Last autumn, for the eighth year in a row, Rubicon hosted it’s unique gathering, self-proclaimed as a “culture and faith think tank.” A diverse and predominantly female line up of local and international speakers took the stage at The Sugar Club on Saturday, October 20, 2018, for a meeting of minds and relevant matters. From the personal testimonies to the panel discussions, a common desire was expressed throughout the day for deeper integrity and transparency within the church and beyond.
American author, theologian, and historian Scott McKnight started off the morning with a talk on how cultures are formed in churches. He made the point that the culture of a church or really any organisation does not just trickle down from the top, but rather is set collectively by the interactions between individuals. Bringing that thought even deeper, Scott argued that the value and discussions of goodness are not hollow or trivial but worth reviving. Goodness involves the personal acting out and embodying of steady kindness, moral mercy, generosity, and is something no system can fabricate.
“Character doesn’t form because you have a system in place. There is no system that produces good people. This is the work of God, the work of grace, the work of the Spirit. It’s our cooperation with the work of God in our lives, where we surrender to the truth of God in Christ.” -Scott McKnight
During the Q & A time after Scott’s talk, quite a few people sought after a more solid, practical, and even measurable explanation of goodness. Although no concrete answers were given, Scott’s further thoughts and experiences were valuable and made for a smooth transition into the next topic.
Ruth Garvey-Williams, editor of Vox Magazine, took the stage next and delved into church culture in the Irish context. Ruth shared her findings from a recent and extensive national research project, which YWCA Ireland helped conduct, on the experiences of women and equality in the church. A portion of the results had just been published in the October 2018 issue of Vox Magazine, but greater depth and insight was given from the Rubicon platform. The questions that sparked the research were “is Christianity good news for women?” and “are we all one in Christ [Galatians 3:28] or are some more equal than others?”
Both men and women of all ages, from every county and denomination across Ireland, contributed to the survey. The results were encouraging in some cases, as 60% of women strongly agreed with the statement “I feel fulfilled and content in the contribution I make to church life.” But a lot of the findings were disheartening and provoked deeper questions. One in fifteen of those surveyed had experienced sexual abuse or sexual harassment within the church, and 51% of men and 47% of women had experienced emotional abuse, spiritual abuse, or bullying in churches or Christian ministries.
“We need to take a long, hard look at the cultures and systems in our churches that have allowed people to be harmed in the very place where they sought sanctuary and solace.” -Ruth Garvey-Williams
Ruth laid bare the facts and challenged those present to not get stuck in complacency towards them. She shared that as people of the Christian faith we are called to weep with those who weep, to listen and bare each other’s burdens, and to reach out with mercy and justice. Lastly, Ruth reminded the room that though these findings are hard to take in, the cause for healing and equality is growing, and there is always, always hope.
Next, Ruth was joined by Ally McGeever, the Young Women’s Engagement and Development Officer for YWCA Ireland, and Noeline Blackwell, Chief Executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, for a panel discussion hosted by Ann Mara. Professional insight was shared into what Ireland is actively doing to provide safety, healing, and practical provision for women and men who have experienced abuse. Ally shared about a discussion night that she hosted on “#MeToo and the Church.” The whole panel agreed on the power of discussion and creating a safe space for people, particularly in the church, to talk about sexual abuse and the idea that “silence is not spiritual.” Ally also suggested that the church reach out to experts and organisations outside its own walls to find proper training for dealing with abuse. Noeline addressed the recent rise in reported cases of sexual abuse in Ireland and commented that it could be due to the increased openness toward the subject, that men and women feel more able to speak up. Contacts and helplines were mentioned at the end of the discussion to be used or passed on for anyone in need (and you can find those helplines down at the bottom of this blog).
Following the panel discussion, Marie Collins, a local advocate and activist against sexual abuse, was brought up for an interview with co-founder of Rubicon Greg Fromholz. As a child, Marie was sexually abused by a priest in the 1960’s and went on in her adult years to campaign for the protection of children within the church. The number of initiatives and organisations that Marie has been apart of or helped create is a testament to her unyielding commitment to fight for the rights of the broken and vulnerable. Marie shared the story of her abuse and the dismissal of her case, pointing out the sad reality that often the church chooses to protect its institution above its message.
“The hope is not in the churches or the institutions, the hope has to be in the people…We’ve all got the take responsibility for those more vulnerable than ourselves.” -Marie Collins
Once again, the need for honesty and accountability within church leadership was discussed, and although Marie confessed her lack of hope within the system of the church, she confidently stated her hope in the bold initiatives of individuals.
Bringing the last discussion, Australian pastor and activist Jarrod McKenna got up and carried on the conversation of accountability and redemption beyond abuse. Jarrod, being a victim of sexual abuse from within the church as a child, spoke of his desire to see the body of Christ walk in wholeness and bring about justice and restoration here and now before the “afterlife.”
“The cross calls us to nothing less than participation in what ends all abuse.” -Jarrod McKenna
Jarrod spoke of the believer’s ultimate hope that justice will have the final say, but until that day, those in Christ must reach out as His limbs and not ignore the suffering around us. Reading from Luke 10:25-37, Jarrod shared the well-known Bible story of the “good Samaritan” who helped a man abandoned on the side of the road after being beaten and robbed. The story goes that before the good Samaritan came, two different religious leaders passed by and crossed over to the other side of the road, avoiding the beaten body. “Please, don’t cross the road,” Jarrod pleaded as he closed his talk. In a Q & A time afterward, Jarrod went deeper into the heart posture that drives those who respond to brokenness, saying it takes allowing ourselves to be moved or “gutted” by what we see and lamenting alongside God. This is the first step of true and effective activism.
Lastly, bringing a creative close to Rubicon, Nigerian-Irish poet and spoken word artist Felicia Olusanya, known as FeliSpeaks, performed five intertwined pieces that so personally and beautifully expressed the difficult topics and questions already discussed. As much of the day was quite intellectual, Felicia’s bold and artistic presence carried the injustices considered from the head to the heart.
As the last of the tea and coffee was shared over reflective conversations, the necessary heaviness that had built up as the day progressed seemed to settle and take root. I personally left the Sugar Club feeling well informed and inspired to look deeper into the injustices directly in front of me. Questions of what goodness, transparency, and integrity look like were noted for further exploration and my mind was resolute to keep the day’s conversations open and active, if not only for myself then for the quiet and hidden victim’s sake.
Need to talk? For SAMARITANS call 116 123 or for the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre 1800 77 8888