I’m going to tackle the subject that should be at the heart of ministry and was at the heart of my leaving the church of England. I think that lack of care is a top reason for retiring from religion, more than a disagreement over dogmas and personalities.
I’ve commented that policy comes before care in the Anglican church. We all have external pressure to conform to safeguarding standards. Of course I care about safety, but I have two points to say.
One is that the state doesn’t have power over any church or religious group. That’s very important.
The other is this over-prevalent term isn’t about safety, but conformity and avoiding blame. I’ve heard it said that being deemed too fat or thin is a safeguarding issue for school children, as is expressing potential self harming and suicidal inclination in creative writing. Hardly room for freedom of expression, and to be yourself! But then, institutions tend to fear that…
Safeguarding is a close relative of signposting. I amused myself writing about this for a short story competition recently, about being certified in the Art of Signposition. It’s like seeing someone drowning and saying, “I must refer you to this Life Buoy and the information by it. There is a Helpline Telephone provided. If you leave the water, you can use it. [I’ll stay here.]” There’s a fear that if you’re not Water Trained, you’re breaching your insurance or legal remit. You’ll hear my further thoughts what I think should happen in my Show the Love sermon.
So rather than catalogue more shocking comments from church people to me and others, I’d like to constructively say what should happen.
We might ask: do I have a duty of care to this person? Are they my remit? Wrong questions.
Beyond policy is a greater, more universal maxim: it’s decency.
Beyond canon law or the law of the land or even international law
is the Lord’s commandment: love one another.
If that is really what you believe God is and life is about, and you believe the Bible, then there’s no footnote which says: but you don’t need to if… Love isn’t easy pronouncements, dispensed like a vending machine or a tissue box. Love means you get your hands dirty.
I’ll be attacking Unconditional Love – I love you but I don’t like you – in another post.
But for now, I must start with the most obvious problem: prayer without action.
It’s like that clanging cymbal of 1 Cor 13 – empty. Prayer and action is excellent – pray for what you can’t change, and go and change what you can. Pray to be shown what you can do. If you’ve been in the ‘Church’ – perhaps any church – a while, you get lofty and use lingo. Although the woo woo amongst us (that’s me too) believe that statements are generative, it’s not comforting be told, “We hold you at the altar of our Lord, our light and our salvation.” Do that, and ask me for a coffee or offer to call me, or visit me. Do I need money or healing? Ask me that too, and be prepared to give it.
Signposting might be appropriate if someone needs say, legal advice. But you might say – I know a good lawyer, or are you aware of that community legal project? Here’s the details. Signposting when the matter is care itself is more tricky. You may have something brought to you that you feel you can’t deal with on your own and is beyond your expertise. It might be wise and responsible in one way to say so, but this isn’t a gas engineer telling you need a plumber, or a General Practitioner telling you that you need referring to a hospital specialist. Note that I passionately believe that offering to phone to make an appointment and doing it without your permission are two different things, and that’s where signposting and safeguarding also go wrong.
What’s most horrific is being told by someone you’ve built a relationship of trust with, more analogous to your regular doctor you also know from bowls and chatting to in the village shop, says: you’re too much – go elsewhere. You trusted me to hold this, but it’s too heavy – I’m going to have to let go. You’ve had courage to tell me this, but it’s not safe with me – I’m going to have to tell someone else. I understand why the secrets of the confessional enjoyed by Catholics have been questioned because of all the abuse, but it seems unfair to destroy that secrecy, for there might be things we need to tell without fear of it being passed on.
This skirts the subject of self harm, and I’m going to say more about that another time. In fact, I’m writing another novel on it, but you can see some of my thoughts about it here. But I will say two things: firstly, take this seriously, and don’t downplay people’s pain. If you think they’re being an attention seeker, give them the attention they crave, and be prepared to believe that they might do what they say. This also applies to illness: don’t assume they’re hypochondriacs and exaggerators. They might really be that ill, or believe that they are.
Never call their bluff.
Yes, there are times you’ll need to call at funny hours and sit through the night with someone. And you really can save someone that way.
Ministers really need training in this, more than policies and what they’re not allowed to do.
I wonder why the counselling profession wishes to protect itself and expects ministers to state that they aren’t counsellors; and then that counsellors themselves have to defer to police and doctors, especially regarding self harm.
The licensing condition which makes it hard for counsellors and others to conceal such revelations is itself harmful. It causes more fear, less trust, and puts people in danger because they’ll be detained in the psychiatric system which is hard to leave. It is often abusive, as survivors in movements such as Mind Freedom International attest. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest is still flying with forced injections, ECT and lobotomies. So be very aware that when you contact police or mental health services about someone, this is what you’re likely sentencing them to. The system isn’t designed or run by people who understand nuance and diversity – and it’s often surmised that it’s meant to suppress rather than heal. The fact that therapists are also required to break confidentiality about confessions of terrorism and money laundering! says alot about what the government’s values are.
Can’t you keep hold and lead them to someone else (with their consent) in addition?
It’s not a weather man – you can both be out at once. And think about how you say it – for covering yourself legally and practising the Art of Signposition can sound like legalese.
Whilst on the subject of that: apologies. “I’m sorry if you feel I may…” says, I take no responsibility for whatever you’ve levelled at me. I don’t recognise your grievance. It’s what companies say when they’re being titty – and trying to avoid liability. We’re Christians and human beings, trying to live authentically in love. So do better!
Emails and listening
I’d like to run exercises for ministers and care teams. Read this email: circle the bits that the writer really wants you to respond to. Listen to this conversation: what’s this person really trying to tell you? Let the patter run, and you’ll hear deep wounds revealed. Learn that “I’m not too bad” might mean, I’m not too good. The last time I picked up on that, the person had cancer and other challenges. I’ve had a person tell me in the middle of jokes and impressions that their brother had died.
Some people like shorter communications; I make no apology for a long handed style (show don’t tell in fiction writing always takes more words). But there’s a fashion of efficiency which says: I’ll scoot through this long email/letter as I’m busy (never helped if it’s read on a phone) and distil my answer to a few lines. How economical I’ve been.
But you haven’t, for if you’ve not heard the person you’re replying to and have missed important points, you’ll just breed more emails or difficult conversations in the future; there can be a sense of continuing long division as things are unresolved. If the writer says it, they think it’s important, so don’t ignore issues because you don’t think they matter, or are tricky, or think it’s been addressed. Clearly it hasn’t been, so look again.
When you make a statement, it might sound really caring and spiritual to you, but be aware that it may not appear that way to the recipient, especially when it’s not accompanied by an offer. “I hope you’re well” doesn’t sit well when you could have said, “Do you have anyone to go to the hospital with you?” or “Would you like me to visit and pray with you?”
And “I hope you’re feeling better” isn’t the same as asking “How are you?” and being prepared to act if the answer is “I feel like bloody crap.”
Be aware when someone’s seeking reassurance, and doesn’t know how to directly do so from you, or tell you that they feel let down. “You’ve hurt me, where were you? Is that it?!” is quite hard to communicate, especially to clergy.
Ask after people directly, and not via 3rd parties. It hurts that someone’s only passed on a hello or sends their love… they know your phone number, don’t they? Would you let them have it if not? Third party enquiries say: I don’t really want to be involved, and so I don’t want to ask direct incase I don’t like the answer (ie I might need to actually do something), but I’ll kind of cover my conscience via a mediator. Not suffice. Also unacceptable is telling a third party and leaving it in their hands – not only does that betray confidentiality, you’re trying to wash yours of them.
And lastly – practical care. I’ll say more in my Show the Love sermon, but I’ll just end with: You can’t depart ere the service ends to attend to your oven if you’re in the ministry team. You’ve two families now. Use mealtimes as a way to connect and show care. Realise some among you can’t eat, and are fed up of dining alone. They might not be who you think…
It’s important to have resources to assist, more than new copes. Yes, even your church has poor people, or homeless people, or people suffering abuse. One vicar said her church was ‘overblessed!’ I said that she can’t really know her church.
A little sort of pithy poem to round off with:
It isn’t not adhering to safeguarding policies which put me at risk;
it’s not pretending to be a counsellor or doctor, it’s not that you didn’t refer or report me;
it’s not lack of boundaries, but that they were too high and self expectations too low.
Safeguarding is ironic, about protecting the profession and professional more than me.
It’s risky to reach out – and that’s deeply wrong.
I hope this lockdown period is time to alter for those at the altar – and all of us
I enjoy preaching to the converted 🙂 I will do again soon – it’s Holy Week next week and I have a service for you all