Helen Percy: spat out by the Kirk
This is at once a terrible and a beautiful book. Terrible, because it describes, admittedly in an episodic and soft-focussed way, a shameful story that besmirches contemporary Scotland. Beautiful, because it is a testament to the resilience, poignantly and quietly described, of a woman who as she herself notes, has no great reserves of courage and strength. It is also a beautiful book because it is infused with the noble quality of hope.
Helen Percy was abused by her father when she was a child. Later, she went to St Andrews University, and she describes graphically her early days there. She presents herself as desperately shy and almost helpless. Then we fast-forward to her leaving the university, when she has won various prizes. She is now, in worldly terms, a success. What has happened in between? We’d surely like to know, but that is one of the many gaps in this piecemeal narrative.
Although she does not write much about her faith or her personal beliefs – her version of Christianity seems to be more social than spiritual – Percy goes on to tell us that she is ordained as a Church of Scotland minister.
She ministers for a time in Paisley, and then, when she is still young, moves to the supposedly lovely context of deepest rural Scotland, serving several parishes in the Angus glens.
Here she is raped by one of the most senior men in her flock. The rape was of course bad enough in itself; but what followed was almost worse – a protracted saga of institutional bullying, legalistic nastiness and bureaucratic obfuscation which was devoid of compassion and replete with puffed-up pompous sanctimony. Through this demeaning and deeply unpleasant process Percy, the victim, somehow became the culprit. The minister herself forgave the rapist; she even, at one point, wants him to join the general ‘merriment’ in her kitchen – but her church does not forgive her, the innocent party.
I hate to write this, but the Church of Scotland comes out of this book very very badly. Among the many senior personnel who are indicted in this book are two men who are well known to me and whom I respect. I thought of contacting them to hear their side of the story, but then that would be to revisit the whole tedious and religion-destroying process of legalistic claim and counter-claim which Helen Percy had to endure.
Meanwhile I know that in many ways our national church is still a caring and compassionate organisation that manages, despite its rapidly dwindling resources, both human and monetary, to achieve a great deal of practical good, in Scotland and beyond. I am pretty certain that there remain in it far more good people than bad. But it is also, these days, a grievously divided church, indeed a broken church that is barely fit for purpose, and this devastating book gives at least some indication of how that has come about. There is far too much forensic fiddling about, far too much narrow-minded control-freakery and backroom bossiness, while the fires that destroy faith and charity burn ever stronger.
At its worst the Church of Scotland is a bloated bureaucracy and its complex, adversarial forensic procedures were always going to militate against pastoral decency and basic human compassion, although I for one would have hoped that even legalistic processes could potentially be used as an instrument for care rather than oppression.
There is also the problem that the church’s sovereign body, the General Assembly, is a gathering totally lacking in any meaningful continuity. Its large membership changes from year to year (it is difficult to determine exactly how and why the commissioners, as they are portentously called, are chosen) as does its leadership. The moderator of the assembly, new every year, takes charge of this vast and ramshackle assembly for a week in May as the first of his year’s duties. No wonder that the new moderators sometimes seem lost and overwhelmed as they confront the most important task of their moderatorial year at the very start of it.
In the overall experience of Helen Percy, the Church of Scotland was wholly unable to provide the kind of consistent pastoral succour required by a young minister who was desperately in need of loving support. Instead she was subjected to humiliating, bruising inquisitions and a ludicrously overstretched legalistic process.
It is salutary to learn that it was in another church – the Roman Catholic Church – that she was able to find at least some evidence of the blessed qualities of tenderness, redemption, hope and love. She knew a local priest, ‘a man with the heart of Christ’. She discovered that the Catholic Church could triumph over institutionalised malice. When she is spat out of her own church, treated as someone dirty and shamed, when she is subjected to systematic condemnation and to vile gossip, she is, thank God, welcomed in another church.
In her own simple, straightforward words: ‘I go to mass in the local Roman Catholic Church. The priest knows my whole story. He is prepared to offer me the Bread of Life that the Church of Scotland withholds. Strictly, he should not give it to a non-Catholic. In his book, pastoral need takes precedence over ecclesiastical law.’
At times I am not certain of the precise accuracy of Helen Percy’s witness. She can and often does write beautifully, but there is an evasive and elusive quality about her prose which is not always suited to a tale which, like it or not, is often about the detailed minutiae of institutional procedures. So it might have been better to tell it in a more documentary, matter-of-fact manner.
Yet for obvious reasons I hesitate to suggest that the book would have had more authority had it been written in a more focussed and dare I say masculine style; in this context, such a suggestion would be crass. On the other hand the careful reader notes that Helen Percy leaves out a great deal. But if this book comes down to Percy versus the Church of Scotland, as it probably does, then I am completely and unequivocally on the side of Helen Percy.
It might seem simplistic to present this terrible tale as a black and white case: Helen Percy good, Church of Scotland bad. Of course it is more complex than that. But at the heart of this sorry scarring saga is the inescapable fact that the Church of Scot-land chose, quite unnecessarily, to make an extended adversarial point. Having sought to make that point, but ultimately losing it, the Church of Scotland can then hardly wonder if this entire affair is presented in terms of a confrontation: The Kirk against Helen Percy.
I still cannot understand why our national Church was so doggedly determined to pursue a very long and desperately expensive – for a body that is sorely strapped for cash – sequence of tedious and dispiriting litigation. This surely cannot be God’s work on Earth.
It is not only the Church of Scotland that comes out of this book badly. Our Scottish press – and in particular the Scotsman – does not emerge at all well. But at least there’s a balancing goodness here; certain individual journalists have written sympathetically and supportively about Helen Percy.
Apart from the critique of the Church of Scotland at the core of the book, there is a secondary lingering and in a way horrifying theme. Helen Percy loves the countryside and animals, as she makes abundantly clear (almost too clear for my personal taste), and she writes with a special poetic sweetness about the rural context in which her nightmare unfolded. Her descriptions of upper Angus make the heart sing. Reading some of her passages, I was reminded of that fine Angus writer Violet Jacob.
But nastiness and evil can occur in idyllic rural contexts just as much as they can in the slums of inner cities or the wastelands of bleak housing estates; and in some ways an abused woman is further from help and succour in a so-called close-knit rural community than she is in the badlands of urban Scotland.
I have not described at any length the infuriating and consistently petty legal process which Helen Percy had to endure. It would take more than Helen Percy – perhaps a Charles Dickens – to achieve the levels of eloquent literary indignation required to deal with this disgraceful spun out saga.
Suffice to say that the verdict of the courts of the Church of Scotland was endorsed by the Scottish Court of Session, and it took the House of Lords – the House of Lords – to overturn them. So much for any residual trust we may have in our Scottish institutions. Not just as a member of the Church of Scotland, but also as a long- serving Scottish journalist and indeed as a Scottish citizen, this book makes me hang my head in shame.
I have certain residual doubts about Helen Percy’s testament, but I repeat: overall I must be on her side. For it is inescapable that she was bullied without mercy as she was put under pressure to confess to culpability when the real culpability lay elsewhere. The hounding of this vulnerable woman scars and shames contemporary Scotland.
SCANDALOUS IMMORAL AND IMPROPER: THE TRIAL OF HELEN PERCY
ARGYLL PUBLISHING, £9.99, 384PP ISBN 978-1906134747