Reading Alice

A couple of months ago a clergyman a generation older than me asked me what my PhD was about. I explained it was about Victorian Church history, looking at some of the major controversies of the period and the relationship of children’s literature to those ideas, especially Lewis Carroll’s writings (I have been known to say to people that it’s an excuse to spend six years reading Alice in Wonderland, but on this occasion I didn’t).

He smiled and was obviously amused. “So, it doesn’t actually bear any relationship to anything practical, does it?”

I felt somewhat squashed. But perhaps his point is worth answering, as we seem to live in a culture that increasingly devalues history.

Most of the people I know who are doing further study in theology have a much more obviously relatable topic to the Church or the world. They have a focus, or at least a clear link, to issues in contemporary culture: refugees, gender studies, artificial intelligence, leadership models or contemporary communication networks, for example. All these have clearly more to say to us than a few Victorians fighting over something which no-one seems to think is important anymore. It is certainly much easier, perhaps rightly, to get funding for such projects. But a world which ceases to value history as a place where wisdom can be found, fills me with a deep unease.

Today I read a very interesting letter in the Guardian that compares the stresses faced by today’s GCSE pupils to the Victorian policy of Payment by Results.

Payment by Results, introduced in 1862, was widely criticised by educationalists, academics and social reformers. Rather than making schools improve, as the policy aimed to do, critics say that it widened gaps already present, and penalised the schools that needed support. It was so controversial, and such was the concern about the damage it was doing to schools, that public pressure eventually led to the policy being dropped. And yet here we are again, with a remarkably similar system, living out the legacy of that recent Education Minister who famously said that we had “had enough of experts”. This can only happen in a country that has decided that history is largely irrelevant.

Studying the history of the Church is not irrelevant to the life of the Church today either. As I read and reflect, I cannot help but think that we have been here before. Just as in the mid nineteenth century, the Church always seems to be in the news for the wrong reasons, we are frequently shooting ourselves in the foot, picking the wrong battles, arguing amongst ourselves and obsessing over matters which, if history is any indicator, might seem to be about fundamental doctrine at the moment but which may turn out, fifty years later, to be entirely uncontroversial.

The phrase “history has to keep repeating itself because no-one listens to it” is over used – but it is over used because it expresses a fundamental truth. When we cut back on funding and time for historical subjects: philosophy, archaeology, art, music, theology, classics, we risk losing something vital. We are our history. If we decide we are not, then we are choosing to be anchorless – helpless in our determined independence from all that has gone before – doomed to repeat our mistakes and lacking in the gifts and insights of our ancestors. Learning from history is not the same as reading it uncritically – quite the reverse. History sets us in a context, it helps us to reflect not only on where we have come from, but where we are now, and what our reasonable possibilities are for the future. Our country (including its Church) has a complicated and often problematic history – greater understanding of that is necessary in order for us to repent where appropriate, turn around, and try to do better.

And that is why it is ok to spend six years reading Alice in Wonderland.


Another thing we never talk about

I have just read a somewhat distressing article on how domestic abuse is tackled (or not tackled) in some Southern Baptist Churches.

Thankfully, we are a long way away from that kind of theology on this side of the pond, and yet something of the culture feels familiar.

In March 2017, the Church of England produced an excellent document, “Responding Well to Domestic Abuse”.

It deals with a lot of the holes in the C of E’s decade-old document on the subject, and it draws on expertise from various relevant agencies. One omission which has finally been addressed, is that that for the first time, we have an acknowledgement from the Church that its ministers may be among the ones that are being abused. When I finally got this paragraph included prior to publication, it felt like one of the most important things I have ever done:


Clergy may see marital breakdown as a failure of their ordination vows and therefore be particularly vulnerable to staying in abusive relationships for many years. In such situations, Dioceses should not put fear of scandal above the safety of vulnerable people. Clergy should expect to be believed by their Bishop when disclosing abuse, and supported should they wish to separate or divorce. An assessment should also be made of the likely risk to any children. At a most basic level, the survivor and family should be offered all reasonable steps to keep safe should they separate from the perpetrator (for example changing locks on the clergy housing). Clergy who are survivors should not be threatened with losing their post or housing in the event of divorce as this could create intolerable stress for the family and lead to people staying in dangerous situations. In such cases, the Church is compounding the abuse and colluding with the perpetrator. Counselling should be made available if requested for the survivor and any children.   


It doesn’t seem much to ask, does it? So why does the Church need these most basic things pointing out? The document itself draws attention to some of the problems. There are interpretations of the Bible that make it easier to justify abuse. The Church of England is very broad (as you know) and there are small minorities on the ends of the Catholic and Evangelical wings who believe that marriage is absolutely indissoluble under any circumstances. But more significantly, we are, as an institution, terrified of scandal, and that has led to us, completely indefensibly, to brush things under the carpet rather than face the consequences of the situations we find ourselves in. This has, as we all know, led to the appalling truth that some clergy have been able to abuse others without adequate consequences. It has also, which is less known, led the Church to minimise the abuse of its clergy by others. But now we have it in writing. “Dioceses should not put fear of scandal above the safety of vulnerable people.” And yes. Clergy are people too.

We have mandatory training on domestic violence now, which is excellent. Dioceses and Parishes are encouraged to have policies on domestic abuse in place. But there is still work to be done. When I went to my recent training, I was the only one in the room who had read the 2017 report – most were unaware of its existence – and when someone asked the question, “Is this something we have to do, or is it something we’re encouraged to do?”, the trainer acknowledged that whilst it was best practice to have such polices in place, the Church does not oblige us to do so.

Although this is a serious problem for the Church, I don’t see us as particularly atypical. If I post something about domestic abuse on my Facebook timeline, it is met with a deafening silence from the ether. My FB friends are often quite chatty. But this is something that we are too scared to properly address, because one in four of us will experience domestic abuse, and the fallout of acknowledging that is too terrifying to contemplate. One in four is not some far away theoretical person. One in four is our immediate family, our dearest friends, our closest neighbours. Domestic abuse is no respecter of class or education or confidence or ability. It happens everywhere and to everyone, and it is a hidden monster.

As far as I understand it, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is supposed to be good news for the oppressed. Whilst we keep silent, we can offer no such good news. Good news begins when the truth is spoken, when the theology that all people are precious to God, is made reality by making it possible for everyone to lead lives that are free from coercion and fear. We live amongst people who have got used to feeling scared all the time. Unless we continually speak out against domestic abuse, we are not really offering a safe space for people to dare to consider whether they might live a free-er, safer, more holistic life.

I feel slightly scared even writing this. Like the rest of us, I do not want to acknowledge the reality, and I am worried that it might backfire on me somehow. But we must speak out. Each of us only has one life to live on this earth. Each of us deserves freedom from fear, and hope for the future. There are those of us who pray every day, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven”. Earth can only be like heaven if we act as well as pray. Domestic abuse, in all its forms, is never acceptable. I hope it can become one of those things that we talk about.aughton rainbow window