Category Archives: Safe place

Greenbelt questions

Another August Bank Holiday weekend at Greenbelt Festival has come and gone, and as usual has thrown up a whole host of questions, such as; why do we take three young children camping for six nights with limited washing facilities? Will it ever take less than four hours to get us all up, dressed, breakfasted and ready for the festival day? Will there ever be a year that I don’t cry when I see the breathtaking number and spectrum of people present at the Sunday morning communion service? What on earth are people doing wandering around dressed as sofas? Where did the giant policemen come from? And so on.

From all the things that got thrown up at Greenbelt, there was one question that I thought important enough to write down in order to come back to. I can’t even remember where it came from, but it’s essentially about becoming a member of a church: what is the best path to becoming fully integrated into a church community, i.e. to feel comfortable with both giving and receiving one’s time, energy, compassion and commitment?

On the one hand, there are those in public ministry in a church such as the incumbent, the curate or the youth worker. Beginning work in a parish in such a role results in what could almost be described as ‘forced entry’ into the church community. From the very outset you’re in a fairly central position within the life of the church, you quickly get to know those with influence and involvement, and having a specific role to play you begin immediately to implement that role, in the ways that best seem fit to you and others in authority.

On the other hand there are those who begin coming to church for various reasons – they have a friend who goes, they’re curious, they feel drawn, they’ve had contact through a wedding, baptism or funeral – who probably begin by knowing one or two people at the most. If they don’t feel socially confident, or remain unsure of the church’s particular idiosyncrasies (e.g. its language or worship style) they may remain known to only a few people and never feel they have the opportunity or even the ability to participate.

Of course those are two extreme examples of the process of integration, but even for those somewhere in the middle, how many who do play a role in the church community are actually doing what they are built to do? How comfortable are they in the work they are doing? It does sometimes have to be the case that people take the jobs that need doing because there really is no-one else to do them, but I think it’s very unfortunate if people aren’t able to engage with the kind of work that really inspires and fulfils them. And I think it’s possible for a church to have a vision where everyone has the opportunity, should they want it, to explore their gifts and abilities safely as they get to know the congregation, the rhythm of church life and themselves.

What the implications of this question are for church leaders is also part of the question, though we can hope that they have had some measure of preparation for the way in which they integrate into church life, having already had opportunities to explore their strengths and weaknesses, their gifts and abilities. The better they have been prepared, the more equipped they will hopefully be to enable church members, new and old, to explore and develop their involvement in the living, breathing entity that is the Body of Christ.

Horror story

Is it possible to reject the inheritance of abuse?

Today I read the news story about Yvonne Freaney, who recently admitted to the manslaughter of her eleven-year-old autistic son Glen: he was severely disabled and needed high levels of care which she provided herself. In March last year she left her husband and took Glen with her, staying in hotels for weeks as she was unable to find permanent accommodation. Becoming increasingly afraid that the authorities would take Glen away from her and that he wouldn’t be cared for properly, she killed him and attempted to kill herself.

According to the news reports, Mrs Freaney has experienced a lifetime of neglect and abuse. She suffered from severe neglect as a child, was a recipient of regular physical and verbal abuse from her husband, and according to the consultant psychiatrist who testified in court, suffers from a personality disorder. Dr Williams indicated that the only value she had for herself was as a mother to her four children (who each suffer from varying levels of disability).  The judge agreed with the defending barrister that sentencing Mrs Freaney to an immediate prison term was a pointless exercise, and the judge agreed, concluding that she had been ‘punished enough’.

My question in response to this case is not to do with the verdict passed by the court, however,  but is more to do with how we inherit mistreatment and abuse, and whether it is possible to break the chain of that inheritance and create a new reality for ourselves.  Yvonne Freaney inherited all the mistreatment and abuse from her parents and husband and somehow turned it all in upon herself, causing damage to her own soul.

None of the professionals who dealt with Mrs Freaney were aware of the load she was carrying up to the point of her son’s death, as it seems she tried to hold it all within herself. So to make practical suggestions about how to break the chain of abuse and family dysfunction feels irresponsible at the very least, addressing the symptoms rather than the cause. All the changes that could be made in policy and practice within social and health services would be inadequate to enable someone in Mrs Freaney’s position to feel secure enough to talk about her pain. In a society where individualism is rife, it feels as though it is our natural instinct to close off, even to those closest to us, as though somehow our pain is our own responsibility and does not belong to anyone else. Perhaps this stems from fear, or pride, yet the more we try to contain within ourselves, the more pressure we put ourselves under – and consequently, the greater damage we cause to ourselves. And so it passes on. I don’t propose that we suddenly begin spilling our innermost secrets to every stranger on the street, but I dream of a society in which there is always a safe place to go for those bearing a burden they feel unable to carry. A place to learn that it is possible to entrust others with what we’ve tried to hard to protect or avoid within ourselves, and where the process of transformation can begin. Whether such dreams could ever become reality I do not presume to have an answer for, but I can’t help believing that the potential to change and to help others change is within us all.