This morning I took two small children to child care. They hadn’t known that the person coming from church to collect them from their house would be me, and so I was greeted with exuberant bouncing. Their mother asked: ‘Are you a bit excited because Avril’s going to take you?’ and they eagerly agreed. Apparently driving with me in my funny car (which doesn’t have back doors so getting into the back seat means crawling over the front seat) and getting to talk to me all the way was extremely exciting. And me driving past the child care centre, so we had to go up round the round-about and come back, was very humorous.
The thing is, I’ve only known these children for a couple of months. I’ve only seen them and their parents three or four times. But because I’m their minister, I’m trusted with them when the family needs a bit of extra help.
This afternoon I went to visit a woman in her eighties. Her son had taken her husband to hospital for radiation therapy, and she was home alone, so it was a good time for me to drop in. I’d never met her before. The minister who had this placement before me had visited the family when her husband’s cancer was diagnosed and had mentioned that I’d be the minister following him and that I’d like to visit, but that was all she knew about me. Just that I was the minister of the local Uniting Church.
I stayed for an hour and a half and did little more than listen. When I left, she said, ‘Well, you know all the family history now!’ and in that hour and a half I had learnt a lot. She talked to me about her husband’s cancer diagnosis, cried a little, and let me pray with her. She was honest with me about what was happening in her life, and how she was feeling about it. I was just someone who’d walked in off the street. But I was also the minister, and that meant I was trusted with her truth.
After six years I am still overwhelmed by the fact that as ‘minister’ I have a role to play in some people’s lives from the moment I meet them. Most often this strikes me when I sit down with a family to plan a funeral, and am immediately welcomed into the intimacy of their grief. When I ask people, ‘How are you?’ they don’t automatically reply that they’re good. They tell me how they really are. I hope that that’s partly because of who I am as Avril, because I am (in the right circumstances) open and kind. But I know a lot of it is because of the role I play.
This is one of the reasons that the stories that are coming out of the Victorian ‘INQUIRY INTO THE HANDLING OF CHILD ABUSE BY RELIGIOUS AND OTHER ORGANISATIONS‘ and the stories that will come out of the Commonwealth Royal Commission to investigate Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse sicken me so much. People of faith place so much trust in ordained people. They trust us with their truth, their identity, their memories, their children. The trust placed in someone like me, simply because I am ‘the minister’, is overwhelming. I cannot imagine how anyone could abuse that trust. Any abuse of children is appalling. But I believe that clerical abuse of children is in a way worse than abuse by other people because it is taking advantage of people’s faith.
I am angry that people who, like me, have the immense privilege of being ordained, set apart, to serve God’s people, have misused that privilege. And I am worried that by the time these inquiries are over being a minister will be a source of mistrust rather than trust. If that happens the fault will not only lie with the individuals who abused, but with the churches who let them get away with it. There is absolutely no excuse for any religious institution to cover-up abuse. Those who might have thought they were protecting a church’s reputation will find that they were doing it the most harm.
In the meantime, I will thank God for the privileged life I lead and humbly pray that with Her help I’ll live up to this calling. Every day I remind myself of the words the Uniting Church said to me at my ordination: ‘Faithful is the God who has called you and who will not fail you’.