A Sermon for Safeguarding Sunday
A Sermon for Safeguarding Sunday, 19 November 2023
A sermon preached by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
(Micah 6: 6-8; Mark 12: 28-31)
The young man had rarely known fear. He was in his twenty-second year. He came from a loving family. He was an undergraduate at an ancient university. Travelling alone, he had embarked upon a trip to Greece, there to pursue his interests in Byzantine history.
Yet we find him not gazing at frescoed walls in Thessaloniki, or downing copper jugs of retsina in an Athens taverna. Instead, we find him sitting on the edge of his narrow bed. He is unable to sleep, and he is afraid. His tiny room is perched high above the northern Aegean. The place he is staying is very remote and its gates have been locked. The nearest town is half a day’s walk and a boat journey away, and there is no boat until tomorrow. He is the only native English speaker, and there is no telephone.
He is unable to sleep because two men have just left his room. Their purpose in coming was to commit an assault on him. They have gone – but now he realizes how utterly alone he is, and he is very scared.
The young man was me. I have told the story before, and while I apologize to any of you who have already heard it, I am not apologetic about telling it. I do so, I hope, not to be self-indulgent, but on this Safeguarding Sunday to make the point that vulnerability to the malign intent of others is a condition in which any of us may find ourselves. The very young, the very old, and those whose mental health is compromised are vulnerable, certainly: but so too are those of any age, background, or character who are unaccompanied, undefended, or simply unlucky.
Context makes not a scrap of difference. The incident I have described took place when I was staying as the guest of a Christian monastic community. The two men were members of it. There was no one to whom I could turn: no number to call; no secure place to take shelter; no complaints procedure to pursue. Any of those formal provisions, all of which now populate the safeguarding policies of this Cathedral and of every church, might have helped me feel slightly less at risk than I did.
It may be suggested that I should have shrugged it off, chalked it up to experience, and refrained from inflicting it on you nearly forty years later. Worse things happen. There lingers a sense that – even if we grudgingly accept the need for safeguarding provision, and even if we tick all the safeguarding boxes – our doing so is somehow tangential to the core purposes of our faith.
It is not. The prophet Micah counsels us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. To walk humbly with God is to prefer God’s priorities to our own, however Godly we may believe our priorities to be. To walk humbly with God is to allow God to open our eyes to our fragility, our frailty, and our failure. And there is much for us to open our eyes to. For years, the merest sniff of a question or the first hint of an allegation sent church leaders hurrying to circle the wagons and defend the institution and its staff. Far too often we have reacted with – at best – ostrich-like complacency to those of our own who have posed grave threats to others. Thus we have fallen at Micah’s first hurdle, for we have failed to do justice to the victim and to the survivor, and we have consoled ourselves with the thought that we are acting out of a love of kindness – the prophet’s second stipulation. But when we excuse or explain the harm done, to whom are we being kind?
We cannot live out the great commandment to love God and love neighbour if those who would harm their neighbour find a secure hiding-place in our common life. Terrible things have happened in the churches, as in all our best-loved institutions; we share a responsibility for ensuring that they cannot happen again. There’s the great commandment – right there – when we do whatever we can to ensure that the vulnerable are kept safe, remembering (if my experience is anything to go by) that any of us can be vulnerable. That, surely, is the bare minimum that loving one another requires of us.
When the sun rose the next morning there was a knock at my door. Very cautiously, and without opening it, I asked who it was. It was another pilgrim, older than me, who I had briefly met the previous afternoon. He was leaving early to walk to another monastery, he said: would I like to walk with him? We set off together. His knock meant that I never saw those men again, and never returned to that place. I don’t know, but I have always suspected that he knew something had happened the night before and that he was trying to help. I don’t know this man’s name and I can’t remember his face, but, nearly forty years later, I am grateful to him. And I remember the words of the author of the epistle to Hebrews, that sometimes we encounter angels without knowing it.
I hope you have not been distressed by what I have said. But if you have been, please don’t be alone – speak to your clergy, to the congregational safeguarding representatives, or to Jem Carter, the Cathedral safeguarding officer, whose contact details are readily available.
No one should have to tremble behind a closed door; no one should have to walk alone and in fear. On whose door might you knock today – with whom might you walk? Amen.