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…