After IICSA: Facing Up to Clericalism

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury


I tell a story against myself. When I was a young naval officer, I recall the first time the ship I served in docked in a military harbour. Keen to be acknowledged as an Officer, I recall leaving the ship on some sort of made-up errand and went looking for someone to salute me for the first time. Eventually I saw a young naval rating heading down a side road and I took a detour towards him, simply so that I could be saluted.

It’s not a particularly edifying story, but it does illuminate a concern for status and acknowledgment in my young self. The insecurities of youth, perhaps.

Well, almost. As part of my duties as one of the six Officers of the General Synod, I have the privilege in taking part in some big ecclesiastical occasions. Just occasionally, I catch myself feeling a little self-important. The big processions with their subtle hierarchies, the loud organ music telling everyone present that something important is going on, full cathedrals of expectant worshippers – it’s difficult not to be seduced into occasionally thinking it’s all about you. If I’m usually near the front of the procession (the subtle hierarchy telling me I’m not quite as important as the people behind me), pity the poor dean, bishop or archbishop at the back with all the weight of that expectation and projection.

“I have seen afresh the insanity of clericalism and of a deferential culture and how we have to struggle against that.” These were some of the most pointed remarks of Archbishop Justin, in his evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) last month. It’s difficult not to agree with him. Without naming names, some of the clergy giving evidence to that important Inquiry demonstrated from their own mouths how separate and elitist the clerical profession can become. We do well to remember the remedy offered to clericalism by Pope Francis that is the call to service and mercy. Criticising the clergy, “Clericalism”, he said, “leads to the functionalisation of the laity, treating them as ‘errand boys [or girls]’” He calls for a renewed commitment of the clergy to serving the people of God, showing mercy, helping ordinary baptised people live their faith in everyday situations. “It’s never the shepherd who tells the laity what they have to do or say in public life, they know it well or even better than us.”

Clericalism inverts the God-given order of the baptismal covenant. Through it the People of God come to think their job is to support the clergy doing the work of God, rather than the clergy enabling the whole church to fulfill its baptismal calling.

But there is another side to the coin. The obverse side is the way in which the people of God treat the clergy in a way that only feeds into such unhealthy clericalism (I have a personal dislike for the word ‘laity’, for which see the provocatively-titled R. Paul Stephens’ The Abolition of the Laity). Whatever the source of clericalism, its presence is not confined to the clergy. The unnamed ‘elders’ of 1 Samuel 8 press the prophet Samuel, “give us a king to govern us.” Despite the warnings of the Lord against such a course of action – “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day” – the elders press for a king. The parallel is not exact but the effect is strikingly similar. Just as the Lord warns the elders of the dangers of kingship, so today we have become urgently aware of the impediment to mission that comes when a call to service becomes a caste with clerical status. Even those whose ecclesial tradition sit light to concepts of ‘priesthood’ can easily create an equally deferential culture around the role of the ‘leader’. The cult of the leader is clericalism’s bastard child.

I was touched by an email I received from a member of my PCC the other day, in the context of a disagreement between us. Having set out her stall to me about why she thought I was wrong, she sent a second email saying, “Simon, do you have any idea how wonderfully rewarding and refreshing it is to be able to have a genuine conversation with clergy (you!) who doesn’t consider me as automatically lesser or second-rate just because I don’t have a Revd title.” Having told a story against myself at the beginning, permit me this little moment of gratitude. I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that I treat everyone quite as well as she feels I do her. But I work on it as a priority in ministerial development.

But I take no ease on this matter. I’m currently chairing a national working group on clergy well-being and we can see the danger that clericalism is not just to the church but to the minister herself. If IICSA can do something life-giving for the church (as well, naturally, to the survivor), it will be to remind us that one of the fruits of our repentance from the sins of child abuse and institutional failure, one of the gifts of the ‘world’ to the church will be to challenge us to deal with the cult of the cleric and the culture of deference. This is an urgent task for the whole church.

How can you play your part?

This entry was posted in IICSA, Sexual abuse, Simon Butler. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to After IICSA: Facing Up to Clericalism

  1. peter martin says:

    Profound self-knowledge and the ability to face down shame may be the beginning of wisdom and an open door to grace. I found hope and a personal truth in this article.


  2. John Williams says:

    I was fortunate in my first curacy in having every ounce of clericalism knocked out of me by my new Vicar, who was himself new to the parish. At our first staff meeting he said: “The main problem with this place [not just the church] is that people don’t feel that they are listened to!” Those words have been in the centre of my mind for the past forty-nine years,


  3. Roger verrall says:

    Excellent piece.
    I wonder if the implications are understood to apply to some lay leaders as well.


  4. Michael Rowe says:

    As someone brought up very much in the non-conformist tradition but who also did quite a bit within the Anglican Church (UK + France), I’ve never felt in any way subjugated by rank. But I’m also very well aware of the sometimes very real loneliness and isolation of those raised onto a pedestal. The opportunities to pour out your heart can be very limited. Suspect that most would be rather wary of doing that to most Arch Deacons & Bishops and even a bit concerned when there was somewhere “official” to go. I’ve had very interesting conversations with a small number of RC Priests.


  5. Michael Rowe says:

    Additionally, I am only too aware of the way in which autistic and LG (don’t know anyone in the other categories) friends are being treated in some areas. Difficult to believe that these Churches actually have the brass neck to claim to be Christian.


  6. Gilo says:

    Society for the Protection of Bishops

    I recently met Simon Butler when survivors and allies protested at Synod and distributed a booklet(1) to all members. I instinctively felt him to be an ally for change. I think he can be summarised as saying: clergy need to be more lay-like, so that the laity can become more priest-like; but the twinned cultures of entitlement and deference prevent this alchemy from taking place.

    But sadly the CofE continually commits itself to a path of self-diminishment. It has not faced the ‘crisis of its senior layer’. Denial, distancing, fog and blank, and an untethering from truth amongst current senior figures is too great, and reinforces entitlement. The crisis might have been faced a few years ago, and some redemption from the mess salvaged as a result. But there is an emotional delinquency in too many senior figures. I have seen it up close and personal in two mediations. One bishop recognised the need for contrition and made an adult apology, owning that his response had been disastrously advised. The bishop alongside him maintained a monochromatic response – a one answer fits all approach – clinging to petulant obtuseness. One realises with a jolt that some of the current hierarchy are depressingly quite low-calibre. Teflon coating covers over a lack of real theological guts.

    I agree with Linda Woodhead’s recent article(2) calling for a new theology. But that is harder to achieve than a yard of new policy. There’s little theology of stature in the current Bishops. And any theology of contrition is centralised, expressed by Archbishop Welby, as we saw at IICSA hearings. This centralised contrition gives survivors almost nowhere to go. This is heightened by the stark contrast between the messages of both archbishops as highlighted in a recent Guardian editorial.(3) I suspect Welby doesn’t impact much on his hierarchy or strategariat. His is not a commanding enough voice to call change and shape theology in the response to survivors.

    It’s a serious deficit in a structure that is taken up with management voodoo and collective omertà. This crisis cries out for a theology of justice rooted in profound honesty and commitment to reconciliation. The figures who get this are all marginals, regarded askance by the hierarchy as the survivors they stand alongside. The House of Bishops mouth change but too many regard our questions as treading on entitlement and the structures they want hidden. The deference upholding all this, both within diocesan structures and the NST, creates a culture many of us now call the Society for the Protection of Bishops. The cognitive dissonance in this culture has enabled many bishops to run to ground. The energy required to drag bishops out of foxholes is enormous – especially when it becomes obvious to the survivor that it is his/her task alone. The whole structure including the NST and civil service in Church House relies on the near impossibility for survivors of this task. Stories are numerous of survivors struggling to beat a path through intentional inertia, strategies of reputation managers, malevolence of the NST, and CofE corporate hand-wash. Something is very wrong with the theology of all this.

    A new theology might enable the Church to grow from this crisis in surprising ways vital for the future. Only a theology of consensus, radical new consensus with survivors, can do this. Nothing less will redeem this broken structure if it is to recover integrity. The House of Bishops will need to make giant strides to make up for the inertia and spent promises of the past. It will need leaders of theological courage and compassionate wisdom. But prestige, entitlement and deference are not easily conquered in an institution so freighted down by these things. The Church is a heavily armoured vehicle with the engine of a lawnmower. Some of its current hierarchs need to retire before it sheds much of that armour. Realistically the Church is in for a long haul – 10 years at least of dealing with the aftermath of all this. I doubt the CofE will be any different from other churches which have spent decades fending off the impact of the abuse crisis.




  7. Canon Dr Michael Blyth says:

    Excellent contribution from Gilo above, as I would expect. Simon your valid and thoughtful points about clericalism were ironically put into context by your carelessness in placing ‘survivors’ in parentheses. In other words ‘they must have life-giving opportunities too’ but in a secondary way; the implication being that the church must come first. A revealing slip of the pen which could happen to any of us, but which also indicates how much our thinking has been conditioned.


    • Mr Simon Butler says:

      Thanks Michael. I think this might have been a stylistic rather than a psychological slip. The parenthesis was to highlight the priority of survivors (in a ‘it goes without saying’ sort of way), but mentioned so as to avoid the accusation – often rightly made – that all we really care about in the church is ‘the Church’ as though survivors weren’t part of it. It may be the way I write, for which apologies for giving you a mistaken impression. What is said and what is heard can be very different, but in all of these sensitive matters it is for the writer/speaker to ensure that they minimise the risk of misunderstanding or miscontrual.


  8. Rod Beadles says:

    Thank you so much for this refreshingly honest article. Sadly l fear it will fall on stony ground in many cases. My experience is that many clergy already feel they have everything sorted and all that now needs to happen is for the non-clergy to agree.


  9. There is a problem and it is profound. It is hardly new, though.
    The Byzantine style and dress of the Church reflects the remnants of that struggle between secular and religious power. The legislation on equal marriage is a recent example on how that relationship works it way out into our lives.
    From the controlling heavy shepherding to the “do what Father says” wings of the Church we see a platform for men (and now women) to use the status and privilege gained through orders to control others and today’s argument is that those exercising the most power and control are growing while those who have been alarmed by power, whether it be in scripture, sacrament, prayer or order are in retreat.
    What I feel is missing is that our hierarchies (and I think they can be useful) do not just fail to listen to the congregation but rather they fail to live according to a Christ like model. So they live as Lords not as servants. My experience too of the Doctors of the Church in their ivory towers is that they fail to exemplify what the Gospel teaches.
    There is a profound and eternal power in love and in hospitality and in humility and in respect and in ….
    We are sadly still attracted to the wrong sort of power and the results are as you say.


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