Monday, December 19, 2011

The Innocent Man - and the Small Church

I’ve been somewhat absorbed in John Grisham’s The Innocent Man in my spare moments during the last few days.
A true story, it records the astonishing series of seriously unjust events in the investigation, arrest and trials of Ron Williamson of the small town of Ada, Oklahoma, between 1987 and 1999. The catalogue of errors of omission and comission by Police and the justice system has to be studied to be believed. Williamson was reprieved only five days before his execution was to be carried out. I find myself boiling with indignation that so many one-sided processes were applied to this man.

But I’m not sure we’ve always done a lot better in the church. When things go awry in the small congregation and outside help is sought, there can also be problems of blinkered vision. Even the wider church can make mistakes of judgment and lose its grip on natural justice. I can think of at least three conflicts in small churches with which I’ve been connected, when those who were asked to investigate allegations of improper behaviour listened with compassion and sensitivity only to the complainants. In both cases, the other side was not invited to make any response. Rather, those whose stories were never told were advised that the matter was now “all in the past” and they should “move on”.
Forty years ago our denomination conducted excellent “Lay-Clergy Dialogues” a few months after the arrival of a new minister. Sometimes, a crucial function of those events was “exorcising the ghosts” of the previous ministry. It was a conscientious attempt to air and lay to rest any resentments or grievances arising from the former ministry or the discomforts resulting from its winding up. There was at least an attempt to recognise the effect of lingering issues of the past upon the present and the future.
I guess the church doesn’t offer this excellent programme these days. Certainly, the way in which the national jurisdiction sometimes relates to local problems doesn’t seem to suggest that kind of understanding.

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