I am reading Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel's sequel to the brilliant Wolf Hall and was struck by two lines back in the first chapter:
We think time cannot touch the dead, but it touches their monuments, leaving them snub-nosed and stub-fingered from the accidents and attrition of time. (p.10)
But what has been done can never be undone and the passing of time puts everyone and everything into a more realistic perspective. Even the most glorious monuments crumble as the glories and catastrophes of the past are reappraised in the light of subsequent events – the future being contingent on what has brought us to that particular place. Time never stands still and even death doesn't spare us from judgement.
Later Thomas Cromwell is reading his papers and is cross to see that manipulation of the grain market is allowing 'some little lordling' to promote 'famine for fat profit':
Two years ago, at Southwark, seven Londoners were crushed to death in fighting for a dole of bread. It is a shame to England that the king's subjects should starve. (p.28)
Plus ca change, we might say. Yet the same mechanisms that operated in the 1530s can still be seen today. People – and what motivates them for power, greed or mere survival – remain the same as time marches on and human ingenuity progresses.
So, this last week we were confronted by (a) a government that can find billions of pounds for banks and Olympics, but employs a firm to find sick people fit for work in order to bring down the welfare costs, and (b) a debate going on in some UK cities and towns about whether or not to accept local authority grants to help provide basic food for poor and vulnerable people though charitable food banks. (Does accepting the money make such banks an institutional feature for the future and compromise the charities or churches involved?)
It is a shame to England – and notions of civilisation – that our national priorities look like this. We are used to sending money to help poor people in developing world countries. Now we have (as, in fact, we always did have) very poor people in our own communities dependent for food on local charitable donations. Those running the food banks deserve enormous credit, as do the shops and food outlets that are letting surplus goods be offered to them. But, we have to ask what sort of a society this is and how we would answer to the cry of the Old Testament prophets about such priorities.
But, if shame is being doled out, the Church of England must hang its head once again. I know from experience in my last diocese and my current diocese that the safeguarding of young and vulnerable people is taken with great seriousness, that the disasters of the past should not and could not happen again. (Since coming to Bradford I have given considerable attention to these matters and had already arranged – as just one part of our strategy – for my senior team to spend a day in September working through a range of scenarios in order to check our systems and responses. This will be led by a retired detective and a lawyer. The focus is not on protecting the diocese, but on ensuring the best process and outcome for potential survivors/victims.)
However, the report on the disaster that is Chichester rightly makes recommendations for the whole Church of England. One or two of them raise questions that are not covered by the report and might have implications not yet considered, but that is for further appraisal in the coming weeks. The significant point about the Chichester report is the recognition that the safeguarding failures are largely the result of institutional incoherence, a failure of leadership and structural fragmentation.
One thing this suggests is that any diocese needs clear authority structures, clear processes and communications, clear structural consistency and coherence, and clear integrity of purpose. If this is not so, matters such as safeguarding will never be considered or administered consistently across the piece. This is what Monty Python called 'the bleeding obvious'. But, the church is dogged by people who bemoan talk about structures, infrastructure and policies as if administration was somehow 'unspiritual'. The Chichester business brings it starkly home that where the structures are not well-oiled everything else becomes vulnerable.
Yesterday I was writing a piece about 'renouncing evil' for publication later. The Chichester report – and the responses by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham – names the behaviour of abusive people – particularly clergy – for what it is.
The new Bishop of Chichester is a good man and he hasn't even started yet. My prayers are for him as he starts to sort out the mess he has inherited – a mess that has caused suffering to abused people and rightly put the spotlight back onto how the Church of England fulfils its vocation: to speak for the voiceless, to bring the Jesus of the Gospels to people, to facilitate reconciliation and healing, to demonstrate the power of realism, repentance and forgiveness.
But, first, the shame has to be experienced and named.