14 Vulnerability and the Church

The Church of England along with other churches and caring organisations has policies designed to  protect children and vulnerable adults from potential abusers.  Not being currently employed by the church I am not up to speed about the details of this protection but it does involve levels of scrutiny for all those who have access in the name of the church with these categories of people.  Thus criminal record checks are made of everyone who visit the elderly or have contact with others who are deemed to be vulnerable.

Who are the vulnerable?  Probably my definition of who is vulnerable in the context of church life would include far more people that those envisaged by the compilers of the policies.  But rather than quibbling about definitions, I want to turn the issue upside down and suggest that in many cases the church actually creates vulnerability which did not exist before.

What do I mean by this?  Talking with Chris with his concerns for the many in society who live on the edge, whether in terms of esteem or poverty, my awareness has been opened to the way that many have few resources with which to fight people and situations of power.  If you are poor or have no self-esteem then you occupy a place that is extremely vulnerable.  You are potentially a victim of a rapacious landlord, a loan shark or other people who want to exploit you in various ways.  The advantages of literacy, the confidence to write a coherent letter to authority may be beyond your grasp, so you simply have to ‘grin and bear’ the indignities and humiliations that life throws at you.

A few individuals out of this vast swathe of vulnerable people sometimes find their way into the church.    Many churches are places where a bookish culture is assumed.  Certain levels of knowledge are assumed in order to take part in the services.    The plethora of words used is enough to put off many people who do not live in this literate articulate world.  There are however churches which sit lightly on words and initially at any rate welcome the poor, the less educated and the vulnerable.  Such individuals are going to be attracted to aspects of the church that might be considered fairly marginal to some others.  Music is for some is a way into membership, particularly when the music resonates with what they have already found pleasant and attractive elsewhere.  The church that attracts them also appears to offer them an experience of acceptance, something that either their birth family may not have given them or something that has slipped away through the fickleness of their adult entanglements.  The attraction of the church is for these reasons largely an emotional one.  While there is nothing wrong is being drawn to the church for emotional reasons, an issue arises for the individual when things go wrong.  Chris’ testimony bears vivid witness as to the depth of despair that takes place when the scaffolding of certainty that was on offer when he first joined the church begin to crumble. Having bought into a emotional package of music and acceptance, he then found himself in thrall to what felt like an arbitrary system of control and exploitation.  Like many others Chris found it difficult to answer back to the increasing and arbitrary demands made which he felt to be wrong.  As one woman in my book Ungodly Fear declared after being terrified by the threat of demons in her life, she found it difficult even to protest because she had bought into the idea that the people in charge were so much more knowledgeable than her.

There are many ways to disempower individuals in a congregation.  One is to convince them that their immortal soul depends on obedience to those in authority in the congregation.  Another is to convince them that everything they think has to be vetted in some way by their ‘elders’.  When total control has been established over an individual, other forms of abuse may follow, including financial and sexual misbehaviour.   In short the arbitrary exercise of authority by those in charge has created the possibility that the church is a place where individuals can charge from being independent people to vulnerable adults.  The church becomes then a place for making people vulnerable rather than protecting those already vulnerable.

This claim may be thought of as fairly extreme but it is borne out by the experiences of people that I have met over the years.  Sometimes people are attracted to the church because it provided something in the way of affection that was missing in the rest of their lives.  They become locked into that relationship even though a part of them knows that it is doing them harm.  It is rather like a relationship between a controlling husband and a battered spouse.  The woman in the relationship cannot find a way to leave and this vulnerability is ruthlessly exploited by the husband who has his own emotional needs.  People become enmeshed with the church and they find it impossible to break away for similar reasons.  Meanwhile they have given their assent to a series of doctrines and beliefs that they only a quarter understand but the emotional toll of these beliefs gradually dawns on them over the years.

Abusive beliefs include a teaching about God that are interpreted as saying that he is only interested in saving a few favoured ones.  As I have said in the previous blog post, abusive teaching is found when the people in the congregation are threatened with eternal punishment in Hell.  Other dysfunctional themes are imbibed related to doctrines of the death of Christ.  Some expressions of atonement teaching come very close to saying that God wants to see his Son tortured to death as the only way to assuage his anger against humanity.  Sometimes it is not what the Christian teaching is actually about but it is what is heard in church and feeds negatively the imaginations of the already vulnerable.  I have this very day challenged an individual on a blog discussion who really believed that Jesus never stood up to wrong because he always forgave.  Such sloppy misreading of the Bible is actually harmful because it encourages a passivity in the church which is inappropriate and will tolerate potential abuse.

The Blog post has gone too long but I would be grateful to hear from others examples of the Church creating vulnerability in her members.  I believe that it is a problem and if it is, then surely it qualifies as Spiritual Abuse.


About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

2 thoughts on “14 Vulnerability and the Church

  1. Creating fear. If you are already excluded, or someone else is visibly treated better than you, and you haven’t done anything, imagine what they might do if you upset them, by complaining, say. Or if you genuinely do depend on someone, for a job, your licence or permission. Might it not be removed if you create waves?

  2. In order to help protect vulnerable people they must first be understood.It is precisely at this point that the ‘Church’ has a great problem. Yes, some (I would say many) ministers and leaders are snobs. Some through willful ignorance reach a level of incompetence.
    The 1980’s brought a tidal wave of triumphalist capitalism that flooded every area, the work place became intolerable for the lower working class. Union support disappeared overnight for the unskilled. How can
    leaders who only know life shallowly viewed after becoming a product of their own environment, see the misery of disempowered illiterate squalor? The kind of education they experienced is always biased towards ‘success!’ That kind of ‘Education’ will always reach a threshold beyond which it does not wish to reason? So many top down systems fail in our present society, indeed they are, by their very nature structured to fail. The social services inspectorate teams did not go to the Care assistants that carried out most of the hands on work in nursing and care homes no, it went to the managers and by so doing failed to get anywhere near the maximum amount of information to compute about why things went so dreadfully wrong! The Church has very similar problems but I doubt if they will face up to them in my lifetime. Stephen has seen through the smoke and mirrors of the present day religious mentality and is a man that needs real support.

    Chris Pitts

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