Organisers of a recent conference in Woking, Creating a Safer Church, talked to us about their work and what they hope their subsequent participation at the Lambeth Conference has achieved.
Helen Blake is a relationships counsellor and also lectures in pastoral care and counselling at St Mark’s Theological College in Canberra. Her husband Garth Blake is a senior Sydney barrister and Chair of the Professional Standards Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia. They were present at the Lambeth Conference to offer their expertise to others seeking resources on how to tackle the abuse of power in their provinces and dioceses.
They hope to establish an international network within the Anglican Communion to deal with issues around the abuse of power.
What is your role here at the Lambeth Conference?
Garth: My wife Helen and I took a seminar looking at caring marriages and preventing abuse in marriage. We were recently at international conference at Woking near London, looking at abuse issues. We had a very helpful and encouraging conference that really fed into today’s theme of the abuse of power in relationships, marriage, and within the church.
What was the driving force behind the conference at Woking?
Garth: It came from the Australian General Synod in 2004, where it was suggested an international network be developed. It’s taken a while to get here.
Is there a groundswell of concern at a grass roots level?
Garth: That was a question at the conference - do we do anything for the future? It was unanimous that we would benefit from networking and resource sharing, and that internationally, and with humility, we could offer something to the Communion as a whole. It is so difficult to raise abuse issues in the Communion, and get a voice, and be heard.
Why is it that Australia has managed to take quite a lead in this area?
Garth: I had the privilege, with Helen, to receive a Churchill Fellowship in 2002, which gave us a chance to really look at what was happening across the world, and how that might apply in Australia. So much of what we have in Australia is from at least the seed or or even fuller expression of what is happening in others parts of the Communion. Where Australia has the greatest to contribute is in the breadth of approaches that we have - not that we’ve got it all worked out, of course!
This is so often seen as a women’s problem, and often the responsibility in relationships comes down to women…
Helen: It does appear to be thought about as a women’s issue. Often men don’t want to be part of the discussion. That is a short sighted way of looking at it – what happens to women affects whole of the family, the church. Women seem to be the ones who experience abuse more often, and children pick that up, they see it, they feel it, it’s the climate in the home.
And we also grapple with a church which institutionally has put women at a lower level at times, don’t we?
Helen: Yes. We need to think about the ways we relate to each other all the time, even in our social expressions. If we’re standing in a group and the men choose not to acknowledge the women, that’s just another expression of it. That happens a lot.
It’s pretty complex, but we shouldn’t give up on it because it’s hard. We have to work on each piece at a time.
Have the kind of protocols put in place across Australian dioceses been welcome
Garth: Every diocese has something in place now. The biggest challenge is not to say, “We’ve done it”. To be honest, many of our leaders are sick and tired of the issue… but if we want to have a safe Church, it’s not just about policies and procedures. It’s about creating a safe culture. That’s far more difficult than putting into place policies and procedures, although that is part of changing the culture, of course. We’ve got a way to go and I hope no-one would think we can rest on our laurels at this point
There are some who would say the pendulum has swung too far.
Garth: Any procedure that deals with complaints must be fair to both sides. My bottom line is that in a fair procedure, victims can be heard, and clergy get a fair hearing. If it’s not seen to be doing both those things the whole thing will be seen to be discredited anyway.
What are you hoping to have come out of the Lambeth conference on this issue?
Helen: For me, it has opened my eyes. I always understood there was a problem of violence against women right across the world. Being here, having “The Church” together, it brings those people suffering right in front of me in flesh and blood. It makes me think we’re very well off in Australia, and makes me determined as a worker in the church to be contributing what I can to this issue.
Garth: The conference at Woking and today are of the same piece. The desire to work to establish a network in the Communion has been given an impetus and a voice here today and it has been laid out as part of the agenda of the Communion. It would be staggering to my mind if the Communion, [from] today, didn’t take this up in an intentional way.