THE CHURCH AND SAFE SPACES
One of life’s ironies is how hard it is to have a debate about safe spaces without everything degenerating into a slanging match. The idea of the safe space is not easily uncoupled from no platforming and thus seen as a restriction on free speech, but it has a different origin and meaning.
The concept developed in 1960s United States, where disenfranchised groups created public and private spaces in which to share experiences of isolation and prejudice. Places free from harassment and intimidation are essential in helping people think issues through, but safe spaces are increasingly seen as environments that close down debates which might upset any present. Reclaiming the original notion of the safe space as a commitment to opening up free speech, rather than shutting it down, would help.
Those who decry it as the obsession of snowflakes (the pejorative term for millennials who allegedly melt in indignation when faced with opinions they don’t share) do well to remember that earlier generations have created all kinds of safe spaces without naming them. Parliament privilege enables politicians to say things in the chamber they could not outside; the court of law holds people in contempt if they interrupt its proceedings; speeches and sermons are delivered under protocols which frown upon interruption.
But how much should the Church be a safe place?
At a legal and practical level, it must safeguard children, young people and vulnerable adults. For a minority of people, the Church has not been a safe place over the years and they have suffered terrible abuse by those who should have cared for them with the love of Christ. No church can renege on the commitments it must now make in this regard.
The notion of the safe space should also extend to expressing faith, doubt and unbelief. This is not as obvious a statement as it seems. Even in church, people can suppress their testimony to God’s goodness because God is not much talked about outside formal acts of worship. In churches which recite versions of the Creed, it can feel to the less sure an assertion of faith that cannot be questioned: ‘We believe in God…’ Many struggle quietly with doubt, without realising it is a component of faith, not its antithesis.
This goes hand in hand with a range of emotions that people experience in a world that is not at all what it should be: anger, bewilderment, fear, anxiety. Churches which take it for granted that people are free to express doubt and distress may want to audit this more carefully. Acts of worship, informal fellowship and structured teaching should be innovative in helping people to express their truest thoughts and emotions. Instead, we often create unimaginative grooves that stifle honesty and engagement. We need safe spaces in which to breathe.
There will, nonetheless, always be an element of unsafeness in an encounter with God. This idea unsettles people and we make responses that build the very walls again that God has torn down to reach us. When Jesus acted with power in the Gospels, it was usually accompanied with the observation that it made the people afraid. The overwhelming strength made hairs stand on end. Things happened which should not: the dead were raised; the blind received their sight; the wind and sea were calmed. These probably did not feel like safe spaces to those who inhabited them in the moment.
Jesus issued an uncompromising challenge to those who thought about following him. They were to take up their crosses: the most unsafe of images. We often speak of God accepting us as we are without conceding it is with a view to changing us from within. In doing so, we create those walls within which we feel safe. Without the Holy Spirit’s transformation, we are like houses built on sand. The safe space becomes a place of complacency, ignorance and short-sightedness.
An authentic encounter with the living God is one of radical challenge enfolded in eternal love. It is, paradoxically, both unsafe and safe. It is the invitation to die with Christ, and rise with him again.
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