Monthly Archives: April 2014

67 The power of the environment -cause of evil?

96ad8e0620_1317312708_gp3812_prison_experiment (1)Last week I wrote about the ideas of Lord Owen about the way that an individual could be corrupted by holding a position of great power in politics. Owen referred to this as ‘hubris syndrome’.   This study is, in many ways, backed up another piece of research undertaken in the early 70s, known as the Stanford Prison experiment. The author of this experiment, a social psychologist called Philip Zimbardo, wanted to see the extent to which ordinary people might change when put in a new unfamiliar situation. He chose twenty male volunteers, from a student population, who were screened for obvious mental disorders. Then these volunteers were divided into two groups for the purpose of the experiment which was simulate the experience of prison life. One group were to act as guards while the other group were to be the prisoners. To make the experiment realistic, the ‘prisoners’ were taken into custody by serving policemen before being deposited in the cellars of a university building at Stanford under the care of those designated as guards. The crux of the experimental finding was to observe how both groups threw themselves into role. The realism of the roles that both were playing was so vivid that the experiment had to be cut short lest one of the participants suffer mental collapse. In summary the ‘guards’ started to act with cruelty, using their authority to undermine the ‘prisoners’ as much as possible. No physical punishment was permitted but mental and emotional abuse became rampant. Everyone in the experiment knew that they could leave at any time but none did, apart from one prisoner who started showing signs of complete mental collapse.  He was withdrawn for his own safety. The whole experiment was meant to go on for two weeks, but in the end it was stopped after five days when Zimbardo’s girlfriend recognised that there was a rampant evil in the environment that was affecting even the observers. Cruelty and an enjoyment of inflicting pain seemed to have taken over the minds of the ‘guards’ while the ‘prisoners’ seemed to have forgotten how to stand up for themselves to withstand this onslaught.

When the experiment ended, Zimbardo expected that the those among the guards who had behaved particularly badly would eventually be shown to have a recognisable pathology over the long term. But, although he followed his ‘guards’ over thirty five years, none ever showed in their lives any tendency for cruelty, either in the family or in the work place. It seemed that the sociopathic behaviour displayed had been provoked entirely by the experimental environment. In short the evil that was unleashed through the experiment was a product of the artificial environment. Absorbing expectations as to how to behave in fulfilling a role, had completely taken over their personalities.

In his reflection on the experiment after forty years, Zimbardo in his book, The Lucifer Effect, wants to alert the reader to the enormous power of situations and the way that they can overwhelm the consciences or what he calls the innate ‘dispositions’ of the participants. He sees similarities with the situation at the Abu Graib prison during the Iraq war where ordinary soldiers committed offences of cruelty and humiliation against their Iraqi prisoners. While it would not be right to declare the perpetrators free of all responsibility, the situation they found themselves in was a mitigating factor in their defence. This should to be taken into account.

Why is this research of interest to our concern for abuse and manipulation? It is because churches sometimes become ‘total’ environments where people behave in ways that not necessarily in accordance with their normal nature. The situation or the environment becomes the dominant reality. This may not necessarily lead to immoral or cruel behaviour, but there are a variety of other ways for people to behave out of character in a group situation.   These may involve regression, immaturity or inappropriate dependency on a leader. Few manifestations of this kind of group behaviour are in the individual’s best interests. The zombie-like convert that we may meet on a street corner muttering his pious platitudes may simply be acting out the expected personality that his group may have placed on him. The earnest Christian who treats your questions about the Bible with undisguised hostility or suspicion may once again be expressing an aspect of some sort of group personality. He or she is so much a product of group conditioning that he does not have any sense of a right to an individual opinion.

Zimbardo’s research of forty years ago could not be replicated today because of ethical considerations. But the research remains as a terrifying reminder of what can happen when a group’s norms and assumptions take hold of individuals so that they act out the norms of the group rather than their own.   Social influence is indeed a powerful and potentially catastrophic power. We must make sure that our churches do not become places where people lose their separate selves and become part of the herd.


66 The Gift of Laughter

Some time ago I mentioned the relevance of tears to the spiritual life. I hope to return to this topic, but meanwhile I wish to reflect on the apparent opposite, the existence of laughter. Humour and laughter represent a culture that crosses age, class and race. We laugh at the absurdities that are revealed in the programme ‘Have I got news for you’ on Friday evenings. Most of us can find humour in our immediate environment and we also admire the people who can stand on a stage, sometimes with no props, and make us laugh.

What is humour? Although there is a humour and laughter which is linked to the humiliation of individuals, the humour with ‘bitter springs’ as John Masefield put it, most laughter enables us to take a relaxed view of the world and of ourselves. To be able to laugh at ourselves means that we let go of over-seriousness and pomposity. Humour is also a great community builder. To share a joke is to share something human with others and it is difficult to feel animosity towards the person who has laughed with us.

This morning I was talking to the local hospital chaplain about the importance of humour in the ward. I do a regular general visit of two particular wards on her behalf and I find myself wanting to encourage a smile on the faces of those I visit. I don’t in fact crack jokes but I may gently point out some point of incongruity in the environment. If there is a ward ‘joker’ I tell them that they have a very important job, keeping up morale in both staff and patients. In the literature on healing, there is an important book, Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins. This is an account of an American journalist who healed himself through the practice of laughter. His sense of humour, watching endless Candid Camera programmes, might not appeal to us, but he recognised intuitively that humour could change the course of his illness. It appears he was right.

Why is humour and laughter important to our theme? It is important because where there is no humour or laughter something sinister may be going on. There is no humour in a terrorist camp where people are plotting to kill or maim others in the name of Jihad. There was no humour to be found in the encounter that I reported as taking place in Skegness last week. An inflexibility of approach towards other people and lack of humour are frequently found in the same person. When someone speaks to us with the words ‘What I always say is ……’, it is hard to imagine that they will find it easy to enjoy laughing with us. A readiness to laugh and the ability constantly to learn new things seem to go together and these are attractive qualities .

Those of us who have a flexible approach to life, or indeed Scripture, can respond reasonably well to the unexpected.   Not always knowing the answers means that we do not fret when we meet something for which there are no set responses. The honesty of not having a complete answer to a problem will generally be accepted by another person.   It is certainly preferable to the hypocrisy of pretending that we are infallible in knowledge or expertise. To make out that the Bible has an answer to every conceivable problem is actually dishonest and unrealistic.   The person who, thanks to the Bible, ‘knows’ the answers to all life’s problems may believe he is superior to the seeker. But because the assumed superiority is based not in reality but in a fantasy about the purpose of scripture, it will always have a an air of defensiveness about it. As a lot is at stake in this defensiveness there will be no room for humour. The opponent who wants to argue for a liberal approach to Scripture is, it may be thought, trying to deflect you away from your state of ‘blessed assurance’. You will defend your right to this, your place in heaven and your access to infallible truth with a grim determination. Am I the only person to notice a humourless unsmiling steeliness among many conservative Christians?

References to laughter are not frequent in Scripture. The only one that comes to mind is the account of the visit of angels to Abraham at Mamreh when Sarah was heard to laugh at their promise of her fertility. Nevertheless there is something of humour in the way the parables are told. Was Jesus not speaking with humour when he referred to the beam in the eye of the one criticising the man with a mote in his eye? The ability of Jesus to pluck illustrations from life shows gifts of imagination, flexibility and yes, humour. There is nothing legalistic about Jesus, tying him to a script of ‘correct’ answers and solutions. We could even claim to see Jesus in a process of learning through experience. His first response to the Syro-Phoenician woman, who called after him to heal her daughter, was somewhat legalistic and defensive. But we see in his subsequent reaction that he accepted that she was teaching him something by her witty and apt reply. Such flexibility and readiness to learn, gives us a glimpse of a person of humour, who was never proud or pompous with those he met.

Christianity without humour is something depressing and grim. It denotes a legalism and heaviness which Chris and many others want to flee from. Becoming a Christian is supposed to remove burdens but instead it has become increasingly oppressive. A good motto might be that where there is humour and laughter, there is also freedom, lightness of touch and the ability to experience joy. Surely all these things qualify as part of the fullness of life that we believe Christianity wants us all to have. Sadly they are often absent in places of legalism, oppression and fear.


64 An encounter at Spring Harvest 2014

The Spring Harvest event at Skegness (and Minehead) is an annual event for Christians of a fairly conservative bent and takes place in the week leading up to Easter.   It was Chris’ wife Mary who went as a registered participant, but Chris accompanied her to offer support as she remains physically a little fragile after a car accident. Last year the same event had aroused strong negative emotions in Chris, but this year he felt better prepared to cope with the experience.   Dick Davies, a contributor to this blog was also present and ready to offer his help and support.

I spoke to Chris on the phone at the week-end, after he got back from Skegness.   He told me about a conversation with an elderly married couple who had seen him walking with a stick after sustaining a injury to his foot. This couple assured him that God would definitely heal the foot and it was a matter of certainty. Without even asking permission, the husband launched into prayer for the injured foot. He then declared that the only thing that would prevent healing was a lack of faith. Chris then explained that he had had bad experiences at the hands of Bible Christians and that among other things he found it extremely difficult to square up what he had been told to think about the Bible with the actual content of Scripture. The Old Testament was supposed to be an accurate revelation of the will of God, but there were passages that Chris had read that made this whole idea impossible for him. What about Psalm 137 for example? Were we supposed to think that it was appropriate to take small children and ‘dash them against the rock’ ? The couple looked puzzled and had nothing to say. Chris suspected that they had never been confronted with or read this passage before.

Hearing this small anecdote, I noted a number of things that would have distressed me as well. The act of praying about the foot was immediately thrust on Chris as though it was a given that this is what he needed and wanted. There was no sense that healing might involve cooperation from the sufferer or even a measure of preparation. God’s force of healing was seen to be irresistible. But although God’s power could not be turned back, the couple did have a let-out clause to explain why it might not work on every occasion. That is the lack of faith. This places those who offer prayer in a win-win situation. They are simultaneously seen as faithful mediators of God’s promises for healing, at the same time having a convenient excuse if the act is not followed by an actual healing. Their sense of righteousness and faithfulness can remain intact. No doubts need to be entertained as to whether they did anything unhelpful in such an encounter. Chris’ challenge to them to question their belief in the infallibility of Scripture was met by a blank silence. Nothing had prepared them for such a challenge and nothing in the way they had studied Scripture could provide any answers to this exposure to an uncomfortable and challenging text. The only way that a belief in Scripture of this kind is possible is because the vast bulk of Scripture has been ignored in favour of few proof texts that appear to make claims for the whole Bible.

In a way the couple have no guilt, but they are themselves victims of a system of theology and a culture of control that puts them in a place that is disastrous in two directions. Not only was their intervention unhelpful to Chris, to say the least, it also demonstrated how they had been infantilised. They had been stopped thinking or growing in any way. They have learnt to react to the world and its problems in a crude mechanistic way. The Bible is applied to every situation as though it were a hammer and that is the tool of choice for every possible situation. An injured person in a place like Spring Harvest can be presumed to be in need of prayer and willing to receive it. No more information is needed. But when the potential recipient does not fit this model, the limitations of the assumption become apparent. There was nothing in their book of rules to cope with such a dissonant situation like the one that Chris provided. They are left with their silence and the discomfort of their own ignorance being revealed.

Suppose their assumptions about meeting a fellow Bible-believing Christian had been realised? Are we to believe that the encounter would have been less disastrous for both sides? If the Bible-believing sufferer had willingly received prayer with the right degree of faith and had still not received healing, what would we say about the situation? The praying couple would still have retained their smug untouchability with their faith in God unsullied, while the recipient of the prayer would have felt more demoralised and perhaps doubting his own grasp of the Christian faith.   Neither scenario, the one that actually happened, or the one they wanted to happen, can be described as healthy or helpful.

The conversation and my commentary on it picks up a number of themes which are the concern of this blog. Perhaps my readers can further unpick what might have been going in this scene at Skegness. It may be just one encounter but I suspect that similar unhelpful attitudes are being taught and shared among Christians in many places. Vigilance and scrutiny need to be applied to examine the attitudes and assumptions that Christians in some fellowships and churches take on. The unexamined faith is not and never will be a healthy, life-giving means of growth into fullness of life.

63 Abusive Spritual Leadership

A personal story from IHOP

If you google “leaving IHOP” you will find a “rich” (or rather very sad) vein of writings about a current example of abusive church.

Here is a link to just one of these posts:

Babel, Pentecost, and the House of Prayer: My Time at IHOP-KC

In this particular article Gary Wallin details his time at the International House of Prayer.

Much of the material on this blog  is illustrated all too vividly in this contemporary example of an abuse of spiritual leadership.

62 Understanding authoritarian leadership

One of the themes of this blog is finding a way to understand leadership, especially as it affects the church.  The study of leadership, whether in business or politics, is an area of interest and study for numerous disciplines, so it is unlikely that we can do more than discuss one aspect of this theme at a time.  Our particular interest is to talk about leadership when it becomes oppressive or even irrational so that the led, whether members of a congregation or citizens of a country, feel bullied and abused.

Recently I came across a fascinating study by Lord Owen (formerly David Owen), the politician/doctor who was writing about what he called Hubris syndrome among politicians.  He was casting his study back over a century of US Presidents and English Prime Ministers.   His definition of ‘Hubris syndrome’ has many similarities to the personality disorder known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  Clearly the sample of world leaders is a small one and the inability to get close to people who are no longer alive, or too important to be willingly subjected to psychiatric examination, means that the study has inbuilt limitations.   But given the fact that there is plenty of biographical information describing the life and times of such people as Theodore Roosevelt and Clement Atlee, means that the study is of great interest.

Owen describes 14 characteristics which he believes to be symptomatic of Hubris syndrome.  Most of them, as we have indicated above, are common to Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  These cluster around the need to be seen as superior, important and in need of the adulation of others.  NPD could well be summed up as a combination of grandiosity and overblown self-image.   The characteristics of Hubris syndrome are a kind of enhanced NPD, especially designed for those in positions of great political influence or power. Among the additional criteria for HS are a tendency to speak in the third person or use the royal ‘we’,  an unshakable belief that all their decisions will be ultimately vindicated, together with a tendency for ‘restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness’.  Although the article has some fascinating insights about George Bush, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair as suffering from HS, further discussion of the article needs to move in a somewhat different direction.  This is the question of which comes first.  Are the sufferers of HS predisposed to the syndrome as the result of their upbringing, or is it the situation of actual political power that brings it alive?  It is the old question -nurture or environment?

In the literature on NPD, the overwhelming assumption among psychoanalysts is that sufferers from NPD will have had some disturbance in early childhood that render them susceptible to this disorder.  Heinz Kohut, the Austrian/American writer, in particular speaks about incomplete attachments to parental figures as lying behind the emergence of narcissistic symptoms in later life.  Recently there have been discussions as to the way that certain environments, particularly that in show business and youth culture, may create narcissistic tendencies.  In summary, the writers are describing what they call ‘situational narcissism’. This may have little to do with upbringing.  Owen, in his studies, seems to come down on the side of those who would argue that a particular environment can lead to a personality disorder.  He notes from the biographical material of both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair that we can trace a creeping development of HS as each of them became more fully immersed the power of their position.  In Tony Blair’s case it is most clearly seen in the events of the Iraq war where his messianic tendencies are in full spate.  In the case of Margaret Thatcher these hubristic  tendencies are particularly obvious in the final two years of her time as Prime Minister.  In both cases, Owen seems to believe that HS only exists when there is real power given to the sufferer.  For both Blair and Thatcher the symptoms seem to subside once the time of power is over.

How is this article relevant to our interest?  It is relevant because there is a strong case, yet to be made by the experts, that the church in many of its manifestations might be a context in which individuals could develop narcissistic or hubristic tendencies.  I have already suggested that dysfunctional Church leadership, especially among charismatic leaders, may be seen as a manifestation of narcissism in those same leaders.  Owen’s article may point us to the thought that just as political power brings out hubris in certain leaders, so the Church provides an environment and culture which sometimes encourages its leaders to develop similar personality disorders.  In a previous blog post, I mentioned how the positioning of the pulpit and altar put the minister in an exalted position, which may convince him that he is indeed ‘above contradiction’.  Were the church ever to accept that NPD is a real issue among the clergy and ministers, which I firmly believe, it might have to go a stage further and recognise that the issue is not just a matter how these leaders are trained, but also a matter as to how church culture is ordered.

During this Passion season (I am writing this on Good Friday), I want to draw attention to one part of the story that we have never really internalised.  In Carlisle Cathedral last night, the Dean symbolically washed the feet of eight people.  This is an evocation of the command of Jesus to ‘wash one another’s feet’.  Such an act of service was meant to undermine the pomposity, the power-seeking and the endemic hierarchy that is so common in human affairs.  Washing feet is a cure against the self-importance and omnipotence that litter the affairs of the church.  If the church was a place of service and feet washing in reality, it could no longer provide the context for the abuses of power that so much besmirch and undermine what the church tries to do and be.

61 Holy Week – a meditation


I have indicated on various occasions that I am not greatly impressed by wordiness when it comes to talking about the Christian faith.  But the parallel between our theme of the abuse of power and the Passion Story cannot go uncommented on during this Holy Week 2014.  Were I an active parish priest I would be preparing numerous services for this special season, but in retirement I find I have the leisure to prepare something for this blog.

One of the striking themes of the gospel accounts of the Passion of Christ is the way that the authors present Jesus as a victim.  Not only does he undergo a terrible and cruel trial and death, but he is also shown as doing nothing to defend himself.  The account of his trials reveals the fact that, for most of the time, he was silent, patiently enduring the floggings and tortures prepared for him.  He becomes the object of the narrative, the one to whom things are done.  Up to the point of his arrest he had been the active subject, the one at the centre of the action and decisions.  It may be that the writers deliberately wanted to identify him with the mysterious figure of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.  This servant is the one who bears ‘our infirmities and carries our diseases’ .  He also, by being ‘numbered with the transgressors .. , bore the sin of many’.  One way of reading the Passion story in the Gospels is to see the whole account as allowing Jesus to fulfil the vocation of the Servant.  He is the innocent victim, through whom God can mediate his forgiveness to the human race.

It is possible to read the accounts of the giving of the Last Supper to support this interpretation.  In Luke’s account of the giving of the bread, Jesus says ‘Do this as in remembrance of me’.  Looking at the word ‘remembrance’ with its associations with sacrifice in the OId Testament, we can see that Jesus may have understood his death to be a sacrifice.  An innocent death, the death of a victim as Christ’s death would be, could be re-enacted endlessly in a ritual act to ‘remind’ God to fulfil his promise to forgive sins.  Jesus on the cross, like the Servant of Isaiah, is the God-given means of reconciliation for humanity.

The idea of Jesus as a victim is not suddenly introduced in the Passion accounts.  We see, throughout the gospel story, Jesus involving himself with the marginalised and the poor.  This focus of concern is anticipated in the words of the Magnificat when it is said that God ‘has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly’.  There is a lot to suggest that Jesus spent far more time with the ‘riff-raff’ of society than with the respectable.  The story of the Good Samaritan can be read in a way that is deeply subversive to the established religious order.  The account of the Passion can be seen to continue this theme, except that instead of Jesus involving himself with the poor and oppressed, he in fact becomes one of them.  There is no place or situation more shameful than to be executed on a cross.

In thinking about our overall theme of the abuse of power in the church, we can see that Christ in the passion story (and before) would always be on the side of the victim.  They might be a victim of illness, a sufferer from a life-time of exploitation or being in an abusive relationship.  It would not be wrong to suggest that Christians should always seek to identify with victims of all kinds.  But we know in practice that the Church is better at cosying up to privilege and wealth and this has gone on for centuries.  The task for those of us who are privileged in any way is, first of all, to enter with our imaginations into the victimhood of Jesus in his suffering and see how it was a deliberate choice.  In that act of identification we may find ourselves more sensitised to the victims who are all around us.  If we want to know what Christian love actually looks like, we have before us the love being demonstrated as Jesus moves out to embrace the victims of society during his ministry.  Then there is his supreme act of identification with the lowest of the low in accepting death through crucifixion.   It is quite hard for us to grasp the breadth and depth of that love, but at least it is demonstrated to us in a concrete form.

What is our task?  The first is to identify with Jesus as the lover and healer of the victims and follow him in bringing love, healing and comfort to them as much as we can.  The second thing is to follow him as far as we can in his identification with the victims and suffering of our world.  Jesus is the minister to the suffering as well as the one who suffers by being himself a victim.  The story of the Passion once more stretches our imaginations to understand anew this supreme involvement by God with the human race.  It takes guts and strength after this to be able to sing that line of the hymn which says ‘ Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.’

60 The hidden addiction -institutionalisation

As part of my post-retirement activity,  I act as a volunteer in the local hospital.  I have been allocated two wards to visit weekly on behalf of the chaplain, so that individuals in particular need do not get overlooked.  Most of the patients are new when I see them, as the turnover in beds is very rapid these days. Few patients stay more than a few days.  I know that for those who do stay longer, there are real dangers in what many describe as ‘institutionalisation’.  This is a creeping malaise that depletes the patient of the ability to think for themselves or make any kind of decision.  The task of living and making decisions is being done for them and so their own self-determination becomes gradually atrophied through lack of use.  The task of leaving the hospital and resuming normal living is for them a real ordeal.  It is not dissimilar to an addict trying to live without a drug of dependence.

Readers of this blog will know about my interest in Trinity Brentwood and the blog that is seeking to obtain an apology on behalf of all those who have been damaged by the church over 30+ years.  Recently the blogmaster, Nigel Davies, received two telephone calls from current members.  They pleaded with him to stop protesting outside the church on most Sundays.  During the conversation they admitted that Nigel’s campaign was legitimate but they were locked into the church because they had never known anything else.  The protests upset them.  Leaving was something impossible to contemplate.  Nigel commented that this was a clear case of institutionalisation.

Somewhere on my shelves is a book with the unlikely title, When God becomes a Drug.  The incident from Brentwood and my book title led me to thinking about this whole topic of churches becoming foci of addiction and institutionalisation.  It is not clear where, in fact, the boundary between being in thrall to an addictive institution and developing a healthy routine of loyalty to an organisation lies.  Probably the role of stopping people becoming unhealthily dependent on a group is something that falls to the leadership of that group.  But of course the leaders of addictive churches may not want their members to escape from the thrall of their dependency.  Out of the dependency comes tithing,  adulation and the sense of power.   A leader who, for reasons of his own, needs these things will not want to discourage this creeping dependency and institutionalisation of followers.  Under such a leader a church  becomes an increasingly addictive institution.

I write these words without any specific solution to the issue but as an attempt to name a problem in the church.  Awareness of something is one way of stopping it getting worse.  As a former person in charge of congregations (I hesitate to use the word ‘leader’), I know how much I longed for people metaphorically to get up out of their seats.  Far too many of the congregation seemed content to remain totally inert in the pews.  The architecture of the building seems to encourage such passivity.  Rows of seats face an altar and a pulpit, both of which are raised up high and this setting seems to suppress the possibility of genuine dialogue between teacher and those who are taught.  People in real teaching situations would find impossible to tolerate the lack of engagement between teacher and taught that seems normal in a church setting.

The problem of institutionalisation and passivity becomes worse as you enter churches where theology and tradition make it part of the way things are.  I remember the Baptist lady in a former parish who could not understand discussion groups because the Bible’s authority meant that there was nothing to discuss.  Such a reliance on the Bible and on the ability of the minister always to interpret that Bible correctly, mean that many churches have little chance of escaping the accusation of being hotbeds of dependency and addiction.

I return to the image of patients in a hospital gradually losing their ability to make decisions and take any kind of responsibility for their lives.  If this is an accurate description of what at least some churches do to their congregations, then we are moving a long way from the good news of Jesus.  Jesus talked about ‘life in all its abundance’ and this is not something you see often in churches of any kind.  The challenge for all of us is to rouse ourselves to take a stand against passivity encouraged by authoritarian teaching and institutions, especially in the church.  All of us need to take steps to see that our faith is leading us, not to some kind of inertia, but to an active life-enhancing way of moving forward.  Laying claim to ‘life in all its abundance’ is hard work but eminently worth pursuing.  Abundant life has little in common with the addiction, obedience and dependency which is all that many churches seem to offer.


60 Rhetoric – the art of words

One of the components of a traditional education in the Ancient World was the ability to use rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of using words, particularly the spoken word, in order to persuade people of your cause.  Thus rhetoric is of importance to politicians, social reformers and preachers alike.  We do not often link the word rhetoric to the topic of sermon presentation but the connection is there.  How words are used, the speed at which they are used, will make a huge difference as to whether the content and meaning of words are communicated to an audience.  We all know how some preachers can move us while others are dull and uninspiring.  We also know that most long sermons seldom achieve their aim of persuading a congregation of anything. No doubt we can think of many other reasons why some sermons often fail to hit the mark.

The word rhetoric carries with it the idea of contrivance or technique in the art of using words.  One could even speak of trickery being implied when we talk about rhetoric being employed.  I want us to think about some of the typical ‘tricks’ that are used as rhetorical devices in sermons because once we can identify them, they cease to have power over us.

A typical rhetorical technique used by the evangelist Charles Finney in the 19th century and his many followers since, was to use words to bring the audience to some sort of emotional crisis.  I have heard this standard ‘conversion call’ many times over the years and it has become, to say the least, a little stale.  The typical exponent of the call will begin by talking about his own experience of conversion and will often lace it with details of the unregenerate life.  This tale of pre-conversion days describe how smoking, alcohol and bad language were leading the preacher to certain perdition and the flames of hell.  These will be described with great detail and even relish.  Then the change, the conversion came and as a result the preacher can now look forward to the bliss of heaven.  The congregation is then invited to come to a point of decision.  Do they want to join the swearers, the sexually depraved and the drinkers in the flames of hell or are they ready to make the act of belief in the saving power of Christ?  This approach, particularly when it is heard for the first time, is not without its rhetorical power.   Many have heard such a message and have gone forward, buoyed up with the emotion of the occasion.  Some may even have become Christians for the long term as the result of this message.  But there are, of course, problems.

The first problem is that the emotions of an evening meeting among huge crowds do not always survive the cold light of the following day.  When I was a parish priest, I would occasionally receive commendations from the Billy Graham crusades pointing me to individuals who had signed a piece of paper at a rally.  The pledge to re-link individuals to the church they were connected to already was an indication of the ecumenical sensitivity of the later phase of the Graham crusades.  On the two occasions when this happened, the individual concerned was embarrassed to receive a visit and played down the significance of what had happened.  Certainly nothing came of it.  Meanwhile those individuals had entered the statistics of the Billy Graham organisation as people who had responded to ‘the call.’  The second problem, and this is more serious, is that many of the people who made a ‘decision’ did so in response to the moment of real terror that was placed in them by the rhetoric of the speaker.  I myself attended a meeting run by David Watson as part of his mission to the University of Oxford in 1974.  I had heard that he was a rising star in the evangelical world and I was hoping to hear a fresh presentation of the Gospel.  But no, even David Watson stuck with the Finney script of the moment of decision.  We were called to decide between heaven and hell and the decision had to be made at that moment.  To say that such evangelism is exploitation of deep-seated fears of annihilation is perhaps an understatement.  The words uttered in the context of evangelical meetings of this kind do have the power to unsettle, at the very least, most normal people.  The vulnerable, as Chris often tells us, are particularly sensitive to this kind of pressure from the man at the front. (They are normally male.)  Should emotional decisions be made in the context of group pressures, stirring music and strong rhetoric, not to mention blood curdling threats?

A separate blog post is needed to unpack the rhetoric of the charismatic renewal but it can be said here that there well-known techniques of creating the kind of crowd excitement that makes charismatic phenomena more likely.  I will be talking about something called ‘voice-roll’ which is used to great effect by some charismatic preachers.  Also, as a brief comment, it is hard to see how charismatic phenomena are reproduced week after week, unless some rhetorical and other techniques are applied by the leader up front.

The link between rhetoric and preaching, particularly conversion preaching, seems clear.  Perhaps in our discussion we can share our experience of this kind of preaching and ask the pertinent question.  When you extract the rhetorical devices, the emotional pressure and the induced terror, what exactly is left of the Good News?  Is there anything we can retain from this kind of preaching which is wholesome?

59 Archbishop Welby – the same-sex debate

Thanks to the internet we are able to see and hear the Archbishop of Canterbury speaking at St Edmundsbury Cathedral on the subject of same sex marriage.  It is clear that he is enormously exercised by the question and he seems aware that there are traps for him whatever side he takes.  On the video clip that I watched from the Bury Free Press, he emphasised how the church has found itself under pressure to make decisions with a far greater speed than is usual.  Changes in an understanding of what marriage is, are not normally effected in such a short space of time, and this is what seems to be happening today in the rest of society.

I have some sympathy with the Archbishop up to this point.  He wants to carry everyone with him and the Church is like an ocean liner which is not used to turning round in such a short time.  But it is some other arguments that he raises (not on the video) that I do find myself at odds with him.  Apparently, according to another report, he brought up the issue of what the Anglican world thinks outside the UK, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.  The argument seemed to run as follows.  We in England have some half million members while the Anglican churches of Africa have some eighty million souls.  They are against the very idea of same sex marriage, so we have to more than cautious in what we say on the subject.  They look to us for guidance and leadership on this so we must be careful so that they do not feel betrayed by an apparent shift in our stance.

Before we attempt to answer this argument, it must be said that the Archbishop has personal links with many Christians in Nigeria and so feels his role as Anglican leader very acutely.  No doubt he is under pressure to say the things that they want him to say, loudly and unambiguously.  But it is a pressure that has to be resisted.  Why?  In the first place we need to examine why the Nigerians and other sub-Saharan Anglican are so set against the possibility of any compromise on the topic of gay sex.  The stand they are taking is not without cost for their churches and their links with other churches and sponsoring groups.  A short article like this will only scratch the surface of the deeper reasons for this visceral abhorrence of gay relationships.  But I suggest that the opposition is rooted in two areas, cultural and theological.  On the cultural side there are traditions peculiar to Africa which make this issue of far more significance than for the West.  The theological resistance is, on the other hand, not an African issue at all but one largely exported from the States.  In summary (and I have written about this on an earlier post) same sex marriage is the chosen battle ground for conservative Christians in America to fight the forces of modernism and change, the so-called culture wars.

It is obvious that the point I have just made is one that can be debated as to its truth and accuracy.  But the other point I want to make is less contentious and it concerns the differences between the outlook of us in Britain and those who live in Africa.  We are different in our outlook and to say otherwise, I would suggest, betrays an extreme cultural blindness.  Every culture is defined to some extent by its history.  I indicated the other week the way the Orthodox think quite differently on theological matters because they never experienced the Reformation.  This in no way is a put-down but simply a statement of fact.  I would argue that, in fact, the theological perspective of the Orthodox is in some ways richer than ours precisely because of this.  But to return to the differences that are apparent when looking at Western Christians and those who live in Africa.  Those of us who reflect on the cultural history of our country will be aware that we live within a developing cultural framework.  This is a huge subject and not one on which I would claim any particular expertise.  But I would think it a commonplace to suggest that our political and intellectual history arises out of developments that took place in previous centuries.  The system of government we have did not arise overnight but evolved out of the developments that took place after the bloody Civil War of the 1640s.  Similar things can be said about out theological traditions.  These look back to debates in the 19th century and before.  The liberal-conservative debate has to be set in an intellectual setting that goes back at least 150 years in this country.

One of the things that belongs to modern theologians working in Britain in the 21st century is the right to work in a post-Enlightenment way, questioning and challenging assumptions as they feel necessary.  This right to question and challenge is what has allowed science and technology also to move forward with rapid speed over the past 250 years.  The thought that theology works in a different way here in Britain from the way it does in Africa is thus hardly controversial.  Any fair minded person will recognise that an attempt to suggest that African theological reflection might have some veto over the work done by theologians in the West would be an intolerable state of affairs.   Obviously African traditions in theology, politics and culture generally have a right to be heard in the wider world but never in a way that accords them special privileges.

The strong anti-gay rhetoric coming out of Africa is the business of the West as we see actual harm caused to individuals in the way of mob violence and imprisonment.  Beyond that we may have to accept that African societies will always have deeply conservative social attitudes in these area.  But if we are to work with such a differing perspective we need to insist that our history and traditions are also respected.  Just as African perspectives on morality come out of their particular history, so do our own.

The Anglican Communion faces a crossroads.  Can we tolerate a situation where one side is allowed to deny to the other the right to think and reflect in accordance with traditions developed over  decades?  If African Churches really find our debates on the gay issue so viscerally offensive that they deny us the right to even air these debates, can we really walk together in any meaningful sense?  Archbishop Welby is asking us to moderate the expressions of opinion on the gay issue in this country.  Is it not time that he demanded from the African primates a level of rational courtesy in this discussion?  Without basic courtesy, it is hard to see that the Anglican Communion can or should survive in its present form.