Second instalment of Hearing the Lambeth Calls, a 10-part series on the calls to the global Anglican Communion made at the 2022 Lambeth Conference. This month’s call: Safe Church.
Ongoing work to make the Anglican Church of Canada safer must continue so that every member of the church knows and respects the boundaries that should accompany relationships, says Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.
“Since the 1980s, the legacy of residential schools and the public acknowledgement of sexual abuse or harassment, as victims brought forward their stories both from the past and present, have led to diocesan and parish work on screening, training and policies to ensure everyone understands the boundaries of appropriate relationships,” Nicholls says.
“This work must continue so that every parishioner, lay leader and cleric in the church knows those boundaries and adheres to them.”
Making the church safer is now an official priority for Anglicans around the world. At the Lambeth Conference last summer, bishops from across the Anglican Communion made it the focus of the second of their 10 calls to the church. In the Lambeth call on safe church, the bishops commit to adopting the Communion’s Charter for the Safety of People within the Churches of the Anglican Communion, which requires pastoral support and effective responses in cases of abuse, and to implementing the Protocol for the Disclosure of Ministry Suitability Information between the Churches of the Anglican Communion, intended to make it difficult for abusers to dodge allegations by moving between or within provinces. The adoption and implementation of these, according to the call, is to follow a set of Communion guidelines for enhancing safety, especially for children, young people and vulnerable adults.
The bishops also ask the people of their provinces and dioceses to join them in implementing these goals and call on political leaders to work toward protecting women and children from violence, abuse and exploitation.
Mandy Marshall, director of gender justice for the Anglican Communion, helped write the safe church Lambeth call. She says making the church safe for everyone and ensuring justice in cases of abuse is central to living out the gospel.
“If the gospel message is good news, then the church should be good news, and in some places, we’re not good news because of the way that we treat survivors,” Marshall says. “We need to reverse that and actually be the good news and be the light and the hope that the church should be in our communities and in our parishes.” She adds, “Perpetrators need to be brought to justice, and we need to be prepared to do that.”
In 2019, General Synod adopted the Communion’s safe church charter and the protocol. A paper on implementing them, prepared by the national church, includes the guidelines cited in the Lambeth call. General Synod also directed Council of General Synod (CoGS) to review safe church policy at the national level.
Nicholls says the bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada are committed to making church safer, and to “working with laity and clergy on continuous improvement in light of the gospel and the safe church charter.”
She adds, “We have implemented many steps towards being a safer church—but there is always more to do to revise policies, improve training, ensure understanding and act swiftly, with justice, when complaints are received.”
Since the 2019 resolution, the Anglican Church of Canada has been roiled by a series of events that brought sexual misconduct into the spotlight. In February 2022, a group called #ACCtoo published an open letter alleging that in 2021, senior church management failed to protect the identities of survivors of alleged sexual assault by sharing a draft of an article intended for a Journal sister publication. The group called for actions including the resignation of the general secretary. Later that year, in a separate incident, then National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald resigned due to acknowledged sexual misconduct.
#ACCtoo supporter the Rev. Dawn Leger, an Anglican priest currently working as a pastor for Harbor Online Community, an international online church, says she has no confidence that the Anglican Church of Canada will be an “active advocate” for Lambeth’s safe church call. Leger says she’s troubled that the church has not acted on the three requests made by #ACCtoo in its letter, which also include releasing unredacted findings of an investigation into the incident and submitting an apology in the Journal that presents a plan of action.
Last March, CoGS released a statement in response to the #ACCtoo letter committing to improved church practices in areas including sexual abuse and journalistic governance. But Leger says specific calls in the letter remain unfulfilled.
“I have seen expressions of regret,” Leger said. “I’ve seen apologies with very little commitment to change structures [and] attitudes. Until I see something that offers transparency and some conviction to change, I will remain skeptical.”
Responding to Leger’s criticisms, Nicholls cites the ongoing review of sexual misconduct policies following General Synod 2019. Anglican Church of Canada canons state that jurisdiction and authority for misconduct policies belong to dioceses; Nicholls says the bishops have committed to reviewing diocesan policies and practices and that reviews are underway.
“We are very aware and deeply sorry for the pain caused to the survivors by the mistakes made in handling the Journal article,” she says. “We are committed to ensuring it does not happen again.”
Nicholls says the church has offered online seminars by Mandy Marshall to chancellors, executive officers and Anglicans across Canada on “power and identity, signs of domestic abuse and trauma-informed response and care.” The House of Bishops, CoGS and General Synod management and staff have all participated in sessions with Marshall.
Regarding the Anglican Journal incident that prompted the #ACCtoo letter, Nicholls points to a review of the incident that she said would clarify responsibilities of management, Journal staff and the editorial board. “That work is nearing completion and will provide a foundation for best practices in the future,” the primate says.
Leger says she has other concerns about safety in the Anglican Church of Canada, including its lack of a national sexual misconduct policy. She says she’s disturbed to think of the number of priests she’s known that she later found out had problems with sexual misconduct. And with dioceses responsible for setting their own misconduct policies, the issue is treated differently in each diocese and bishops have sole discretion to determine whether a priest is suitable for ministry when transferring between dioceses.
“All a bishop needs to say essentially is, ‘This priest is in good standing,’ ” she says.
In response, Nicholls says the term “good standing” used in the letters of transfer used by bishops “indicates that a priest has not been found guilty of an offence that has deprived them of a license for ministry.” The church’s bishops, she adds, “are committed to sharing relevant information” about the disciplinary record of clergy to assist receiving bishops in discerning whether a person is suitable for a ministry position.
“The church loses credibility when it does not act” in cases of abuse, Nicholls says. “When the disciplinary canon has been invoked and a cleric found guilty of abuse deserving deprivation [of ministry], it has happened. I am not aware of any occasion when that has not been the case.”
Kimberly Penner, a Mennonite pastor, #ACCtoo supporter and university theological ethics instructor who served on the Anglican-Mennonite Dialogue, says safe churches require a realistic view of what is possible as well as a recognition of the systemic nature of abuse. Professionals generally, and clergy in particular, have power that can be used in a life-given way, but also abused.
“Here’s the thing: we can’t make church safe for everyone, no matter what church,” Penner says. “We can only work to be more survivor-centred and to be safer … There will, I believe, sadly always be abuses of power.”
The key, she says, is asking, “What can we do realistically to work to prevent more of that from happening, and to respond well when it does happen?”
The 2019 resolution passed by General Synod calls on CoGS to report back to it on its review of national safe church policy at General Synod’s next meeting, to be held this June 27-July 2.