Monthly Archives: March 2014

55 Pilling Report – English Fudge? part 1

James Blott has kindly contributed a piece on his reading on the Pilling report.  In this first part he stresses the importance of understanding how good intentions on the part of Christians  can sometimes have negative effects on others.   In other words Christians sometimes cause harm to others by their beliefs, even though these beliefs are sincerely held.  This is itself a theme that we would hope to explore in future posts and discussions.  Part 2 of this wise analysis will follow on Tuesday.  Editor

A few days ago, I mentioned to my ministry team colleagues that I was reading the Pilling Report on ‘Human Sexuality’, and I was challenged to summarise its findings in a couple of sentences. I said this: “We don’t like homophobia, so we’re going to suggest that for the next two years we go through a process of ‘facilitated listening’ between people of intractably opposing views. At the end of this period, we’ll decide that we can’t change anything because of the risk of splitting the Anglican Communion.”

Actually this is an unfair characterisation of a 200 page report which is not one report, but two. Although the members of the Working Group chaired by Sir John Pilling numbered only five, the report itself is littered with the phrase ‘some of us’. It is hard, having read to the end, not to conclude that the Bishop of Birkenhead, The Rt Revd Keith Sinclair, disagreed with almost every conclusion that the group reached. And this is the first extremely difficult question: If you have a group tasked with investigating an important issue and reporting back with recommendations, when one member of the group ‘dissents’ from almost everything, why would you accord that individual the right to put his own highly unbalanced views across in one fifth of the space taken up by the entire report?

Why should such a report matter to a blog that concerns itself with abuse within the Church? Isn’t this just a bit of dirty washing by the Church of England, demonstrating how out of touch they are? If it were, we needn’t concern ourselves with it, but the sad fact is that abuse of gays within the Church, as well as in wider society, has a long and shameful history. And the fact that Pilling stresses how important it is for such ‘homophobia’ to be rooted out, points towards the reason why it has been welcomed by many, even though it represents no real change in Church policy in relation to homosexuality. In fact the main conclusion of the report is that current policies must remain, unless and until a process of listening and discernment results in a consensus to change them. This implies that unanimity is possible, but is there really any ground for believing that positions will change? The report itself states on a different page: ‘We are not certain that consensus, in terms of agreement on all key points in belief and practice, is possible…’ and the ‘dissenting’ views included in the report sadly do not imply a willingness even to engage in discussion, let alone be open to change.

In view of this, I found myself wondering as I read the report, what the prospects were for a coming-together of views in two years’ time, after the end of the recommended period of facilitated listening and reflection. The one advantage of having the Bishop of Birkenhead’s views represented so starkly and stridently, is that these bring into sharp focus the colossal mountain that must be climbed.

The critical areas covered, which I’ve tried to summarise below, would seem to be: The Challenge of Homophobia, The Science of Homosexuality, The Interpretation of Scripture and The Issue of Church Leaders. They’re all relevant to our blog and its look at abuse in the Church, and most of them have been addressed in posts before. To me, some of the arguments have a ghastly familiarity, as they’re so close to the bankrupt ones used by those who have opposed the appointment of women as bishops.

The Challenge of Homophobia. The Pilling Report rejects homophobia uncompromisingly, but also manages to give a glimpse at why it will be so difficult to eradicate. For example, gays are loved by God and are full members of the Body of Christ, but the current policy is that the Church won’t bless homosexual relationships, because they are ‘errant’. Intriguingly the Church finds no such difficulty in blessing nuclear submarines.  And the Church won’t accept for ordination those in gay relationships, unless they make a commitment to remain celibate (which others have pointed out is a recipe for encouraging ordinands to be economical with the truth, as it can hardly be policed). The report stresses that these policies are not homophobic. This may be true on one level, but the policies are certainly offensive; it’s hard to reach any other conclusion if you speak to gay people. What the gays I speak to say is that the Church, at an official, national level, fundamentally rejects the human person he or she is. The dissenting Bishop of Birkenhead, in his own parallel report, says that homosexuality is an indication of what happens when people “stop worshipping the Creator God: their humanness, even perhaps their image-bearingness, deconstructs.” Can someone claim that homosexuals have ceased to worship God, and lost their humanness and their creation in the image of God, and at the same time reject being labelled a homophobe? These are surely some of the most hateful and hurtful things you could ever say to a fellow Christian. The Bishop relies on his good intentions. But does the intention matter? During the debate over Women Bishops, the Revd Canon Jane Charman said this to a Bishop who claimed exemption from being labelled a ‘misogynist’: “It may be a comfort to you that your intentions were benign, but it will be meaningless to me if the impact it has on me is just the same as if your intentions were malicious….Surely we have to take responsibility not just for the intention behind our actions, but for the actual effect on others?” And we know that rejection of gays does real harm to real people. The Bishop of Birkenhead also says this: “It cannot be pastoral to affirm a form of relationship which is contrary to God’s will.” We have before in this blog pointed out how invidious it is to claim that one’s own views are a reflection of God’s will. It maximises the danger of developing a Napoleon-complex and also maximises the hurt that gay Christians feel, when others lay claim to the right to wield God’s own authority against them.

In conclusion, the main Report states that the Church needs to repent of past sins of homophobia, but it does not say how, or when. Neither does it address what the Church needs to do to make amends for the appalling abuse of gays in the past. Recently, the Primate of Nigeria said this: “Any society or nation that approves same sex union as an acceptable life style is in an advanced stage of corruption/moral decay….(We) seek to shield Nigeria from the complete annihilation that will follow the wrath of God should this practice be accepted  as normal in this land.” The repentance the report calls for has certainly not started with the report itself, despite its protestations to the contrary. Maybe this is partly because the Group has accorded such space and prominence to the Bishop of Birkenhead’s views? Reading his submission reminded me of something said by the late much-loved leading evangelical, The Revd John Stott, when writing on this subject. He insisted on using the term ‘pervert’, claiming he was using it only as the converse of ‘invert’, but completely ignoring how loaded and abusive this word is to gay people. It seems that despite assurances that homophobia is out, much that is offensive and hurtful is still being written and said.

The Pilling Working Group was commissioned before it was decided by the government to legalise gay marriage. This change has resulted in the Church having got itself into a real bind. The Church rejected civil partnerships and now that gay marriage is legal, they reject this too. If the Church has, as it claims in the report, a view that lifelong, stable, faithful relationships are what God wants, then why reject both attempts to increase the commitment that gay people might make to each other?

Part 2 to follow


54 Crimea – the legacies of history

I have always had an interest in Russian history.  My sister married into a family of White Russians who settled in London in the 1920s.  The Revolution was, from their point of view, a cataclysmic event which destroyed their way of life and had left them for a time as stateless refugees.  Part of the family made it to the West and part was left behind, only to disappear during the purges in the 1930s.  My interest is thus tempered with a sense, through others, of the emotions of exile, bereavement and sheer horror at what went on in that tragic country.

I have no real qualifications to comment on the present upheavals that are going on in Russia and Ukraine.  But I cannot help noticing the sentiments of the Cold War that are appearing in the current disputes between Russia and Ukraine.  The word Ukraine, for me, sums up the massive famine of the 1930s when the peasant class was systematically destroyed  over large areas to destroy resistance to the Soviet experiment.  This was but one of the many horrors perpetrated in the name of socialism.  At the same time Stalin was destroying the entire class of revolutionaries, who had brought him to power, through show trials.  Tens of thousands of people were swept off to prison camps in remote parts of Siberia and Northern Russia, many of them to die of hunger and privation.  When I was at university, there was a fellow student who was Polish.  He described how his parents had escaped during the war from one of these camps, clinging to the underneath of a train all the way into Persia.  Why do I mention these things in this blog?  It is because the one thing that has been absent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is any real ownership of the horrors of the soviet past.  The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a few people becoming extremely rich while the rest of society carried much as before.  If some people expressed regret about the past, there was nothing which was loud enough to be heard by the rest of the world.

In South Africa, Desmond Tutu presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but nothing similar has been heard of the territories of the former Soviet Union.   Why does this matter?  It matters because, as someone said, those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are destined to repeat them.  The horrors of autocracy, suppression of dissent and complete distortions of truth are back in the news as though the collapse of the Soviet Union never happened.   In short Russia is stumbling back into the mire of tyranny and arbitrary rule partly because they have never owned up to what actually happened in the 70+ years of Soviet misrule.  It was not just misrule, it was the grotesque and arbitrary mistreatment of human beings by those who believed in a bizarre corrupt ideology.

Although one can point to other countries around the world who do not own up to their histories (Japan), the Russian failure is perhaps one of the most serious.  I bring it up now not only because it is in the news but also because I am reminded of the situation at Trinity Church, Brentwood, described in the previous post.  This is a church is condemned by its own inability and refusal to face its own past.  Because of living in a miasma of falsehood, it contaminates all who attend it.  Even those who use the facilities it offers become guilty by association.  A particular guilt falls on a small group of apparently honourable churchmen who come to the church and, in return for substantial ‘love offerings’ ,preach and provide  an aura of respectability to the church.  I used the anonymity of a blog response to challenge a particular Anglican notable to explain why he did not use his influence to challenge the refusal of the church to face up to its past.  The 600 ex-members who have been betrayed and shunned deserved better than hearing the message ‘business as usual’.

For over 70 years the citizens of the old Soviet Union lived in a place of pretence, falsehood and the miasma of propaganda.  Truth was something that few people were in touch with and consciences and humanity were blunted in this so-called experiment to make the new Soviet citizen.   The refusal to tell the truth about anything was the chief way in which the fantasies of the system were able to be sustained.  When Christian groups fail in the basic task of honesty towards their members, then a similar crime against humanity is being committed.  How can human beings in any situation, Christian or otherwise, flourish in a situation where lies are being told?  A good definition of what Christianity has to offer is the enablement of human flourishing.  Lies, suppression of truth make that flourishing impossible to sustain.  Trinity Church Brentwood and other churches like it,  thus fails this fundamental test of credibility

53 Abusive Churches – a case study

peniel curchI have now written roughly 50 blog posts and I suspect that my readers may be getting weary with the theoretical material that I have unloaded on to this site.  Today I am going to present material of a different kind.  This is information from a well respected blog which I have been following for the past two and half years.  It concerns an actual church in the here and now that epitomises many of the issues that we are concerned with.

Trinity Church, Brentwood (formerly known as Peniel) is a Pentecostal independent church founded some 35 years ago by one Michael Reid.  There is much material from its early history that is fascinating, especially how it grew (house-church style) from a domestic front room to the large edifice it has today.  It maintained a reputation for healing miracles and advertised widely on billboards to this effect.  I personally had a fleeting contact with Michael Reid (and his assistant Peter Linnecar) on a visit, way back in 1998.  I dwell on this visit for a moment because in the light of all that has happened since, it does fit into an overall pattern.  The Sunday I attended with my wife was the Sunday after Christmas, one of the few Sundays available for a working clergyman to attend church elsewhere!  I remember no details about the sermon, except that Reid included an order to everyone in the building to turn to their neighbour and tell them that they were ignorant.  It was, in retrospect, a deliberate and blatant attempt to humiliate and disempower the people there.  To compensate there was entertainment from well sung music, though as I have said in a previous blog post, such entertainment is a block to proper thinking.

Reid’s church was part of my overall research on abusive churches at the end of the 90s.  It does not get a mention in my book as I had no personal contact with anyone there.  The church achieved a certain notoriety in 2002, I think, when Martin Bell stood against the local Tory parliamentary candidate as a way of pointing to a claimed infiltration into Tory ranks by members of the church.  More importantly, six years ago, (almost to the day) Michael Reid was suspended from leadership on the grounds of adultery.  It appeared that he had engaged in a relationship with the choir mistress for some eight or nine years.

This shock to the church might well have closed down many other churches in this situation, particularly ones that were so much an outworking of a single personality.  But such was the wealth of the church and the power of the founding families that the church has struggled through to reorganise itself and carry on.  As a stop-gap, it was thought then, the trustees appointed the assistant, Peter Linnecar, to the job of chief pastor.  To keep him sweet, they also agreed to pay him £80,000 p.a.  They then decided on a name change from Peniel to Trinity Church.

It was only after that Reid had left that the full horror of his cultic empire began to come clear.  All the tricks of cultic manipulation had been practised over the years, especially the tactics of fear and threats.  With Reid gone, there was a mass exodus of around 600 people.  These joined other churches in the area or simply stopped attending.  But Trinity was not going to die.  One of the things that has kept it going is the way that members have allowed their children to marry one another so that for many, church members and close relatives are the same people.  Obviously not being close to the situation I do not know the details, but there appears to be a hard core of intermarried supporters of the church who are unlikely ever to leave.

The other strength of the church is in its considerable wealth.  It had acquired a large building for a school and owns other premises which are a magnet for other church organisations in the area who lack these sort of facilities.  One evangelical organisation, Amnos, runs its activities from the Trinity buildings.  The source of this wealth may be traced back to the 30 + years of hard tithing but it is questionable whether all of it has ended up being used for charitable purposes.  Apart from spending large sums on law suits, the sacking of Reid has proved very expensive for the church.  Reid himself, though discredited, has still ended up an extremely wealthy man in retirement.

The source of extensive information on this church has come via one Nigel Davies.  Nigel attended Peniel/Trinity for some years and was, to all accounts, a respected member.  His gifts as a musician seem to have utilised by the church and his own father received a dramatic healing at the hands of Reid sometime in the early 90s.  At no time has Nigel attempted to downplay this healing event.  Nigel’s blog, , is an attempt to get the church to own up to its cultic past and make a public apology for the suffering caused to a  large number of people.  His blog is now beginning to wind down, but sadly it is evident that the present leadership has no intention of looking under any stones, in spite of the three year campaign.  From the outsider’s point of view the blog has operated at more than one level.  On the one hand we have the campaign itself and its demands.   But we also have all the information about the church that finds its way on to the blog, particularly the details of the interactions between the church members and others.  On many Sundays, Nigel parks his car close to the entrance of the church with banners asking for an apology for past failures.  It is clear that the church does have many skeletons lurking in the cupboards.  A refusal to face up to them and make a clean breast of them is hampered by the continued leadership of Reid’s former right hand man, Peter Linnecar.  Nigel’s campaign also demands his resignation.  Clearly Peter knows many of the church’s dark secrets but he has too much to lose by resigning.  His continued position as leading pastor has so far kept a lid on the situation and prevented the kind of frank openness that Nigel is demanding.

Nigel’s blog, and my own participation in it, has in some ways inspired my present efforts on surviving church. org.  At a time when I am reflecting on and studying charismatic and church leadership, the Reid/Linnecar saga has provided week by week material to test various theories about the nature of such leadership.  What are the themes that I take from Nigel’s campaign?  Some of these I have already spoken about.  Others I have yet to discuss.

  • The potential for large sums of tithed money to corrupt and undermine both leaders and members in ‘cultic’ churches.
  • The issue of unlimited power enjoyed by charismatic leaders translating itself into sexual exploitation.
  • The lasting effect of Christian betrayal on the spiritual and psychological health of ex-members.
  • Churches that consist mostly of people who are related to one another by blood or marriage are going to preserve some suffocating dynamics.  This is also an issue for some small churches in the deep countryside.
  • Giving too much power to a single individual in a church is seldom healthy.  Few people will exercise unchallenged power properly over a long period of time.  This is as true of politicians as it is of church people.   The Greeks had a word for it – hubris.  I shall be writing on this at some point.


52 Christianity and political beliefs

Over the past few days, I have been wrestling in my mind with the issue of politics.  The reason for this is that I feel that some of Chris’ concerns for the disadvantaged and poor need  to be approached as a political issue.  Theological platitudes will never on their own be adequate to deal with the real problems of society.  This blog post is, however, not going to be an adequate response to many of the issues of poverty and deprivation but merely to indicate how difficult  I find it to have a secure political opinion.  My problem in finding it difficult to take a strong political position on most issues is one probably shared with countless others.  As far as I am concerned, most political issues draw from me two separate responses.  One is my outward approach to political questions which is based on my reasoning, intellect and Christian outlook.   The other is my personal emotional reaction to the same political questions.  This latter reaction arises out of my family background and the particular experiences of life that I have had.

I want to start to start with second of these two approaches.  I realised, as I was reflecting, that the story of my grandparents’ families has affected the way I think about certain political questions .  In each account there is a story of struggle.  As far as my paternal grandfather was concerned, it was the story of his struggle to cope with poverty and the effect of losing his father while still a small child in the 1860s.  The family moved from Brighton to London to live with an aunt while my great-grandmother eked out a living as a seamstress.  My grandfather was, however, fortunate.  He, with a group of other bright boys, attached themselves to a sympathetic schoolmaster in Tottenham for extra teaching.   Thus he was taken through an enhanced curriculum which included Latin and English literature.  He was able, in due course, to get a reasonably senior job at the Church Times.  He also acted as the English Correspondent for an American church magazine.  We still have the volume that Living Church sent him after his retirement from that post in the mid-30s.  This grandfather died the year I was born, 1945.

My maternal grandfather died in 1924 leaving behind my grandmother and my mother, then a child of 10 and three other siblings.  The family had been reasonably prosperous but their world was turned upside down by this catastrophe of his death.  My mother’s childhood was overshadowed by the real fear of poverty, not the extreme kind, but one that threatened the loss of the middle class status that they had enjoyed up to that point.  Somehow my grandmother juggled the finances so that she never had to go out to work, but it was a lean period.  In those pre-war days, all education had to paid for beyond school and it was by hard effort that a Trust Fund was tapped to release some money to enable my mother and her sister to attend teacher training college.

These family stories have of course seeped into my thinking about political issues.   I recognise that access to education, beyond the basics, has played a big part in my family’s history.  My own valuing of education is in particular inspired by my grandfather’s story.  In his case education was the route out of abject poverty while, in the other account, education allowed my mother to retain her future (and her middle class background).

Access to education is one crucial area of political debate. It is clear that the better educated part of the population possesses greater wealth and status than those without such advantages.  Logically if everyone recognised this fact, as my grandfather did, then there would be an enormous struggle to learn on the part of all.  As it is, it is the ‘pushy’ middle class parents who juggle the application criteria to make sure their offspring go to the best schools.  My own children both received very good educations but I am haunted by the tens of thousands who do not receive the best possible chance.  There are various reasons for this.  Some are political, the lack of financial resources provided to schools, but there are also problems with an endemic lack of understanding of what education is for on the part of many parents.  It is here my Christian outlook and my reasoning powers come into play and I find myself in a conundrum.  Instinctively I recognise the desire of ambitious parents to do the best they possibly can for their children.  That may include the right to spend money on school fees when practicable.   I also recognise that the very effort and sacrifice put in by these parents acts as a divisive factor in schools, with some children left at the bottom of the heap in schools which lack ambition on behalf of the students.  If no one believes in you and your potential, then there is little chance that you will be able to achieve.

It is here in the educational debate that I am divided internally.  My left wing side says that every child should reach their potential in education whatever the cost.  My right wing side says that we must honour the struggle many parents and their children make to acquire a good education.  Any attempt to discourage these sacrifices, whether financial or in terms of effort, should be resisted.

A similar conundrum exists within me over wealth.  My left wing reasoning (Christian?) side says that a greater equality in wealth is desirable.  My right wing emotional side tells me that motivation and reward for hard work is a good way of organising our economic life.

I leave the reader with my dilemma.  Is it possible to resolve, internally, these and other political attitudes and retain consistency?  Chris has made me more acutely aware of the problems and issues around those who are disempowered in society.  He has also emphasised how right wing attitudes, that are tolerated by many Christians and espoused by Thatcherism, have made inequalities worse.  Should a Christian ever collude with policies that may cause disadvantage to a group in society?   As far as education is concerned,  is it actually possible for everyone to get a decent education?  A good education would itself empower many vulnerable people and help protect them from the danger of exploitation by employers or by churches?   That is one of the issues raised by this blog on behalf of the abused in churches.  There was someone who once said that he could never enjoy the blessings of heaven if he thought that a single individual was being tormented in hell?  If that is a true Christian sentiment, then it might also be right  to ask if it is possible for one child to enjoy a first rate education which, indirectly, contributes to another child being let down by the system.


51 Viewpoints -facing diversity in the Church

This afternoon, my wife and I made a short drive to walk on the hills that overlook our village.  From the place where we leave our car, it is but a short amble to a point from which we can look in three directions.  In each direction we can see a different part of Britain.  To the north are the hills of Dumfries while to the east, the range of the Pennines is clearly visible.   In the other south westerly direction are the Fells of Cumbria, with a snow capped peak of Helvellyn just visible.

My readers might wonder why I bother to recount this anecdote but the crucial point for this blog post is in this word, viewpoint.   Each of the ranges of hills I have mentioned could be looked at from many other places but  the particular distinct perspective that we were able to enjoy belonged only to that one place.  A viewpoint is the thing that is visible to an individual who stands at a particular point.  No one else can see the same view unless they go to that particular spot.  This viewpoint is not something to be argued about because, although the individual has only glimpsed one particular view, it in some sense belongs to him.  This  is where he/she was standing when he gazed at the view.

Each of us are the proud possessor of any number of viewpoints on a whole variety of things.  Each viewpoint we possess will be a combination of our life experience and things we have been taught or learnt.  This will of course apply to our theological position as with all the others we have.  No two people will have exactly the same viewpoint.  But the leaders of some groups will choose to encourage their members not to dwell on these natural differences among individuals.   They believe that the belief system of the members must be presented  and understood in an identical way.    I have often complained that when a congregation or even a group of churches is presented as all thinking in an identical way and having identical viewpoints on a topical issue, there is something artificial and wrong.  The only reason for a whole group of people expressing the same opinion and having the same viewpoint is to support the leadership in some particular power and political games.  We have read recently of the Archbishops of Nigeria and Uganda supporting the political leadership of their respective countries over the gay issue.  There is no way that these Archbishops can really claim to represent the viewpoints of every Anglican in their countries.  This is what they are claiming to do.  When a Christian leader says ‘what we think’, it is always wise to be a bit cynical as to whether this is indeed true.

The other point I want to raise, connected with  viewpoints, is the importance for everyone to try and understand other people and the viewpoints they hold.  All of need to recognise and respect that viewpoint, along with the particular personality, history and understanding of the individual which makes it unique.  Everyone sees the landscape, whether it be politics or the Christian faith, in their own way.  It will always take a particular set of qualities to enter someone else’s viewpoint – imagination, flexible thinking and empathy.  But these qualities of standing inside someone’s space and seeing the world  as they see it, are much needed.  We often fall into one of two positions in our approach to the viewpoint of others.  The first is to assume that we know the viewpoints of another person when we have not made any real effort to find out where they really are.    The second position, in many ways worse, is totally to ignore the viewpoints of other people as though they have no importance.  Being totally ignored or having your views subsumed into a group is, sadly, the experience of many Christian people.  The ‘group-mind’ takes over and the individuals become depersonalised in the process.  There is a wonderful passage in the Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass when the author is talking about his experience in a study group.  He says, and I quote from memory.  ‘I looked at the leader to find out what we think.’

The plethora of different viewpoints in any organisation or church is always going to be an untidy, even messy affair.  The task of coping with the variety of these differing positions is not going to be met by suppressing or ignoring them.  The cost of doing this will involve the disempowerment and devaluation of the richness of individual experience and knowledge.  There is another path which is  to develop at a profound level the ability to listen to where individuals are coming from.  This does not necessarily involve condescension or control.  The task of representing all these views, experiences and insights in a group situation is the task of leadership.  The true leader is the one who can articulate a position which has weighed up what is being said to him/her.  Listening profoundly and sensitively so that everyone feels that they have been heard is a rare but not impossible task.  The leader cannot of course agree with every viewpoint in the organisation, but if he/she can show that each one expressed has been respected and heard then at least the individuals represented by the leader still feel affirmed by the process.

Listening to, respecting and honouring the many viewpoints in a group or a church is a major responsibility of leadership.  Enforcing conformity and suppressing dissent in the group is sadly a more common scenario.  May the readers of the blog do all in their power to promote the first kind of leadership so that the richness and variety of people’s experiences and understanding can be allowed to flourish within the church.


50 Longing for certainty

One of the issues that Chris brings up in my conversations with him is the way that vulnerable people look to the church for certainties.  They have good reasons to hope to find certainty, because that is what the church in many situations seems to be offering them.  The lure of belonging to a church which purports to have these certainties is very seductive.  If someone, the church leader, has the ‘truth’, then I am safe.  There is the unspoken message that this same church leader will negotiate on my behalf all the difficult questions of life and allow me to feel protected and safe with God for all eternity.

The downside of all this certainty is that the individual, by handing over his thinking and his critical processes, has given away too much.  The situation of handing over this level of power is that you become vulnerable to being exploited in a number of ways – emotionally, financially or even sexually.  That people remain in this kind of toxic situation for any length of time is a possible indication of one of a number of things.  One is that their level of ‘need’ was acute when they joined the group.  They may have come out of a situation of domestic or personal chaos and the order and stability of the group was just what they needed.  More typical would be a deficit in their relationships, whether through isolation or breakup.  The religious group appears to fill that empty space and their experience of  well-being rises.

For a period of time all is well.  The individual with strong social needs achieves an equilibrium within the group together with a sense of meaning and direction.  Why would anyone want to disturb that apparent harmony?  The first reason for disturbing the harmony is the potential for abuse as I mentioned above.  I don’t want to develop that point here but rather talk about another aspect – the intellectual problems of this search for certainty.  It was Bishop Richard Holloway who said when talking about the meaning of faith, that its opposite is certainty.  He was saying that certainty is not a Christian value at all and that is not what he finds in the Scriptures.

There is a passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews (ch. 11) where the author asks the question, ‘what is faith?’  He answers it with a brief definition,  ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for’. Then he goes on to give examples from the Old Testament of the heroes of faith and what they had done to express this facet of personality.  The typical exponent of Old Testament faith was of course Abraham.  The quality of his faith led him to leave the place where he lived and wander about, ‘not knowing where he went.’  This simple phrase ‘not knowing’ is perhaps indicative of why pilgrim Christians like myself do not deal in certainties.  Even though, as I indicated above, there are many people who long to have certainties because of their own personal needs, that does not make it right for leaders to promise them.  Superficially, the church that promises certainties is stronger and more attractive than one who offers the uncertainties of the search for truth.  But in pointing to that ‘unknowing’ journey there is no disempowerment, no control or any other of the infantilising aspects of many authoritarian churches who deal in certainties.

My ability to explain why I want to remain in the area of mystery and not knowing everything is, of course, no help to many of the people that Chris encounters.  Their need for reassurance in the midst of their vulnerabilities still remains acute.  To quote Bishop Holloway at them is not going to sort out any of their problems, even though I believe that he is completely right to make this contrast between certainty and faith.

The answer to this conundrum is, I think, to see that the level of wanting certainties is a stage in a process of growth.  It may sound condescending, but I think it would be right to see the demand for certainty as the demand of someone who lacks maturity both in faith and also in life.  All of us would deal gently with the young, immature or vulnerable.  We would also recognise that the stage they are at is not one where they should be left for any length of time.  Just as it is a failing on the part of a parent to try and stop a child growing up and leaving home, so it is also a failure to leave a Christian at the first stage of learning and discovery.  There is a fascinating passage, again in Hebrews (ch. 5), when the writer compares the sharing of milk with the sharing of solid food.  Milk is for the young while solid food is for those who are mature.  The Hebrews writer believes that his audience are still at the milk stage and not ready for solid food.

The conundrum which we have outlined over the contrast between faith and certainty may perhaps be resolved in this way.  Certainty may be appropriate for a short time with those who have started on the Christian path.  But as part of the path to a greater maturity, a Christian teacher should encourage his pupils to see, quite soon, that the dealing with the reality and mystery of God involves us letting go of the crude certainties that we were given as children.   The word ‘children’ might apply to anyone who is starting off to understand the Christian faith whether as actual children or as adults.  But what is appropriate to the child is not appropriate to the mature.  The mature Christian person should be able, like Abraham, to continue the journey of faith without knowing the exact route.  He or she will have many internal promptings of the spirit to help him decide that the path he is on is one that makes sense and will ultimately lead to deeper and deeper discovery of God and his will for their lives.

The Christian people that I admire in particular in history are the martyrs.  They were a group who were known for their faith.  This was expressed in them as a fearless openness to the reality of God and an enormous courage in the face of pain, loneliness and death.  Obviously there is a lot we do not know about their inner motivation, but the fearlessness of a St Perpetua faced with the horrors of the Roman arena is moving.  What she had and what we all should seek, was not a certainty or a truth statement but an encounter with a reality of God to which she responded with her openness, love and faith.



49 Surprise and joy

When I was a child there was a book which sat on my father’s shelf with the intriguing title, Surprised by Joy.  The book was in fact by C.S. Lewis and it appeared in the mid-50s.  I never actually read the book but its title is one that can lead us to reflect.  This blog post is dedicated to some thoughts that are stimulated by the word ‘surprise’.

The word, surprise, implies that something happens that is unexpected.  We are surprised when a pheasant rises up suddenly in front of us when we are on a woodland walk.  We have a surprise when we meet an old friend on a street in a city where neither of us live.  Christmas gives to all of us, but especially to children, a number of surprises as we open presents.  The important thing about surprise is that it is an event over which we have absolutely no control.  Many surprises are in fact pleasant but equally there are less welcome surprise events.  A diagnosis of illness is a surprise when we had been feeling well.  Surprise may turn to shock as we encounter such unexpected and unwelcome bad news.  The fact that surprise can be unwelcome as well as pleasant means that some people want to ward off all surprises as far as possible.  They long for the opposite to surprise, which is control.

Control is a word that frequently has appeared whenever we have been talking about a Christianity that abuses.  The control in this context may be one of two kinds.  First there is control of people, in particular making sure that they do not have access to people or ideas that may contaminate the ‘purity’ of the dominant ideology of the group.  The second kind of control is one of keeping the discourse that is tolerated, under strict limits.  A conservative church for example would not tolerate a free discussion about the historicity of the early stories of Genesis.  The discussion, as we would say, is closed.  The group has made an irrevocable decision about its parameters of belief and they do not include any discussion on certain topics of theology and belief.  I used to know an earnest Baptist lady who was very confused by the idea of discussion groups that were held in our church.  ‘What is the point of discussion groups?’ she would say.  ‘There is nothing to discuss, it is all in the Bible’.

The mental world occupied by this lady (who had studied for a year in a Bible college in America) was one completely devoid of surprise.  There was nothing unexpected to be found in the Bible and she never expected to find anything new.  One can point to the fact that a world or a Bible without surprise is a very dull and sterile thing.  How long will it be before Christianity itself becomes dull and sterile?  One of my issues with conservative bible preaching is that it is often repetitive, wordy and dull.  How can it really be anything else if the openings towards newness have been effectively sealed off?  Behind this retreat into dullness is a fear, a fear of loss of control, a fear that someone or something will challenge the brittle edges of conservative conformity.

This word surprise contains within it many of the values to which this blog is dedicated.  It has the idea of newness, unexpectedness, freedom from control and unpredictability.  A conservative thinker might think that surprise would always involve a descent into anarchy.  The pilgrim thinker would welcome surprise, precisely because in that surprise are new ways of thinking and speaking.  Perhaps here we return briefly to the previous blog post, the one about mystery.  Both words give us a glimpse of freedom, excitement and above all a sense that the journey into truth is never ending.  I wrote in one of my early blog posts about the words of the early Greek father, Gregory of Nyssa.  He spoke of the Christian journey towards God as one of moving ‘from glory to glory’.  Here we also have some inkling of the journey that awaits us on the other side of the grave.  That journey, the never-ending journey into the heart of God, will be marked, we believe, not only by joy but also by an overwhelming sense of surprise.

48 Living with mystery – beyond words


Mystery is one of those words that is incredibly useful when talking about the Christian faith.  Or perhaps I should say that it is particularly useful to Christians who do not want, or expect, their grasp of the faith to be tightly defined by words and concepts.  It is a word that allows flexibility, room for movement and the prospect of change and growth.

As part of my personal background in the church, I can mention here that I spent ten months studying the Orthodox church in Greece in the 1960s.  It was not an easy period to be in Greece as the country was going through some difficult political upheavals.  In charge of the government were a group of army officers, claiming the hand of God for their ultra right-wing political ideals.  This political scenario had the effect of preventing me making contact with some otherwise important individuals for fear, on their part, that association with a foreigner might endanger them in some way.

Nevertheless, the exposure to Orthodoxy was an important part of my Christian formation.  Many of the theological debates of the West, such as the debates between Catholic and Protestant, simply never travelled east.  The theological controversies they live with tended to be much older – the debates of Ecumenical Councils for example.  These Councils belong to the first eight centuries of the Christian era.  None of the English speaking Orthodox theologians that I met were able to make much sense of the things that divide Christians in the West.

The word ‘mystery’ is of course a Greek word.  Its root is a verb, which means to be silent.  Behind the word is the memory of a very different way of doing religion, the so-called mystery religions.  In these pagan mysteries, the worshipper was initiated by seeing a drama enacted in a context of highly charged emotion.  There is a lot we do not know about these mysteries as they were secret, even then.  But the Orthodox took from these pagan mysteries one central thing.  They understood that worship was about participation in the transcendent through seeing a sacred drama.  The typical Orthodox church is filled, top to bottom, with lights, paintings and icons.  The drama in the Orthodox liturgy is of course the representation of the life, death and resurrection of Christ.  The worshipper is a witness and participant in this drama.  The receiving of the elements enables the worshipper to be every Sunday, in some way, a contemporary of the Gospel events.  Time can be collapsed in this way so that all that is contained in the ‘saving’ events of the Passion and Resurrection can be made accessible in the here and now.  This is one of the undergirding insights and principles of Orthodox worship.  This idea may sound novel even to those who have studied Orthodoxy but it is my subjective reading and understanding of what I saw in Orthodoxy at its very best.  But as with everything else, the day to day reality of Orthodoxy was often rather grubby, with over-politicised bishops and some poorly educated, even ignorant clergy.

To return to the word with which I started – mystery.  It allows a Christian to admit that there is a lot that they simply do not understand and certainly cannot put into words.  It allows for an approach to faith which honours silence and beauty.  These are things that do not require articulation in logical structure or concepts.  The Western approach to theology, in contrast, likes its theology wrapped up in tightly defined packages.  This would be true in both Catholic and Protestant circles.  Definitions of God are so much easier to police and heretics easier to spot if you have your faith defined in statements that are logically coherent.

Why do I write about mystery in a blog that is dedicated to the subject of Christian abuse?  The answer is that talking the language of mystery allows us to escape the tyranny of words.  Many Christians, in defending their theological positions, batter other Christians with the accusation that they are not using the right words.  We spoke in an earlier blog about the energy with which some Christians defended the doctrine of ‘substitutionary atonement’  In the doctrinal definitions that are compulsory for Christian Union leaders to sign there are strict words that define the ‘correct’ position to hold.  I am not here arguing for words to have no place in Christian doctrine.  I would want, however, to maintain that theological definitions are only useful up to a point.  Beyond that point we all have to live with approximation and even guess-work as to the nature of reality.  When Christians accuse one another of not using the right words, then there is often a failure of love and imagination as well as an inappropriate use of power to enforce the will of one person over another.

‘No one has seen God at any time.’  This statement undergirds what we mean by mystery.  Mystery implies a tentative seeking after truth in order to find a reality that goes beyond words, concepts or formulations. In a church that fully understands mystery, there will be fewer witch hunts to enforce orthodoxy and intolerance towards those who think differently.  Let us learn deeper tolerance and better ways of listening to others.  In this way there will be less reason for Christians ever to want to shout others down for holding ‘incorrect’ beliefs.  Ecumenism, true ecumenism, might be a pilgrimage towards truth, bringing the insights we already have but recognising that we will together discover much that has not yet been revealed.


47 Christian Betrayal

There is a verse from the Psalms which used to haunt me as a child.  It is about the terrible experience of being betrayed by someone close to you.  The Psalmist is in a situation of conflict and he says that he could bear it if it was an enemy responsible for putting him through pain and insult.  ‘But’ he goes on to say, ‘it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship…’  Ps. 55.13-14.  The whole psalm is a gloomy one, full of indignation at the terrible behaviour of the Psalmist’s ‘enemies’.  It is also a prayer that God will protect the Psalmist from these attacks and allow him to escape to a far away place.

The connection that I want to make between this psalm verse and something we might experience now is not to compare it with a falling out with a friend, however much this may happen.  I wish rather to compare it with an experience known to many Christians who, for whatever reason, want to leave the Christian fellowship of which they have been faithful members.   Certain conservative Christian groups will close ranks totally in this situation, shun the individual leaver and make them feel as though they had never existed.  As long as the member remained in the ‘fold’, they were lavished with affection, attention and Christian love.  But then a situation arises which might involve a sense of growing unease with the integrity of the leaders.  The individual member realises that they have to question what they have been taught and make plans to withdraw from the community.  The so-called friends, the former sharers of fellowship and love, are then nowhere to be seen.  No recognition of the pain and sense of isolation is afforded to the leaver nor any kind of understanding.  All that remains is an emptiness and cold rejection.

When I was researching my book, Ungodly Fear, I met a couple who described the raw pain of rejection when they left their church.  They told me that people would cross over to the other side of the road when they saw them coming.  It took quite a long time for this couple to accept that Christian fellowship was not in fact about earning love.  There are Christians out there, I wanted to explain,  who were prepared to love them without making conditions.  Families, at any rate good ones, are bound together with bonds of affection that are unconditional.  Love and fellowship are not things that are turned on and off according to our behaviour.  While there are actions that can crack relationships, every Christian is, or should be, committed to the idea that the bonds of peace should be fought for.  The idea that we can turn from love to hate in the flash of an eye because someone does not conform totally to the will of the leader or group, is appalling.

Why do some Christians behave in this way?  From a psychological point of view I think the answer is not hard to find.  The Christianity that they have embraced is the black/white variety.  They have allowed themselves to believe that they have the unadulterated truth, the correct interpretation of the Bible and the perfect version of Church life and fellowship.  Overseeing this ‘perfect’ environment is a leader who has their complete loyalty.  In this universe there is no room for discussion or debate.  The answers are all there in the Scriptures and the leader can always be trusted to provide the answer as to ‘what we think’.  The black/white mentality does not allow for compromise or questioning and so everyone who has doubts has to be rejected forthwith.  Doubts undermine the perfect oasis of truth that they have had created for themselves.  Any doubts expressed by others are taken as a personal attack and have to be fought off.  A single doubt about the perfection of Scripture also has to be fiercely driven away and the best way to drive away doubt is to utterly scorn and reject the individual.  Thus the love that binds this kind of paranoid Church is one which is conditional.  Unless you believe in the way we tell you and follow the dictates of our group, we will reject you and cast you out.

Christian betrayal, in simple terms, is the discovery that the fellowship and love that one had enjoyed up till that point had always been conditional.  It was what we can call cultic love.  Cultic love, wherever it is found, is the sort of love that will be instantly withdrawn the moment one questions or in any way rocks the boat in the group.  This instant change of attitude leads to pain and a sense of  total bewilderment.  How can people who had shown real love and understanding one moment then turn around and push one away?  Many people never recover their ability to enter Christian fellowship again.  They have been too severely hurt.

Out in society there are numberless people who have been through this experience of Christian betrayal.  We don’t know how many because they seldom come to the attention of church members.  But at least let us be aware of them and when we meet them be able to show some understanding of their sense of having been let down.  This blog has all such people very much in its sights.  The material in the posts and in our discussions are designed to help such people.  While few are reading it at this point, one hopes that the material will eventually be read by some of them and that they may come to know that Christian love is not conditional but unconditional as it pours out from God and from those who worship him.

46 Touch – intimacy or abuse ?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome years ago I was asked to write a short piece on the topic of touch in connection with the healing ministry.  It was requested at the time when serious stories of abuse within the healing ministry were beginning to emerge.  I was also personally hearing of cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by individuals who were claiming to be exercising a healing ministry. There was dilemma to be faced as  it is difficult to exclude touch completely from a healing ministry.  This ministry after all is sometimes called ‘the laying on of hands’.

Parallel to the issue of how the laying on of hands should be exercised in prayer for healing was another problem for many churches –the advent of the ‘Peace’.  Depending on the church you attended, this could consist of a solemn handshake, a smile or a full-blooded embrace.  Churches which went in for the more extensive forms of greeting, tended to be more at the conservative end of churchmanship.  If you were able to enter into this kind of intimate greeting with a fellow member of your Christian community, so the thinking might go, then this implied that you possessed a greater ‘freedom in the Spirit’.  I personally have no problem with ‘liturgical embrace’ or whatever we might want to call it, but equally I feel it important to be sensitive to the needs of those who are uncomfortable with this gesture.  I used to know an elderly retired clergyman who insisted on embracing every female in the congregation as they left church.  Because he had been doing it for a number of years no one asked the question as to whether it was sensitive or appropriate.  My take on the situation was that it was in itself in his case an innocent gesture but that It was not demonstrating sensitivity.  The embrace of a stranger is invasive and may in fact stir up memories  of an episode of actual abuse in the person submitting to the embrace.  Just because it does none of this in the vast majority of cases does not mean that this possibility must not always be at the back of our minds.

In thinking about healing ministry, I know from my own experience that it is totally intuitive to ask to hold the hand of the person being prayed for.  Physical touch, whether holding a hand or placing a hand on the shoulder seems to me a natural part of what it means to pray for another person.  It is an outward sign of the connection that is set up when two people opens themselves up to each other in trust and love.  It also expresses symbolically that one person, the one who ministers, is alongside the other as they approach God together in prayer.  Praying with and for another person brings out something which I have never seen fully discussed in books on pastoral care.   This is the fact that when people prays in twos, threes or small groups, they can touch the reality mentioned in the New Testament and which Jesus speaks about when he says-  ‘When two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.’  I have found this little discussed passage of great significance in trying to understand the dynamics of the healing ministry.  People who pray together are for a brief moment brought into a more intimate connection than at any other time.  It is as if, in Christ, they touch one another with a greater closeness than they may have ever known before.  This moment of closeness has to be allowed to pass as there is no room in the healing ministry for clingy, potentially exploitative relationships.  This may happen if the person prayed for feels attached to the one prays and the ‘minister’ encourages that connection.

Anything that is holy and good, such as what I have been trying to describe, always has the potential to be turned upside down and made cheap, exploitative and abusive.  That is, sadly, a constant theme of this blog.  Healing can be something spiritual, transformative and pure; equally it can be the prelude to dependency, exploitation and worse.  The same thing can be said about touch.  At its best it can express the connection that two (or more) people feel belongs to them as disciples of Christ.  It can be an effective symbol for expression of ‘koinonia’ or communion.  Equally it can be a grubby, sexualised action and a symbol of one person’s desire to dominate and exploit another.  The Christian faith is always going to have these alarming contrasts between good things and good things that have been twisted by selfish and corrupted individuals.  It is perhaps the aim of this blog to sensitise the reader to the reality of these contrasts.  Most Christian abuse will be presented in the wrapping of Biblical texts and apparently normal behaviour.  It is for the informed (educated by this Blog?) Christian to be able to sense and name all forms of spiritual abuse that are encountered in the day to day lives of our churches.  No doubt we will be returning to this theme again.