Safe from harm: a sermon for Safeguarding Sunday

Safeguarding SundayBack in the summer we had a visit from someone who brought into the cathedral a camera that took 360-degree photographs – ones that enable you to stand on a spot and see the view you would see if you were to spin round. This gives a sense of context and what is just out of shot, to see a fuller picture. That sense of seeing the fuller picture, seeing in the round, seems to me to be quite a good way into looking at safeguarding and today has been designated in this diocese as Safeguarding Sunday. I think one way into this is to think about seeing things in the round, so we get a fuller picture and take that fuller picture into account when planning what we do and how we respond to those who come through the doors or even don’t make it that far. 

Safeguarding first came on the radar of the Church with the publication in 1993 of ‘Safe from Harm’, which was a report and guidance produced by the Home Office. I remember going on my first training shortly after and it has been a regular requirement for ordained ministry since. Anyone who has been a school governor will have had this too. This is one of those areas where we can very easily tread on things which are difficult for people, for ourselves – we don’t know on the surface who is carrying what and the trainers are very good at making that explicit at the beginning – they are sensitive to what might be triggered in people as this subject is explored, and it can trigger. The same goes for this Sunday, for this sermon, and please do speak afterwards if you would like to.

That makes the whole area so much more important. We will know the statistics about how many people have been attacked or approached inappropriately, the teenagers who get requests to send intimate pictures – something those of us who are older never had to deal with, those who have been assaulted, emotionally abused or coercively controlled, those whose psychological state makes them vulnerable and in some situations can put them at risk. So we train, we plan activities carefully, and as we do we need that 3-60 vision which sees not just who or what is in front of us but the wider picture of how what we do in one place impacts others. Sometimes we get it wrong or miss something – but a church that takes safeguarding seriously is trying to do things better.

The Church in Wales handles safeguarding centrally and that means that we are required to adopt the policy produced centrally. The Cathedral Chapter discusses this each year and reaffirmed its commitment at its most recent meeting on 25th October. It is a standing item on the agenda for each meeting. We have two Safeguarding Officers for the Cathedral – Sue Smith and Hilary Sloan – who take their role very seriously. We have an external Provincial adviser, Wendy Lemon, because Fay cannot do this for us as a Cathedral Warden and therefore Trustee of the Cathedral. Their details are on the physical noticeboard by the west doors, outside the choir vestries, in the clergy vestry and in the cathedral hall. This is something that I updated and strengthened when I arrived here last year.

Churches have not always behaved well and the Church in Wales has been playing catch up in recent years. The Independent inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which reported last month, highlighted deficiencies in Wales in its interim report a few years ago. Big changes have been brought in and these are mandatory. We take them seriously.

There are twin dangers with safeguarding. One is that we think we know everyone and we don’t need it here. The other is that we can come to view everyone as a threat. Take that to extremes and it would destroy relationships. The best approach I heard is to have what was called ‘respectful uncertainty’. Respectful, honouring dignity, but recognising that there are things we don’t know and being prepared to hear when what we wouldn’t expect is said. Having been a chaplain in a Category B Prison with a sex offenders’ unit, I know that those who offend don’t always raise immediate suspicions. But if we plan safely, then odd behaviour will have more chance of standing out. Be under no illusions, though, those who want to offend can be very, very devious, often grooming whole communities to cover their tracks. They go on a charm offensive and create a climate where no one would think of challenging them. The classic wolf in sheep’s clothing. I have learnt to trust the sniff test – if it seems or smells iffy, keep digging until suspicions are either allayed or sadly confirmed.

There are different levels of safeguarding training. The basic one is open to everyone. The more who do it, the more we are all aware. Those who are volunteering for the nightshelter will have to do the next level of training and this is already arranged. There are also DBS criminal record checks. All of those who work with our choristers have had to do this too. So we have a lot in place already. And there are safe practices to make offending so much harder to do.

At first sight our readings might not look particularly themed on safeguarding. But look deeper at what is going on in that gospel reading (Luke 20:27-38). Andrew and I were talking about this yesterday. It sounds like a conversation about the resurrection and how it is possible, which of course it is. But behind it, is an assumption that this poor woman is the property of the men she marries. She is passed from one to another on their deaths as if a chattel to be passed around. Her role was to produce children and with each brother dying childless the others picked up the role. You could interpret this as caring for her in a society where widows were vulnerable, but it has a darker side to it, which today makes us squirm.

Treating people as property, as vessels for self-gratification is at the heart of safeguarding concerns. It is people being abused for someone else’s desires and not respecting their own agency or consent, manipulating them into a place they don’t want to be. Abusing the vulnerable gets very short shrift in the Bible.

Jesus’ response can be seen as him challenging the assumptions of the woman as property. In the resurrection she is no one’s property but is herself before God: honoured, loved and valued for who she is, in her own right, not who she belongs to.  It’s a radical challenge, which we can miss if we accept the distorted view that treats some as commodities for others appetites. This is something that time and again Jesus challenges. The passage fits with safeguarding more closely than we might at first imagine.

How we treat one another matters. Safeguarding is about how we create as safe an environment as we can. The aim of it is to care for everyone – to ensure that no harm is done and to respond appropriately when it turns out harm has been done. It looks at what we do in the round, 3-60 vision. That can take careful balancing, but through it, all should be respected, protected, enabled to flourish safe from harm.

Sermon for Safeguarding Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 6th November 2022

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About Ian Black

Ian is an Anglican priest and Dean of Newport Cathedral in the Church in Wales. He was previously Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes in Faversham. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury in partnership with the Diocese of Rochester. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare’s Church – Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus, was published by Sacristy Press on 1st July 2017. There is also a hymn based on this – Christ the Saviour. Other online writings can be found under the Books & Publications tab above. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s and was a contributing blogger to the ReJesus website. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his Facebook and Twitter posts.
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