One of my occassional parishioners is the Diocesan Child Protection Officer, not only does she protect children but also "vulnerable" adults. She told me this morning that her brief for such adults also extended to the people we assist on our soup run. So someone who is on the streets with mental health problems or an addiction or because they are a asylum seeker, or ex-prisoner, or just homeless is classified as "vulnerable".
This means that our volunteers have to agree to a Criminal Records Bureau check, that means that her diocesan office gets to know if someone has a criminal record, if their offence is likely to endanger a child or vulnerable adult I receive notification and inform the person their services are no longer required.
Well, this parish is a melting pot, people have "pasts", that they don't want revealed. In my eight years here we have had exiled politicians who feared for their lives from subsequent regimes, former members of the IRA and others on witness protection schemes, people who have come to Brighton to change identities, people who have had notorious pasts which they want to forget or to be forgotten. We also have people who are resident here for just a few months, I estimate 70% of our congregation moves within 6 months, I think a CRB check takes about that time to complete, until it is done the volunteer shouldn't be volunteering, fine in most parts of our diocese were communities are reasonable stable, here it just doesn't work. Volunteers are difficult to come by, because temporary residents have little commitment to our community. Our Soup Run operates 7 days a week and on average feeds about 30-40 people a night, we have a small core of helpers, plus anyone else we can cajole or beg to help out, some of our volunteers come for a few nights, others appear for awhile then dissappear. Some are people who were once fed by the Soup Run and are now feeding others, some are doing it in reparation, as a self imposed penance almost, for things that have happened in the past, some as act of thanksgiving, one or two, in the past, because they are illegal asylum seekers, who the government forbid to work, this alone gave them some dignity of giving, and they are the last people who would want the authorities looking at their status.
When the diocese made us introduce these checks for various liturgical ministries almost a quarter of my parishioners refused to agree to them and had to give up what they were doing, that created serious difficulties.
I know that if we asked our Soup Run helpers to sign up for a CRB check a much larger number than that will refuse. I know too that it would be almost impossible to get new volunteers, by the time their check had been processed they would have left the parish.
It is true that many of the people who come to be fed are indeed vulnerable, they wouldn't come to building or somewhere enclosed, they come to an open space because can get away if they fear a threat. They pick up their sandwich, soup, a cup of coffee and bit of fruit and shuffle off. After a few nights sleeping in a doorway or an abandoned car, the most vulnerable develope a certain wariness of their fellows and anyone who might help, including any perceived threat from the helpers..
A couple of weeks ago I thought the biggest threat to this work of Christ was the povery of our parish, but God's providence has sorted that out for a few months at least, it is sad that now the threat comes from the diocese. If we are rigourous in our implementation of the diocesan demands we will have to stop our work, the most vulnerable in our community will go hungry. In Brighton women and boys can normally find something to sell if they are in real need, but as one young nineteen year old lad once told me, he was so hungry and cold that if it wasn't for our souprun, he would have done anything in one of Brighton's public lavatories just to have been able to fill his belly.
It would be less than magnanimous to ask, as many priests do, who our protection policies are actually protecting, is it the vulnerable or the bishops and the diocesan finances.
Unless we can find a middle way, we have to choose, either to opt out of our diocesan policy on this issue, which apparently means any legal claims devovle directly on me, and the pittance I put away for my old age, or we follow the directives of our Child Protection Office which means we will have to stop our Soup Run, except possibly on the the second and third Wednesday of each month, and ignore Christ's imperative to "feed the hungry".
Today, before I heard this, I preached on "taking risks to reach Christ", it would be hypocritical to stop and I would fear the judgement of God.