The Darkness Within…

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

Simon Butler

Some years ago I had the unenviable task of preaching a sermon to a congregation shortly after a member of the church had been arrested for alleged offences against a teenager in that congregation. The sermon would have been tough enough to preach had it not been for the fact that, after being released from prison where he had been remanded, the alleged abuser took his own life.

He was a lovely man and he lived in many ways an exemplary Christian life. He was kind, thoughtful and with real gifts. He was a natural evangelist. And yet, as I had to acknowledge in the sermon, that there was also a darkness that was part of his make-up, something that perhaps he didn’t or couldn’t acknowledge or face until matters we brought to a head by his arrest. You can imagine the complexity of the feelings of those gathered at his Requiem, myself included: horror at what it was alleged he had done, anger at what he had done by virtue of his suicide and the further abuse perpetrated on those he had already harmed once, deep sadness that a much-loved person had died in such a way, guilt that we had let him down and not been there. It was one of the hardest sermons I’ve ever preached, and I think, one of the most important.

I recalled this as I listened to a tearful member of General Synod express her feelings about what Reverend Jonathan Fletcher is said to have done to those in his care in and around his congregation at Emmanuel, Wimbledon in my own diocese. The speaker is someone who I disagree with profoundly on many issues, including the place of LGBT+ members of the Church, but in this moment I felt a deep empathy, as she spoke so movingly about what she had learned from this dreadful experience. And I felt it again myself, as the news broke over the weekend about the report prepared about the abuse committed by the late Jean Vanier against women with whom he was in a pastoral relationship.

These three men were very different, but it would appear that they shared a common fault, which could be characterised as a dark blind-spot in their psyches, which allowed them to act as they did, turning a blind eye to the imbalance of power in the relationships they had with their victims, which allowed them to justify – mostly to themselves – their abusive actions. When a person is a respected or even revered leader – whether in a local church, or across a tradition – it is vital to hold yourself accountable, never to be above challenge or contradiction, above all to be self-aware of the potential in yourself for your own blind spots to be the source of harm and hurt to others.

About ten days ago, I received an email from someone who was very angry with me. He spoke of me (because I advocate a progressive view on human sexuality) as someone who was “prepared to see the Church split and destroyed” (his words, not mine) and of someone else “providing fuel for those who hate the Church and the Christian faith.” Reading these words in the cold light of an email made them seem particularly dark, harmful and revealing. They were the sort of words I don’t think I could ever speak to another Christian.

But, I ask myself, what is the darkness in me that I cannot see that he can? Am I really that different to Jonathan Fletcher, Jean Vanier and my anonymous late friend?

To be sure, I cannot imagine myself taking the sort of advantage of another in the way they reportedly did, but that is not the only potential to harm we possess. How do those of us who take strong positions on LGBT+ matters – and on other matters that divide opinion in the Church – how do we ensure that we hold our views with conviction, integrity and passion, without ever allowing the unacknowledged, unseen darkness in us to leach out into our conduct or behaviour towards others? Is it even possible? Or are we condemned to inflict this sort of harm on one another, whether for the sake of advocating for LGBT+ people, or for the sake of biblical truth? Does it have to be a zero sum game?

On Wednesday morning I shall be in church with others receiving the sign of ashes. I shall – with abusers and victims, with angry correspondents, with those who long for a more truly biblical approach to human sexuality, and with those who fear that we are about to throw the bible out of the window – I shall stand before the judgement seat of God in prayer, and connect with a proper assessment of the darkness within, and with a merciful, long-suffering, forgiving God. I shall hear the words of forgiveness, and I shall resolve to try and live that forgiveness more fully. And so will many of you.

We all carry unacknowledged darkness. We wound one another, usually ignorantly, sometimes deliberately, occasionally criminally.

God give us strength and courage to see the darkness within, to face it in all its awful reality, to allow ourselves to be accountable and to do all that we can to avoid the harm that it can so easily cause.


This entry was posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Simon Butler. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Darkness Within…

  1. Roy Clements says:

    “We all carry unacknowledged darkness” – insightful and humble words that certainly do demand radical self-examination of each one of us. So let us be honest and explicitly acknowledge the nature of the darkness which Simon identifies in the three tragic men he cites. One does not have to buy into the entirety of Freudian psychoanalysis to recognise that it was a darkness generated by repressed sexuality. And in every case, sexuality had been repressed as the result of false teaching in the Christian community. In the case of Jean Vanier, the false teaching derived from his mentor, Thomas Philippe, a Catholic priest whose own “darkness” was surely exacerbated by the unbiblical requirement of clerical celibacy. In the cases of the other two men, it was repressed homosexual desire that created the ‘dark blind spot in their psyches’ – desire that they had been wrongly taught was a sinful abomination in the eyes of the God, and which they therefore buried in a black-hole of psychological denial. These sorts of cases will continue to recur and shame us all until the Christian community admits the fundamental mistakes it has made in its teaching about sexuality and works toward the construction of a healthier pastoral theology of the subject.
    Roy Clements (http://royclements/net)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. MariHoward says:

    Insightful reply (above): it would really help the Church in its relations with the world (which means, in reality, just ‘people’) if the idea of celibacy and the emphasis on marriage being ‘only for heterosexual couples’ was properly examined for real, culturally-correct understanding of ‘what the Bible says’ to Christians on these matters. The Bible doesn’t talk a much about appropriate sexual relations. The Old Testament is replaced by Christ by the Good News, and there we find St Paul advocating that a church leader should be ‘the husband of one wife'(as opposed to such greats as King David having a harem). On to Paul’s statement that he wishes more could be ‘as (he) is’ and the idea of ‘eunuchs for the kingdom’ – and neither of these suggest that celibacy should be a requirement of Christians, though it might be an individual’s choice. Nothing is said about same-sex relationships. Marriage back in the NT world was both hierarchical and slanted very much towards being for the procreation of children. Within marriage, one woman would get a better deal than several in a harem. Culture does and has shifted: we understand about same-sex orientation, and we (strive towards) acknowledging equality of the sexes/genders. Surely it would not be un-Bibilical for celibacy, and enforced pretence around orientation, to stop being the big issues they are at General Synod and within the church, and possibly a relaxation of these dubiously ‘Christian’ demands left to the conscience of the individual, faithfulness within marriage becoming more important than the gender of the partners?

    Liked by 1 person

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