A truly child safe culture is the work of the Holy Spirit. (Listen.)
As many of you know, I’ve spent much of the last two weeks grappling with Victoria’s new Child Safe Standards. These eleven standards will come into effect on 1 July, and replace the seven standards which currently apply to every organization which works with or involves children. The new standards are highly detailed and prescriptive; even the Short Guide runs to over 40 pages, with dozens of dot points of required actions and documentation. Now, I’m not a lawyer or a policy wonk, but nor am I an idiot. Yet working through these new standards and drafting the necessary policies and other documents has very nearly crushed me.
Don’t get me wrong: child safety and inclusion are incredibly important to me, and to Sanctuary as a whole. Since we began, we have worked to build a safe participatory culture for people of all ages. We listen to children and take their comments and questions seriously. We make space for children’s faith stories and testimonies. Children contribute to the website, they write prayers, they write for the Lent Book. They participate in church reviews; they ask questions and offer insights; and they are being asked to decide how to spend some of our annual budget. Our prayer stations are a response to kids’ comments; for example, one came up with the idea of the world map, which is covered with post-it note prayers. In these and other ways, children help shape what we do and who we are; they are serious and active participants in our common life.
We have also done relevant theological work. Our preaching, our teaching and, I hope, our witness have been about kenosis. Kenosis means ‘self-emptying.’ We take seriously Jesus’ teaching that ‘ministry’ means ‘service’ and that those who wish to be first in the kingdom must place themselves last. And so those of us in positions of power do not seek to use our power to dominate, or for our own gratification or benefit. Instead, we use our power to serve more vulnerable folk, which of course includes children. This approach extends to all of life, for everyone in the congregation. That is, whatever power we have, whether it’s because of gender, race, education, role, gifts, personality or anything else, those of us with power are expected to use it for the benefit of others. This is true whether we’re at church or home or school or work or hockey or cricket or anywhere else.
We have also done policy and behavioural work. For example, at Sanctuary no adult may be alone in a room with a child who is not their own: not in the building, not on Zoom. Our Code of Conduct is provided to all regular attenders, and sets out appropriate behaviours for participants. If people turn up who don’t abide by it, they are first taught then warned then, if necessary, excluded. Our pastor and anyone with a formal role have all been vetted for child safety; all attend church safe training; and all are committed to child safe practices. We seek equality between men and women; we expect adults not to lord it over children; we expect respectful relationships. We build connections across the generations; and I very much hope that, just as children ask me theological questions and tell me what they’re thinking, they feel they can speak to me or another adult if they feel unsafe at any time, whether at Sanctuary or in another area of life.
This is all to say that, in these and many other ways, we’ve done a heap of work towards creating a culture of child safety; and we’ve done it because we are followers of Jesus. For, as you might remember, he centred a child in the midst of the male disciples and admonished them to be similarly humble, which in that day and age meant to be vulnerable, and powerless (Matt. 18:2-5). And yet for all the work we’ve done, culturally, theologically, and administratively, I’m not sure that we can fully satisfy the new standards. They are so detailed, and require such high levels of ongoing documentation, that they could easily become the main focus of my work.
The new standards may not be such a problem for larger organisations which have employees to write policy and train staff and do ongoing implementation; indeed, some larger churches are currently advertising for compliance officers. But for smaller churches and community organisations with more limited resources, they are an enormous administrative burden. And it’s a crying shame, because the standards are aiming to bring about a cultural change that is both necessary and good.
I suspect this situation would feel all too familiar to the Apostle Paul.
Like Jesus and the first disciples, Paul was Jewish; but many early converts, including the people to whom Paul was particularly sent, were Gentiles. This raised a big question: Must Gentiles convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus? After witnessing the work of the Spirit in uncircumcised Gentiles, and after consultation and prayer, the conclusion of the early church was clear. No, people did not have to become Jewish in order to follow Jesus. They were simply asked to abstain from eating meat sacrificed to idols, and from engaging in sexual exploitation (Acts 15:28-29).
In the Roman province of Galatia, however, there was pushback. Religious leaders had turned up who insisted that Christian converts be circumcised and adopt Jewish law. Christ’s good news of grace and freedom was being turned into a list of rules, regulations and behavioural codes; when Paul heard about it, he was furious. ‘You foolish Galatians!’ he thundered. Why would you give up your freedom and enter the slavery of the law? ‘I wish that those who make you so anxious would castrate themselves!’ he sputtered. For he knew that the law could not achieve true cultural change. It could not transform hearts and minds; it could not lead people to inherit God’s kingdom.
Paul knew what he was talking about. For most of his life, he had been a devout and faithful Jew, and he was a stickler. He had fulfilled all the rules, regulations and behavioural codes. He had carefully followed every policy and procedure, and engaged in regular self-audits, and ticked off every last checkbox, yet he was haunted by the sense that this had not put him right with God. Something else was needed, something which couldn’t be accomplished by law or human striving; and that something was the grace he experienced in his encounter with Jesus Christ.
And so it is this grace, this freedom in Christ, that Paul urges the Galatians, and us, to embrace. Rather than insisting that we adopt Jewish law, or follow all the legal minutiae, Paul recalls us to one thing: ‘through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ (Gal. 5:14). He knew that when we get this right, when we refuse to gratify our lust for power or our selfish desires, when we instead choose to show a strong and tender love to neighbours young and old, then everything else will flow. We will not be harming our children or anybody else, nor will we countenance their harm. And when we are living in the Spirit and bearing her fruit, that is, when our lives overflow with ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Gal. 5:22-23), then we will indeed be a safe community where God delights to dwell.
So where does this leave us?
Well, I am not advocating that we ignore or dismiss the new standards. Our situation has echoes of the church in Galatia and its relationship with Jewish law, but it’s not directly equivalent. In our case, I believe that it’s important, insofar as we are able, and insofar as it is consistent with the call of Jesus Christ on our lives, that we are good citizens and fulfil the law of the land.
Therefore, I have drafted the necessary documents and policies and sent them to the leadership team. This week, they will be sent to the whole congregation so that those who wish can consider them and comment. The revised documents will go to the leadership meeting on 18 July for final approval, and then be uploaded onto the website for anyone to access. After that, there will be ongoing implementation, documentation, and other tasks.
That said, we won’t be able to fulfill the law entirely nor in a timely manner. With only one months’ notice of the full details of the new standards, a part time pastor, a somewhat overwhelmed volunteer leadership team, and no church-specific templates to draw from, we won’t have the necessary documents finalized by 1 July. Nor am I willing to devote great blocks of my working week or my spare time to ongoing documentation and compliance.
I will chip away at these things, of course, as will the volunteer leadership team; but I will not enter into the slavery of the law. Instead, most of my attention will continue to be on the stuff which really matters, and I ask you to attend to this, too. And this is to live in the freedom and grace and spirit of Christ, and to companion each other on this path. It’s to open ourselves, as individuals and as a body, to be transformed from the inside out, so that we bear the fruit of the Spirit in abundance. It’s to do, quite simply, the self-giving work of love.
Paul urges, ‘If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit’ (5:25). May her guidance be increasingly evident in the choices we make, in the culture we set, in the fruit that we bear, in the lives that we lead—and in the ways that we relate to our children. Come, Holy Spirit, come, and fill us with gentleness and love. Amen. Ω
Reflect: How do you contribute to making spaces hospitable, inclusive and safe for children? How might we do this better here at Sanctuary?
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Galatians 5:1, 13-25 given to Sanctuary on 26 June 2022 © Sanctuary 2022 (Year C Proper 8). Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash.
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