Monthly Archives: February 2014

44 Entertainment and Church

Entertainment attracts but it does not educate.

It was a passing remark made by Chris in one of our phone conversations that made me think.  He said something along the lines of: ‘If you are being entertained in church, you are not thinking’.  He was in fact talking about Christian music of the kind that fills festivals like Spring Harvest.  Such music fills the brain with its noise and rhythm, banishing any possibility of reflection or rational thought.  But then my thinking about this topic went further and began to sense a conspiracy.  Suppose this driving out of thought and reflection is actually a deliberate ploy.  Christian leaders perhaps don’t want their people to think, so they turn worship times to non-stop entertainment.  It is this link between entertainment and worship that I want to try to explore.

Those of us who are older can remember the church worship of childhood before the advent of modern language or music.  We listened to long prayers interspersed with hymns and readings.  Often our attention wandered but we tried to pray, to absorb atmosphere and ideas that made some sort of sense.  I suspect that none of us would have dreamt that this activity was meant to resemble entertainment.    It was later during the 60s and 70s that modern language crept in at the same time as modern music.  At first the music was gentle and melodious but still it hardly fitted the description of entertainment.  It merely lightened up the atmosphere and made the experience more pleasant.  But then in the 70s something called ‘youth culture’ invaded worship and this was supposed to bring the young people back into church.  This new music, being related to popular music would always have had a strong rhythm.  The rhythm and beat came to be the dominant feature and we found our brains totally mesmerised by the thunder of this beat hammering away inside our minds.  It is in fact impossible to engage in any kind of thought when this primal beat is at work around us.

I suspect that many older people did not in fact survive many exposures to this kind of music.  We retreated either to another church or to an early service totally free of primal music and rhythm.  Many churches up and down the country are indeed divided between a small group of older people who cling to an early service and a younger set who revel in ‘relevant’ worship with its mesmerising music.  The question arises then as to what is going on in such ‘youth’ services.  If, as I would suggest, all rational thought is impossible in this environment , then we have to accept that such music makes the worship at the very least deficient.  The person who enjoys such an experience is not in all probability loving God with the mind, even though he or she might claim to be engaging God with the heart , soul and strength.  The cynic might call it entertainment with a pious wrapping.

Some people would argue that the sorts of service which have modern music attract young people and that we must leave them alone.  But the serious question remains.  If the type of music actually prevents normal thought processes happening, what kind of future in the Christian faith awaits these young people?   Can we really expect any long term evolution of faith if the minds of the participants have never been really engaged?  Entertainment attracts but it does not educate.  Has music been used to suppress rationality and thus growth of understanding?.

These thoughts are meant to be  genuine questions and I stand to be contradicted on my insinuations about the use of Christian ‘pop’.  But the point made by Chris at the beginning that entertainment suppresses thought and by implication rationality has serious consequences for the future of the Church.  My comments probably do not apply to all music in church as I believe that there is a case for the type of reflective music that has grown up in the Anglican tradition and elsewhere that makes mediation and prayer somehow more accessible.  I am well aware of the effect that well-sung Taizé choruses can have on the sense of peace and stillness in a church building lit only by candles.  The thinking test has to be applied.  Does this or that music allow thought or does it banish it out of the brain?  When thought is banished and entertainment dominates during worship, we must question what is really going on.  It may even be that people are drawn to church, to come under the influence of charismatic preachers and listen to catchy entertaining music as a way of being controlled by them.  Readers of this blog will know from several of my earlier posts that I wonder at the motives of some churches and church leaders.     Because the church is an institution that does sometimes exploit and corrupt its members, we must be alert to the means by which this is done.  It may be that music of a particular kind is one such method of drawing in people to become in due course victims of an abusive Christianity.  Let us at least be always alert to this possibility.

43 Looking at the Church from the outside

Some thoughts from Chris

I have been thinking a lot recently about the barriers that exist between those ‘in’ the church and those outside.  ‘Barrier’ is perhaps an understated word as from my perspective there is an enormous chasm between the two.  Nowhere is the gulf as clearly observable as between the poor in our society and the culture of the established churches.

I am one of those who has known the meaning of poverty and powerlessness and only in my late twenties was I able to escape the worst effects of being totally ignored and disregarded in the workplace.  Because of illiteracy in early adulthood, I had to endure bullying and disempowerment because of the jobs I was forced to do – building labourer, toilet cleaner, farm labourer and finally Nursing /Care  assistant.  Having finally gained literacy I went to Bible School and eventually worked in Mental Health with people with learning difficulties where I was able to use my musical skills to a degree.

Compared with the people who contribute to this blog I come from a place of poor education but I want to speak about the issue of how the church is seen and experienced  by someone with my background.

My early unhappy encounters with the church were with ‘bible-centered’ evangelical communities.  I have written elsewhere about my experiences but I want to focus here on what I would call ‘evangelical theatre’.   This includes everything that happens in church to do with entertainment, all that we mean by ‘happy-clappy’, loud rhythmic music and everything necessary to enthral congregations and keep them happy.  I have no doubt that among this ‘theatre’ there are sincere Christians but equally in this world are many who are being in different ways misled and dragged into something that ultimately lets them down.  Others on the outside of these groups, perhaps the greater number, look on at this theatre are utterly confused by what they see.

When discussing as we do, issues about the church in a fairly cerebral way, we must never forget how non-members regard what we do.  The ‘evangelical theatre’ I referred above is regarded as a kind of insanity to most of the people I know.  How can such an ‘insane’ church be a guiding force to society?  We really need to engage with the impression that the church is giving to the outsider.  The leaders of the church fail to grasp how the church as a whole comes over to the wider public.  It appears from the outside to be a form of self-indulgence, a pick’n mix entertainment where you get to choose what titillates you most.  What has that got to do with the daily struggle for life which ordinary people have to contend with every day?

The new Roman Catholic Cardinal, Vincent Nichols, has spoken out on behalf of the working poor but there are few others who are prepared to do more than offer a tin of beans to a food-bank.  Some caring people in society do see the appalling inhumanities in our system but the typical church goer feeds on the latest volume from the Christian bookshop.  Why is giving so often concentrated on the other side of the world which is far away from the need in this country,  the mud of the gutter with the smell of stale urine and human effluent?


42 Students and Christian Unions

In 2002 I was asked to give the Annual Lecture for a cult watch organisation in London called FAIR.  It was soon after my book on fundamentalist churches had come out so I was expected to speak on these.  I am reminded of that lecture after posting a response to haikusinenomine mentioning my frustration at the fact that my researches at the time did not reveal a single article about the religious development of young adults.  This was in contrast to the copious literature to cover the religious development of young children.

My concern in that lecture was to speak about the particular vulnerability of young adults, particularly those going to University, to the blandishments of Christian Unions and indeed other cultic groups.  Linking Christian Unions to cultic organisations may seem unfair but my observations suggested that the same dynamics to draw young people into these groups were at work in both cases.  It could of course be argued that the legacy of full-blown cult involvement was far more potentially serious but the same initial vulnerabilities could be observed in both cases.

As I am trying to shorten my blog posts to under a 1000 words, I shall not recite all my detailed points.  Suffice to say I borrowed the psychological thinking of Erik Erickson to describe the point of transition between late childhood and early adulthood.  He speaks about the desire of adolescents to find identity and a proper sense of self.  One of the false trails towards this sense of identity is the attraction of ‘totalism’.  For Erickson in his historical context, totalism meant attachment to Hitler Youth or the  equivalent in Stalinist Russia.  Political totalitarianism, allowing oneself to be identified with an overarching worldview,  was, in short, a substitute for the wholeness or integration that Erickson felt to be the target for the balanced mature adult.

In my lecture I suggested that attractiveness of cults and Christian Unions for young university students was because it offered them a painless method of resolving the maturity issue through embracing the ‘totalism’ offered in the all or nothing groups.    Totalism, the resolution of inner conflict by attaching oneself to a cause or ideology, offers the young person a sense that he or she has achieved that longed for identity and a sense of wholeness by attaching themselves to a cause.  The noble self-sacrificial  behaviour of the young people of Kiev comes out of the same longing.  Such idealism is not wrong, it is merely incomplete and there needs to be a gradual weaning off this totalism so that a more mature identity can be taken on.  The problem for the cults is that the dynamic and maintenance of the group depends on keeping young people at this point of immaturity for a long time.   This will involve them in maintaining their slavish devotion to leaders and the cause far longer than is healthy or desirable.

When I reflected on this Ericksonian interpretation of Christian Unions and cults at university at the end of the lecture, I concluded that for most people who passed through it, the damage was limited.  One great loss for Christian Union university students is in many cases a failure to engage with the wider social opportunities of the university, the exposure to a myriad of ideas and people.  By the age of 30 the vast majority of ex-students have moved on to embrace their adult identity, the process having been delayed.  For a few, the damage is permanent.  They have internalised a fear of people and institutions so that they can only live in ghetto-like environments and these permanently restrict their horizons.

Research on these issues is almost non-existent and so one has to rely on anecdote and impression.  One piece of ad-hoc research has come to my attention which does not merit inclusion in any learned article, but remains interesting in spite of that.  An individual noted the names of Christian Union officials over a number of years at Cambridge University.  He then checked up a few years later and found that not one of these people was still in any way involved in a Christian body.  They had apparently grown above and beyond the enthusiasms of their late teens and no branch of the Christian faith now attracted them. It would have been good if these same individuals could have been interviewed but once again there seems little appetite for this kind of research.

Writing this blog has brought home to me how little interest there is in the ‘corruption’ of young impressionable people in their university years.  In July I shall be attending a conference in the States on cultic studies.  In among the lecturers, there will be a tiny presence of Church based people who are concerned that cultic issues are a problem in the church as well.  I shall of course be reporting about this conference in due time, but meanwhile I continue to express the thought that the Church has a big problem in not owning up to cultic behaviour in and around its life and work.

41 Fundamentalism v Integrity. Edward Carnell

I have been pondering on the question of why individuals believe certain things in the Bible as true when they defy  rationality and common sense.  Or perhaps I should put it another way – that they feel they have to believe in such things as the great fish of Jonah or accept the tale of the Tower of Babel as explaining the origin of language diversity.  I do not, in fact, have a problem in recognising that ordinary people who belong to large churches, which have these ideas as part of their belief systems, will also believe them.  They believe them because it is an act of obedience and loyalty to their leaders whom they trust.  They want to follow them because they believe them reliable guides in finding their way to God. So the decision they have made is not necessarily anything to do with the Bible; it is rather to follow a preacher or teacher who has touched them with persuasive rhetoric. They do not feel it necessary to agonise about this belief system because it is just the way it is and part of belonging to a particular church.  Trust overcomes puzzlement or the temptation to doubt.

Those of us who do not belong to such authoritarian systems of belief and practice may find this kind of acquiescence strange and far from the way that we may think about religious faith.  We might rightly question whether this trust in leaders to do the thinking on behalf of others is an appropriate or even valid way of practising the Christian faith.  But whether or not it is right, we still have to ask ourselves how the ability to believe extremely difficult things works out for those leaders who have been to college and studied the Bible at depth.  How do people who know that there are two accounts of creation and two accounts of the Noah story in the early chapters of Genesis manage?  It is, we might think, one thing to harmonise these accounts by using a conservative commentary.  It is however quite another thing to study the passages at depth in the original Hebrew and not feel a tug of acute dissonance.

My readers may well have sat at the feet of prominent fundamentalist preachers and wonder, like me, how they are able to sustain a consistent conservative interpretation over a lifetime.  When I was an undergraduate, Dr Jim Packer was a regular preacher at Christian Union meetings.  I would sometimes go to listen, fascinated by his rhetoric combined with his unwillingness to concede a single point to those who disagreed with him on a matter of Bible interpretation.  I challenged a member of the Christian Union on this complete certainty.  I asked whether Jim Packer would ever concede even one critical point in Bible interpretation put forward by someone involved in so-called’ higher criticism.  No, I was told, the conservative interpretation is always right.

I have asked myself over the years whether a refusal to concede a single point in Bible understanding did not create some kind of inner tension or stress.  I came across some words of Oliver Cromwell who said (I quote from memory) ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ to consider whether you may be mistaken’.  The leaders of conservative interpretation seemed to have no doubts whatsoever.

About 15 years ago I did come across a book which describes the inner tension of an individual who does his conservative thinking and teaching against the background of constant challenge and even ridicule.  The book called The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind: The case of Edward Carnell  by Rudolph Nelson is a description of the devastating dissonance inside a conservative scholar.  No one else has written on the topic of what goes on inside the psyche of a conservative teacher who faces professional ridicule and constant challenge for teaching and writing ideas which go against the mainstream of Biblical scholarship and of society.  Carnell born in 1917 was one of the handful of scholars who emerged in the 40s and 50s who wished to place fundamentalist doctrine and Biblical interpretation at the centre of theological discussion and give the revived evangelical movement some intellectual respectability.  He wanted to do this by studying at depth both in conservative colleges as well as at Harvard Divinity School.  Harvard was in no sense a natural home for a young fundamentalist theologian but there was the sense that unless you did face up to the ‘Beast’ of critical scholarship, you could never challenge it.

Carnell entered Harvard in 1944 for his doctorate studies. Harvard was to be generous to this bright dedicated student.  The institution cared nothing for the belief systems of its students as long as the work submitted fulfilled the rules of intellectual rigour and detail.  His doctorate studies concerned the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and these focussed on the area of philosophy rather than biblical studies.  He then in 1948 accepted a teaching post in the newly founded Fuller seminary.  For the next 11 years, first as Lecturer and then as President of Fuller, Carnell continued his task of combining rigorous scholarship with fundamentalist beliefs.  The dissonance between these two was not easy to maintain, and his biographer speaks of the enormous personal cost in holding these two sides, the philosopher and the conservative theologian, together.  As President of a notable conservative institution with a reputation for learning, he was expected to participate in many of the issues and debates of the day.  It is not hard to understand his breakdown in 1959 as a failure to sustain a structure of belief which allows no questions to be considered by someone with a lively trained mind.    Perhaps Carnell’s predicament shows that a refusal to engage with questions is impossible. In the last resort something had to give and it was his mental health.

Carnell’s death in 1967 from an overdose of sleeping pills was either an accident or suicide.  There was no definite verdict on the matter but the biographer shows him to have been a broken man.  As a member of the theological elite in the States he was always under scrutiny from the academic fraternity for putting conservative theological ideas before the demands of scholarship.  At the same time there were vicious conservative groupings always ready to try and catch him out when he strayed from the dictates of strict conservative teaching.  The place he occupied was clearly an impossible one, not dissimilar to that of our own Archbishop of Canterbury.  Everyone wants to hear statements that coincide with their own beliefs.  They fail to understand that an individual needs to integrate a large number of positions within themselves.  Some will come from personal belief and others from  institutional loyalties.

The word ‘dissonance’ is one that sums up the life of Edward Carnell and no doubt it also affects many of those who use their intellectual gifts to hold to the idea that the conservative narrative is the only correct one to sum up the Christian faith.  Although the inner mental workings and motives of these individuals is not open to us, we have to be grateful for this biography which gives some account of a single individual who lived with this dilemma.  Edward Carnell is perhaps a prophet for our time.  Conservative beliefs about the Bible and an intellectual Western education will almost inevitably create dissonance and inner disharmony.  The Christian leaders who live with this dissonance need to be challenged.  Their ability to persuade large numbers of others to believe the same things who do not have their advantages of education and knowledge is a huge responsibility.  It also means that they have created something, which because of its inner contradictions, may well fail.  Chris has described the sense of betrayal when he found that the edifice of ‘Bible truth’ had feet of clay.  Perhaps Edward Carnell knew that his failure as well as inability to teach with total integrity meant that he had let his students down.  In recognising this his life ended in despair.

40 Power and Politics in the Church

The latest round of a debate concerning ethics within the Anglican Church in England has taken a new twist.  After the ‘agreement to disagree’ on the subject of gay sex, which I reported a few posts back, the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England have now forbidden Anglican clergy to enter into the married state if their partner is of the same sex.  This becomes legally possible for everyone else after March 29th in Britain.  It will be possible for lay people in the same situation to remain in good standing as far as communicant status is concerned.  Lay people who enter into a same sex marriage can also accept office within the congregation, such as the post of churchwarden or Reader.  It would seem that the clergy may not do something that has become more or less acceptable to most Church people and possible in a legal sense for 99% of them.

In commenting on this situation we can see that a situation of absurdity has arisen which will in the medium and long term do damage to the Church.  In the first place we can see that if a clergyperson defies the ban, the law and most public opinion would be on their side.  It is unlikely that the Bishops would have any real power to discipline him or her.  The attitudes of people have changed very fast in this area and it is strikingly clear that even in the past twenty years opinions have shifted dramatically.  It would be tempting to say, as some do, that standards of morality have collapsed and there are some things that should never be allowed to change.  But it could be argued that the acceptance of gay marriage has come about, not through some ghastly descent into loose and corrupt morals but because individuals who are gay want it to be possible to live openly and decently in society.  To ask for marriage is to make a request for the possibility of stability and permanence in their relationships rather than the pattern of promiscuity that many people thought was inevitable in gay sex. Gay marriage is, if you like, a demand for a better more wholesome morality rather than the opposite.

Why are the Anglican bishops rowing against the tide, even though they suspect, many of them, that their stand can only be short-lived at best?  It is because of politics.  The political reality of the Anglican Communion at present  is the recognition of the enormous power and numbers of Anglican Christians in Africa.  For various reasons, the Anglican Church in Africa and in various other parts of the world has come out clearly against any expression of gay sex.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the leaders of these churches have actively campaigned for the imprisonment of gay individuals.  A further point is that the African bishops are, for cultural reasons, able effectively to articulate the thinking of their people.  If the Archbishop of Nigeria decides that the entire province believes something then he has the means to enforce it as official policy.  Whether or not ordinary Christians in the pew care in the slightest about these and other, for them, remote moral issues is probably beside the point.  The African Bishops speak and in doing so they speak on behalf of their people in a way that is not possible in Britain.

In previous posts I have discussed the way in which the African Church has become indebted to and entangled with the politics and theology of conservative America.  Right Wing Foundations have bought influence and power in Africa and elsewhere and it can be seen that the disputes between American conservatives and liberals are being fought overseas where comparatively small amounts of money buy a lot of power and influence.  Taking a strong line on these issues is the way that African Christians can play their part in extending the power of the Right Wing in America across the world.

When the Anglican bishops in this country worry about the pressure that spills over into Britain from Africa, they are effectively surrendering, not to African opinion, but to the Religious Right in the States.  Nigerian and Ugandan Anglicans vastly outnumber Anglicans in Britain and so the Archbishop and his advisers fear that the Anglican Communion will collapse unless African opinion can be appeased.  This latest sop to African opinion will not do the trick as the African bishops already realise that the battle to outlaw gay marriage is a lost cause in Britain and our Bishops are no longer fighting it.  When the ban on Anglican  gay clergy marrying collapses as unworkable, the African church will want to walk apart from the formal Anglican structures  in this country, while retaining links to theologically conservative groups who hold the line on ‘biblical’ values.

The Church of England may yet get the leadership it deserves and be able to clearly state that it is not, and never has been a sectarian body of people who can only live with one set of ‘correct’ opinions.  Traditionally, liberals, catholics and evangelicals have coexisted together in the same church and have been able to respect each other and tolerate their differences.  If we live in a church which has to declare a political and theological position which is favourable to a conservative/fundamentalist stance, then the Anglican church will be considerably poorer.

How does all this relate to our topic of abuse?  It is because abuse will always be experienced in a church, an institution or a family where only one position is tolerated.  In politics we call the imposition of one ideology, totalitarianism and it is the same if only one position is tolerated in the church.  Totalitarianism will eventually involve the suppression of alternative viewpoints and that clearly involves abuse and the abandonment of democratic values. When these traditions of democracy are abandoned, people will suffer pressure, not only to abandon their existing opinions, but also to adopt ideas which are alien and hostile to their inner integrity.  There is an old saying about good debate and the rules governing it which the democrat will always agree with. The saying goes:  ‘I may disagree with your position passionately, but I will defend just as passionately your right to hold these views.’   If the Anglican Church surrenders its integrity in order to try to appease a Right Wing non-negotiable ideology that comes to us from America via Africa, then my church is descending away from its old tolerant inclusive roots.  This blog cares passionately about the way the Bishops speak to their clergy on these matters of justice and freedom. The alternative path towards strict conformity and exclusive patterns of belief will take away from us sooner or later the right to think freely and to believe that Christianity possesses a rainbow of possibilities as to how it is practised and believed.  That would be a tragic outcome.


40 Healing – some opening thoughts

Readers of this blog will note that I quite often speak about the tension between liberals and conservatives within the church.  If we were to draw a line to represent the two opposite ends of opinion among Christians I do not believe that I would be quite as close to the liberal end of the continuum as some might assume.  Although I accept ‘higher’ criticism of Scripture and am relaxed about certain definitions within doctrine, there is one particular place where I part company with many liberal Christians.  The point of issue is the question of healing miracles and the possibility of healing today.  Many liberals do not accept the reality of miracles either in Jesus’ day or today. Because this is something I have studied and experienced for myself I personally have little problem with the miracles in the Bible and can accept that they still take place in some settings.   A belief in the fundamental reliability of the healing stories is not the same as saying that we must always understand mental illness as being the result of demonic possession!  I see however no problem in believing that Jesus was a healer and that this was a crucial way in which he proclaimed the reality of God’s kingdom.  Healing has always formed a large part of traditional religious practice in cultures across the world and I see no reason not to believe that Jesus made a considerable impact on his contemporaries through his practice of healing.

Clearly this subject is a vast one and I will not be able to start more than a preliminary discussion in this first blog post on the subject.  But it is important to our overall theme of abuse in the church because while the church does in some situations have a highly effective ministry of healing, it also paradoxically sometimes allows this area of activity to be one where people are damaged.

The context where ‘healing’ may well have been met by readers of this blog will probably have been a charismatic/Pentecostal setting.  Although I am not uncritical of this style of worship and church life, I do recognise that the ‘energy’ released within this setting can sometimes be powerful and transformative.  Phenomena like speaking in tongues and ecstatic states are met in many religious contexts across the world.  When looked at objectively these phenomena do often have a significant effect on those caught up in them and in certain situations that might involve physical or emotional healing.  Charismatic ‘energy’ when practised in a Christian setting is also the context for the discovery of distinctive forms of spirituality.  Prayer seems often to be rediscovered in a vital way in those who have been exposed to charismatic events.  The problem arises when Christian groups insist that everyone who has had one of these experience must subscribe to a particular theology –normally of a very conservative type.

Back in the 1970s when I first encountered charismatic phenomena and the healing that sometimes went with it, it was not associated exclusively with any particular strand of theology.  Indeed early writing on the topic in the 60s was by one Denis Bennett who came from an Anglo-Catholic Anglican background.  It was only gradually over the late 70s and 80s that the Charismatic Movement came to be dominated by conservative and fundamentalist ideology.  I am told that there are places where this stranglehold is not to be found but if it exists it is rare.  The point of this brief historical digression is to note that the healing that sometimes comes as part of the charismatic culture also gets entangled with the power games that are common within the fundamentalist styles of church life.  Thus it is perfectly possible, as has happened, for a thoroughly corrupt Christian leader who exploits his people financially and sexually nevertheless to preside over a miraculous healing event.  Morality and healing do not necessarily go together, even if it would be much tidier for our thinking if evil people were never associated with an apparently spiritual event such as healing.

What are the phenomena within the charismatic culture that sometimes result in healing, mental or physical, whether or not these are combined with a strong grasp of Christian values and belief?  The answer at its most simple is that we are meeting a type of healing that allows an individual to encounter what is known as a primal experience.  It might be a very powerful event to be connected to a long forgotten trauma through a process known to psychologists as abreaction.   Although some people might regard the process, which sometimes causes tears and laughter, as somewhat childish, there is no doubt that healing can be found sometimes within it.  But, as I have suggested in a previous post, there is enormous pressure on the charismatic leader to make sure that these events occur every time that he is on stage.  ‘Outpourings of the Spirit’ are expected night after night to prove that the speaker is an anointed man of God, and, more  cynically, it is only when healings are thought to take place that people open their wallets.  In this situation there is the temptation to fabricate healings to bolster the power and authority of the leader.  A forced, even mechanical use of charismatic gifts is seldom productive.  All too easily you have the potential for abuse as well as a great sense of let-down for those who come for healing.

In this first post on the subject of healing I am trying to present a case for the reality of healing within the charismatic/Pentecostal culture of worship and practise.  I see no reason from experience to doubt that this style of spirituality can on occasion provide the opportunity for someone to be changed from within, spiritually, emotionally and physically.  They encounter a power which can move them in such a way that age-old issues are dealt with in a carthartic or abreactive moment. Simultaneously I note that insofar as the charismatic culture has been corrupted in many places by individuals who want power for themselves, the healing events are not straightforwardly simple.  The ‘healed’ individual may for example find themselves psychologically entangled with the ‘healer’, and there may be financial or other obligations to be paid back over a period of time.  Healing sometimes happens but unless there is a strong ethical context for its occurrence we might find that the ‘healed’ sometimes move from one form of bondage into another.

39 Salvation from -Salvation For

Since writing about the contrast between ‘pilgrim’ Christian and conservative Christian I have been pondering about this tension that runs through the heart of the Christian faith.  I suggested then that conservative Christians were often ‘stuck’ with their understanding of what they believed.  It was presented to them in such a way that they could neither go forward nor develop what they believed.  Logically that which is perfect, in this case the conversion experience, is incapable of improvement.  Pilgrim Christians on the other hand saw the gradual discovery of truth as a never-ending journey or an adventure.

In thinking about this contrast I have come back to thinking about the slippery word in Christian vocabulary, ‘salvation’.  Salvation has of course a long history.  It is biblical and appears in both testaments.  I cannot, being away from home, look up the words in any commentaries or concordance so what I will say will be general but reasonably accurate, I trust.  The word at its most basic level of meaning has the idea of rescue.  Someone needs saving from exile, from drowning and they need to be put back on dry land.  ‘Save me from the lion’s mouth’ is a quotation that comes to mind.  ‘Save me or I perish’ is another quote that comes to me from the New Testament.  In both these quotations there is the idea of salvation being taking someone out of a situation of danger or crisis and making them safe.  This kind of salvation is the first part of a process.  We could, as conservative Christians do, see this stage of salvation as being the moment when they pass from darkness to light, when they pass from a life of despair to one of meaning.  The moment of conversion is identified with that moment of salvation.  ‘Once I was blind, now I can see.’  But as I pointed out in the earlier blog post on this topic, the individual who has this moment of conversion sees it very much in the past and typically has very little to say about what happens after that moment.  To use the language of salvation, the Christian is able to talk at length about what he/she was saved from but not a lot about what might have happened after that event.  Salvation/conversion is ‘the’ moment in the Christian life.

If we go back to our picture of salvation being equivalent to a rescue we can see that the person so rescued is lying gasping at the bottom of the boat but desperately grateful for being saved from drowning.  Nevertheless the process is somewhat incomplete.  Being rescued is important, whether from exile, drowning or from a life of sin but the state of being rescued needs to be followed up in some way.  The person so rescued needs at some point to decide what he is going to do with the life that has been given back or set on a new path.  This salvation from a terrible threat needs to be followed up with another question.  What is the life so rescued going to be for in the future?  The Christian has been saved from something but he now needs to decide what he has been saved for.

The pilgrim Christian, whether or not he/she has been through the classic conversion experience of salvation, will have a lot to say about this second stage of salvation, ‘salvation for’.  Typically the pilgrim Christian will want to talk about all the insights and new understanding of what life is for when lived in the Christian way.  My own language would want to include an ever deeper understanding of the particular pattern of life that God reveals me to follow.  God wants me to discover my gifts, talents and uniqueness and live them out in such a way that I discover myself fully.  Being ‘saved for’ is, to quote John’s gospel, to ‘live life in all its fullness’.

There is an old story told about Bishop Wescott of Durham in the 19th century.  He was asked on a train by an earnest student as to whether he had been saved.  His answer was to quote back to the student the various words in Greek that could be translated as ‘saved’.  They represented the past, the future and the present tenses of the verb ‘sozo’ which is the Greek word for save.  I won’t complete the anecdote in case I get it wrong, but suffice to say one answer to the student from what I have said above, might be this.  ‘Do you mean what has God saved you from?’  or ‘do you mean what has God saved you for?’.  I suspect that the second part of the answer is in the long term far more vital than the first.

A complete presentation of the Christian faith should always include some idea of what is to be expected of the individual after the moment of conversion.  Many practising Christians have not in fact had the conversion moment of light and change but their faith is arguably equally strong and committed, having been imbibed gradually over a lifetime.  For various reasons some Christian groups will not recognise an individual as having a proper faith without the classic marks of a ‘proper’ conversion.  This is an attack on the integrity of faithful people and the problem is not easily resolved.  Perhaps, if conditions make it possible, a discussion might be had about the topic of salvation.  The non-conservative might point out, as I have tried to in the post, that there is more than one stage in the process of salvation.  Within the discussion, we might legitimately ask, are they speaking about ‘salvation from’ or ‘salvation for’?  Both surely have a crucial part to play in the crucial process of bringing an individual from darkness into the presence of God who wants us to flourish and live life to the full.


38 Tithing -taking a fresh look.

For two years before starting this blog with Chris, I was an active contributor to another blog which was trying to press for an apology on behalf of the victims of a notorious church near London.  This church had succeeded not only in persuading the congregation to give ten per cent of their gross income but also to remortgage their homes to give to various building projects connected with a church  school and housing for the ministers.  It transpired much later that the clergy buildings had been registered in the ministers’ names themselves and the church had to buy them back.  This is a edited version of a comment I sent to the blog and I see no point in rewriting it all.

What is the basis of this command to give to the Church (and to the leaders) power over eye-watering sums of money which are the cause of envy in other less well-endowed congregations?  The injunction about the tenth or the tithe is taken from various passages from the OT (eg Leviticus 27.30) where the people of Israel are commanded to hand over one tenth of the possessions ‘to the Lord’.  What was good enough for the people of Israel is good enough for us we might think.

But there are three problems with this convenient (and lucrative) interpretation for  ‘Health and Wealth’ Christian leaders.

First it might be queried whether giving ‘to God’ a tenth of all that you own has anything remotely to do with handing over ten per cent of your income to your local church.  One imagines that in ancient Israel there were a number of institutions that needed supporting from the tithes, say defence, the running of the justice system and possibly some kind of basic education system for the next generation of priests and administrators.  In other words the tithe was in fact a kind of Biblical taxation system.  We are all familiar with the way that taxation is enforced (or not) in this country but few of us avoid paying it.  We might claim that some of the recipients of our taxation money (health and education) are working for the Lord every much as a narrowly defined church ministry.  One likes to think that God works in many contexts.

The second objection to the tithe being a requirement of all church members is whether the church has the right to control the charitable giving of its members.  Many of us give widely to charities whether famine relief, the protection of children or the educational institution which helped us when we were young.  Even if we take seriously the need to give away a tenth of our income, should that giving all go through the church?  A minister urging, threatening his congregation to give away a tithe to God, may simply  be trying to set up a power base for his own ambitions for success and material gratification.

The third objection to ‘tithe teaching’ is that it often fails to tune in with a modern need for accountability.  Over thirty years tens of millions of pounds have been spent by and through the church. (I am referring to the particular church at this point)  Who makes the decisions for the disposal of this largesse?  Are there really accountable structures in place which share information about the dispersal of such large sums.  Do not the contributions of the people give them some rights in both knowing and deciding what happens to the money?

I write this contribution partly for new members who are struggling with the demand to hand over a tenth of your income because it is ‘biblical’.  My advice is don’t, at least not until you have looked at where the money actually goes.  The thought of paying money to pay for inflated salaries, grandiose building projects and the building of empires is not everyone’s idea of the purpose of church money.

A further point that did not seem appropriate to the followers of the other blog was the issue of power.  If you give a lot of money to a church leader without accountability you are not only providing them with a luxurious lifestyle but also with a great of power over you.  As I said in the last blog post, the more that a church has money the more power it can exert.  In the case of this particular church, the wealth of this church has  silenced potential critics among other local congregations (even though they are picking up the casualties of abuse) and also the church has been able to afford expensive lawyers to threaten individuals with the full weight of the law when they make accusations.  Money, particularly when there are no accountable structures, has the ability to bully, to cajole and generally gets it own way.  Money in short is one the tools of an abusive church.

37 The Curse of Money

The curse of money.

An interesting story has come out of Rome this week.  A group of 61 priest delegates of a now severely discredited group called the Legionaries of Christ have gathered in Rome for a general chapter.  For those who are not familiar with this group, it was founded by one Father Marcial Maciel.  Three years ago this founder was formally acknowledged by the Vatican to have been guilty of many crimes, including the sexual abuse of hundreds of seminarians, fathering many children and the abuse of drugs.  In addition to this Fr Maciel controlled the organisation through a personality cult which bound the followers to him in a corrupt and harmful way.   I would imagine that amid his other crimes there are likely to have been financial improprieties.  For many years this order was protected by Pope John Paul II and it is only after the death of Fr Maciel in 2002 that the crimes were acknowledged.

Why do I bring up this story?  It is because we need to understand why this order has not been abolished when the toxic dynamic of the organisation had been revealed.  The reason why it has not been abolished is simply because the Order, through its wealth, has been able to buy support from people high up in the Vatican.  The wealth of the organisation has been able to exercise influence so that the normal course of justice is not followed and the process of healing past evils is not undertaken.

In the not too distant past the Church of England operated all its activities with the endowments of the past paying for salaries and other expenses.  Any collections taken during services were dedicated for charitable purposes such as the relief of poverty.  The Book of Common Prayer refers to these collections as ‘alms’.  Until the mid-60s most clergy were paid entirely from these endowments.  It was only when inflation destroyed the value of the endowments that other forms of payment had to be found.  First the Church Commissioners picked up the cost of paying the clergy.   Later the entire cost fell on to the laity who now have to pay considerable sums in ‘quota’.  Today it costs nearly £60k to pay for one full time clergyperson, of which less than half is what they receive in pay.  The rest goes on housing, pension contributions and the diocesan staff who support the clergy.  The fact that almost all this money has to come from local sources means that money is a significant factor in church life.  If a church were to decide not to pay the parish quota then the overall budget for the diocese suffers.  Sometimes a church fails to pay for financial reasons but on other occasions it fails to pay for political reasons.  It may happen that a church council does not agree with the way the bishop has voted in a recent Synod.  In this way, particularly since the period that could rely on past endowment to pay the clergy, the lay people, the effective paymasters, have acquired more power over the church hierarchies.  It is hard for bishops to exercise authority when their power can so easily undermined by the threat of a withholding of finance.  In the non-Anglican churches where the lay people have always had to pay for their clergy, the provision and withholding of money has long been used as a weapon in political disputes.

The power of money in the churches that have it is not inconsiderable and will often prove decisive in disputes of power.  Sometimes the power struggles will be internal between leader and laity, on other occasions the dispute will be between the congregation and overseeing authority, such as a bishop.  It is often to be noted that the ‘winner’ in such disputes will often be the side that has access to the largest purse.  The churches that this blog is concerned for, are often extremely wealthy and thus able to exercise power in a variety of ways.  One particular notoriously abusive church in the London area uses its considerable resources to ‘buy in’ visiting preachers and bribe other local churches to approve of its activities by sharing their plant.  The ‘bought-in’ preachers are presented with ‘love-gifts’ worth thousands of pounds to paint a good image but in reality these gifts are bribes to help cover up decades of financial, sexual and power abuse which no one wants to face up to.  Money here has the effect of putting off the day of reckoning for that particular church.

Why are many abusive churches so wealthy?  The answer to this question lies in their ability to persuade their congregation to give one tenth of their income.  In a London context it only takes 100 adult members providing a ten per cent gift of income before tax to produce an income of half a million pounds.  I am providing in a future blog some discussion on the issue of tithing.  My opinion is that while there is a case for Christian people giving generously to the church, there are very few churches who should be the recipient of an individual’s entire charitable outlay.

This blog post is claiming that excessive income and wealth accruing to particular churches and organisations is seldom good news.  Money in the hands of corrupt people is able to corrupt both individuals and institutions, particularly when the money is used to gain or protect power.  The church I mentioned above has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds in fighting court cases against former members whose lives have been ruined by the church.  The church only possesses this money because it has been hoarded from the tithes given over the years.  As I shall explore in the future blog post, the money was given, not out of a generous heart, but through fear.  In short tithing, attendance at church and total obedience to the Pastor are all part of the package that an individual buys into as a member of many churches.  Giving money, in many cases more than can be afforded, is part of the way that Churches bind people and subdue them.  The giving of money and the disbursing of it is enmeshed with the power games that take place within the churches that abuse and harm their people.

36 The Way of a Pilgrim

Ever since Paul described the Christian path as resembling a race, Christians have found the image of movement and journey to describe their lives a helpful one.  The Pilgrim’s Progress is perhaps the classic description of the nature of the Christian life, a journey with set-backs as well as periods of encouragement and grounds for hope.  The activity of pilgrimage itself is a metaphor for the whole of the Christian life.  Any pilgrim who has travelled on foot, whether to Canterbury or Compostela in Spain, will know the combination of pain and expectation and joy as the journey comes to an end.  Christian living itself combines the periods of doubt with moments of insight and breakthrough.   As with pilgrimage the Christian is given the grace to persevere through ‘cloud and sunshine’.

It is on reflection a puzzle to discover that large numbers of Christians appear to reject the notion of pilgrimage in favour of a faith that puts a stress on arriving at their destination on the day of their conversion.  For many evangelical Christians the decisive moment in their lives is the experience of giving their hearts and loyalty to Christ so that he is said to be the Lord and Master of their lives.  Simultaneously they are promised infallible access to his guiding word in the text of Scripture.  The task from then on is to hold themselves safe from falling away so that when the moment of death comes they may be transported to glory.  The entire Christian journey seems to have been accomplished in a moment of time and the only place that seems possible to travel to is backwards to perdition.   That would involve a loss of the salvation so preciously gained at the moment when the individual became a Christian.  Staying in this place of conversion is an activity not totally without tension or even fear.

This way of being a Christian contrasts starkly with the way of pilgrimage that we outlined at the beginning.  It will be clear which way I prefer from the tone of my writing.  But I want to make it clear that what I have said about the evangelical/conversionist path is not meant to imply that it is entirely wrong.  The experience of conversion may be totally self-authenticating and valid for the person concerned.  The problem for me is not the moment of conversion but what happens afterwards that is the issue.  The new Christian, because he/she has received everything on the first day of the journey seems to have nowhere else to go, nothing else to explore.  They are stuck in a place of supposed fulfilment and joy but which, in reality, seems to be a place of stagnation and what appears to be sterility.  Chris has often spoken to me about the loud music that accompanies the worship of evangelical Christians who want to tell the world about the joy of conversion.  Somehow I suspect the music is loud because it enables them to bypass the activity of having to think about what comes next in their Christian lives.  I have listened (painfully sometimes) to numerous testimonies given by Christians which record their moments of conversion.  Listening to these accounts critically, two things stand out.  The first thing is that the structure of conversion experiences is very similar wherever you hear it.  While the details of time and place will obviously be unique, the formula of words is almost identical in every case.  The second thing that is striking is that normally nothing to match the conversion experience has happened since.  It is as though the Christian has been up a mountain, seen a glimpse of glory but has never been able to evoke anything like it again.

The liberal or progressive Christian, were they to give a testimony, would give a very different story.   Not for them in all probability was there a bright light on the Damascus road.  Maybe they would happier with the language of a series of flashes along the road.  None of these experiences of light was on its own sufficient to convince totally but when seen together over a period of time, the progressive Christian had been able to discern a pattern, a pattern which speaks of God.  The word that describes this way of conversion is perhaps a pilgrim faith.  The pilgrim Christian is the one who travels, sometimes alone, sometimes with others along a path which he has decided is one he wants to follow.  It leads to a destination that he wants to call truth or reality but she/he knows that until he arrives the full shape and glory of the destination will not be known.  As I have said in previous posts, the pilgrim Christian travels with this combination of faith and hope in what is fully to be revealed.

Why do I commend to my reader the way of the pilgrim Christian?  It certainly describes my own path but that is not the main reason for commending it.  Look back over my life-time I can see that the path of the pilgrim Christian has given me the freedom and the excitement to explore and discover the transcendent in many manifestations.   It is this combination of freedom and the excitement of a constant possibility of discovery that I want to commend.   This is not the time for personal autobiography except to say that being a pilgrim has given me the permission to travel and discover aspects of truth within a variety of cultures and belief systems.  It has been and still is an exciting journey and I suspect that God is not far from most human beings who seek him whether or not they are Christian.  By travelling with others who may not even speak my language or engage with my culture I may nevertheless find God in that journey.  Each new discovery, each new insight shows me beyond all doubt that anything I do know already is incomplete.  The fullness of truth, the depth of reality is always beyond and further along the road but as a pilgrim I can continue to travel towards them.