A sermon preched by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer, for Safeguarding Sunday
Sunday 10 October 2021, 10:30, The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Three years ago, in that vanished world before we knew what lateral flow tests were, there was a conference of English cathedrals – an old-school, in-the-flesh event – in Manchester. Right at its start, however, there was a hint of the world that was to come, as the Archbishop of Canterbury addressed us all by video link (he was abroad at the time).
Like the Prime Minister at his party conference, also in Manchester, last week, Archbishop Justin had the leader’s task of enthusing the faithful. Both PM and primate had phrases to stick in the mind. Last week’s conference met the ‘corduroyed communist cosmonaut’ (Jeremy Corbyn) and was served ‘fibre-optic vermicelli’ (a reference to broadband provision). The phrase of Archbishop Justin’s that stuck with me was one he had first used when he was Dean of Liverpool: ‘cathedrals are safe places to do risky things’.
In thinking about Safeguarding Sunday, I’ve been pondering the relation between these two, safety and risk, the opposites that need each other, the sweet and sour of healthy living. Wanting a life of risk with no safety is reckless, but a life of safety with no risk can be faithless – indeed, it may be impossible, because often you can only safeguard a thing by risking something else. The question then is about the balance between the two.
In the gospel reading the rich man seems to want God. But when Jesus says that to safeguard his prospects for eternal life he has to risk the security of his present life by giving his money away, that is a shift in balance he cannot manage. In the face of that stark choice, something inside him – perhaps an evolved, animal instinct for survival – makes him safeguard his wealth, even though that puts his relationship with God at risk. He goes away, says Mark, shocked and grieved. He has too much to lose.
The Cathedral senior team will soon have the last of three sessions of a safeguarding leadership course. In preparation for our second session we watched a BBC documentary about the sexual predator Bishop Peter Ball, and saw through the eyes of police, safeguarding officials – and above all through the eyes of courageous victims – how some in church and national leadership made sinful errors of judgment about safety and risk.
Here was a charismatic, well-connected figure, a glamorous saint (so it seemed), other-worldly and yet ‘one of us’. So what had to be safeguarded here? The answer was: safeguard the reputation of a man and the standing of the church for which he was such an effective ambassador; even though that brought the risk of harm – we can say now, ensured harm – to the victims and future victims of his crimes. This man brought a wealth of benefits to the church, so there was – it seemed – too much to lose.
Reputational risk is a thing every organisation thinks about, and rightly. We see, however, that if you protect your reputation at the expense of the victim there is now a greater risk than ever that you will be found out; and then you will lose more than you ever imagined.
But for any institution and its leaders, pragmatics cannot be the main thing. We in the church – leaders, and the whole community of faith – must remember that the reputation that matters most is the one we have in the eyes of God, the one who (as the letter to the Hebrews puts it today) judges ‘the thoughts and intentions of the heart…the one to whom we must render an account’. That, and the reputation we have in the eyes of those of us who have the least privilege among us, those girls and boys and men and women who are so close to God’s heart, those who come first in the kingdom of God.
Now, these terrible things are not just here (the latest report is from France), nor is it just the church (the police service is also under intense scrutiny), and we are worried now about our processes creating new victims among the wrongly accused; but this is not a day for commenting on others but for placing ourselves before God, to whom we must render an account.
The training my colleagues and I are doing is to help foster a healthy church culture, so that (as the course literature says) we are ‘better able to achieve the Church’s mission to the world and prevent harm and abuse from happening to others, and respond well to victims and survivors’. We have tangible things to help us in that. On the Community Forum noticeboard you’ll find details of our safeguarding officers and procedures. There’s a helpful notice on today’s sheet. In the cloister loos there are notices about reporting abuse of any kind, anywhere. But a healthy culture needs intangible things, too. It requires healthy instincts.
The nurturing of instinct is at the heart of the Christian life. It is in part what we are doing now, as we hear scripture, offer prayer and break bread; and it is a daily task. If you haven’t already, do try our early-morning worship during the week if you can. It is not a high-risk activity: fifteen minutes or so for Morning Prayer; then, if you stay, barely twenty minutes for Holy Communion. If you do, you will find that every few days we pray for our ministry of safeguarding. We pray above all for people who are victims of abuse and those who support them. We pray with thanksgiving for those who have special safeguarding responsibilities among us, and for ‘all concerned with the welfare of children and adults’ (which is in a sense every one of us). We also pray that our cathedral may offer ‘a safe and caring environment for all, especially those at risk of abuse or neglect’.
But what does such an environment feel like? What does its air taste of? And if a cathedral is a safe place to do risky things, how do we nurture instincts that safeguard the right things and risk the right things?
This nurture is the responsibility of each one of us. And the main help that our tradition of faith brings to this is praying (wherever you do it, here or at home): that habit of arriving each day at a place of stillness with God – and then seeing what comes.
What do you most want to safeguard? What are you willing to risk? Those are the questions that Jesus in effect puts to the rich man. For him it’s about money, and it is for us too – money is a good indicator of what you think matters in life – but safety and risk are in all of life. We can each take those two questions to God, spend a little time with God, and see how the answers change – or become more deeply the same – as time goes by.
Any one of us may be the person who hears or sees or senses something that really matters if this place is to be the ‘safe and caring environment’ we desire. Then those questions have a particular edge. What – who – do I most want to safeguard here? And what am I prepared to risk to do that? The risk of being a bother? making a fuss? rocking the boat?
My prayer – ours, I hope – is that this cathedral may always be a safe place to take that kind of risk.