Friday, 19 October 2007

My Confession.

There’s a lot of things I said and did while part of the Sydney Anglican machine of which I’m now ashamed, but one incident more than any other has always left me feeling crushed by guilt. Thus this post, gentle reader, is written as a public confession of that incident, and marks an attempt to do and say what I should have done and said all those years years ago. But first a little background…

The picture on the left is of John Chapman; a prominent evangelist associated with the Sydney Diocese for over 40 years. For 25 of them he was director of the “Department of Evangelism”, and since retiring he continues to devote his time to pestering believers – who comprise the vast bulk of his audience - to adopt his understanding of what it means to be a Christian, to the exclusion of all other notions of faith and theology.

People who haven’t grown up within Sydney Diocese’s closed culture generally find him bewildering. If you don’t then you probably aren’t going to be too happy with the rest of what you read here, but some things long overdue need saying. I’ve spent plenty of time listening to your side of the argument, and now it’s your turn to be quiet.

If you haven’t encountered John Chapman before take a moment to listen to the sound clip below of him preaching. It’s not long and gives a small indication of what he’s like. Bear in mind as you do that he’s firmly committed to all the usual Sydney nasties: he believes God has forbidden the ordination of women as Priests (let alone Bishops!), that homosexuals who express their sexuality face eternal damnation, and that any beliefs or practices not part of Sydney Evangelicalism are a perversion of the faith: a compassionate liberal he isn’t.

What he is though, is very well connected within the potent brew of committees and factions which control the diocese: to describe him as a powerbroker is a serious understatement. Which meant that my fellow ordinands and I believed to a man (no women allowed, remember) that crossing John Chapman would result in your ecclesiastical career being over before it started. He’d often attend college lunches, and if he addressed us my friends and I would smile, laugh when appropriate, and desperately hope he’d soon turn back to those students whose pedigree made them more worthy of his attention, and who, perhaps because they’d known him since childhood, didn’t experience a vaguely creepy feeling whenever he came near.

All of which may give a sense of how I felt when he turned to me across the table one day:
“What was your last class, brother?”
“3rd year ethics” I replied, hoping the conversation would go nowhere.
“And are you feeling ethical now?” He always spoke like this; “What aspect of ethics were you learning about?”
“Well actually we were discussing the subject of abortion.” I said, wishing I’d had the courage to lie and say something less confrontational.
“Oh” he dismissed, “there’s nothing to discuss about that. It’s a wicked, evil sin and there’s no more to say about it.”

I couldn’t help myself, there was an acid taste of raw lemons in the back of my throat. “Well sometimes it can be a bit more complex than that. What, for example, if a 15 year old girl is pregnant as a result of being raped by her father? Is it still a sin for her to have an abortion?”

My friends looked on in horror, they clearly thought I was about to commit vocational suicide. Against all reason I wanted to push the point home, and continued; “In a circumstance like that is it really still so evil to intervene in order to restore a girl’s life and future? Is it really a sin to end the nightmare into which she’s been dragged before she faces the agony of another 6 month’s pregnancy, not to mention the trauma of giving birth?”

Somebody kicked me under the table hard, willing me to say no more. Chapman brought his face near mine. He looked very, very angry; he was about to make a point and wanted me to know I must under no circumstances contradict him: “If she’s pregnant” he hissed, “then it won’t make things any better by committing a second sin on top of the first. Everyone knows it takes two people to make a baby, and she must accept her share of the responsibility no matter how much she’d like to blame her shame on someone else. Besides, there are countless good Christian families desperate to adopt babies. The child should be taken from her at birth and raised as a believer. Anything else is sin.”

I wanted to explode, to scream “What the hell do you know about her predicament? How can you even begin to understand what she’d be going through? You’re a man in his late 60s who’s spent most of his life living with his mother; you openly boast of never having lived in a sexual relationship, and you’ve clearly little or no experience of rape. How dare you condemn others for their choices in the face of a nightmare you can never hope to comprehend, much less experience?”

I wanted to shake my fist in his face, to make him feel just one tiny fragment of the fear anyone in an abusive relationship faces every moment of every day. I wanted to shake the smugness from his soul, to make him see how his position of power should be used to empower the downtrodden and abused, not to add pain to their suffering. I wanted to get angry, to shout “enough!”, to…

… but I bit my lip and said nothing. My friends jumped in to change the subject, and I thought of my family, of all I had put them through to get this far. I thought of myself, and said nothing.

For many years afterwards I’ve felt profound guilt over this moment. I should have spoke up for all those who’ve been stepped on, but I was afraid of what the repercussions would be for me. I didn’t think of the hurting, the little ones with no voice; I thought of myself.

Yet now, years later, I’ve realized it’s still not too late to speak out. The internet didn’t exist then, and at most the few hundred gathered in the dining hall could have heard me before I was bundled off, but today the whole world can hear. It’s probably just as well I didn’t hit anyone, that would have only got me arrested, and not changed anything. Today, instead of relying on violence to make the point – which rarely changes anything for long – the message can rely on clicks and links, the intangible global network that is the web. It’s going to stay up here until things change, and everyone is free to reproduce and share what’s written here in any way they wish until the people whom God has entrusted with power (but only for a short while) finally use that power for more than just to condemn and alienate. If it embarrasses anyone I make no apology whatsoever; there are some things the people who control our churches should be embarrassed about, and this is one of them.

If you’re a friend of John Chapman’s then I expect you’ve been feeling increasingly angry at what I’ve written here, and thoughts like “How dare someone say things like this about a man who’s spent his life preaching the gospel?” are screaming in your head. To which I can only reply, “How dare he have shown so little compassion for those whom the church has failed to protect, to nurture, to welcome and to comfort.”

And John, if you should ever read this yourself, then please understand it’s not too late to change. You still have the influence and opportunity to turn the Sydney Diocese on its head, to bring it to repentance, and to embrace those whom it has spent so long excluding. The choice is yours, and people are praying for you. Make the wrong one, and you just might discover that on the judgment day you’ve spent your whole life preaching about there is seated at Christ’s right hand a small and rather shell-shocked 15 year old girl. Her eyes may be tear-stained, but she sure won’t crying anymore.

And she’s going to be asking you some very, very awkward questions…


Counterlight said...

That was so powerful I could feel it all the way over here in New York.
Thanks for so bold and courageous a witness.

mumcat said...

Amen to what Counterlight said.

I wonder -- what would the gentleman do if faced by a woman asking for healing for her daughter, a woman bleeding continuously for years, a woman taken in adultery or a woman whose marital situation might have been somewhat irregular. We know what Jesus did -- and it wasn't blaming them for their troubles.

Mumcat, hearing you and feeling the power of your words in Arizona

Mark said...

The Guttmacher institute has released a report about the frequencies of abortions. Briefly, countries which have not banned abortion have the fewest numbers.

Also, Chapman makes the common connection between abortion and adoption. The "loving solution" is supposedly adoption... a solution which is not really a win win win. In fact, adoption represents loss all around. I hope Chapman (not holding my breath) and others look closely at the stories of those who talk about being adopted.

Beyond my own soapbox here... thank you for your post and I hope Chapman is remembered as he should be remembered.

Saintly Ramblings said...

Powerful stuff - thank you.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

I think you need to lay down your feelings of guilt, Alcibiades. You DID push the envelope with him---and nothing you were going to say would have changed his mind.

After all, anyone who would imply that a rape victim was somehow responsible for her "shame" (and for the pregnancy) is a f**king moron and is probably irredeemable in this life.

As I am a universalist, however, I believe that he will be redeemable in the next. Thanks be to God.

Ellie Finlay said...

Oh my. Very powerful. Especially the very end.

Thank you.

Aghaveagh said...

So you didn't answer back, to a person who had all the power in your world, whose opinion you could not hope to change, and who would have easily and causally crushed you and your dreams.

You were not Harry Potter to his Voldemort--that only happens in the fantasy books. You chose to live to fight another day, and you are doing it now.

If you must have that guilt, use it to continue to fight as you are now--now that you have a voice, now that there are a thousand, a million, ten million ears to hear, and spread your story across the Internet and the world.

You are a hero. Harry Potter would be proud.

fs said...

Thank you, Alcibiades. You said what needed to be said. Bullies such as Mr. Chapman should be put on notice: just wait -- your victims may have a go at you, yet. And who knows who you'll be facing on your personal judgment day.

gartenfische said...

Hope you don't mind me butting in . . . (I was led here by MadPriest)

From what I can see of the incident, you DID stand up! You just didn't get into a fighting match with him, which probably would not have helped anything.

Just my two cents.

Counterlight said...

Adding my Amen to the comments above concerning the guilt you feel.
It's time to lay that burden down. You did the right thing then, and you're doing it now.

Being Peace said...

I know how it feels to be in a position where your voice is taken away from you by someone in a position of power. Thank you for speaking out now. It is never too late to share your truth. As one of my great spiritual mentors taught me: show up, pay attention, speak your truth and son't be attached to the outcome. Not so easy to do but the only authentic way to live.

FranIAm said...

You see I have come to this late, but no less passionately.

Aside from the burning anger that I feel about Chapman's words and his outlook, I feel tremendous compassion for your journey.

Oh wouldn't it be nice if we could all fully respond in the moment, but being human, we cannot always do that.

Look at how your experience and your grace has transformed you...

You have courage my friend and a compassionate heart. That is a beautiful thing.

Peace unto all.

(Imagine the self-hatred and loathing that man feels about himself, not that he probably has the tiniest awareness of that.)

Kate Morningstar said...

I'm late here too, but I got here.

I have, in the last month, unearthed a whole new pitful of fear, shame and rage about being raped two weeks after my twelfth birthday. A long time ago.

There's a whole host of reasons why I didn't fight back. One of them is, I simply had no idea what was about to happen to me, or how to fight back against it, or him. I would say, thank God I didn't get pregnant -- I'd been well-threatened with what would happen if I told -- but it was another 8 months or so before my body began the changes that would have enabled pregnancy.

Alcibiades, there are bullies who cannot be fought against. There are others we can engage, but cannot win. Sometimes the better part of valour IS discretion -- we live to fight another day.

On a very personal level, I thank and applaud you for standing against John Chapman, on my behalf. Then, and now. God be with you.

Rod Blaine said...

As an ex-evangelical agnostic I have no time left for "Chappo" and his machine, and I agree that forcing a raped 15-year-old to have a baby against her will is a political non-starter in 21st-century Australia. Also, I absolutely detest evangelical soundbite slogans.

However, and much as I hate to spoil a good love-in, I have two questions:

(1) Do you therefore have any more sympathy for pro-lifers who want to ban abortions from "careless" (for want of a better word) sex but allow exceptions for rape/ incest? or does that just prove that they "really" want to punish women for enjoying sex? One reason the pro-life hard-liners are hard-line in the "raped teenager" cases is that, if they give ground on that, that's used as proof that they think pregnancy is (in Senator Obama's words) "punishment" for loose women. The pea is never under the thimble they select.

(2) Do you have any empirical evidence that killing the rapist's baby does much to alleviate the girl's trauma? I realise this is an article of faith among liberal and ex-Christians, but others among us are more skeptical. In so far as killing anyone would fix the situation, I would have thought executing the rapist himself would be more just. Oh, wait - that's uncivilised.

Alcibiades said...

Thanks for your comments Rod: no love-in spoiled as far as I'm concerned ;-) In response to your questions I'll take them in turn:

1) Having been present at a number of births, but by obvious reason of my gender incapable of ever experiencing the life-threatening agony giving birth involves, I could never contemplate forcing anyone to endure something so far beyond my comprehension. This is regardless of the circumstances of conception, which, quite frankly, are none of my business. Put bluntly - it's the woman's choice; not mine, and no one else's. As a human and a Christian my obligation is to support, encourage and empower her irrespective of whatever choice she makes. My own preferences as to what she may elect to do in any given situation are irrelevant.

In my experience hard-liners are ultimately only interested in controlling others: their stance on sex (in all forms) is just one more expression of this thirst for power - and I think I've made my views on this kind of manipulation pretty clear: Christ made it clearer and much more eloquently

2) No, I have no such statistics: I'm sure both sides of the abortion debate can offer ample such figures if you're really interested. Personally I'm a little uncomfortable with your choice of language at this point: there is for me a huge difference between the first trimester curette of a miniscule bundle of cells and tissue which has the potential under the right conditions to become a baby, and "killing a baby". My guess (and it's only my guess) is that most women in such a situation think more in terms of ending the nightmare into which they've been unwillingly dragged than they do of vicariously avenging their rapist by killing his unborn child. Once again, I can't begin to comprehend what it's like to be confronted with my body being pregnant against my wish, let alone to endure childbirth, and not being able to take such a journey for myself I pray I'm never so arrogant as to dictate how others must travel.

To me it seems that the judicially sanctioned killing of criminal perpetrators resolves nothing other than to render the society condoning it less civilised. It may help some victims feel avenged, but my mistrust of my own country's legal system (as well as that of most other places) is such that I'm loathe to trust it to not be more than occasionally mistaken. I'd rather society employed other less primitive and more effective ways of providing justice to those wronged, punishment to those who do, and a preventative against further wrong.

Doorman-Priest said...

Isn't it wonderful when dogma blinds one to humanity? There are still too many people like him peddling what is effectively a gospel of hate. I am glad you spoke up, albeit belatedly. Your integrity is intact.

Robert said...

I appreciate your candor and your honesty. I think all of us have had times in our lives when we wish we could have spoken up but fear kept us quiet. I appreciate your voice in this battle (and considering comments like those you experienced, there is no doubt in my mind that it is a battle).


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I clicked over here from Wormwood's Doxy and decided to read your confession.

You brought me to tears. Thank you for being so honest and for using your shame over a past decision to speak out now.

I'm glad to have visited your blog.

David Ould said...

Mate, a couple of thoughts on this.

1. I felt, as someone who knows John fairly well, that your initial presentation of him was unecessarily and uncharitably one-sided. John is like the rest of us, he has good and bad moments and your opening paragraphs failed to take any account of that.

2. Nevertheless, you're right in expressing your distaste at what you heard, especially the last thing that John said. The opening remarks sound harsh but those of us who have spent some time with Chappo also know his tone and style and so wuld not be quite so robustly offended. Nevertheless, you're right to state that John was wrong in his final style - although you may find it necessary to make a distinction between what he said and how he said it.

3. (and this would be my only real concern at this point) why have you not taken this up with John personally first (or at least gone through the motions)? Isn't our Lord clear that we should take these things up privately first before announcing to all and sundry? ISTM that you are in danger of undermining the valid points you may want to make with the manner in which do make them - which is, ironically, what you are in part accusing Chappo of here.

Alcibiades said...

Thanks for your comments David, but in response:

1. I think I also know him fairly well, and perhaps for a fair bit longer than you have.

2. Ditto. In my experience John is not quite as personable to those he suspects might be of a slightly different liturgical/theological persuasion as he is to those on your side of the church. I've no doubt he treats his friends wonderfully: in fact I've seen him do so first hand. And - believe it or not - I've also seen him invoke genuine fear in young men clearly called to ministry, albeit within contexts different to Rev. Chapman's. As for any distinction between what he said and how he said it - there was none that I was aware of. Having known him and regularly heard him speak for about 15 years prior to this occasion I think I was in a position to realise if there was.

3. I have/did - without success. Please don't be so ready to jump to conclusions - it's something both sides of the Anglican divide must stop doing. In Sydney (like many places, to be fair) some people are taken more seriously, or deemed more worthy of a response, than others. Clearly I'm no longer one of them ;-)

Posting this wasn't done without a lot of time in prayer and thought. Indeed, this whole blog represents something of a last resort as far as expressing my life in Sydney's "alternative" Anglican community - and sometimes even the existence thereof. As such the things I say here are invariably those I was/am unable to say elsewhere. I'd much rather do it in more relational contexts than blogging - but if those are out of the question then my decision has been to speak out this way rather than remaining silent any longer.

David Ould said...

thanks Alcibiades (it feels strange addressing you like that!)

Given what you've written, which I fully understand (although it might have been helpful to point out that you had approached Chappo in this matter), I'm now wondering quite what is achieved by it? I understand the need to speak out but who are you actually speaking to and what will it achieve?

From my side of the fence it looks like you're preaching to the choir and only in a way that reinforces stereotypes and I'm not sure how it in any ways promotes the type of reform that you are seeking.

Case in point, this post is entitled "confession" and begins as that - but a recounting of having not stepped up to the mark very quickly becomes an open attack on another theological position. It switches from mea culpa (which is what every good confession is) to "look at how wrong they are".

Something just doesn't sit right about that for me.

Alcibiades said...

There's nothing wrong with the choir also hearing the sermon occasionally ;-)

That joke aside, I'm not going to make any apologies about laying my cards on the table in this. Within Sydney Anglican diocese there are a number of cherished beliefs and practices which I firmly believe are contrary to everything that Christ lived and taught. While I'm always happy to debate and discuss them with anyone so inclined, there are other times when I'm just going to call them as I see them. Obviously this is going to upset some people, but at the same time my own experience is that it also empowers those on the other side of the divide, who sadly often find themselves unable (for whatever reasons - not least of which is confidence) to speak out. Perhaps putting a few noses out of joint is just the price to be paid for this: if so it's one cost I'm more than prepared to wear.

Despite what you say about understanding the need to speak out, I'm not so sure: in asking "what's the point" of my speaking out like this I think that perhaps you might be missing it. The "point" in this case wasn't to change anyone's mind, but simply to say that which should have been said years before. In doing this I know I've given others encouragement to share their own narratives (because they've told me so) and that, in this instance, is more than I dared hope for.

Confession does indeed include an element of mea culpa, but it must also embrace μετάνοια - "repentance", which of it's essence incorporates change. Thus while I was then silent, I now in transformation speak out. Then I bit my tongue in deference to "authority": now I - by God's grace - have strength to fight back in response. Of course I'm saying "look how wrong they are" - to say nothing in the face of what is untrue, unjust, and contrary to the Good News of God, is to condone that evil.

David Ould said...

thanks, that's helpful to hear.

I'm just wary that it comes across as not quite revelling but certainly embracing (and encouraging others to embrace) an unhelpful anger and I'm just not sure how that helps in the long-term.

is there a better way to address these issues? I'm not sure.