Bishops Commit to Making Churches Safe for All

Archbishop Justin Welby listens as Archbishop Thabo Makgoba speaks during the Safe Church discussion | The Rev Neil Vigers photo for the Lambeth Conference

By Mark Michael

Anglican bishops gathered at the Lambeth Conference unanimously affirmed on July 31 that “a key part of the mission of the Church is to create communities in which all people are safe and cared for.” They urged all provinces to implement guidelines developed by the Anglican Communion’s Safe Church Commission to ensure appropriate screening and training for all ministry leaders.

Action on this second of 10 Lambeth Calls came after a plenary session that included an interview with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Archbishop Thabo Magkoba of Cape Town about their experiences with safeguarding issues in the church, as well as video testimony from an abuse survivor and short presentations by representatives from different regions of the Communion about their progress in developing structures to protect the vulnerable.

“When I became archbishop almost 10 years ago, I knew some of the problems we would face. What I did not know was the problem of safe church, of safeguarding. It’s had a huge effect on me. It has been the biggest, most painful burden of this role,” Welby said.

“The fundamental issue of safe church is the misuse of power. It’s not even normally, particularly, about sex, it’s about power — the ability of someone to do what they like with someone they like who is weaker.”

“I want to start by saying sorry for the sins of our former priests, former generations, that have scarred so many people and virtually undermined the faith,” Archbishop Magkoba said. “The cases that have come to me, they have been very time-consuming, very stressful, victims tiring. The victims that came forward were pained, angry at the church, distrustful of our processes.”

The work and witness of Anglican churches in several parts of the world have been damaged by revelations of unchecked abuse by clergy and other church workers. Revelations of abuse by the Rev. Jonathan Fletcher, a prominent priest, shook the Church of England in 2021. The head of the church’s Independent Safeguarding Board pointed out a series of major concerns with the existing system at last February’s meeting of General Synod.

In the last eight months, victims associated with #ACCtoo alleged that senior officials in the Anglican Church of Canada covered up sexual abuse of vulnerable young people, one of the Anglican Church of Kenya’s senior bishops was accused of assaulting a female priest, and the former Archbishop of Perth in the Anglican Church of Australia was deposed for his mishandling of safeguarding claims.

The Episcopal Church hosted a memorable #metoo forum at the 2018 General Convention, and the Diocese of Chicago settled a sex abuse case for $750,000 in July.

Bishops and their spouses also heard a moving video testimony by Dr. Ann-Marie Wilson, who was abused by a priest at her convent school as a 7-year-old girl. She described her experience as “a sliver of metal that went into me like a wound,” and said it led to numerous additional assaults, including “spiritual abuse in an Anglican context.” She suffered a mental breakdown, and had difficulty forming healthy relationships.

Wilson addressed the bishops directly near the end of the video: “It is your business to deal with abuse in the church, to clean out the skeletons of the past. It is your business to listen to survivors. It is your business to believe them, to give them support, whether that’s therapy or counseling, to not treat them as victims. To deal with perpetrators, to suspend them, not to move them from place to place.

“For the church to access the next generation, it needs to clear up its past. It needs to be a safe place for any minority group, and to come out and say, ‘We are sorry for the sins of the previous generations, and we are not going to tolerate them anymore.’”

The Call on Safe Church

The Call text approved during the afternoon session urged the Communion’s leaders “to make the safety of all persons in the provinces of the Anglican Communion a priority of their focus, resource allocation, and actions.”

It calls for further progress on implementing three resources developed by what is now the Anglican Safe Church Commission: the “Charter for the Safety of People within the Churches of the Anglican Communion”; a protocol for disclosing information about the suitability for ministry of clergy who transfer from one province to another; and a set of guidelines on background checks, reporting systems, and codes of conduct, which are to be adapted for local use in recognition of differences in legal structures and cultural norms in different parts of the world.

The three resources, which have been developed and approved by the Instruments of Communion in the last 14 years, were outlined in detail by Garth Blake of the Anglican Church in Australia, the commission’s chairman, during the morning plenary session.

Representatives from several provinces spoke about their experience in developing stronger safe-church systems. Marcel Peireira of the Episcopal Church in Brazil said that safeguarding in his context is complicated by widespread police violence and weakened protections for human rights.

The Rev. Canon Wadie Far of the Diocese of Jerusalem said his church is trying to address a widespread culture of silence on these issues, and is implementing safeguarding training for church leaders alongside helping victims of modern-day slavery. Canon Robin Hammeal-Urban of the Episcopal Church said the church’s safeguarding policies and training materials have recently been updated, and the church continues to grapple with the fact that the canonical penalties associated with safeguarding violations apply only to ordained leaders.

Bishop Tim Thornton, leader of the Lambeth Calls subgroup, said the Call on Safe Church was approved unanimously by the gathered bishops at the end of their discussions.

Early in the session, Archbishop Justin Welby announced that formal voting would be suspended during the Call sessions, partly because it had proved confusing for many bishops the day before. Bishops will be asked to indicate by voice vote whether they wish a given Call to proceed to further work and discussion during the next decade.

 

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