David Nichol has been reading a new set of guidelines published by the Church of England and has been deeply depressed by the manner of its writing and the casual nature of its theological reflection

Do not blame the writers. According to a foreword from the Archbishops, in July 2004 General Synod called ‘for national guidelines to be issued by the Archbishops’ Council.’ This 66 page booklet Responding to domestic violence – guidelines for those with pastoral responsibility is the result of that request, published by Church House at £5·99.

Do not blame the writers, when they did what was asked for. Though you might well ask, ‘Who are they? Why were they chosen? What expertise do they have? By what authority did they go far beyond what Synod asked for?’ For every page of guidelines, there are two of off-hand, amateur theology cum social commentary, and it is this second part of the enterprise (nowhere hinted at in the Synod motion) that makes this report both significant and troubling.

Useful guidelines

On the plus side, I can affirm that, though I am the worst of priests, old, male, traditional, etc, etc, there was nothing here that I did not already know. The CofE, my own diocese, even our deanery chapter, have (bless them) done their work, and shared the new understandings and guidelines in relation to the immensely difficult and demanding evil of domestic abuse. Of course there is much more for me to learn, but my (very average) ignorance is not as wretched as this booklet seeks to imply.

On the negative side, I would assert in all honesty that I am the worse for having read this report. It is, deliberately if not intentionally, condemnatory, demeaning and depressing. If what it says is right (and nothing it says is actually wrong) then it were better had I never been ordained, and better still if there were no such thing as the Church of England.

If it takes one step forward in advancing understanding and good practice, it takes two steps back in undermining the basis for such good practice. When things go wrong, it is I who should be chastened for wrong-doing not the Gospel: this report is not so stupid as to state otherwise, but there is no doubt, for all the carefully qualified language, that this is its effect.

Eleven appendices

Back to the plus side. The guidelines in ch.3 make a useful checklist. In the emotion and chaos of a pastoral crisis, it would be helpful to have such a list of reminders, what to do, what not to do, whom to contact, and so on. The activist agenda at parish and diocesan level puts this issue alongside global warming, fairtrade and child protection, and as I suggested earlier most are already taking up their responsibilities.

Among the eleven appendices, that together take up twice as many pages as the main body of the report, it is the first on ‘Harmful theology’ that sets the tone of the booklet. It is essentially a summary of what-every-right-thinking-liberal-alreadyknows, a subtle denigration of the traditional Christian Gospel. ‘In many traditions the portrayal of the Virgin Mary as the archetypal woman has often functioned to reinforce norms of female passivity and obedience to men, to restrict the social role of women…’ It is the insidious phrase ‘the portrayal of the Virgin Mary as the archetypal woman’ that gives them away: this is a casual shorthand slur for the orthodox devotion of most readers of this magazine as well as the vast majority of her Son’s disciples.

‘The divine–human relationship may be conceived in terms of domination and submission at the expense of grace, mercy and patient love.’ Are we not meant to hear in this the implied condemnation of Evangelicals? ‘Mary Daly had a point…‘If God is male, then the male is God’.’ Indeed she did, but the lazy repetition of it is heavy with innuendo and light on serious analysis. It was this subliminal suggestion, that evangelicals are inherently wife-beaters, which the secular media so quickly picked up.

Methodist theology

Of course there is merit in what they say; it is the manner of the saying that is so troubling, the casual and careless repetition of anecdotal truths, the complacent dinner-party talk, which is in the end self-defeating and demeaning. In an appendix on marriage preparation, for example, we find, ‘As the Methodist report says, a promise to obey was in the past part of different standards or expectations of women and men within marriage.’ Maybe this is true, and maybe most of us no longer commend that option, but to dismiss a traditional element of the CofE marriage service by a quick reference to a recent Methodist report is to trivialize the whole issue. If it is our problem, we must deal with it.

If there have been victims of domestic violence, who have suffered within the confines of the CofE – and there have been – then it is important that we should not demean their experience by such casual and careless explanation. If ‘harmful theology’ is a serious issue that has caused demonstrable harm, then it must be tackled seriously. If the CofE needs to be suppressed as evil, so be it; but this too must be tackled seriously.

The new establishment

Perhaps the most laughable element of this conversational theology is its thoroughly establishment quality. When even the Christian faith is becoming counter-cultural, not merely its CofE expression, it is odd to read a report that is so entirely government- oriented in its style, format and conclusions. There is not the slightest criticism, nor even the awareness that any criticism is possible, of national and local government practice, or of social service organizations, or any secular agency.

A government-sponsored ‘faith communities regional council’ could have written every word of this booklet. Why do we not let them? If this is all we have to say, someone else could say it for us.

A final note on its casualness. ‘Canon law constrains a priest from disclosing details of any crime or offence which is revealed in the course of formal confession: however, there is some doubt as to whether this absolute privilege is consistent with the civil law’ [p.29]. If this is not an issue, why mention it? If it is, then why does it say nothing further on the matter? Was this point made simply for our amusement?