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Creating Healthy Christian Cultures

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Posted by Justin Humphreys, 30 Jan 2020

In the latest edition of Crossway, Justin Humphreys writes about how we can do better at creating healthy cultures in our churches.

The Church is facing a level of criticism about its safeguarding failures that is unprecedented. The report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) on its conclusions regarding the Church of England’s management of allegations is just one part of this increased scrutiny. We will see the wider Church come under the spotlight as IICSA launches its latest investigation, reviewing the current child protection policies and procedures in a range of religious institutions that have a significant presence in England and Wales: non-conformist Christian denominations, Jehovah’s Witnesses and those within the Islamic, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist faiths. 

The right to be protected from harm
But is this level of scrutiny, particularly of the Church, fair? Some may say that the safeguarding message within the Church and wider society has been well and truly heard by now. However, I am convinced that there is nothing that breaks God’s heart more than seeing his Church causing harm to others (whether through acts of commission or omission) and also perpetuating that harm by failing to fully address the issues that lead to the creation of environments where abuse can happen in the first place. Experience tells us that understanding that it is ‘everybody’s responsibility’ and what this really means is still only gaining partial traction.

One reason for this is undoubtedly that not everyone has grasped that safeguarding encompasses a broad range of measures and practices underpinned by the belief that all have the right to be protected from harm. Part of this is about recognising that there is a significant task before us all to create safer places and cultures as a preventative mechanism, and that we should not see safeguarding as purely how we respond or react to known or suspected issues.

This was the focus of the recent Church of England’s National Safeguarding Panel (NSP), chaired by Meg Munn, to which I had been invited to speak about what thirtyone:eight has learned from decades of supporting the Church with the task of safeguarding. Encouraging everyone to take this responsibility seriously depends very much on how we communicate the messages, how we ground them in the biblical mandate that we have, and how we take every opportunity to communicate appropriately to the widest possible audiences.
For some people, there can be a feeling that safeguarding rules and guidelines restrict or distract us from our true calling to communicate the Gospel. Some may feel that it hinders rather than helps the work God calls us to do. How should we respond to this?

A theology of safeguarding
Although the word ‘safeguarding’ itself does not appear in the Bible, throughout its pages we’re given hundreds of examples of God’s heart for vulnerable people, and the expectations he places upon communities and societies for how we should respond to, and treat those who fall within that category, so we can be left in no doubt as to God’s thoughts and feelings on the subject.
One verse that sums this up for us so clearly is Proverbs 31:8 from where the charity thirtyone:eight derives its name. This verse encourages us to ‘speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.’ (CEB). There is a clear expectation that there are certain rights to which all of us are entitled, including those who are vulnerable; rights of security and protection from harm, and that where power and authority are abused, we are all called to speak out, and to ensure a voice is given to those who are silenced. God’s love is an overarching theme throughout the Bible and this is where a theology of safeguarding begins.

We must ensure that we do not lose sight of this amidst all the other competing priorities demanding the church’s time and attention. Once we have committed to not shying away from what is certainly a very difficult, challenging and complex issue, we must be prepared to stand together to take action, and to learn how to be better at creating safer and healthier cultures for everyone.
At a festival this summer, I led a seminar in which I asked a question about how many clergy and other leaders had heard or delivered a sermon based on protecting vulnerable people in the context of church. The response demonstrated that this was still extremely unusual. I found this extraordinary, if not surprising, considering what we have just said about this being an issue that God speaks so clearly about throughout Scripture.

Creating safer communities of faith
There is a challenge here about how we all continue to make efforts to break the taboo of speaking about abuse and harm, and create cultures where it is okay to ask questions and to share concerns. This is particularly important for those of us who are leaders and have a platform (metaphorically or otherwise) to communicate the important principles of what safer, healthier communities of faith look like.

Currently, there appears to be a crisis in leadership across the Church (and not just the Church of England or Roman Catholic Church), where at times a misguided sense of needing to protect God’s name and the reputation of the Church casts a dark shadow over the relationship that God so yearns for with his people. Any sense that the Church is not a safe place, that it is not committed to opposing evil in all its forms, and that it is led by men and women who are not utterly committed to authentic and compassionate leadership practices, can only damage the Church. So, what is the answer?

Part of the solution may mean that as leaders we must be prepared to face conflict in tackling such issues head-on. There may be a price to pay in doing this. We may risk becoming unpopular among our peers and superiors, and even ridiculed, ostracised and excluded from the circles we have been used to walking in. But we owe it to ourselves and to those we are charged with leading and caring for to self-reflect on where we find ourselves and what part we might have played (unwittingly or otherwise) in maintaining a culture that is shaped by self-protectionism, institutional protectionism or worse. Making changes in the way that we behave and in the attitudes that we hold requires boldness, bravery and a preparedness to let go of who we are and let God speak to our hearts about what is right and just.

If the public at large is ever again to say of the Church that it is a safe place, a haven or even a sanctuary for those who are suffering, the Church must be prepared to be laid bare and be held accountable for those things it has failed to do well.

We must together seek to rebuild the culture within our churches, to become part of the change we wish to see.

Justin Humphreys is Joint-CEO of Thirtyone:eight.

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