A Letter from Heidelberg – some thoughts on the IICSA Case Study

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Distrusting completely our own wisdom, according to that counsel of the Holy Spirit, “Do not rely on your own insight” (Prov. 3:5), we humbly present to the judgment of all those who wish to be here…

This is the opening line of Martin Luther’s 28 Theses or propositions, which explore the nature of sin, free will and grace. He presented them on 26 April 1518 at a great debate, known as the Heidelberg Disputation. Of course, his thinking, writing and debating would lead ultimately to the European Reformation.

Luther’s central gripe was against the sale of Indulgences (the reduction of a punishment for sin). Pope Leo X offered indulgences in exchange for money to help rebuild St Peter’s Basilica and the most notorious of salesmen was a man named Josef Tetzel, to whom the famous catchphrase: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” is attributed.

For Luther, this was salvation on sale and it was repugnant to him. This gave rise to a theology based on justification by faith alone (sola fide) rather than by anything that we could do to earn God’s favour. Luther was calling out what we might now term a form of spiritual abuse by those with religious power of those who come to the Church in their vulnerability.

A couple of days ago, I had the joy of visiting the beautiful city of Heidelberg as part of my summer travels through Europe and in preparation for the visit, I spent some time reading the 28 Theses, remembering only a little about them from university.

That’s not the only thing I’ve read over the last few days.

Long train journeys between cities have provided plenty of time to read through the transcripts of the latest stage of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA), focussing on the case of Peter Ball, a Church of England Bishop who was convicted and jailed in 2015 for misconduct in public office and indecent assault against teenagers and young men.

These transcripts provide an insight into the sickening abuses of Ball and the shocking actions of the Church of England hierarchy, which failed to take seriously the testimony of the victims and act accordingly. As a result, the victims have waited a long time for justice to be done. It was too long for Neil Todd, a victim of Bell’s abuse, who took his own life in 2012.

This process is humbling, shaming and profoundly necessary. As Luther wrote in his introduction: “We humbly present to the judgment of all those who wish to be here…”

As well we should.

Reading Luther’s theology alongside the inquiry transcripts gave rise to a few thoughts, which I thought I might share here. One of the most interesting ideas which Luther develops at Heidelberg is his distinction between a theology of glory and a theology of the crossHe wrote this: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”

Luther argued that a theology of glory fails to take seriously the severity of human sin; it thinks that sin can be erased by certain “works” like indulgences; it seeks to minimise the discomfort of the religious life and maximise the benefits (status, wealth, power, influence); it is a theology of taking rather than giving, of self-preservation rather than self-sacrifice, and all because this is what God wants for us. In other words, God is glorious, so we are destined for glory.

A theology of the cross, on the other hand, says that God’s definitive statement on both his nature and the human condition is to be found on the cross. Here, glory is turned on its head: the crown is made of thorns; the title “King of the Jews” is pure mockery; the throne is made of two blood-stained pieces of wood.  Here, the severity of human sin is laid bare and we see that it is only through God’s self-giving, rather than our own efforts, that it can be cancelled because, as Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In other words, God is to be found in the suffering of the world, so we must be found there too.

One of the most shocking things to emerge from the ICCSA Case Study into Peter Ball’s abuses was the role the “establishment” played in ensuring that his actions were not brought into the full light of day and dealt with for what they really were. An archbishop, bishops, parliamentarians, even royalty refused to believe the severity of the accusations and sought to reduce them, lest they cause a scandal.

This is an example of a theology of glory – pure and simple. Rather than “calling the thing what it actually is” to quote Luther, the “establishment” tried to call it anything but. It minimised the seriousness of Peter Ball’s sin; it tried to reduce the discomfort caused by the awkward truth; it used status, power and influence to shield him; it preferred self-preservation to self-sacrifice.

What it should have done is look to Christ, who is the pattern of our calling, and sought him where he is to be found: on the cross, suffering with and for a broken humanity. If it had, then it would have found itself defending the victims, ensuring that justice was done and helping to bring God’s healing to those who had been harmed. In short, it should have preferred a theology of the cross.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not standing on the edge of the pitch, shouting, “Are you blind, ref!?” I am a priest of the Church of England and the shame brought about by the IICSA Case Study is necessarily my shame too. I, with my sisters and brothers, have a responsibility to be a theologian of the cross, so that such things never happen again.

May God strengthen all of us in this sacred work.

Gilo, a survivor of abuse said: “The damage is self-inflicted and centres around denial and dishonesty across the top of the church…The C of E will need a reboot at the end of all this.”

Gilo calls it a reboot but Luther called it a reformation.

In light of IICSA, it’s time we had another one.


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