Last Tuesday afternoon I got a call from the Sun newspaper telling me that the Anglican Vicar in my former parish of Thornbury near Bristol had been stabbed to death at the door of his vicarage and asking for my comments. You can imagine I was completely taken aback by this.
I had only recently left the parish to move to Wealdstone and the Reverend John Suddards had been at my leaving mass just two weeks before. He only arrived in July to be the new vicar of Thornbury and we were in the process of getting to know each other when I had to move to Harrow.
The first man held in custody was arrested in the grounds of our Church and the second man who is now the main suspect had been in the Church an hour before the murder. We don’t know at this stage whether he is guilty or not. However this horrible murder highlights the vulnerability of clergy and pastoral workers to acts of violence.
Many years ago I opened the door to a woman who punched me hard in the chest because the arrangements for a funeral were not to her liking. Here in Wealdstone St Anselm’s Church which was the scene of the stabbing of the vicar in 2005, thankfully he survived his injuries. One wonders whether the seeming increase in attacks on clergy is due to the systematic withdrawal of other professionals from living openly in the community or whether it is just a symptom of the fact that respect for rules and codes of behaviour in our society as a whole is on the decrease.
Whatever the cause, there is a need for clergy and other pastoral workers to take basic precautions to ensure their personal safety. We will have to undertake some kind of safety audit at St Joseph’s to ensure that we do not take unnecessary risks. No one wants to reduce access to clergy and pastoral workers but we know that opening the door to a complete stranger is always going to be a bit of a risk.
I know parishioners greatly appreciate the fact that their priests continue to make themselves available to those in need. They are generally well aware of the risks undertaken by the clergy and are constantly concerned for their safety. But both clergy and laity know that the availability of those engaged in pastoral work is one of those non-negotiable areas of Church life.
If priests were to closet themselves away for fear of the risks of engaging with the general public then we will no longer be recognisable as the Church of Christ. Nevertheless the tragic death of the Reverend John Suddards is a salutary reminder of the need for those engaged in pastoral ministry to take some basic precautions to ensure their personal safety.
Father Alex McAllister SDS