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Unchecked Power and the Church

A Sermon preached by the Dean of Salisbury Sunday 23 June, 2019 - 10.30am - 1 After Trinity

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Unchecked Power and the Church

Posted By : Nicholas Papadopulos Sunday 23rd June 2019

A Sermon preached by the Dean of Salisbury

Sunday 23 June, 2019 - 10.30am - 1 After Trinity

Galatians 3: 23-end  Luke 8: 26-39

Rosemarie Mallett, parish priest of Angell Town in south London, dominated yesterday’s headlines.  It was announced that her proposal for churches to be safe places for young people seeking refuge from knife crime will be debated at next month’s meeting of the General Synod.  I was surprised that such a straightforward and sensible proposal was deemed so newsworthy.  Surprised and, I have to say, disturbed.  At my most optimistic I wonder if it’s the suggestion that the Church has anything even remotely useful or relevant to offer the young that caught the journalists’ eye.  But at my most bleak I wonder if it’s the suggestion that the Church could ever be a safe place for the young.

In the new language that the Church is learning the man who calls himself ‘Legion’ is a ‘vulnerable adult’.  He’s vulnerable because he’s in the grip of something over which he has no control.  The pre-critical minds that recorded the stories of Jesus believe that demons have taken hold of him.  Our modern perspective may be that he was suffering from acute mental ill-health.  It matters little: what emerges from St Luke’s narrative is a portrait of a man tormented.  He lives apart from human society; he has been restrained with chains; he does not wear clothes.  He lives the life of a feral beast and is treated by his erstwhile neighbours accordingly.  He is the victim of the unchecked power which ravages him, with appalling consequences, however we understand that unchecked power.

Many of you will have seen the shocking photographs of the two women who were attacked on a London bus late at night last month.  They had been on a date; they aroused the interest of a group of fellow passengers; they were abused and assaulted.  One of them was left with a broken nose and one with a broken jaw.  They too were the victims of unchecked power, albeit power more readily identifiable than that exercised over the man who called himself ‘Legion’.  It was the power of numbers: they were two, pitted against a crowd.  It was the power of the physically strong: two women, confronted by at least five young men.  It was the power of an aggressively sexualized culture: two gay women whose intimate life was treated as a spectacle to be picked over and leered at by male onlookers.

Next month the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – IICSA – will hold a further fortnight’s hearings into the past conduct of the Church of England.  The hearings will almost certainly be uncomfortable days for all of us who love the Church of England and strive to be loyal to it.  Uncomfortable because they will produce further revelations of the extent to which unchecked power has been allowed to damage the lives of the vulnerable in our churches.  IICSA’s work to date makes it clear that the abuse of children and others within the Church has not been the action of one or two bad apples which have contaminated the barrel and spoiled the party for everyone.  Instead the very structures and ethos of the Church have created a climate in which abuse has been possible.  The structures and ethos have done nothing to prevent the exercise of unchecked power.  

For the abuse of children and vulnerable adults, whether sexual, emotional, psychological, or physical is at heart about the malign exercise of power over others.  The circumstances were different, but something of that power was on display in the bus attack – the power conveyed by superior strength, the power conveyed by brutish masculinity, the power conveyed by wilful imperviousness to another person’s needs.  The institution ought to make it impossible for such power to be wielded and impossible for people to be hurt by it.  But in their recent book To Heal and Not to Hurt Alan Wilson and Rosie Harper have observed that “Churches often run on discretion and deference, weak boundaries and a commendable will to think the best of everyone”.  The veracity of their reflection is correlated by the findings of IICSA’s research.  “The protection of the reputation of the religious institution and individual perpetrators at all costs” reads a recent summary “meant victims and survivors said they were often disbelieved, discredited, and not supported after disclosing their experiences”.

The Church lives to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to make the Kingdom a reality in our midst.  In no area of its life is its failure to do so more abject than this.  Jesus leaves behind the familiar territory of his Jewish birth and goes to the country of the Gerasenes.  They are Gentiles; he is among strangers.  There he does not shun the desperate man who raves among the tombs, but instead addresses him directly: “What is your name?” It is the most ordinary and human of questions – quite possibly the kindest words that the man has ever heard.  And in one of the little vignettes at which St Luke is so skilled, as the episode closes the man who has called himself ‘Legion’ is seated at Jesus’s feet.  He is clothed, and he is in his right mind.  He has been restored to human society.  He has been made well, and he is sent away with a task to perform, declaring the great works of God. In other words, compassion, authenticity, and healing: these are what Jesus brings to the vulnerable; these are the Church’s mission today.

What we now call Safeguarding is integral to this mission.  Its purpose is to frustrate the exercise of unchecked power in our midst.  The Cathedral, like all churches, has a Safeguarding policy.  It can be viewed on our website.  We have staff members and volunteers who lead on Safeguarding.  Their contact details are published.  We undergo compulsory training and undertake checks on those who take on certain roles in our common life.  I know that this seems like an exponential increase in bureaucracy, and I know that it is not welcomed by all.  But I make no apology for it.  I believe it to be absolutely fundamental to our identity.  If we are a place where unchecked power can exert its damaging influence; if we are a place which runs on inappropriate deference, invisible boundaries and weakness masquerading as welcome; if we are not a safe place for all; then we are not being faithful to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  End of.

So I hope that Rosemarie Mallett’s proposal is agreed by the Synod and I hope that it may be one way for the Church to undo some of the damage it has done.  I am convinced that it is the responsibility of every one of us to look after one another, particularly for those who for whatever reason are least able to look after themselves.  Unchecked power does not belong here and we must call it out.  St Paul reminds the Galatians that they are all the children of God through faith; “we are all one in Christ Jesus” he adds.  It is a heavenly reality.  We must work to make it real on earth.