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Forget culture. It’s a new theology we need

06 April 2018

Linda Woodhead reflects on deeper problems revealed by the IICSA hearings


The IICSA panel

The IICSA panel

LISTENING to the evidence of abuse and cover-up in Chichester diocese has been a miserable experience. The experiences recounted by survivors were harrowing, the explanations offered by senior clergy were shocking, and the juxtaposition of the two was a lesson in inhumanity.

Nobody who spoke at IICSA, including Archbishop Welby, denies that the problem goes deep and calls for serious reform. Everyone agreed that procedural and structural change was insufficient without a change of culture. But no one drew the obvious conclusion that this must include theology. Operative theologies in the Church of England are part of the problem; so a ruthlessly honest theological audit is going to have to be part of the solution.

An urgent place to start is a Christian understanding of forgiveness. In Chichester, a faulty doctrine of forgiveness was used by abusers to salve their consciences, by church officials to move on without dealing with the problem, and by parishioners and clergy to marginalise “unchristian” victims and whistleblowers.

The former Archdeacon of Hastings the Ven. Philip Jones pinpointed the problem when he told the Inquiry that Canon Gordon Rideout, sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for 36 separate sex offences against 16 different children, “took the view that he had been forgiven by God, his slate was therefore wiped clean . . . as if the abuse hadn’t happened.”

At the Calvinist end of the spectrum, a theology of total depravity and total justification could feed this doctrine of cheap forgiveness; at the Catholic end, the practice of confession and absolution. Underlying both is the idea that all that matters is my personal relationship with God, and that this is completely separate from my relation with creation.

In her brilliant account of sin and forgiveness, Marjorie Suchocki defines original sin as rebellion against creation, not against God-without-creation. Forgiveness cannot bypass victims. As the Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, said, there is a world of difference between saying “I am accountable to God but not you” and “I am accountable to God through you.”

This raises the question: what kind of God does the Church of England now believe in? A God who stands outside his creation knowing exactly how it will all end? Or a God who is present in, with, and through creation, and affected by it? If the former, then nothing we can do is going to make much difference, anyway. If the latter, we have a genuine responsibility: when we harm a child we harm God as well.

AND what about divine violence? Do we preach a God of peace, a God of retribution and discipline, or a bit of both? Did Jesus come with a sword or a kiss of peace? Do we believe in the blood-drenched apocalyptic hope of the book of Revelation? Since the Bible supports all these options, it is not going to settle the matter.

IICSA raises uncomfortable questions about why so many senior clergy were so easily able to overlook violence, much of it criminal. In Spare the Child, the historian Philip Greven documents the long tradition of Anglo-American Protestant support for the physical discipline of children, played out in schools, homes, and domestic relations. Was there something of this theology that predisposed senior clergy to think that a little bit of violence against children wasn’t really so bad — just part of growing up?

THE scandals in Chichester and the wider Church were tied up with a crazy idealisation of the clergy. Time and again, IICSA heard from clergy who simply couldn’t believe that their colleagues would lie to them. Thus the former Archdeacon of Lewes and Hastings, the Rt Revd Nicholas Reade, later Bishop of Blackburn: “I take priests at their word. . .”

This goes together with a grandiose vision of the Church as an oasis of truth and goodness in a sea of secular ungodliness. IICSA was a living refutation of that faulty eschatology and ecclesiology. Here it was seemingly secular women who were the patient midwives of truth and decency, survivors who were its mouthpiece, and male clergy who were judged. The stones that the builders rejected became a stumbling-block.

After IICSA the idea that doctrine is a possession of the church, not an ongoing discussion with laity and society, ought to die for ever. It is bound up with a state of mind in which it is impossible to pursue living questions wherever they lead, or to admit mistakes and failings in the Church other than in the most generalised terms (“for all are guilty and have fallen short. . .”).

It is easy to talk of the need to change the “culture” of the Church of England, but if we admit that the problems are theological, we see that procedural tinkering is not going to be nearly good enough.

Like an alcoholic, the C of E has now to make a searching and fearless moral inventory, admit the exact nature of its wrongs, and make amends to those whom it has harmed so dreadfully. Only with their help can it possibly recover.

Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University.

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