”Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.”
(1 Timothy 5:1-2)
My only experience of being on the receiving end of sexual harassment was when I was 16. It happened in Pangbourne just the other side of Reading in the early afternoon during a school holiday. I was out with a bunch of friends, and went alone into the public toilets for a wee. While I was stood at the urinal I noticed that an older man to the left of me (the only other person in there) had turned to face me, and was exposing himself. He then zipped himself up and as he walked our ran his hand across the back of my trousers, touching both of my buttocks. I remember this mix of emotions - shock, dismay, a sense that it was somehow my fault and a feeling of being very unclean which stuck with me for months afterwards. After a few moments I walked out, but said nothing to any of my friends. It was over 20 years later that I spoke to anyone about what had happened that day.
Now I realise that what happened to me was in the scheme of things very minor compared to what many have experienced, and although traumatic at the time it hasn’t (I think) had a long term impact on me. But I wanted to tell my story to say that I know from personal experience this stuff is very real, and that in the midst of all the daily revelations currently coming out around Hollywood, Westminster and I’m sure soon may other areas of life, this is an issue we as followers of Jesus need to be engaging with too. We need to realise both that it will have affected many people in our community, and that church is sadly not immune to the abuses currently being exposed in society.
So I want to make an appeal to make church a safe place.
A safe place where those who have experienced sexual harassment can find the courage to talk about what has happened to them, begin to find healing and move to a place where their past doesn’t define or limit their future. If you’re a victim of sexual harassment and have never talked about it, or maybe have talked about it but still haven’t found healing, then please find the courage to talk to somebody. And if somebody comes to you wanting to have that conversation please make the time to listen to them, to take them seriously, and if it’s something bigger than you can handle, to find others who can help. One of my joys as a pastor has been seeing people find freedom in this area - some of the heroes of Kerith, whose stories we may never publicly tell, are those who have overcome abuse in their past and are now living victorious lives.
A safe place where people know that if they do disclose something that if will be taken seriously, rather than just being laughed off as “well that’s just what that person is like”, or covered up in order to try and somehow ‘protect’ the reputation of the church. If you have a concern please know that you can speak with me or one of our elders or trustees and you will be taken seriously.
A safe place where we do everything we can to make sure that nobody feels intimidated or harassed. That’s not just about our safeguarding policies for our children and vulnerable adults, but also the spaces we create in our small groups, on our courses and on a Sunday. We need to be very aware that physical touch which one person thinks of as being affectionate or friendly may be seen by the person receiving it as inappropriate or creepy. That should cause all of us to be aware of how we may be making other people feel. In no way do I want to stop us being a physical community, hugging and all the rest of it, but all of us need to be aware of our action and people do need to be empowered to speak out if they do ever feel uncomfortable.
And finally a safe place not just for victims but for perpetrators too. That might sound like a strange thing to say, but the reality is that the world doesn’t neatly divide into saints and sinners, victims and perpetrators, as we might like it too. We are all sinners. My sin may be different to somebody elses sin (and may be more acceptable in the eyes of the world) but it’s still sin and puts me in the same place as everyone else on planet earth. That is not in any way an attempt to excuse anyone’s wrong behaviour, but it is a recognition that church is a place where everyone can experience the forgiveness of our sins, both before God and with one another. For perpetrators that will require repentance, honesty, courage, and even boundaries around what they do in the life of the church, but church has to be a place of hope and restoration for everyone. If you know that’s you, then I encourage you to have the courage to talk to someone in the life of our community and being your journey of restoration.
I write this blog with a sense of anxiety. Anxious about how people might react to me being honest about my experiece. Anxious that for people impacted they may feel I’ve trivialised their experience and don’t really understand their pain. And anxious that some will feel this is over the top and I’m just going along with the crowd in raising this issue. I pray instead that God will use it to provoke us into an honest discussion, that those impacted on both sides may begin the journey towards healing, that our church community will be a safe place for everyone who chooses to become a part of it, and that we might have a voice into society about how we should behave towards one another.