Sermon: Clericalism is wrong

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church

25th of February, 2018

Mark 8:31-38

At this time three years ago, the last time this reading came up in the Lectionary, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was examining the case of Knox Grammar, a prestigious Uniting Church school in New South Wales. I know this, because as I prepare a sermon each week I look back at what I have said about the passage before, and three years’ ago today’s gospel reading seemed to me to speak about the failures of all churches, included the Uniting Church, revealed by the Royal Commission. Three years’ ago I said that: ‘as members of the Uniting Church in Australia we must accept responsibility for what happens in Uniting Church institutions, including schools like Knox Grammar School’. I also said that we would have to wait for the findings of the Royal Commission to get a better idea of exactly what had happened in religious institutions. Well, three years later the Royal Commission has delivered its final report, we have some idea of how badly churches failed children in our care, and today’s gospel passage still speaks to me of the cross of repentance that we need as a Church to take up.

Today’s reading comes from a pivotal moment in the Gospel according to Mark, the moment when Jesus’ disciples accept that he is the Messiah, and Jesus starts to tell them about the sort of Messiah he will be; one who suffers, is rejected, is put to death, and then on the third day is raised by God. Of course the disciples, having just accepted who Jesus is, struggle to accept what he will do.  They can’t understand that Jesus will be a crucified Messiah. Peter has just answered Jesus’ question: ‘Who do you say I am?’ by saying ‘You are the Messiah,’ but he stumbles at Jesus’ teaching about his suffering. In response, Jesus rebukes Peter: ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

The Royal Commission has now delivered its final report, and there’s no doubt that the Son of Man will be deeply ashamed of many of the parts of the church that bears his name when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. The Royal Commission says that it heard ‘more allegations of child sexual abuse in relation to institutions managed by religious organisations than any other management type’ and that ‘the perpetrators of child sexual abuse in religious institutions were, in many cases, people that children and parents trusted the most and suspected the least’. Fifteen thousand, two hundred and forty-nine people contacted the Royal Commission about child sexual abuse that fell within its Terms of Reference, and of those almost half had been abused in religious institutions. The Royal Commission also heard from 6,875 survivors in private sessions, of whom almost 60% spoke about child sexual abuse in religious institutions. We are certain that many, many more people were abused as children and have never disclosed that; and it seems that people take about 24 years after the abuse happens to disclose it. So those thousands who spoke to the Royal Commission may only be the tip of a terrifying iceberg.

The Uniting Church’s own statistics are that 430 allegations of child sexual abuse have been made to the church since 1977 and of these 102 resulted in claims where the claimant sought redress. Of those 102 claims, 83 people received a settlement. So far the church has paid out over $12 million. Those are the statistics of people who have approached us. Of those who approached the Royal Commission and said that they had been abused in a religious institution, 2.3% of people said the institution was a Uniting Church one. On Shaun Micallef’s program Mad as Hell last Wednesday an actor playing a Catholic priest ended a session on confession by saying, ‘Can I just point out that the Anglicans were almost as bad as us?’ That works as a rather sick joke on a comedy program; it doesn’t work in real life. We cannot defend the Uniting Church on the basis that fewer children were abused in our care than in the care of other parts of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

The statement that the Uniting Church made to the Royal Commission when it started said, in part:

we will not hide from the truth, however painful that may be, and we will seek, with compassion and humility, to address whatever issues and challenges may emerge for us. We will say “sorry” to anyone who was sexually abused when in our care and, in consultation with those so affected, actively seek for ways to make amends for what happened in the past and identify how we can best offer support into the future.

Today’s service is one element of us making amends.

In today’s gospel reading Peter struggles to understand what sort of Messiah Jesus will be. Children have been abused in Christian institutions because churches have had that same struggle. The Royal Commission looked at the elements that led to child sexual abuse and said that, ‘the central factor, underpinning and linked to all other factors, was the status of people in religious ministry’.[1] According to the Commission people in religious ministry have been seen as in some sense sacred, not ordinary human beings, and so they, we, have been given levels of power and trust that they did not deserve.[2] Church hierarchies ‘created a culture of deferential obedience’.[3] That attitude is called ‘clericalism’ and it’s not only a dangerous one; it’s also completely counter to Jesus’ teachings. At Uniting Church induction services, ministers are told to take Christ the Good Shepherd as our example and the church prays that we might have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. That phrase, ‘the same mind,’ comes from the letter to the Philippians which goes on to say:

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

There is no room for clericalism there; no suggestion that ministers and members of Christ’s church should receive deference or be obeyed; only that we should be humble and obedient. Jesus humbling himself to the point of death on a cross did not sit well with Peter and does not sit well with many parts of the church today, but it is good theology. The bad theology and ecclesiology of clericalism led to the crimes and cover-ups that the Royal Commission exposed.

On the front page of The Age yesterday was the story that the Victorian government is planning to change the law so that the Catholic Church will have to provide a defendant who can be sued in courts. So far survivors of clerical sexual abuse in Catholic institutions have been unable to access church assets that are held in property trusts. Hopefully that legal change isn’t necessary for other churches; the Anglican dioceses in Victoria have already become legal entities so that they can be sued; and the Uniting Church is committed to providing redress and is hoping to join an independent national redress scheme. The proposed legal change is a sign that the world is changing, and it seems that Australian society will no longer allow churches to be treated differently from other institutions. And that’s good! The church as the body of Christ should demand as few special privileges as Christ himself did.

Three years’ ago I said: ‘There is one very practical way in which we may be asked to show our repentance. The Royal Commission has suggested that $4 billion dollars will be needed to compensate victims of child sexual abuse. The suggestion at the moment is that a national scheme will be set up to be administered by the government, funded by the institutions involved. That obviously will include the Uniting Church in Australia; we are an institution involved. That may mean that the Uniting Church has to sell property; and we’ve seen recently in Victoria how little we like being forced to sell our property! But in this case selling some of our assets is the very least we can do to show that we as the Uniting Church accept responsibility.’ I still think that may be the case. Churches are rich, but our wealth is primarily in property. Selling beloved buildings to compensate survivors might be the way we are called to lose something of our life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel.

Jesus told his disciples: ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ (Mark 9:37) The Royal Commission tells us how badly we have sometimes failed at that. Let’s ensure that we do not fail again and where we have failed, let us show our repentance in every way we can. Amen.


[1] Book 1, p. 28.

[2] Book 1, p. 43.

[3] Book 1, p. 44.

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