Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Canute S. Thompson | Sex, church and power

Published:Sunday | February 5, 2017 | 2:00 AM
Dr Canute Thompson

The Church, generally, but the Moravian Church, in particular, faces a deep and difficult crisis occasioned by the recent arrests of some of its leaders for alleged sexual relations with minors. The management of this crisis will tell us a good deal about the measure of the mettle of the leadership of the church, as well as about the level of compassion that people of good conscience can show at a time of grief and pain, and the boldness we are able to exercise at a time of brokenness.

One thing is certain: As steep and difficult as this crisis is, and however eagerly we would wish to see it end, there is no getting over it by trying to get around it. We can only get past this crisis by working through it. We do well to remind ourselves that the most significant legacy we possess after a crisis has passed is the record of how we managed the crisis.

Against this background, the decision of the executive body of the Moravian Church to seek to postpone its constitutionally due 2017 biennial weeklong synod, or general conference, is to be seen as poor crisis management. The leadership had expressed the wish for correction and criticism and had affirmed the need for a review of its systems and procedures.

By not holding the synod, the leadership is depriving the church of the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue on the issues facing the body at a time when Moravians should be guarding against believing its own version of reality. What is also of concern is that the constitution of the church does not provide for the postponement of synod, except that postponement is approved by a specially called one-day meeting held prior to the due date for the biennial.

I speak as a member of the Moravian Church, and the only 'qualification' that I would claim for discussing these matters is that I have been speaking about them for a long time. Like other normal creatures, I have my biases, but I subject them and my views to the objective critique of reasonable persons.

 

ISSUES FACING THE MORAVIAN CHURCH

 

The first major issue facing the Moravian Church is what I would describe as a culture of secrecy. For example, there are many members who are of the view that the less said is the best said. In my opinion, the postponement of synod is an expression of that view. For too long, the church has sought to hide too many things from public view, and even within the church, issues that should be discussed openly have been pushed under the rug. This practice is, in part, responsible for the stumbling over which the church is now scandalised.

I suggest that there are two levels at which the current debate about child sexual abuse and its apparent manifestation in the Moravian Church may be placed in context. The first is the broader socio-cultural nature of sexual abuse. In this regard, I suggest that while what has come forcibly to public attention are reports of alleged carnal abuse by ministers in the Moravian Church, there is a deeper issue of the abuse of power and the culture of accountability.

There is a mandatory duty to make a report to the relevant authorities if one has reason to believe that a child is being abused. To make such a report, one must have some information on who the child is, or where the child can be found, or some other information about the child.

I suggest that the decisions the church took in relation to a 2014 report reflect an interpretation of its powers and the level of accountability and transparency that it deemed was required. Thus, I am suggesting that what the church knew, when it knew it, and what it did when it knew fall within the domain of how the church interprets its powers and understands accountability.

I am further suggesting that the handling of that specific matter is not unrelated to how the church has handled other matters. So I contend that the crisis facing the church is not merely about alleged carnal abuse, of which some of its leaders have been accused. The crisis is about power, about who gets a pass and who gets persecuted; whose denials of alleged wrongdoing are taken as gospel and whose are grilled.

The crisis is a chronic one of ongoing, systemic double standards and selective accountability for which we are all responsible, to varying degrees. This I submit as a painful but necessary critique. For too long, many of us have been too willing to defend, explain, or excuse the actions of the leadership, not on grounds of principle, but personal relations, pride, and petty politics.

In Part 2, I will offer some suggestions on how both the Moravian Church and the general church community and broader society may attempt dealing with the current crisis.

- Dr Canute Thompson is a member of the Moravian Church in Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and canutethompson1@gmail.com.