As most of you have probably heard in the media, a recent grand jury in the US reported that Bishops and other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania covered up sexual abuse of minors by more than 300 priests over a period of 70 years. The report discovered more than 1,000 identifiable victims and said there are likely thousands more unreported ones. Furthermore, the nature of some of the abuses are sadistic and plain disgusting. My immediate reaction was anger and disgust. Not because this happened particularly in the Roman Catholic Church. We Anglicans are in no position to point fingers considering our checkered past. But, I was angered first, to hear what pain and trauma the Church and its clergy can and has caused many people. Second, I reacted this way because, once again, the Church is its own worst enemy when it comes to professing and spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How can we expect anyone to come to Church to hear about the healing, grace and freedom God offers everyone in Christ when such cases of abuse by its clergy raise their ugly heads? What words of encouragement and wisdom can a cleric like myself offer his people and those outside the Church?
I am not in a position to say what the Church at large must do because I am not in the position of authority and influence to know all that is going on and thus, what can be done. It’s my prayer that Bishops and others in authority of whatever denomination will do what is right in God’s eyes. But, I am in the position as a parish priest in charge of the parish of St. John’s, Portsmouth to say what we can do in our small corner of the Church.
In my opinion, people get hurt in the Church because its leaders – such as myself – are not willing to truly love people. Love people, you say, isn’t that what you clergy are called and paid to do? Yes, but problems arise as to what we mean by love? All too often, and unfortunately, love is about not upsetting people and keeping the peace. The way clergy – often encouraged by lay leaders (just so the laity are not totally off the hook!) – deal with conflict in the Church is by either appeasing poor behavior or avoiding it altogether. Therefore, on the surface there doesn’t appear to be any conflict or troubles in a parish, but underneath seeds of turmoil are brewing just waiting to eventually come to the surface. The sad thing is, what might have started off as a minor disagreement or moral issue can easily blossom into bigger problems, when left unchecked, which sometimes includes occurrences of abuse.
Now let me be clear, it’s not only the priest’s responsibility – although as the leader of a church he/she has a major responsibility in this area – so is it the laity’s. First of all, just because a priest is a priest doesn’t mean she is perfect. Hopefully, the day we put clergy on pedestals are a thing of the past. Clergy can and do act badly at times. And letting it go in the name of being loving by the laity is just as bad as clergy letting laity behave poorly in the name of being loving. Lay leaders are responsible to keep clergy in check just as they responsible to call each other to account.
Ok, so how do we do this? Let’s first figure out what is true Christian love. It’s not, in the name of being ‘nice’, being weak kneed and making excuses for people engaged in poor behavior. Jesus was loving, but He was not nice. There are plenty of examples of this in the Gospels – his clearing of the temple, his dealings with the Pharisees etc. But, we can also turn to his teaching in Matthew 18.15f. where he says,
If another member of the Church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But, if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to church, let such a one be to you as Gentile and tax collector.
What is Jesus saying? The gist of what He is saying is, we’re to confront head on and deal with people who are misbehaving in the Church. Now, how we do this and for what reason is fundamental. And here is where true love comes in. We first go to the person directly with whom we find fault and, if necessary with others, so we can Jesus says, regain that one. Regain that one to what? Of course, to the right understanding of living the life of faith in Jesus Christ. The goal is never to simply to put down, make the person feel bad, or condemn the transgressor, but instead, to steer the individual back into right behavior that is good both for his/her and the community’s sake. It’s because we love the person and want the best for him that we must confront him when he’s acting inappropriately. If we don’t, we’re not being loving!
Now, if we are to successfully steer individuals/groups in the Church that are engaging in immoral activity back onto the right track, it’s important we deal with problems as soon as they come to our attention. Little problems easily become big problems in a hurry. That is why St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians was very quick to admonish the Church when he heard there were division amongst them about who they should listen to (1.10-17) and regarding occurrences of sexual immoral practices (5.1-8). We see in these two passages that Paul was both bold and direct about what the problems were and needed to be done about them.
But, you might be thinking, that’s a hard thing to do? How can we do such a thing? Yes, it is hard thing to do, but it’s simply – if we truly love people – not an option. Who said Christian love is easy? Jesus did it. Paul did it. So why shouldn’t we do it! As I’ve already said, if we don’t deal with problems quickly things get out of control and more people get hurt. The stories of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church is the direct result of not dealing with poor behavior immediately by its Bishops. Divisions in a Church, such as Paul describes that was occurring in the Corinthian Church (1.10-17), only get worse if they are not dealt with head on and right away. As when we don’t weed our garden immediately and regularly, weeds take over our garden, so too, if we don’t attend to conflicts immediately and regularly will immoral behaviour cloud over what’s good in the Church.
But, how do we know what to say and do? Let’s turn to St. Paul again for direction. Immediately following his admonition to the Corinthians to stop disagreeing with each other about doctrine and teaching, he reminds them in vv. 18-31 that Jesus is the true source of all wisdom both for what we are to believe in and how we are to live. Jesus is the key for knowing what Christians should believe and how to live out that belief. A major problem, I see in the Church – at least from an Anglican perspective – is that both clergy and laity do not have, or turn to this common centre and thus, orientation for dealing with their disagreements. Instead, we quickly turn to secular, humanist resources to help us deal with conflict, encourage clergy to take conflict management courses, and disregard necessary critical analysis of liberal notions of rights and freedom that influence our thinking wrongly. I am not saying we shouldn’t access resources available to the Church from the secular realm. Yes, conflict management principles can be helpful to both clergy and the laity. But, the Church is not a secular institution, but a body of believers and disciples of Jesus Christ who seek to live a new life of forgiveness, healing and freedom whose true and only source is their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. That is why St. Paul makes it clear to the Corinthians that whoever is teaching them, what matters most is of whom they are speaking! The one we follow in any church ultimately, is not the priest, or lay leader, but Jesus Christ.
But, how do we access Jesus and his teachings on the Christian life? The answer, of course, is the bible. But, two warnings need to be considered when we turn to the bible for direction on moral matters. First, the bible is not a ‘rule book’ that simply lists exactly what we should and shouldn’t do. Nor, second, is it a jump off point from which we simply read into it our own secular ideas of what is right and wrong as I believe is happening with recent debates in our church about same-sex marriage and doctor assisted suicide. Why? Because the point of reading, digesting what the bible says while praying to God for understanding it is to encounter and hear what Jesus has to say. The bible is first and foremost about Jesus who,as Paul says, became for us wisdom from God(1Cor. 1.30). And He is our wisdom, not as simply some historical figure, or as some idea of him we may have in our minds, but as the ever living and powerfully present and resurrected Jesus Christ who encounters and speaks to us His wisdom as we prayerfully read the bible. Therefore, discerning what Scripture has to tells us about living the Christian life is an artful exercise that requires practice similar to what it’s like for a master carpenter who artfully creates a beautiful piece of furniture after years of practice.
Let me close with some practical matters for all of us to consider. Following Jesus’s teaching in Matt. 18 needs to be consider in context. The subject matter of the texts just before and just after this one concerns the extent to which Jesus would go to save one of his sheep (vv. 10-14), the importance of forgiving people when Jesus tells Peter to forgive people not just 7 times, but seventy-seven times and follows with the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant to illustrate his point. What do we read from these texts. They are not telling us that no matter how bad the person is we should accept his/her activities. Nor are they telling us that, although we should always be willing to forgive, there should not be consequences to peoples’ actions.
Jesus says in v. 17, that if the offender is not willing to be corrected and change his ways, he is to be consider like a Gentile and Tax Collector.To our modern ears this does not make much sense, but it sure did to Jesus’ original Jewish audience. Both, Gentile and Tax Collector were considered outside God’s covenantal promises and thus, not part of the worshipping community. Gentiles were those who rejected the God of the OT. Tax Collectors were Jews but despised because they collected taxes from other Jews for the Roman often collecting more to fill their own pockets. So, clearly, Jesus’ is saying that anyone who chooses, after being giving plenty of warnings, to not correct his behavior is to no longer consider part of the Church community.
This may sound like a harsh judgment, but not when we consider the other texts. If you have brought complains to the perpetrator and done everything you can to show him how much you love and care for the individual as does Jesus (parable of the Lost Sheep), and how wiling you are to forgive that person, what else can you do if the transgressor will not change? The choice has already been made by the perpetrator that he does not want to be part of the community of faith. This, of course, is sad. But, in my experience, when we confront a transgressor with the issue at hand, yet at the same time encouraging the individual with the love of Christ and forgiveness, most times repentance and reconciliation takes place.
That does not mean, even if this happens, that there are no consequences, most especially in the cases of abuse, or other serious immoral transgressions. Leaders of the Church are responsible not only for the perpetrator, but also for the those whom the perpetrator has or may have hurt. Leaders may have to decide to remove a parishioner from certain ministries (as a bishop may have to remove a cleric from his parish), or even, in extreme cases and as St. Paul says to the Corinthians, hand them over to public authorities (1Cor. 5.4). Let’s not forget that even though Jesus forgave and promised eternal life for the condemned criminal who was crucified with him, he was still crucified. But, these are rare and extreme cases. Most times, if we truly love and thus confront our transgressors with the attitude of bringing that person back into a right relationship with God, the community and yourself, there will be a positive outcome.