A sermon preached by the Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Sunday 10 October 2021, 16:30, Safeguarding Sunsay, The Nineteenth Sunday After Trinity
Readings: Joshua 5: 13 – 6:20, Matthew 11: 20-30
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. 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 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 come to his room. Their purpose in coming was to assault him. They have left – but now he realizes how utterly alone he is, and he is very scared.
The young man was me. I have never told the story publicly before. I do so now not, I hope, 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 capacity is compromised are vulnerable, certainly: but so too are those of any age, background or character who are unaccompanied, undefended, or simply unlucky. There is no one who does not need to be safeguarded.
There is no place that does not need to be safeguarded, either. The incident I have described took place when I was staying as the guest of a 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 and every church, might have helped me feel slightly less at risk than I did. Yet there lingers a sense that this stuff is all somehow tangential to the core purposes of our faith.
Too often – too often - the churches have resembled the walled city of Jericho, surrounded by battlements and almost impossible to penetrate. The merest sniff of a question or the first hint of an allegation has sent church leaders scurrying to raise ramparts, dig ditches, and repel those who threaten the solidity of what lies within. Too often – too often - the churches have reacted with ostrich-like complacency to those of their own who have posed grave threats to others, and have consoled themselves with the thought that they are acting with the childlikeness commended by Jesus.
We need neither of these stances; we need instead to remove the encircling walls and to build honesty and trust in our churches. Honesty that terrible things have happened; trust that we have a shared responsibility for ensuring that they cannot happen again. There’s our core purpose – right there – it’s loving one another, and therefore caring for one another.
When the sun rose the next morning there was a knock at my door. Very cautiously 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 have always suspected that he knew something had happened the night before and that he was trying to help. We read that an angel, the “commander of the army of the LORD” was sent to Joshua. I don’t know this man’s name and I can’t remember his face. But I am grateful to him. On whose doors might we knock – with whom might we walk?