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Safeguarding Service Sermon, May 2019

by Michael Ford last modified 07 May, 2019 03:19 PM

Thanksgiving for, and re-commitment to, the work of making our churches safe places for everyone, preached at Salisbury Cathedral on Saturday 4 May 2019.

Isaiah 43.1-3
John 3.16-18

On the eve of the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, our former Archbishop Rowan Williams led a service of prayer outside St Paul’s cathedral. In relation to the climate emergency he said it’s as if we have forgotten who we are. “Remember who you are”, the Archbishop chanted.

I feel the same about the way we are dealing with some of the other issues around at the moment, such as Brexit! But I especially feel it in relation to the abuse of children and vulnerable adults and the work by which we seek to address it as a Church through Safeguarding. Remember who you are.

On the cathedral’s font are words from Isaiah which we heard in today’s first reading:
I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

Remember who you are.

1. I have called you by name, you are mine.
A child of God, made in God’s image.

In the early Church Christians were known for the care of individuals, slave and free, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, of every race and language… We were known for our care of the household not just the family; for the inclusion of the poor and outcast. Christianity at its best was non-tribal religion. All are welcome.

We were also people who cared for the unborn, who put an end to leaving unwanted female babies on the hillside to perish. We cared for our dead and remembered the saints at their tombs which were thin places where heaven and earth seemed very close.

In life and death every person is precious in themselves, not because of what they do or own but simply because they are.

I have called you by name, you are mine.

2. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

Life has its tough times, probably for all of us. You will not be overwhelmed. God is with us in good and bad.

Remember who you are. Love God and love your neighbour as yourself, at one with creation. It requires acceptance we are finite; human not God. Don’t get above yourself: be yourself.

The Eucharistic Prayer is a thanksgiving for everything. Jesus with his disciples on the night one of them betrayed him. God is with us and there are things to give thanks for even when things go wrong.

It is striking that humility is often born from humiliation. The Church is having to learn this.

Think about some of the people in public life whose stories we know such as Jonathan Aitken, a government minister sent to prison for perjury and perverting the course of justice now a Deacon and prison chaplain. He was in Salisbury a few weeks ago speaking to the Friends of Erlestoke Prison. There is something very touching about his helping prisoners to write letters and his helping with literacy projects in prisons and what those people have done for him in giving him greater humility and honesty about who he is.

Less fancy was a man I knew when I was a young parish priest. We had been at the funeral of a friend of his who died of a drugs overdose. That night he could not sleep and said, “I found myself thinking of the Prodigal Son and how even my father’s hired hands had enough food to live on. In that moment I gave myself to God.”

In that moment he knew himself and found himself in relation to God and the people around him and found God was with him in even the most difficult moments of life.

Through abuse the Church has been humiliated. Pray that it will give us greater humility and honesty.

When you pass through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you.  


3. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

We need a saviour because we are not perfect. Church looks full of good people. I have had confirmation candidates and those to be ordained who have panicked on the eve of their confirmation or ordination because they weren’t good enough.

We’re not here because we’re perfect. We are here because we’re loved and called into God’s service.

We know we are made for good and that there is evil about. Most abuse happens within the family. Church is sometimes thought of as like an extended family, so we need to take especial care about the dynamics of church life that can so easily lead us into trouble.

Remember who you are.

This service is taking place because safeguarding is a key priority for the Church. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and the reporting of cases such as in last Monday’s Panorama highlight the need to make a safer church. Most of what we do is preventative: good practice holding us accountable to one another, well informed about the potential risks and dangers, well trained to notice and nurture those in our care.

We have a problem as a society not just as a Church but there is something particularly shocking about abuse in the context of a Church seeking to proclaim the love of God in Christ Jesus. It is a failure to remember who we are.

Experience as a parish priest means I have thought for years that abuse is one of the issues that defines the relationship between Church and society. It undermines whatever good we do. No matter how smart we are about renewal and reform, intentional evangelism and mission, abuse holes the ship of the Church below the waterline. Sometimes it is said that the first instinct of the Church is to protect itself, to save the ship. What we need to do is work out what is causing the problem and meet the needs of the people involved. In reality these are not alternatives. Both are needed but if we start with the people we will also make a safer Church. People first.

What we know is that those who have been abused are marked for life. They have to be our first responsibility. People first.

The Eucharist brings us together, like the first disciples, with the Lord. Remembering the Last Supper when Jesus told his friends to do this in memory of him. It is where we learn who we are. Remember who you are and that the Lord calls us. This is a high calling and in Christ’s presence we are both judged and renewed in truth and love.

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