Called to be a safe Church
August 16, 2022
As part of our Identity series, Rev John Cox, Director of the National Safe Church Unit, reflects on how our call to be a safe church is key to how we see ourselves and shape our lives as the Uniting Church.
This article and accompanying video include information about creating a culture of safety to keep children and young people safe across our UCA community. It may be distressing or triggering for some people. Please be mindful of your own response to the information below and seek support if needed. Details about support can be found here.
A safe Church is who we are called to be. It is a commitment deeply embedded in our identity as the people of God in Christ.
From its inauguration, the Uniting Church has affirmed the gifts and voices of young people in shaping our life and mission. We believe that all people are made in the image of God, that God reaches out to us in love and acceptance and that our relationships with each other should express love, care and respect. Central to living out the Gospel is to love God and to love others. To do this we need to safeguard each other from potential harm or abuse. But safeguarding is about more than keeping each other safe, it is about nurturing and lifting each other up so that everyone can thrive and grow into who God calls them to be.
Children are gifts of God to be received, welcomed and cared for responsibly and justly. The Gospel directs us to listen to and learn from children.
In On The Way Together (2014) it is affirmed that “children in the Uniting Church in Australia are nurtured in Christian faith and discipleship, experiencing relationships which promote trust, cooperation, honesty, positive valuing of persons, responsibility and Christian service.” It adds that the Church “affirms the value and the rights of children as human beings as it listens to, guides, protects, advocates for, and empowers children within its own communities and the wider community.”
Safeguarding our children and young people requires us to be true to our Christian identity. Rev Dr John Squires outlined ten distinctive features of the Uniting Church in this piece. The one that resonates with me is that the UCA is open to explore difficult issues. My experience of working to safeguard children and young people is that we need to regularly remind ourselves why the work is important, what the risks are and to be honest about the progress we are making.
It is difficult for some people to hear and to fully accept that children have experienced harm at the hands of our Church, and to face up to the risk that it could still happen to children and young people in our care. But we can, and we must, sustain action to reduce those risks because a safe Church is who we are called to be.
Childhood is arguably the most vulnerable period of human life. Children are highly dependent on adults to meet most, if not all, of their basic needs. The reality is that some adults may seek to build relationships with children to manipulate, exploit or harm them. This is known as grooming and it occurs across all areas of society, including in communities of faith.
Grooming can be difficult to identify as it can look similar to a typical relationship. The individual’s intent is what sets it apart. Grooming is when an individual engages in predatory conduct with an intent to facilitate, expose or prepare a child for future sexual activity. This is usually after they have built trusting relationships with the child, their family and connected school or social groups.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse identified that some children and young people in the care of our Church had been subjected to a variety of forms of grooming and abuse which occurred in agency, school and congregational settings and that it could continue to happen if we didn’t implement a series of recommendations.
The National Safe Church Unit was established in 2019 to lead work across the life of the Church to implement those recommendations. This work requires us to explore difficult issues, such as what grooming behaviour looks like in a congregation and what can we do to interrupt it. What behaviours might children exhibit that could indicate they are experiencing, or are at risk of, abuse and what can we ask individuals in our Church to do now?
Our Ministers, leaders and members are not usually child safety experts but they are most often in the best position to be the Church’s first line of safety, assess risk of harm and interrupt behaviours of concern. You show care and respect through speaking up when you see, hear or feel anything of concern about a child or young person. A concern raised with good intent does not require proof. The National Safe Church in collaboration with each of the Synods is working to ensure the right processes, systems and supports are in place to be able to respond quickly and appropriately when anyone speaks up to ensure that our children and young people are safe.
Together we are progressing this work through education, awareness, policy and quality assurance frameworks. The outcome we are seeking is that everyone across the life of the Church is actively engaged in answering the call for us to be a safe Church for all, that this calling is heard and prioritised in the daily life of our Church at all levels. Safeguarding isn’t a by-product of being a community of faith. Safety doesn’t exist simply because we are well intentioned. It can only happen through sustained and intentional efforts by everyone across the life of our Church.
It is our duty to safeguard each other. Safe Church needs to be on every agenda to address the current and emerging risks of harm and to be assured our children are safe. In answering the call to be a safe Church for all people we are expressing God’s love and being true to our identity.
On 4 September congregations and communities across the Uniting Church are invited to celebrate UCA Child Safe Sunday, a day on which the UCA reflects on its commitment to be a safe church for children and young people. Resources are available for congregations and communities, including a prayer and video (below) from President Rev Sharon Hollis, a presentation for Ministers and Leaders and a colouring-in activity for children.