If you have been an observer of the wider church, celebrity church, well-known church leaders or the mainstream press over the past couple of years, then you will be aware of the numerous horrific scandals involving prominent leaders and churches. Some of us have been hurt and affected by these personally, or know people involved, or have found a home at St Marks partly in response to pain caused in these or similar instances.
I want to take a couple of blog posts to address these stories, but more to explain what I think is going on underneath these stories and to explain why we do things differently around St Marks which I think makes us a safer place to be. While I work hard at not making things seem too serious around the Village (because most of the things we get our knickers in a twist about ultimately matter less than we think) - underneath the surface there is actually a lot of thought and purposeful action. Me explaining this might help wider understanding.
In this blog post will come a birds-eye view of the various stories…but first a word about survivors of abuse.
Primary in all considerations, especially when speaking and thinking of this “issue” is the centrality of the survivor. Before any other words are written, first must come care. Abuse wears many masks. it runs deep and has effects which run for generations. It seems simple for people like me who have power and agency to blithely write things like “we hear you”, “we believe you”, “please let someone know your story” - but it is so much heavier and more complex than that. To place survivors at the centre is of course to say that we believe you. But I must also be aware that many survivors questions whether they even believe themselves. So successful were the abusers, that the abused assume it must be a figment of their imagination, that they must have interpreted it wrongly, or that they are somehow to blame.
“Telling someone your story” is not easy when your story is yourself. Is the most shame-filled parts of your dark nights, and places yourself or others (whom you might still love) at risk (whether that risk is real or perceived). “Speaking out” takes unfathomable courage when to speak out is to draw attention to the very thing you want to hide from most and hope will somehow go away.
This is why survivors must be central to culture, not just to process.
At the end of this blog post are links to some places from which to seek support and advice if you are a survivor of abuse who would like to get help or tell someone your story. These are, hopefully, straight-forward systems and processes designed to make this experience as smooth as possible for you. I hope that in me and in others around St Marks you might find advocates and accompaniers if that is what you would like.
It is also important that you, as a survivor, know that I am (or would be if I knew about it) absolutely devastated that you have experienced abuse. Whether physical, sexual, spiritual, emotional, domestic, financial…all abuse is darkness. It all abuses power, manipulates and steals light and joy and ruins relationship. There is nothing acceptable or excusable about it and I am so sorry that it happened, or is still happening. Not only that, but I think you have extra-ordinary courage to make it through today. To survive is often the only goal, and to have achieved it is remarkable. There is no shame in not having done “extra” work in telling your story, sticking up for others, stopping the abuser, discovering complete freedom from the past etc. I think those of us who don’t understand can often place extra burdens on you. We don’t mean to, and hope you can forgive us for when we do - but hope you hear too that you did not deserve what happened and the way you have coped with it is absolutely not ours to judge. Our job is to support.
Hopefully with that as a headline for all the following blogs, some of what I go on to explain will make sense.
For those unsure - abuse within the Church is sadly nothing new. The stories of priestly abuse rife in the middle of the past century (and still happening today) are added to by high profile stories over the past couple of years. You can google true or sensationalised details of all these stories, but the stories of hillsong leadership using drink, drugs and sex in various ways, as well as abusing money and trust, the stories of Willow Creek leadership culture and sexual abuse, Mark Driscoll bullying and many others are shocking. Closer to home for many of us in the UK is the current story of alleged abuse by Mike Pillivachi, who will have had a formational effect on faith experiences of many under 45 in the UK through Soul Survivor.
Each of these stories has some unique elements (and not all are ‘legally proven’) - but there are also some common threads which run through each. Each has power, control and personality at the core. Each has a culture which perpetuated abuse. Each had a leader who had become an idol. In the following posts I want to look at how that happens, but importantly why we do things at St Marks in the way that we do in order to pre-emptively build something different. The more we are each aware of this, the more we will be able to be culture builders too, which leads to greater levels of trust and safety for all.
These blogs are NOT my personal hot-take on those people or stories. Nobody cares (nor should they) about that…but rather they are explanations of the different way we do things, the reason for those differences and the healthy hopes behind that thinking.
First up in the next post…Why the Village is more important than the Vicar.
(If you would like to tell someone your story, or report abuse, you can contact the National Churches Safeguarding team on firstname.lastname@example.org
ThirtyOneEight is also a safeguarding organisation for the church, but independent of it. You can discover more at www.thirtyoneeight.org or call 0303 003 1111.
If you are aware of abuse involving children, local social services can be contacted on 01908 265545 or call the police on 999)