Every now and then there is a debate about whether someone’s private life is relevant for holding public office. Does how they behave behind the scenes, as it were, matter for the job they have to do in public? The reality is that it is not a completely straightforward answer. There are areas which do matter and areas which don’t so much. Some of this is about the stability of their emotional state and how trustworthy they are as a person. Are they someone who is what they appear to be, or are they actually living a duplicitous life? It is certainly a question for clergy and there is a code of conduct we are required to abide by. It includes exactly what you would expect it to include for a moral life-style in keeping with the office we hold. People fall short and so there is a disciplinary code. We can be called to account and are. And there have been high profile cases recently. It is also why there is that very strange line in the requirements of a churchwarden to bring to the bishop’s attention anything that should be brought to the bishop’s attention! It sounds vague, but I have had churchwardens who took that as a positive to check that I am thriving and to ensure my well being, which has been touching to say the least.
One of these high profile cases has been in the press this week, not least because two former Archbishops of Canterbury have had to apologise – George Carey and Rowan Williams – and in the case of George Carey he has relinquished his licence to officiate as a bishop because he both failed to act in an abuse case and also failed to take the victims seriously, even implying that the perpetrator was being victimised himself. It was shocking. This was over the case of Bishop Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Lewis and then Gloucester, who abused young men and boys for decades. The report is harrowing reading and the failures are individual, corporate and institutional. Rowan Williams apologized for not acting as quickly as he otherwise might have done, but he did act and did instigate a review. I have sympathy for him because sometimes we need to step back a bit to let the fog clear so that we can see more clearly. Sometimes we don’t get it right, even if we are trying to.
Over the nearly quarter of a century that I have been ordained safeguarding has been an increasing area. It started in the early 1990s with the Home Office report ‘Safe From Harm’ and this has produced a journey where we now have core training and specialist training modules and the pew sheet contains details of the most basic level which everyone can undertake online. And we encourage everyone to do this because it reminds us that we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keepers; we have a responsibility to care and look out for the welfare of one another and the unknown guest in our midst, about whom we know nothing, not least of their vulnerabilities or needs. So we are much better at this than we were when I started, but there is always more to be done and we all know that the church has and is going through the cultural change that this brings.
There is an interesting little phrase in our gospel reading that is relevant to all of this (Matthew 10:40-42). Jesus told the disciples that whoever welcomes him welcomes the one who sent him, in the same way an ambassador represents the nation and government they act as envoy for. That is why ambassadors are honoured so highly and treated with such respect. It is the hospitality that affirms our common bonds and shared humanity. The welcome is the honouring. There then follows a series of rewards linked with different groups. Welcoming prophets brings a prophet’s reward. And welcoming a righteous person brings a righteous person’s reward, which means we align ourselves with them.
The righteous are those who are what they should be, who fulfill the demands placed on them. It is a term that crops up in the Psalms and throughout the Old Testament, and appeared in our second reading (Romans 6:12-23). And being righteous is about understanding the web of relationships that flow from who we are. For the people of Israel this meant being faithful to their obligations to God, to their fellow citizens, to the world in general.
Not being what we should be can be a sign of something else being amiss – be it excessive strains somewhere else or a whole host of things. So it is not by itself a sign that someone should be removed or consigned to outer darkness, which is by any measure an extreme response. And clergy who go off the rails usually have something else distressing in the background. It might be that they need to remember that the institution is not the most important factor; people come first and then the institution will follow. One of the criticisms in the report on the Bishop Peter Ball case, ‘An Abuse of Faith’, is that protecting the institution got in the way of protecting people. If the reputation of the institution is about to be damaged then that is because it is a sick organization and needs fixing.
As I have said before I find three words helpful when thinking about safeguarding: ‘respect’, ‘protect’ and ‘wellbeing’. All of the policies, training and procedures are aiming at these three goals. Even when we are not sure what is going on, the watch phrase is maintaining ‘respectful uncertainty’. We don’t know what we don’t know but people still warrant respect. And those who fall short, or offend, are also worthy of being cared for, even if that means removing them to a place of safety – their own and everyone else’s. And we have ‘worship agreements’ where these are required. We have come a very long way in quite a short period of time.
The righteous are those who are what they should be. There is integrity in who they are and how they act. So they are ‘Ronseal’ people; they do what it says on the tin. In this respect public and private are two sides of the same persona and we need to know that we can be trusted and can trust those who hold public office – clergy included, but also all public officeholders. Actually all of us are called to lives of righteousness; to be people who are faithful to the obligations that flow from a web of relationships that week to respect, protect and ensure the wellbeing of all God’s people. Welcoming a righteous person means we align ourselves with them and what they stand for. The reward is to be a person of integrity, trustworthy and faithful to the call of God.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 2nd July 2017