Jennifer Burrell, New South Wales Regional Meeting

What does this have to do with Friends? I asked myself as I entered the understated but corporate-feeling surroundings of St James Hall in Phillip Street, Sydney, for a workshop sponsored by the National Council of Churches. It’s a question I’d answered by the end of the workshop: Yes, it does relate to us; but, still unanswered: how will we decide how to make it fit with our practices?

I attended this round table workshop in July 2018, on behalf of our Presiding Clerk, Jo Jordan. The NCCA and its member churches are still reeling from the impact of the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sex Abuse. The recommendation that inspired this workshop is Recommendation 16.45:

Consistent with Child Safe Standard 5, each religious institution should ensure that all people in religious or pastoral ministry, including religious leaders, have professional supervision with a trained professional or pastoral supervisor who has a degree of independence from the institution within which the person is in ministry.

Why this recommendation on “supervision”? The workshop presenters never explicitly answered this question, perhaps because it is too embarrassing. It’s because clergy and church workers cannot be trusted to create and maintain a safe space. That’s why.

Yet “supervision” in this context has a specific meaning, and this was defined and discussed by the presenters. In this context, “supervision” is not line management, where the boss ensures their subordinate is toeing the line. It’s not spiritual direction either; spiritual direction focuses on the participant’s relationship with God. Nor it is only pastoral care – guiding, healing, sustaining, reconciling, nurturing, empowering, advocating – although pastoral care and spiritual supervision overlap.

Supervision, in this sense, takes something from all of these existing practices. Supervision creates a safe space with boundaries between participant and supervisor, and challenges the participant to exert their own spiritual discipline. Supervision is a tool to hold us to account for the way in which we co-create God in our own lives. At its best, supervision is a tool for ongoing spiritual learning and growth.

All very well, but how does this relate to Friends? In Australia, we don’t have clergy. We do have “church workers”, but they are almost without exception volunteers. Quakers abolished the laity long ago when we insisted on the priesthood of all believers: we do not need a priest to mediate between us and God, we ourselves accept this role.

Are we exempt from a call to greater spiritual self-discipline? Can we trust all Friends to create and maintain a safe space at all times?  I don’t think so. I think we are all too human. I believe that the spirit of the Recommendation does include us and therefore that it should inform our practice.

How do we live our testimonies? Who calls us to account when we let ourselves and others down? In the distant past, in Britain, the Overseers were charged with this duty. I’m not sure this ever really happened in Australia. I don’t believe our Ministry & Care Committees would understand this to be their duty now, or that all individual Friends would necessarily welcome a call from them to exert stronger spiritual self-discipline.

It is true that we still have some vestiges of “supervision”. Support groups and clearness meetings assist individual Friends and committees to fulfil their leadings and terms of reference. Some groups specifically request that an Elder work beside them. Our safe Quaker Community Contact Friends, and Child Protection Contact Friends, also work quietly in the background to ensure right ordering. But these are the exceptions, not the norm. Perhaps we are not, as a Religious Society, very open to personal and corporate accountability.

I think that the Royal Commission has reminded Friends, as well as other churches, that we are imperfect, that our spiritual lives are not static. We change throughout our lives; we should grow, not regress or stagnate. We all know that we have not reached perfection, and sometimes we do harm – often unawares, unmeaning, sometimes with malice, for which we are rightly ashamed. Individuals need loving Friends to support them and hold them to account.

I believe that Recommendation 16.45 of the Royal Commission is a call for us all to re-examine our practices. How, corporately and together, would the Religious Society of Friends in Australia find a way to encourage us all to hold ourselves and others to account? How could we, in a loving way which respects individuals’ right to privacy, recreate the old-fashioned role of the Overseer in “helping each other up with a tender hand”?

A problem is the attitude “I answer only to God”. But there is a whole-world context in which we live and act and affect others. There are reasons why ordinary people think that the recommendations from the Royal Commission are important. Are we too proud in our own esteem to think we need to learn?

You can see the Royal Commission’s full recommendations here. Chapter 16 deals with religious institutions.


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