Remembering well: Why the church has to embrace the pain of the abused

So much remembering. We've had some very moving events. Poetry and music evoking the darkest moments of WW1. In Great Missenden, the village where I work, there were 39 men killed. Many of them lived in Church Street and went to our school. We all stood round our newly restored memorial at 11000 on the 11th our heads bowed in respectful silence. Then we processed into church and one sort of remembering morphed into another: 'Do this in remembrance of me.' As a human and as a Christian community it's what we do. We remember.

Memories are a crucial component of our identity. If illness erodes your ability to access your memory, it leaves you and the people around you in a difficult and scary place. Every bit of scientific progress that helps tackle such illness is crucial, and I'm sure we are all hoping or praying for a real medical breakthrough.

Communion is a way of remembering a terrible event with love and thankfulness.Reuters

In the light of the recent #MeToo revelations I was thinking about another dynamic of remembering. It's to do with the difference between remembering and re-living.

We all sometimes think about painful things that have happened. It is healthy to do that

Like most churches we have a special service for those who have been recently bereaved. It's called Remembering with Love, and just for an hour we deliberately step into that space of recollection. The love and the pain are still there, but as time passes we distil the memory so that we remember without having to re-live.

If we haven't dealt with it however, remembering becomes agony. Many of the women who were abused by Harvey Weinstein suppressed the painful memory so effectively that it is only now that they truly access their feelings about what happened. They are not so much remembering as re-living those events.

I have heard people recently saying: 'For heaven's sake, it was 25 years ago!' Well, I would urge compassion. Facebook has been full of people saying that the recent Judge Kavanaugh allegations have triggered memories for them, and it feels 'like yesterday'. These are events in their lives that have not been processed or resolved. This is why it is so important to take historic disclosures seriously. Until that happens the person is never able to be free of the pain.

It's interesting that remembering is at the very heart of the Christian faith. Knowing that he was about to be killed Jesus said 'Remember me' and gave his friends a symbolic way of doing that which has lasted to this day. Over 2,000 years it has no longer got any overtone of grief. There is no re-living in the Eucharist. The remembering is all about love and thankfulness. We have probably now reached this place with WW1. It's not raw grief, we weren't there. But the gratitude, respect and hopefully commitment to peace, that is worth the ceremony.

So our Eucharistic heart should make church a good, safe, and healing place to do all sorts of remembering.

Sadly this isn't always the case. We are only just beginning to uncover the extent of abuse that has happened in a church context. With extraordinary courage there are people who are telling their stories and considerable resource is being put into making it less likely that this can happen in the future.

It will of course, human beings do unspeakable things. But we are trying hard. Safeguarding training is now obligatory and there are more robust new protocols in place.

It's the remembering part that hasn't gone well. For most people who make a disclosure the speaking out and telling the story is like re-living it.

When men returned from the war most of them didn't tell their stories. Articulating the memories would have taken them right back there. It was a self-protection strategy, but a very costly one. A whole generation of men were emotionally unavailable. Women and children lived with people who couldn't show affection. I hear this again and again as I sit with families to prepare funeral tributes.

When someone speaks out about their abuse in the church they become a 'case' to be managed, dealt with. It's as if the person who listens to their story is being asked to face the real church rather than the fantasy one, and that is too hard.

The significant thing is that their remembering is also ours.

None of us were at the battle of the Somme. Half my family didn't even live in this country during the war. They were Swiss. Yet standing silent for two minutes at the memorial the memories become all our memories. Remembering becomes community.

This is the step the church needs to take. As someone courageously speaks out about their abuse we need to embrace that story, painful though it will be, and allow the truth to dawn. When things do go tragically wrong we all have to take responsibility and understand that 'their' story is really also 'our' story. Then we can share the pain and share the healing.

This is work that we all need to do, and it is urgent. I cannot begin to say how urgent.

The National Catholic Reporter printed a letter on 9 November 2018. This was the headline: Open letter to US Catholic Bishops: It's over. 

It's over. 

People wonder why I push and push about equal rights and moral responses to survivors. Well, it's because I do care about the CofE, and every time I step outside the protected (shrinking) bubble I am told that we have lost our way.

The test of a civilised society is the way it treats its weakest members. The same applies to the Church. Look at the way we treat the weakest and most vulnerable and the news is bad. People who have been 'othered' and left outside, show to the world that we don't act out what we say we believe.

This weekend churches were full. There is a wonderful residual good will toward the Church of England, but for too long we have been spending the capital. It is such a simple message and one which most decent folk in this country take as given. Treat everyone equally and let people remember their abuse and respond with love and care and generosity. End of.

Rev Canon Rosie Harper is chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and a member of the Church of England's General Synod.

This article appears on ViaMedia News and is used with permission.