Mary Wells, shown here at Church House in Toronto, is the Canadian representative to the Safe Church Commission of the Anglican Communion. Photo by Matt Gardner

#MeToo and the Church—Part Four: The Safe Church Commission and ecumenical initiatives

Read Parts One, Two, and Three.

Even before the #MeToo movement brought the issue of sexual misconduct to the forefront of public conversation, confronting gender-based violence and abuse had emerged as a priority across many provinces of the Anglican Communion.

At a communion-wide level in 2016, the Anglican Consultative Council passed resolutions aimed at transforming church structures through a commitment to gender equality and justice, and by ensuring the safety of all persons in the communion through safe church policies. To this end, the establishment of the Safe Church Commission represented the most high-profile effort by the Anglican Communion to enshrine the concept of safe church on a global scale.

The Safe Church Commission has a three-year mandate (2017-2020) to produce a charter of safety for churches that would follow guidelines originally set to be determined over the course of three face-to-face meetings. Members of the commission held their first meeting last October at the Anglican Communion Office in London, England, bringing together representatives from Anglican provinces in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Oceania.

Mary Wells, the Anglican Church of Canada’s representative to the Safe Church Commission, said that Anglicans in some parts of the world face different challenges from others in establishing safe churches for all.

“There are some countries where, for instance, homosexuality is still illegal,” Wells said. “And that challenges us around things that are normal in Canada and the States and England, [such as] mandatory reporting … If they tell people they have to mandatorily report child sexual abuse no matter where they are in the world, we will end up with some executions. And that doesn’t make sense.”

From her own vantage point, Wells is reaching out to Indigenous communities to lift up Indigenous perspectives, contexts, philosophies and approaches to ensure the work of the Safe Church Commission hears the voices of Indigenous peoples. In this way, members hope to create inclusive safe church procedures.

“I had one [Indigenous] woman read about the commission, and her reaction was, ‘Well, this sounds like a blue-eyed solution,’” Wells recalled. “And that got me going … [I think] what she meant was, it won’t work, it’s just talk and nothing will happen. But we’re working to ensure that something will really happen.”

Following their first meeting in London, members of the commission split into working groups that would each focus on different areas. One subgroup is focused on policies and another on procedures, while Wells is chairing a third focused on theological reflections.

Members made such progress in London that their next meeting has been moved up to May, with Wells noting, “We felt that we had so much momentum happening at that meeting that we decided to meet in six months instead of a year.” They plan to rework a draft safe church document at the May meeting in order to present it at the 2019 meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, followed by a presentation at the 2020 Lambeth Conference.

Ecumenical Women

While Anglicans work with each other internationally to establish safe church policies, they are also reaching across denominational lines to work with other Christian churches through membership in ecumenical organizations.

The Rev. Laura Marie Piotrowicz, Canadian representative to the Ecumenical Women coalition at the United Nations, said that sexual violence is a frequent topic of discussion at gatherings such as the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW).

“It is so pervasive in society, and it is not limited by age or sector,” Piotrowicz said. “It is a foundational reality in everything that we’re doing towards equality.”

Though members of Ecumenical Women have not attended UNSCW since the onset of #MeToo, they have discussed the movement via teleconference—acknowledging that sexual misconduct is “pervasive in the church and something the church needs to address.”

They plan to discuss the #MeToo phenomenon when they attend at the 62nd session of the UNSCW, which will place from March 12-23.

“Within the Anglican delegation, we’re constantly talking about how Anglican Women can build one another up and support one another, and a lot of that comes with education and with sharing the stories,” Piotrowicz said.

“The primary focus for this year’s UNCSW is on rural women, and especially in rural communities, we can find sexual misconduct that has gone on for however many years that is just presumed to be normal. Oftentimes, there are less resources available for rural communities. So it’s definitely something that will be part of our conversations.”

Self-reflection and the importance of faith

As Anglicans join the ongoing debates sparked by #MeToo, the movement provides an opportunity for the church to look inward and acknowledge past failures, while also considering how it can support survivors and embody the ethos of safe church.

“The church has an opportunity to become a moral voice and to take some leadership,” said retired priest Mary Louise Meadow, who served as canon pastor for the sexual misconduct policy in the Diocese of British Columbia from 2003 to 2006. “But in order to do that, it has to look carefully at … its own reluctance to, in the past, fully address its own culpability.”

Besides the apology for its role in facilitating abuse through the Indian residential school system, Meadow said that the Anglican Church of Canada “needs to come forward with ways to state to its own complicity as being a social structure with power and that held the trust of many vulnerable people in its ministry relationships, and allowed that trust to be abused by the conduct of some of its clergy or ministers.”

“I think the church needs to be very candid about its own self-learning, and then it can become a credible spokesperson for creating trust for people who want to move forward to address the healing of sexual harm,” she added. “But we need to see how that gets done pastorally.”

Even as the work of the Safe Church Commission moves forward, Wells said bishops must take leadership and speak out in support of people who bring forward complaints—while also reminding their congregations of existing policies and procedures that the church has in place to deal with sexual misconduct.

“For me, what the #MeToo movement is doing is it’s highlighting how courageous the church was in stepping forward early on to deal with these kinds of things and how we’ve done them very carefully and sustained it and reviewed it and stayed on top of it for so many years,” Wells said.

She stressed the importance of faith in providing Christians with the strength and foundational beliefs to better address sexual misconduct, which she believed encouraged that early response.

“Churches are accustomed to dealing with the notion of sin, of hurting other people and … dealing with people who get into bad behaviour,” Wells said.

“The church has had more or less luck in dealing with it, and sometimes it’s absolutely colluded with it. But I really felt that it had to be the faith foundation that gave the churches the courage to deal with this. And I think that the public sector should be turning to the churches to ask for what they can learn from their experience, because they have a lot to learn.”

For Piotrowicz, that faith foundation that can guide the church’s response to #MeToo finds expression throughout the Bible, going back to the story of Creation.

“God did not make women less than men,” Piotrowicz said. “God made us in God’s image, and we’re equal in God’s eyes right from the beginning.

“All throughout the Scriptures, when we hear about stories of inequality, we hear about the need for justice, the need for people to be respected, the need for people’s dignity to be lifted up. And that’s not men first and women second … It is the call for all of us to be living into the fullness of Christ.”

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