One of the disappointing things about many progressive churches, including The Episcopal Church (of which I am a member), is that they largely ignore abuse within the church that doesn’t involve sex, drugs, violence, or mayhem. That is unfortunate, for it overlooks the fact that most of the abuse that happens in churches is relational, emotional, or spiritual. Moreover, it ignores that fact that these forms of abuse can be every bit as damaging as sexual abuse.
Today, however, there are signs of positive progress. The Anglican Consultative Council’s (ACC’s) Safe Church Consultation (SCC) has released its, “Charter for the Safety of Peoples Within the Churches of the Anglican Communion,” which can be found in PDF here. First published in 2012, the document is now gaining attention due to the appointment of a commission to help implement its promises.
Even better, the American representative to the SCC is the Rev. Robin Hammeal-Urban, head of the Office of Mission Integrity and Training for the diocese of Connecticut. Robin is the author is the sensitively written and very well done, “Wholeness After Betrayal: Restoring Trust in the Wake of Misconduct.” The book should be mandatory reading for all clergy, with an emphasis on bishops diocesan and canons to the ordinary, many of whom, in my experience, have scant understanding of their obligations under the Episcopal disciplinary canons, otherwise known as Title IV.
Particularly compelling is the fact that Robin recognizes that spiritual abuse is, indeed abuse. In her book, Robin cites examples of spiritual abuse, which often can be difficult for adjudicatories to recognize. She also notes, accurately, that reports of spiritual abuse often represent just the tip of the iceburg.
This same perspective also is reflected in the SCC’s materials. Rather than focusing on sex, as we have done for far too long, the Charter commits to, “promoting the physical, emotional and spiritual welfare and safety of all people, especially children, young people and vulnerable adults, within the member churches of the Anglican Communion.”
Moreover, the Charter recognizes that the root of most misconduct, including sexual, is power. Specifically, it calls attention, “to the many forms of abuse of power within society as well as the church from which women and children suffer disproportionately, and the challenge to reclaim the gospel truth of the dignity of the human person and to exercise power in ways that would always be life giving.”
That recognition is important, for if our churches are indeed to be welcoming, safe places, we must recognize and prevent the abuses of power that harm the vulnerable, of every sort. For example, LGBT persons, many of whom may have been bullied as youth, likely will find any experience of bullying in church to be profoundly unsettling. Similarly, victims of domestic violence may find even minor abuses of power to be painful in the extreme. And women, who may experience lack of respect in the workplace, likely will retreat from a church that does not fully expect them, and their capabilities.
Additionally, the SCC’s work towards uniform standards, including pastoral care for persons and communities affected by misconduct, can only help. My experience is that many bishops diocesan have scant understanding of what it means to afford a true pastoral response to persons and communities injured by clergy.
Will these changes be a panacea? Of course not. But they are an important first step towards a holistic approach to misconduct that addresses abuse in all its forms, versus simply sexual abuse. And, as the SCC notes, promoting a “culture of safety,” will help preempt abuse of every sort.