As a church, we are called to be Good News to all. On that I think we all agree. Bringing the love of Jesus within closer reach of each and every person.
Our Priests and teams serve their congregations with great care and faithfulness throughout the country. Most do a truly excellent job, with limited resources and great effort.
We have polices on safeguarding, for example https://www.churchofengland.org/media/37405/promotingasafechurch.pdf
Here’s some extracts from it, about how to treat a Vulnerable adult.
“Helping in such a way as to maximize a person’s independence. People with additional needs can and do lead active and fulfilled lives but some may need support and resources to do so.
Always respecting the person and all their abilities.
Recognizing the choices people make even if they may appear risky.
Giving people the highest level of privacy and confidentiality possible in the circumstances.
Including everyone in decisions affecting their life.
Creating an environment within the Church that can include everyone.”
And now the not always so good. This for ordinary everyday meetings – not ones where someone has alleged abuse etc:
“Church workers should be aware of their language and behaviour. For example, innuendoes or compliments of a sexual nature are always inappropriate.The place of the meeting, arrangement of the furniture and lighting, the worker’s dress;
The balance of privacy for conversation with the opportunity for supervision via open doors or windows in doors, another person nearby;
The physical distance between people determined by hospitality and respect, being aware that someone may have suffered abuse or harassment in the past;
Whether the circumstances suggest a professional or social interaction;
The propriety or danger of visiting or being visited alone, especially in the evening;
The personal safety and comfort of all participants;
Establishing at the outset the nature of the interview in respect to subject matter, confidentiality and duration;
The appropriateness of initiating or receiving any physical contact, for example gestures of comfort, which may be unwanted or misinterpreted.”
Now if you’re a church worker, that might all sounds like a sensible plan. After all, we don’t want any court cases, do we.
If you’re a Vulnerable adult, encountering this sort of , ‘I’m afraid to be ordinarily jokey with you like I am with everyone else; I need to make sure others have line of sight of us in case you allege something’, guidance, it is horrible beyond words. Trust me, it is.
Absolutely no-one wants their church team members to be afraid of dealing with them. To be wary of saying or doing normal everyday things. To be reluctant to put out the safe and consensual hand of comfort on a shoulder that they would offer to anyone else. To be talking about nothing more challenging than the state of the weather with you or the vague location of the last family holiday, in case the conversation is deemed too risky or too personal.
How would you like to be singled out to have to talk about confidential matters in front of an audience, so the church worker can have witnesses? Would you feel valued, or like a criminal?
I’ve had all of this in the past. And actually it’s not OK at all. I don’t want to be in a church that treats me as a walking court case waiting to happen. I don’t want that for anyone else either. Very blessed with many clergy friends who know how to be ordinary everyday friends. Real good news.
AND behaving in overly formal ways does not stop one single actual predator from targeting even one vulnerable adult. They don’t take any notice of the rules anyway. They know every way round that.
So, what is it we are trying to say to those who are every bit as loved by God as the others in church? What message are we bringing to those who place their trust in our teams?
Being watchful for predatory behaviour and able to act to help prevent it – absolutely.
Not groping, or making rude sexual remarks to someone to embarrass them in some nasty way? I agree. But... what of when they are equal cheery partners in the most gentle of ‘carry-on film’ style joke and are used to thinking of the other person as a friend, not as some formal Assessor of Their Christian Behaviour?
Talking to us in Formal Vicar Voice about Appropriate Topics with an appropriate number of witnesses? No thank you. Jesus wouldn’t have done that. I don’t want church leaders doing it either. It’s not appropriate at all. It's just demeaning for us.
Jesus wasn’t just talking to clergy when he said that he called us all his friends. He meant adults who may be Vulnerable, too. So, be kind friends. No-one should pretend to offer caring, when all they’re offering in reality is minimisation of risk to themselves.
There’s a fine and important difference between those two things. Think really carefully about which it is you want to demonstrate to those who may be Vulnerable. Because we who are those Vulnerable Adults can tell the difference. Honest we can. And there’s no need for us to be in a church to receive formalised court-approved behaviours from those in charge. That’s not what our faith is about. It never was.
Do I want to make it easy for predators? No, of course not. Let me be quite clear on that. I've spent a lifetime working very hard indeed to help very vulnerable people stay safe.
But turning all of our church friends into people often too scared to be with us does not make our lives safer. It often leaves us more alone and more vulnerable than before.
I hope that is understood.