by the Revd Canon Anna Norman-Walker, Rector of Streatham and past member of General Synod
On Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago the Diocesan Bishop called, he lives in my Parish and invited me to accompany him on a visit to our local Oxfam shop on the Streatham High Road. He wanted to offer a word of kindness and affirmation to our Oxfam volunteers in the wake of the recent Oxfam Scandal. The response of the staff moved me; they were genuinely touched by the visit and readily opened up about the impact the headlines had had on them. The deputy manager described her sadness and how she, and others had felt something of the disgrace of the scandal ‘by association’, despite being entirely disconnected from it at a personal and high street level.
There is no doubt that the behaviour of Oxfam workers in Haiti was deplorable, the subsequent management of reputational damage disgraceful, and the offering of a ‘dignified exit’ from the organisation to those responsible at the time entirely unacceptable.
I could not help but draw parallels with my own experience of priestly ministry. As I sat in the cinema watching the quite brilliant film ‘Three Billboards outside Epping Missouri’ I squirmed during a scene where the local priest visits the home of an angry grieving woman and is balled out by her because of the organisation he represented:
“You’ve got your colours, you’ve got your clubhouse, you’re, for want of a better word, a gang. And if you’re upstairs smoking a pipe and reading a bible while one of your fellow gang members is downstairs f*cking an altar boy then, Father, you’re culpable. Cos you joined the gang, man. And I don’t care if you never did shit or you never saw shit or you never heard shit. You joined the gang. You’re culpable.”
A little cheer rippled through the cinema as the monologue ended that night in the cinema and for a moment I shared in the experience of ‘disgrace by association’.
The cost to Oxfam is yet to be fully measured; 1,200 people have cancelled their donations and a cry has gone out to withdraw the 32 million pounds of government funding given to support the charities international work. This is a pity, because those who ultimately suffer are those in most need in the world. What perhaps needs to be more urgently addressed is the issue of accountability for those who work in the name of any organisation, and especially those who claim altruistic values.
There will always be an appetite for celebrating a fall from grace of those who have set out to ‘do good’ and the Oxfam story has done nothing to quench the cynicism that exists especially within the media. Andrew Mc Leod in the Daily Mail writes “ jobs in international aid attract pedophiles and other predators who benefit from the power the aid industry confers upon them”.
The same might be said of the Church of course, given our historic case list.
Which is why safeguarding, safer recruitment, the holding accountable of those who cross lines, must our very highest priorities. We need to learn to say sorry, even for those things of which we had no personal involvement. We did, after all ‘join the gang’.
Lent is a season of repentance and it leads us to the Cross; it is here that we meet our ‘gang leader’ who is prepared to bear the shame of ‘disgrace by association’ with all humanity, despite the many dreadful things we are capable of doing and so should we.
We must not however, lose sight of the fact that on the ground every day, all over the world people are living out the values of the founding men and women of Oxfam faithfully and they are making a tremendous difference.
In the same way disciples of Jesus Christ are following in their saviour’s footsteps and as they do glimpses of his hope filled kingdom are made known.
These are things that corrosive cynicism will never destroy and the reason why those of us who are serving ‘gang members’ of Oxfam, the Church, or any other organisation seeking to do good, can and must press on.