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Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm

In October 2022 a three-day pilot workshop, Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches led by Dr Emily Colgan was held at Trinity College, Auckland.

The workshop was attended by an invited group of current lay and ordained leaders within the life of Te Hāhi Weteriana o Aotearoa, MCNZ. The letter of invitation prepared by the General Secretary Rev Tara Tautari outlined this pilot workshop was part of an ongoing critical commitment to intentionally train lay and clergy leadership in their support of victims and survivors, as well as in their efforts to ensure that church communities are no longer spaces where sexual harm can flourish.

The outcomes of the pilot and subsequent workshops taking place throughout 2023 include educating ordained and lay leaders about:

· Understanding the nature of sexual harm and its prevalence in New Zealand society,

· Being alert to and responding in a pastorally sensitive manner to people within their community who have experienced/are experiencing sexual harm,

· Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to justify/legitimise/enable sexual harm while silencing the voices of victims/survivors,

· Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to challenge and resist sexual harm,

· Exploring how their church might work to create a safe space for victims/survivors of sexual harm.

Each participant in the workshop is given the invaluable resource, Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm A Toolkit for Churches, edited by Dr’s Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth and released in 2022. The content and scope of the material contained within is the basis of the ongoing training workshops. As Emily Colgan acknowledges in the toolkit introduction, the resource is the “fruit of collaborative efforts from seven academics, all of whom work broadly at the intersection of sexual harm and Christian faith traditions in Aotearoa New Zealand”.

Bringing the material into this form, ready for use by workshop facilitators and participants has required careful and extensive work by respective contributors and editors. It was invaluable at the October 2022 pilot workshop to have Emily Colgan providing the lead and her Trinity College Faculty colleague Te Aroha Rountree available throughout as pastoral support person for the 10 participants.

Pilot Workshop Rolled Out to Wider Audience

It was from this pilot workshop then that the MCNZ made the commitment to roll out three subsequent workshops in 2023 thus beginning the commitment that all future probationers and current presbyters will undertake training in this area. A team of three facilitators was appointed, Shirley Rivers currently Head of Mission Methodist Mission Northern with a background of social and community work and as tertiary lecturer in social work training, leadership within Te Taha Māori, Darryn Hickling, Presbyter at Rangiora Methodist Parish, Trained and Practicing Counsellor, and myself, Presbyter, pastoral and practical theologian with a background in theological education and parish ministry.

The decision was made to opt for an ideal group size of 8-10 participants to maximise group cohesion, personal safety, participation, and depth of engagement with the resource material. The first three day workshop was held in Christchurch, based at the Connexional Office with the Christchurch North Methodist Parish facilities available as needed. We began with six participants, all presbyters including two engaging in their probationary studies within their first stationed appointments. Due to varying circumstances two of the participants were unable to complete the three days. On reflection the smallness of group size had certainly advantaged ease of relating and allowed for the richness of unique and diverse perspectives to be explored alongside the resource material.

The second workshop at the end of June was held at the St Francis Retreat Centre, Auckland with eleven participants (Presbyters), indicating their attendance, but over the three days just six attending. Within this group there was a wealth of wisdom and experience acquired through significant ministry leadership at both Connexional and local church levels. This meant that much of the introductory material looking at awareness of social context, understandings of terminology, statistics around sexual harm, were well understood.

Accordingly, we were able to go deeper and more critically move to an engagement with the biblical and theological studies. We grappled together with the theological complexities around forgiveness, shame, whakamā, muru, the significant difference in understandings between the English and Māori words/concepts used in the familiar Lord’s Prayer in reference to forgiveness.

Equally so, talking at depth in relation to how as presbyters we exercise and embody power, and how difficult but of critical importance to push towards the deconstruction of power and privilege so often conflated in a presbyter’s understanding of ordination.

What does forgiveness mean? How do we move towards constructing a framework of restorative justice for those who have been harmed, abused within the assumed safety and sanctuary of church.

With the two workshops already run for this year and the third to take place mid-September at Vaughan Park Retreat Centre, Auckland, we have made an important beginning in gathering our leaders in ministry together for this critically important engagement. However, there is much more to be done.

We need our ministry leadership to consider it a high priority to commit to not only three days of study and engagement together, but to work at revising and reforming our theological and liturgical foundations to address the deep-seated violence and embodied damage done whenever acts of sexual harm occur within the body of church.