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Sunday 13 October 2019 – Sung Eucharist
2 Timothy 2:8-15 Luke 17:11-19
Harry Williams, who died in January 2006, was a Cambridge theologian-turned-monk. All set for what many predicted to be a so-called glittering career in the Church, he came to very considerable prominence in wider society when, as Dean of Chapel at Trinity College, he suffered a psychological breakdown, born of years of trying to suppress his homosexuality. For eighteen months he gave up on church altogether and it was only with the help of a psychoanalyst that he was able to come to an acceptance of who he was with integrity and without shame or self-condemnation.
What struck those who heard him preach once again in the College chapel after his absence was the sheer honesty, vitality and relevance of his preaching, and as a result there was standing-room only whenever he was in the pulpit. Such was his reputation that invitations came to preach from far and wide.
On one occasion he was asked to preach at Eton College. Realising that getting the boys on his side wasn’t going to be easy, he began by admitting that he’d been racking his brains as to what could be the most boring way to begin his sermon. He then revealed to the assembled company, now hanging on his every word, that he’d cracked it. ‘Today,’ be announced, ‘is Advent Sunday.’
Well, in the spirit of Harry Williams, I can happily say, ‘Today is Safeguarding Sunday!’ I know, of course, that if you’d gleaned that in advance, wild horses wouldn’t have kept you away! I can see you on the edge of your seats already! Joking aside, though, the mere mention of the word safeguarding is likely to evoke a mixed reaction. Some of you will be working in organisations where safeguarding is simply taken for granted: those who work in education or social services, for example. For such people, complying with the contemporary requirements and expectations with regard to safeguarding is simply non-negotiable.
Others, no doubt, will have jaundiced views about safeguarding, thinking that much of it is simply bureaucracy gone mad, and perhaps there’s an element of truth in that, not least because we can see certain things that are lost in the process, things like being able to give a cuddle to a toddler who’s fallen over at nursery and hurt herself and wants mummy, but mummy’s not there so the next best thing’s a teacher. The trouble is, of course, that we all know of people who’ve abused positions of trust and preyed on vulnerable people, like toddlers in need of some comfort. So safeguarding is about protecting the vulnerable from harm. And if truth be told, we’re all vulnerable in some way or other. It’s part of the fragility of the human condition.
And then it could be said that safeguarding’s all relative anyway. Take the present plight of the Kurds in northern Syria. I wouldn’t mind betting that if you were to ask any of them what their top priority is at the moment, what their deepest longing is, it would simply be to be kept safe. How at risk and vulnerable they are to all sorts of things: bombs and bullets; injury and death; psychological harm and emotional trauma; homelessness and disease; insecurity and fear. And what about the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey? They’re currently being used as pawns in a political power game and they can’t possibly feel safe. There’s a deep desire in all of us to feel safe and there’s a fundamental moral obligation pertaining to all of us to be concerned to guard everyone’s safety. We might not call that safeguarding but in effect that’s what it is. So we might well be tempted to think that our preoccupation with safeguarding’s a sign of a society that’s gone mad, but I have my doubts that those who’re currently vulnerable and at risk in Syria and Turkey would see it that way.
Now we might think there’s a heck of a difference between our lives here and the lives of those in Syria and Turkey, which is why it’s probably best to think of safeguarding in our situation not so much in terms of legislation or bureaucracy but of culture. The aim of safeguarding is to create a culture across the whole of society in which everyone can flourish and be free from abuse or harm, especially those who’re particularly vulnerable: the young, the elderly, the mentally ill, the easily influenced, and so on. What constitutes good safeguarding practice is simply a way of fleshing out the aspiration to guard people’s safety and enable them to thrive. Attendance at safeguarding courses is mandatory for clergy, amongst many others, and Jonathan and I attended a day course together in February. Here’s a list of the areas that safeguarding’s concerned to address in children and adults: physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, sexual abuse and exploitation, financial or material abuse, discriminatory abuse, organisational abuse, spiritual abuse, domestic abuse, online abuse and modern slavery. That’s quite some list. I can imagine St Paul writing a hefty letter to present-day churches, if he felt that such concerns were being ignored, and arguing that failing to address them would result in the diminishment of our fundamental dignity as created in the image and likeness of God. Indeed, he might go further and say that such a failure would be tantamount to dishonouring Christ.
Today’s gospel reading might seem a long way from safeguarding concerns, but I wonder. To use the current terminology of our own day, it’s actually about wellbeing, and I want to suggest that safeguarding is intimately bound up with wellbeing. Wellbeing is what we experience when we can be fully who we are as human beings without fear or anxiety. The aim of safeguarding is simply to promote that state of wellbeing and limit and contain anything that threatens it.
So the story of the healing of the ten lepers is about being made well: the lepers recover their wellbeing because their leprosy is cured. It’s not just a story of physical healing, though. As lepers, they would all have been excluded from everyday society – just as in our own time those living with AIDS and HIV were and sometimes still are. In addition to this, though, one of them was also discriminated against on the grounds of his nationality and religion – he was a foreigner, a Samaritan. Of the ten lepers healed, he was the only one to come back and say thank you. The others all seem to have taken it for granted. The Samaritan, though, realised just how significant his healing was. It brought with it not just physical healing but restoration to society, and an end to the suffering born of prejudice, discrimination and, no doubt, abusive attitudes and behaviours. Such things would have taken their toll on his general health, as they would on us and anyone else, which is why in our own time wellbeing and safeguarding are such priorities. No wonder he was thankful. And perhaps the other nine healed lepers present a warning to us not to be complacent about wellbeing and safeguarding.
Harry Williams, with whom I began, came to see that one of the most significant ways in which we discover God is through our authentic and restored humanity. It’s as we become more fully ourselves, more free to be who we truly are, that we grow into the fullness of Christ. There are many within the Church itself who testify to how in all sorts of ways that growth has been hindered, not least because they’ve been damaged by the Church and its representatives. Safeguarding Sunday is a reminder that the responsibility to promote a culture of wellbeing belongs to us all. What’s at stake is the capacity of everyone to grow to maturity, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ. That’s what we have to protect, guard and keep safe.
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