is cannot, perhaps, be fully appreciated by anyone who hasn’t experienced it. But I have learnt that the most useful thing is to talk about it and bring it into the open. No amount of silent hoping will make a stalker change his or her ways, but, once I had the courage to talk about it, to know that there were friends and neighbours looking out for me and my family made an enormous difference.

Although I received support from my incumbent and the diocesan safeguarding team, the police have been involved since January, as the situation escalated. Sadly, the stalker took his own life in March. I am now part of a police investigation, and may be needed to give evidence at the inquest.

The whole chain of events has had a devastating effect on my confidence and my ability to commit myself (even to the nicer things in life), and has significantly affected my ministry; I am receiving professional counselling. I know, however, that in time the scars will heal.

Thank you for your timely article, and for reminding your readership that ministering to people with mental-health issues on the fringes of society does sometimes bring challenges as well as rewards.


Corporate act of penitence is the liturgy needed 

From Mrs Sue Atkinson and the Rt Revd David Atkinson

Sir, — We are very grateful for the letter (Letters, 8 June) from survivors of abuse in response to the Prayer Resources published by the Liturgical Commission. It filled us with a sorrowful sense of recognition, especially for one of us (Sue), who is a survivor of abuse.

It is important to pray for safeguarding, of course. Some of the pastoral prayers of support for survivors will no doubt prove of help and comfort, though there is no awareness in the Resources that every survivor has a different story. In fact, we found some of the prayers triggering and patronising.

The word “justice” appears very infrequently, however, in the 16 pages (most prominently in the insensitive prayer for those falsely accused). What we believe many survivors most need is not resources about them, but a change of culture at all levels within the Church that allows survivors’ voices to be heard. And many of those voices concern precisely what Graham Wilmer and his colleagues call “the struggle for justice against the deaf and intransigent hierarchy of the Church”.

One contribution that the Church could make to the well-being of many survivors, we think, is to provide some appropriate forum for careful listening, together with a corporate act of penitence — maybe in Lent? — for the way in which we, as a Church, have for too long been deaf, too often have covered up injustice, and too often put the well-being of the institution before the call to act justly — that is, to show neighbour-love.

6 Bynes Road
South Croydon CR2 0PR

Attack on the seal of confession 

From the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford

Sir, — Canon Rupert Bursell (Letters, 8 June) is quite right when he says that penitents should have a true intention to unburden their conscience, a true intention to amend their future life, and a readiness to make restitution and satisfaction for their sins. This is not just Anglican ecclesiastical law, but the common teaching of the Church that the Prayer Book and the Canons faithfully reiterate.

But it does not follow from that, that the seal of confession applies only once this process is completed, by doing what the Canterbury diocesan regulations unhappily call “passing information on to the relevant agencies”. The Proviso to Canon 113 would be nonsensical in its clear direction to the clergy not to disclose crimes of which they hear through confession, if in fact, as Canon Bursell suggests, the seal comes into effect only once the public disclosure of criminality takes place. “Joke” or manipulating confessions, which he mentions, have no bearing on this, because the seal applies only when the penitent comes seeking absolution.

This may seem hard teaching, but, if so, we need to ask ourselves what pastoral care in the Church of England would look like were the Bishop of Dover’s directions on this to be followed everywhere. Should priests who hear the confessions of women from Northern Ireland who have had an illegal abortion there report them to the police? Should priests in the diocese in Europe living in countries with laws that penalise homosexuality pass on information to “the relevant agencies”?

It would seem that there is no popular pressure for the seal to be repealed, and no pressure either on sister Churches that observe it to abolish it. This agitation has been generated from within the Church of England to placate insurers and to “do something” in response to woeful failures regarding safeguarding.

It has now generated a complete mess, not least in the manifest contradiction between the Canterbury regulations and the Acts of Convocation that give effect to the published Guidance for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy. This is grossly unfair to priests and to penitents, and needs to be put right.

St Stephen’s House
16 Marston Street
Oxford OX4 1ET

From Dr Eleanor Relle

Sir, — In its statement about “Confession and Safeguarding” — prompted by the recent post by Forward in Faith (News, 1 June) — the diocese of Canterbury has explained that the instructions on the subject on page 33 of its diocesan Child and Adult Protection Guidelines (commencing “The Bishop emphasises that . . .”) were “drafted after seeking independent legal advice and in consultation with the then Acting Head of Delivery for the National Safeguarding Team”.

What is not at all clear is whether the drafting process included any consultation with a specialist in canon law or a specialist in sacramental theology. Nor, indeed, is it clear what the reason was for this unilateral departure from the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy; why was it thought to be appropriate, and by whom?

After all, if, as the explanatory statement from the diocese suggests, the intention behind the instructions was to avoid “legally compromis[ing] the position of the priest”, it is difficult to see how the priest’s giving the penitent a verbal warning that encourages her or him, potentially, to conceal a crime improves matters in any way.

The “statement of confidentiality and safeguarding” which, according to the diocese of Canterbury, a priest “must say” (my italics) before hearing a confession reminds me irresistibly of a Christmas Eve in the north of England when, heavily pregnant and having just moved house, I found myself last in the queue to make my confession in a church that I had visited for the first time the previous Sunday.

As I finally approached the priest and started to heave myself on to my knees, he greeted me with: “Hello, my dear, I’m sorry you’ve had to wait. Would you rather sit down?” How different, how very different. . .

99 Tonbridge Road
Maidstone ME16 8JN

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