Seeing our own Backyards, Part 1

With thanks to Rod Pattenden for his recent article, Seeing over the fence.

I need not look over the fence to see the way in which the experience of being in church is changing as we gradually and collectively awaken to the truth of the experiences of abuse and trauma that have emerged from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. In my own backyard, my local congregation, I find myself seeing and hearing the impact of sexual abuse within the church and with each painful story my trust in the institutional church is further diminished. With each new story and conversation, there is an increasing challenge to the spiritual health of the people who remain in the pews. As I think about life in my own backyard, the spiritual health of my congregation needs time and attention before we can understand how to heal and reconcile what we now know about our lives in the church and our life in God. As an artist, my work is, as Rod Pattenden suggests, to help people visualise the trauma and pain of our experience, in sign, symbol, and art making. I hear the call to work in the studio making images that may bring healing and reconciliation but I am sitting with the question of how to ensure it is seen and appreciated in my own backyard, where rules and regulations seem to be the weapon of choice for defending the institution.

The Anglican church is currently investing considerable energy in the development of procedures and policies designed to ensure that churches are safe places for children and vulnerable people. It remains to be seen if this approach will be successful in eliminating the abuse of power within the church and also how this newly regulated relational environment will affect the spiritual health and emotional wellbeing of those invested in regular congregational worship. In his recent work, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, Rowan Williams warns us of the dangers of not understanding how we have become the people we are now.

Not understanding how we learned to be the people we now are has an immediate and highly dangerous effect on the kind of society we are and might seek to be, just as it might have a dangerous effect on any individual who tries to block out the memory of the experiences that have, as a matter of fact, made them who they are. (p. 57)

To consider how the church has learned to be the people they are now maybe we should begin by appreciating the impact of the systemic use of institutional power in pastoral and congregational relationships. How do the people in the pews who remain regular attenders in public worship experience and exercise power in the congregation? In the spirit of a Practice-led theological inquiry I have begun to explore this in the studio. The first of these images is an exploration of Tension on the Surface.

Tension on the surface. Mixed media on canvas, 500 X 500 mm.

There are tensions on the surface of this image that have resulted in a furious working toward solutions with whatever materials are at hand. Having attempted to cover the content of this ambiguous and organic work with robust and impermeable house paint, the layering of white acrylic material has resulted in the creation of a non-reflective fragile surface that is easily damaged. The white acrylic paint is literally a skin that is being shaped and reshaped as it responds to external pressure. The wrinkles on the surface are points of interest but the tension also reveals a warm organic oil based yellow ochre that beckons the viewer to go deeper. The viewer’s focus is spread across the damage on the surface and it is hard to know whether to settle here or consider the deeper life of the work. It is challenging to consider what has been lost or gained in the frantic need to shore up a solid and impermeable surface.

The response to the new rules from those working within the church has been mixed with some people seeing them as self-evident statements of ethical behaviour and others feeling the burden of compliance mixed with the fear of retribution. Commentator Muriel Porter has even suggested that the rules are “… absurdly severe restrictions … imposed on the private lives of … clergy”. Her argument is built upon the biblical principle known as the priesthood of all believers which suggests that all parishioners are equal co-workers with priests in ministry. The reality of life in my backyard suggests that once we ordain and employ people to take up authority in the church the expression of this biblical principal is open to reinterpretation. The hope that is at the heart of the principal is reshaped each time power is exercised and experienced in pastoral relationships.

The systemic and structural power that remains central to the machinations of the Anglican church continues to shape pastoral relationships at the congregational level. For those who trust and love the church and their ministers, there may be a perceived need to come to their defence by opposing the restrictions on their behaviour. For others, their trust and love for the church has been so damaged that this argument only heightens the tension on the surface as it becomes a spurious distraction from the challenge to consider the nature of power and control that is still being expressed in the church hierarchy.

What does it meant to spend time with the trauma of this truth being revealed? For this I need a new image entirely.

LIBBY BYRNE IS AN Honorary Research Associate (Whitley, UD), Lecturer in Art Therapy (La Trobe University), and member of The Centre for Research and Social Policy (RASP). SHE LIVES ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

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