This is the text from the sermon given by Rebecca during our service for the weekend of 21st May 2023.
Safeguarding. A word almost guaranteed to strike dread. Eye rolls, because it is boring. Worry, because what if I've accidentally done something wrong? Distress, because someone did get it wrong, and you had to survive it?
Safeguarding is a hot topic across the Church of England right now, although one not warmly received. The latest jargon, buzz word, something most individuals don’t need to concern themselves with. When we view safeguarding in such a way, we naturally remove ourselves and our own behaviour from the equation. But perhaps that is a key issue. Safeguarding is about everyone, for everyone and everyone’s responsibility. Yet how many of us fully understand it? How many organisations have fully got to grips with it? The reason I cannot even begin to consider looking for another church is because I have no confidence in the systemic understanding of safeguarding and therefore feel all Church of England spaces are unsafe. You can say local parish churches are doing it right - some are amazing, some are the opposite. Sometimes these polarisations take place next door to one another. How am I to know something which was fine in one church won't have me ostracised in another?
Definitions of safeguarding can be complex, even more so when it comes to faith circles. Exemptions from equality law lead some to understand they are exempt from all consequences of the way their theology influences their actions. It is one thing to believe in marriage as a heterosexual covenant with reproduction at the core. It is quite another to discriminate against gay people in church. Yet this kind of questionable logic is found across the globe. In our reading today, Jesus calls us to ‘be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere.’ How are we witnessing to people if we don’t give basic human rights to approximately 20% of the population?
Find me two Christians who agree completely on every element of their faith? Honestly, do you even have a position on every element? Have you considered, researched and developed an informed theological stance on anything, or do you believe what you've been told to believe? So many of us believe the tropes we learned in Sunday Schools and the actual Bible texts may come as a surprise.
So how do we hold together communities so vulnerable to fracture? By creating a culture of safeguarding. I suggest this needs a number of key themes to succeed.
1) A recognition there is vulnerability in everyone, therefore nobody is beyond question, or beyond needing support. Right now your priest could be the most vulnerable person in your parish, but often power dynamics dictate that must be hidden. I say, sharing vulnerability enables a safeguarding culture where we all look out for one another regardless of position.
2) Transparency is vital. Communication is key. It must be open and honest, able to withstand interrogation; if everyone knows where they stand, misunderstandings will be significantly reduced. If there is a culture of transparency, we can hold each other to account, have meaningful conversations about decisions made and gain a better understanding of each other.
3) Humility. I've been involved in safeguarding for the best part of 20 years and I still run through decisions in my head wondering if I was right. Sometimes, I think the only right thing to do is something. Some situations harm is unavoidable. How do you choose between two individuals, both made in the image of God and beloved, when both have hurt and both are hurting? We wish life was binary, but it really, really isn't. I have been called out, I have had difficult conversations. But the key (I hope!) is that I have taken every comment to heart, every different opinion under consideration. All learning informs better practice in future, and survivors really are the best teachers. We must listen to them. Us.
I don't have all the answers, and there is some serious work to be done in addressing the complex web of church safeguarding, particularly but not exclusively in the Church of England, or even within Christianity alone. The way we move forward is to take safeguarding away from being a risk management exercise, to a core element of our culture from the grass roots up. Vulnerability, transparency, humility. Looking out for each other knowing we are all beloved children of God, all flawed and all equal.