It takes a while for living compostable material to rot down and become the stuff of life again. It’s best not to examine it too closely while this is happening.
Perhaps this is what the Church of England was thinking during the decades spanning the abuse of vulnerable people by one of its prelates and by another highly regarded individual whose integrity was compromised by, presumably, the toxic mix of sado-eroticism and religion.
Eroticism and religion have long been known to serve each other, when allowed to. Only read some of the poetry of John of the Cross, for example, and the worryingly sadistic reaction it led to at the hands of his deeply religious tormentors. They were afraid of its power and equally afraid of the poet’s ability to contain and focus that power in a God-ward direction, something they were not able to do. Powerful life-giving spirituality can make others envious, especially if those others are already powerful in a worldly sense, but exercise their power in a formal religious context. Power can be erotic and, in this respect, is always dangerous.
Religion, and Christianity especially, has always played dangerously with erotic power, especially in the form of sadism. Sadism is highly flammable stuff which, for some reason, is easily ignited in the religious mind. Think only of the still enduring fascination with medieval graphic portrayals of the suffering of Christ, rendered in the visual language of modernity. Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, comes to mind.
Perhaps all this is part of a processing of our own dark fascination with perverted religion, as it combines with violence and with sexual sadism of one kind or another, not to mention personal charisma and the vanity which accompanies it. Some would say that if the Church as we know it is to survive, it must keep a cap on all this dark stuff, even if its highly placed prelates and senior figures are revealed to be actively part of it. The more cynical might just write them off as ‘collateral damage’. But it won’t do. Rottenness will never do. This suggests that a radical change in the way the institutional Church is currently perceived is needed now more than ever.
It takes time for things to rot but once they have reached a point of no return, excision remains the only possible option. This is beginning to happen in the Church, largely thanks to the courage and persistence of the victims and through the action of the police. It did not happen as a result of the niceness or kindness of Church leaders. When it comes to abuse, whether in the Church or anywhere else, niceness and kindness are not enough. Niceness and kindness do not stop the rot. Many of us are sick at heart for the rottenness of the state of the Church and for its complacency in regard to rampant injustice, and some of us are angry. We are angry about the citadel mentality which dominates so much of the Church’s life, at least in that which pertains to those with power and influence. It is a mentality which is not simply limited to protecting the interests of abusers.
If you are a woman priest in certain provinces of the Anglican Communion, or simply a member of a sectarian group within it, you will very soon feel powerless in the worst possible sense of the word. You are not part of the citadel, the largely male inner sanctum which holds to status and to the power which comes with it, but which is seldom used for the common good. You will be someone who is denied a voice. All the more so, if what you say or do troubles its peace of mind and general complacency in regard to arcane laws and an unworkable authority system which is ill designed to nurture gift among all God’s people and so allow Christ to speak to our society. You will know what it feels like for ranks to close and exclude you from the inner sanctum of the powerful, though all may smile and many will be nice to you. If you are a member of the LGBTQ community, you will experience the same thing.
For people belonging to either or both of these groups, serving the institutional Church is not life in its fullest sense. It is not life as Christ promised it. It follows, quite obviously, that the institutional Church is not Christian in the sense that Christ would have wished it to be, so it is not working very well. It is not freeing people into Christ. Rather, it has been reduced to a largely self serving and introspective system with something rotten at its heart.
To be a Christian is to be a liberator, one who empowers others as Christ did. So it follows that those who hold power within the institutional Church must look first to the victims of abuse, and of institutionalised misogyny and homophobia, in order to set them free. They will do this by seeking their forgiveness before beginning to enact the kind of radical change which will enable the victims of every kind of abuse to live in the fullest sense of the word. For this to be possible, radical change is needed both within the Church’s own political system, the power games of superficial niceness played out by a select few, and in its spiritual life which is perceived by many as pallid and meaningless, bearing no relation to the dangerous freedom offered to us in Jesus Christ.
This suggests that if the Church is to survive at all, its survival and its future life will begin with speaking and acting with integrity. The abuse scandals, and the institutional misogyny and homophobia of the past twenty or thirty years, have led to many people losing all confidence in the Church’s integrity, and hence in the Christian gospel itself.