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MinistryMatters

A ground-level response to ACCtoo

Editor’s note: As with all posts to MinistryMatters, the analysis and opinions expressed by any contributor do not necessarily reflect or speak for the Anglican Church of Canada.

I attended a Zoom meeting last week, called at the last minute by the chair of our Social Justice and Outreach Committee of St. George’s, in order for that committed, faithful group to consider their response to ACCtoo.

[On February 17th, an open letter was released online, addressed to the Anglican Church of Canada’s highest officials for delivery on Ash Wednesday, detailing the mishandling of sexual abuse allegations in institutions across the Anglican Church. Not only were these abuses perpetuated by people who serve as clergy of our churches, not only were these individuals’ stories not addressed when brought forward thereby sheltering abusers within our church, but also, when the individuals shared their story with our church newspaper, the Anglican Journal, their confidentiality was betrayed in order to circulate a draft of the story — without the survivors’ permission — to the very institutions who were implicated in the story as having sheltered the abusers in the first place. This resulted in two talented journalists resigning, and most importantly, the survivors experiencing a shocking breach of their trust and a significant re-victimization.]

The conversation in this small Zoom group was honest and painful. They represented a variety of ages and stages in our congregation, from those who had been part of our Anglican church since birth to those who had quite recently found a home with us. They talked about Jesus and how clearly their walk with him told them that they needed to join their voices with those who had been hurt. They wondered how and why so many names of those in leadership in our church might not be on that letter standing with the survivors too. One woman in the group named the reality that she too had been abused by people who should have been trustworthy in her life and that while she wanted to respond, she had to guard her own heart in the process. Her words reminded me that the way that our church has (or has not) responded to these allegations doesn’t just harm the survivors whose stories are at the centre of this. All across our church, there are people who have known abuse within institutions and by people who should have protected them. The wounds they carry are being reopened now, too.

We’re the church,” someone in the group said courageously. “The church isn’t the hierarchies and the leaders. We’re it. We need to speak.”

The power revealed in the small Zoom circle was remarkable, particularly in contrast to some of the way power has been articulated by the leaders of our Anglican Church in their response to ACCtoo. The voices in the circle were vulnerable, full of pain, committed to holding one another with respect and joining with the survivors at the heart of this story, even at the cost of hurt. It was clear that they held on to Jesus as they navigated their way forward. It was clear that their way forward would be together.

The Primate’s response seemed remarkably different from this, in comparison. As presiding bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, one of the primate’s main responsibilities is to be a voice, to provide vision and shepherding, for how this vast and unruly thing called the Anglican Church of Canada is seen and heard — to ourselves and to our world (paraphrasing from Canon III of the General Synod Handbook). Yet less than a day after ACCtoo’s letter was published, she issued a response. It seemed hastily written. The power she claimed there reminded me of how the mighty have always responded when they find their choices and behaviour called into question. It may have been predictable, but it was profoundly disappointing. She seemed to deflect, taking a distanced responsibility for what happened, referring instead to “systems” at fault — as if systems aren’t governed and led by people, and perhaps implying that the thing she was sorry for was the survivors’ high expectations. She offered the equivalent of her door being open to the survivors who had been harmed, though her invitation suggested such discussions would be to “clarify misrepresentations” in the ACCtoo letter. The Primate’s response seemed devoid of vulnerability or admission of wrong-doing; and precious little acknowledgement of the people who, at every level of this story, are at its centre. There was nothing referenced of the way of Jesus. Her response sounded like it was written from an officer of an institution who understands their role as being that of protecting said institution. It did not seem written as a shepherd of the Body of Christ, who knows that their only hope is in the cross of Jesus.

In personal conversations with people across our church—people who have known what it is to survive sexual assault—the Primate’s response was named as an added layer of hurt and harm experienced in the unfolding of this story.

Over the weekend, the Council of General Synod, to whom ACCtoo’s letter was also addressed, issued a public response. In the Council’s words, I could hear a genuine wrestling with the concerns unveiled by ACCtoo, as well as reference to Jesus and the offering of words of regret and apology. They also explicitly named — with surprising and, I would say, troubling honesty — the conflict that they felt between “the Gospel imperative to care for the powerless and victimized, and their covenanted responsibility to the institution.” It is not for me to say whether their words will offer help or healing to those who shared their stories.

What their words also made clear was an assumption — which I have heard voiced in various pockets of our church in the last month — that the original abuse which prompted this story must be dealt with separately from the breakdown around journalistic policy which resulted in a breach of confidentiality. The “miscommunication” (as this breach has sometimes been framed), it is argued, requires different action from the original story and what must be done to make our churches safer, to protect people from abuses of power, particularly abuses of power that take the form of sexual abuse and exploitation.

While there might be some truth in teasing out the layers of this story, there is also something false. And there is the risk of an important big picture being missed. The work of creating trustworthy structures in our churches happens in a myriad of ways, and it is a responsibility in which we all share. Similarly, infractions which break that trust are inextricably connected. Of course, a breach of confidentiality in the matter of survivor stories is very much part and parcel of how the church dismantles — possibly irreparably — the trustworthiness of the church. Of course, the lack of transparency in how the church responds to allegations of misconduct (ranging from sexual abuse to the guarding of confidentiality) and lack of personal responsibility when wrong-doing is uncovered adds immeasurably to this picture of untrustworthiness. Most importantly, the layers of this story all reveal, with distressing clarity, the ongoing protection of the institution and its leaders over and against the voices, needs and stories of those who have been marginalized, exploited, abused and betrayed within the structures of power which are baked into the institution.

Recently I was talking to a friend and colleague, Rob, who is new in the Anglican church and was formed in another denomination. He loves and treasures many aspects of our tradition. He also understands that the institution is dying. He goes into ministry in our church, as many of us have, with eyes wide open about the trajectory of death that we are on. He visualizes himself, with all of us, standing at this apex of certain death and finding tremendous hope as he looks to the future, because the truth is that the only thing we can do in going forward as a church is to hope and pray that Jesus will walk with us, and will hold us close, as we minister in the midst of what is dying. Rob knows that Jesus and the disciples stood at that apex too, that Jesus told us that this dead grain of wheat would have to fall and be buried in order for new life to be born.

The Gospel is hard-wired to breathe hope into moments just like this. “Repent,” Jesus proclaims at the inauguration of his public ministry, “the Kingdom of God has drawn near.” It’s a promise that in the utter hopelessness of how broken we are, how wrong we get it, and how dead we really are, God can do great things. It’s permission to us to be truthful about who we are. And it’s also the God-given revelation of who God is. God is already holding us close, God is already at work when it all falls apart. We can feel great pain, but we don’t have to be afraid.

I want to be part of a church that centres this truth and that centres the broken hearts who proclaim this truth. I want to hear our church leaders stand in contrite and compassionate solidarity with those who have been hurt within the structures of our institutional life and who believe that the church can be better. I want a real apology, real repentance and real and consequential actions signalling a commitment to a different path going forward.

I don’t know to what degree meaningful change will be embraced in our dying structures and from our leaders who can so easily default to fear — for their reputations, livelihoods and the saving of the institution. I do know that this church of repentance, this church who has been embraced by our Lord, even and especially when it all falls apart, is already happening. This church is in the voice of the brave survivors who call our church to account. This church is in that Zoom call, with a group of faithful servants recognizing that out of their own hurt and disappointment, they have not been left powerless. This church is in the things that must fall and are dying. This church is in the call of Jesus to turn around, to turn around again, and again, and to see not what we need to do to save ourselves, but how the kingdom of God is already at hand.

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Martha Tatarnic

Martha Tatarnic

Martha serves as priest at George's in St. Catharines. Her new book, “Why Gather?” is now available to order https://www.churchpublishing.org/whygather