Goodness me. What a couple of weeks as an external adviser to the Church of England and other faith groups. I have worked with and alongside the church for more than two decades, in a variety of roles, most recently in work with St Martin in the Fields, Inclusive Church, Rainbow Church, General Synod access project, and in authoring the guidelines for including autistic people fully in our churches.
So many of us are still reeling from the heartbreaking witness accounts re some Clergy and other leaders' behaviour in the CofE, as revealed in the IICSA proceedings. So many young lives damaged irreparably. Every young person precious beyond words, a loved member of society who deserved only the very best of safeguarding and care.
"The Church of England should have been a place which protected all children and supported victims and survivors. It failed to be so in its response to allegations against clergy and laity." (https://www.iicsa.org.uk/publications/investigation/anglican-chichester-peter-ball/executive-summary)
The Panorama show was the next excruciating stumble through cultural failings, predatory abuse and further hell.
We hear from some BAME members of the church that there is still racism. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/01/26/time-church-past-present-racism-say-clergy/
"Too many BAME people still come up to me now and say of their parish churches, ‘They are happy for us to cook their food but don't want to see us sitting on the parish council or in positions of influence.”
We hear from women members of the church that there is still some resistance to their calling as Priests, long after the decision was first taken. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/women-vicars-church-sexism-religion-a8782501.html "We live in an environment that suggests we are perhaps “not quite” priests."
We hear from disabled and neurodivergent members of the church that too many of them are still treated as third class citizens, a burden or an object of pity, not equal participants at the banquet for all, as related by Jesus. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48054113 for example.
Another group? LGBT+ individuals. In January 2020, they and others have been slapped with a legalistic 'Statement', allegedly on behalf of all of the Bishops of the Church of England.
In it, the announcement that the only allowable place for sex is in a marriage of a man and a woman. In the midst of careful diplomatic negotiations on this topic, it was the equivalent of dropping a boulder into the middle of the preparations for that heavenly banquet. Crushed and bruised, the LGBT+ communities were joined by outraged and distressed people in Civil Partnerships between men and women, and by single parents, as the Statement implied that their parenting skills were at least an improvement on putting children in Institutions. What an awful thing to say. Imagine if you will being a single parent whose husband or wife abandoned you and the children, after years of nastiness towards you. There you are, doing your utmost for your wonderful children, bringing them up with dignity and respect...and the church considers you marginally better than putting the children in care....
I am one of some two million autistic people in the UK. Like many of us, I'm a Christian. I've watched as my fellow autistic individuals have been described by some in church congregations and publications as dangers, burdens, rigidly behaved drains on the church economy, empathy-lacking monsters, a diplomatic nightmare, and worse. Amongst us, nearly half of autistic people identify as part of the LGBT+ communities also. And I have been delighted to note research paper after research paper disproving every single one of these statements of deficit, over and over. Papers showing autistic integrity and honesty, empathy and love. Papers showing the full worth and full humanity of autistic people. A humanity and worth that is shared by every person on earth.
I am glad to see apologies emerging for some of the behaviours outlined above, by some in some churches. I am mindful of the many good people in our churches. People who are horrified by prejudice and/or indifference from some. Glad of the apology for tone and timing by some of the Bishops, but for sure we need people to acknowledge that the content fell far, far short of an answer of love and care.
What a nightmare. Especially for those who are multiply marginalised. What of BAME autistic people? What of LGBT women Priests? What of disabled single parents? How many collapse under the weight of judgement, in a church that seemingly cannot judge its own leaders.
Perhaps it has been too easy for some within the church to transfer onto any scapegoated group their own lack of empathy, their own lack of love, their own rigidity of rules and structures, their concerns about their own sexual behaviour?
Perhaps there needs to be a deeper and wider reflection and prayerful humbleness. Seeing within each person Jesus's image, the humanity and full worth of the person gazing back at us? We all are followers. We are all imperfect. We all stumble and fall. But we must never doubt that full humanity of one another. Or the richness and faithfulness of loving, permanent relationship.
If we can do that, we can each take our seat at that table, that beautiful, peaceful, joyful banquet of togetherness and purpose. In safety, and in fellowship.
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”Amen.
https://annsautism.blogspot.com/2019/01/autism-some-vital-research-links.html for the latest research on autism.