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.

About Stephen Parsons

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

13 thoughts on “46 Touch – intimacy or abuse ?

  1. The embrace of a stranger can be invasive and very unwelcome to anyone, whether or not they have been abused and it stirs up memories.

    The embrace of a stranger can also be an unexpected blessing….

    There just isn’t a formula for knowing how the other person will feel about it. One can only use intuition and common sense and try to develop the best and purest sensitivity. Your elderly clergyman was too naive and presuming too much on the goodwill of the women around him, putting them in a situation where they might well feel they didn’t have permission to question or object. If I had been a man there, I would have insisted on embracing him too.

    Abusive or even just unwelcome touch can be very bad. But living in a frightened world that banishes touch because everyone is covering their own backs, and no one is willing to hug the child with a scraped knee can also be very bad. Thanks for your nuanced discussion.

  2. The Shepherding movement of the 70’s used a lot of this hugging stuff.
    A demonstrative wave of physical claustrophobia, flooding your reason preparing you, conditioning you for, ‘Teaching’. My wife Mary and I lost one of our best friends to this evil movement.
    May I thank James Blott and Haikusinenomine for their kind words of support. Chris Pitts

  3. Stephen, I don’t know where you’re going with all this material, but I think one practical piece of advice to those attending healing ministry in churches is that it should NEVER be one-to-one. There should always be a third person present. In addition, if there is a choice (which won’t always be the case) women should pray with women, and men with men. Any church that doesn’t put these simple safeguards in place should be shunned.
    I do agree that this is not always about deliberate abuse, but insensitivity to personal space. I’m aware that I’m the only male member of our ministry team who almost always avoids hugs and kisses. I’d far rather be described as a ‘cold fish’ than cause an upset by invading someone’s personal space. And, if we’re honest, shouldn’t we be saying that anyone who is not sensitive to this issue has no business being a minister in the first place? One hidden issue in a lot of the points that you’ve raised is that there must, surely, be something wrong with the process of selection of ministers for all these issues to be happening?

  4. James -you live in an ideal world. Of course the healing ministry should have safeguards but in practice there are many situations where a minister is alone with someone in a pastoral situation. I for one could not have done my job if I always had a chaperone with me. As an an avid visitor of parishioners in their own home, (before it became unfashionable!) I sometimes saw twenty plus people a week. In the fortnight up to Christmas I would call briefly on up to 800 homes with a card. I allocated 55 hours for this task over 14 days. It would not have been practical to have had someone with me the whole time. The issue of this blog is to start talking about the fact that abuse sometimes happens. Whether in the context of healing or not, the sexual abuse of women by clergy and ministers is sadly all too common. They are often called ‘affairs’ but they are usually simply abuses of power. The issue of touch is one way to start to think about the ministry and the way that it starts as something good but being human, things can slide. I want to acknowledge the good in touch as well as facing up to the bad

    As for the issue of selection, I could not agree with you more. But some reading that I have done (and I may write about it) suggests that the clergy role can change the personality of the individual minister and corrupt them to be more narcissistic. In other words it can develop after they are made minister and it is not detectable before. It is referred to as ‘acquired situational narcissism’. A similar thing can happen to politicians! The narcissistic clergyman is a dangerous to have around as is the narcissistic politician! The latter can do more damage. Keep on board if you want to know more about this.

  5. How naive of me, sorry! I was reacting to the fact that I’ve often seen people disappear into church side rooms after services for someone to pray with them, and often one to one.
    Of course there are visits that are made to people’s homes one-to-one. I make such visits most weeks (never at your jaw-dropping level!).
    I am also aware that relationships develop and as much contact between minister and the visited can occur when the latter is very vulnerable, I do worry about touch within this context. I wonder whether new ordinands are given any guidance on this? (And if not, why not?) I shall look forward to hearing more about your ideas on ‘acquired situational narcissm’. My natural inclination, after a lifetime running organisations, during which I recruited scores of people for senior roles, is to think that these characteristics must latently be there and detectable. Perhaps I’m being naive again. Is perhaps part of the problem that clergy have so very little supervision AND have a role which carries a ‘social status’ which can easily be abused? I’ve obviously got more thinking to do on this, but I remain worried by the fact that so many of the ordained that I meet, I would certainly not have recruited at a senior level in any of the organisation that I have run……..

  6. James. We do not disagree at all on this question of ordinands and their preparation. As for the question of whether you acquire narcissism in early life or ‘on the job’ is a matter for discussion. If I bring it up, as with many topics on this blog, it will be because no one is actually debating it! The issue of clergy supervision is also a cause of grief. There is absolutely nothing in this neck of the woods as far as I can see. Does anyone else have comments on this? I can hold back my next post till tomorrow.

  7. I’m sorry I can’t say much about your last question. But I would like to mention that there is a great deal in Christian faith and life that is healing, without being self-consciously labelled part of “healing ministry”. For example, I have returned this evening from the Ash Wednesday Holy Communion, where we were signed on the forehead with the sign of the cross in ashes. That was healing touch and healing ministry, without the label.

  8. There is a dark reoccurring message coming out of a lot of this.
    That the current training for the priesthood seems to end up being; ‘One thing to everybody’ instead of, ‘All things to all men’ Why? How can it be anything else when an educated elite (Nothing wrong with a theological education) attempt the impossible, to understand the lower disempowered working class and the underclass of a underclass! I hope someone will respond to this, or are we back to the the Chris Pitts hernia of the eardrum needle stuck gramophone?

  9. Chris, I agree with you. The ‘educated elite’ is probably a correct description of how things have been. Are they still? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that in the ‘outside world’ leaders of organisations have had to become more accountable. Within the Churches, I have not detected the same change, even if the ‘educational profile’ of ministers has changed a bit in some places. Part of the problem is the ‘hierarchical’ nature of our churches. Jesus would surely weep at this?

  10. Thanks James, It feels so good to really communicate! I hate ‘judging’ people. I can see that a lot of these people come into the priesthood for good sacrificial reasons, they do however have a stilted overview of the disempowered. I am faced with a rock and a hard place when discussing this issue. I can sit back and protect the veneer of my own ‘Holiness’ or get involved with mud and guts of this. I have no doubt where Jesus would prefer me to be!
    There is a gaping hole in the thinking in a lot of modern church activity.
    A evangelical mission will come to my area in May. There may very well be a lot of ‘touchie feelie’ taking place during this however, when it comes to actual physical relief of the personal hells the disempowered experience I will not hold my breath? There will still be people employed on 24 hour contracts struggling to eat and pay bills long after the mission has packed up and left. Most of these disempowered will get no sick pay, I have personally experienced this and witnessed people coming into work very sick, I have seen them collapse and the ambulance talking them away. I doubt weather most ordinances for the priesthood know any of this. The people involved in this coming ‘mission’ will not See the people I speak of. It will be left for family and friends help them out financially (If they have any) Whatever happened to the Church ‘Poor purse’ ??? Anyway James thanks for listening. Sincerely, Chris

  11. When I did my training in healing ministry, we were told not to visit alone, especially if there was a deliverance issue. This is not the same as a pastoral visit where someone may wish to talk in confidence. Personally, I favour a “one of each” gender mix. Don’t forget, one of you may be gay. If it is inappropriate for a straight man to hug a woman, it is also inappropriate for a gay woman to do so. I was also taught to say, quietly, “may I touch you?” and precisely which bits of the body it’s ok to touch! Head is fine, though I tend to “hover” my hand, shoulder, hand of course. The affected part, provided not personal, like the back, but only with permission. I also have a problem with people who hold my hand. I have really bad arthritis, clutching at me hurts. Always ask. Does ordination change people? of course, and so it should. But I agree with James. I used to be in retail management. I know far too many clergy whom I would never have employed to sell shoes! You are giving ultimate power to people who may be deeply inadequate. The selection process is deeply flawed, and it is far too easy to get someone who has taken a Bishop’s fancy through the process without much questioning. And, also pretty easy for a vocations advisor to make sure someone they don’t like never gets anywhere, and doubly so a Bishop. And remember, if no-one tells you what they are saying about you, there is no tarrif on gossip. People can repeat the same stories about you over and over again for years. If you did something wrong, you are off the hook in two.

  12. Chris, you keep pointing to a fundamental truth that so few people really grasp, when you talk about the “stilted overview of the disempowered”. Clergy need to have real understanding that often their life experience hasn’t yet given them. They need to be with the poor, not above them. They need to have a deep awareness of the many different faces of poverty and how that conditions lives. It’s not impossible for a person who is privileged and educated to reach this spiritual awareness, but it is a training in holiness that isn’t necessarily sufficiently part of what the church is doing. I found a lovely quote from the martyr Oscar Romero the other day, who was murdered for his defense of poor people: “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried”. I think that is at the root of what we’re talking about here, one aspect of it. Another great quote about another martyr, is “He did not live apart, he was always friends with us and did not despise in the least a single one of us”. This was John Coleridge Patteson, and the “poor” that he did not despise in the typical Victorian way were the people of Melanesia where he worked and died. But these were two men who quite literally were ready to give their lives for the people they loved. Not everyone is at that level, clearly. But a major part of the problem you are absolutely right is that the church blindly prioritises for ordination those who have the education and outlook of the advantaged sectors of society, including the typical spiritual weaknesses of growing up privileged. Not just the obvious superiority complexes, but the sheer ignorance of not knowing the deep wounds of the dispossessed, or how or why the gospel is addressed to them.

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