At a General Synod only a few years ago, the Church of England came up with guidelines
for priests to follow. The guidelines are there for the protection of both priest
and parishioner, but they do seem to clash somewhat with good pastoral practice.
For instance, priests have now been told they shouldn't have a private interview
with anyone unless there is someone else in the house. Some would go further, and
insist that the door to the interview room is left open.
The reason for these rules is clear. A friend of mine knew a priest who was walking
across the school playground when a small child fell over. The priest stopped, picked
up the child and comforted her, then went on his way. When he got home later that
day, the police were waiting on the doorstep and he was arrested for child abuse.
And tales of clergy being stalked and harassed by disturbed parishioners are relatively
commonplace. It's only a few years ago that a young Anglican priest in this country,
Christopher Gray, was stabbed to death on his doorstep by someone to whom he had
been offering care and protection.
On the other hand, parishioners can also be at risk from unscrupulous priests. Some
churches are paying the price right now for abuse which took place 20 or 30 years
ago at a time when such practices were unthought of and unheard of. And in an imperfect
world, sadly the vulnerable are likely to continue to suffer at the hands of those
who are more powerful and amoral.
So it's easy to see why the new guidelines have been put in place. But they do seem
to make a mockery of the concept of confidentiality, if a priest can't listen to
someone's troubles unless another person is present or the door is left open. And
what happens about visiting people in their own home? Does it mean that those who
live alone may never receive a visit because of the new guidelines?
Because of past abuses which have relatively recently been uncovered, privacy and
secrecy seem to have become suspect within our society. Secrecy is almost synonymous
with guilt, with having something to hide. If there's nothing to hide, why the need
But that ignores the positive aspects of secrecy and its value. Until fairly recently
it was taken for granted that some things were rightly and properly kept secret.
And that hasn't changed. There are still some things are rightly and properly kept
secret. But in the last few years all that has begun to be questioned, and with the
questioning has perhaps come the feeling that all secrecy is wrong.
The Bible has quite a lot to say about secrecy, and perhaps it picks up the difficulties
we have with the concept, for even the Bible can be a little ambiguous on the subject.
For instance, in a reading from Matthew's gospel Jesus urges us to pray in secret
and not to let anybody else know what we are about. "Whenever you pray," he says,
"go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret."
But elsewhere we're told that when two or three are gathered together for prayer,
Christ will be there with them. And we're also warned that the light of Christ will
shine into all those dark and secret places of our hearts and make them plain for
all to see.
So is secrecy a good thing or a bad thing? Most of the time, I think the answer is
probably very simple.
Secrecy is good if it means not blowing your own trumpet, working in humility, keeping
regular close personal contact with God, or giving something in some way to other,
less fortunate people.
But secrecy is bad if it's used to cover something wrong or shameful, or if it's
used out of fear, or if I try to use it to hide away from those dark, inner places
of my soul.
Sometimes it may be quite difficult to know the difference between the use and the
abuse of secrecy. The classic example is two people who meet and fall in love, and
begin to conduct an illicit relationship. Such relationships are usually unsought
and unexpected, and almost always start in imperceptible ways, so it can be really
difficult to spot the dangers. And by the time the dangers become apparent, the relationship
has advanced so far and so fast and the love has become so strong that perhaps it
feels like there's no drawing back.
Rather than being simply a time to confess our sins, perhaps Ash Wednesday can be
used as the start of a period, the period of Lent, which we can use to look at our
It's an opportunity to search our hearts long and honestly, to discover whether some
hidden secret is blocking God's channel to us.
Ashes are an outward sign of our penitence, of our desire to turn again to God and
to walk in his ways. By a small cross in ash (made from the burning of last year's
palm crosses) on the forehead, we signify to ourselves and to God that we're ready
for him to penetrate our darkest secrets and to lead us into the light.
But more important than that outward sign is a genuine inner desire to follow him
more closely. For the point of ashing is not in order that others may witness our
repentance, but that we symbolically and with genuine humility offer ourselves to
him in a new way.
For however we offer ourselves, our father who sees into our secret selves will reward
Rev. Canon Stuart Ansell