Monthly Archives: April 2014

58 Abusive churches – case study 2

This account of an abusive church is of a very different kind from the account of Trinity Brentwood.  It is not about a single congregation but concerns a whole diocese on the other side of the world.  The church concerned is the Anglican Diocese of Sabah which is situated in Malaysia and the northern part of the island of Borneo.  My account is based, not on gossip or hearsay, but on a sober report commissioned by the provincial House of Bishops for South East Asia.  The report, as we shall see, paints a dark picture about the behaviour of the Bishop of Sabah, Albert Vun.  It is still unclear why the House of Bishops, having read this devastating report about the Bishop’s conduct, did no more than offer a slap on the wrist.  Clearly the church politics in this part of the world are beyond the comprehension of a blog reader based in the UK.

Bishop Albert Vun was consecrated in 2006, having conducted a ‘successful’ ministry in one of the major parishes in the Sabah diocese.  I put the word ‘successful’ in inverted commas, because as readers of this blog will know, I do not regard  filling a church with worshippers as necessarily implying that the leader is either godly or promoting the values of the Kingdom.  In this part of the Anglican world, charismatic renewal is the norm for church practice.  In an Asian context this style of worship might be thought something of a cultural ‘fit’ and clearly some Christians here in the West are also excited by this heady brew of uninhibited Asian worship styles and an extremely conservative fundamentalist theology..

The problems that arose with Bishop Vun’s ministry were nothing directly to do with his style of worship or indeed his theology.  The latter owed much to the ultra-conservative Moore College in Sydney which teaches a fairly austere brand of Calvinist theology , but now often mixed with Pentecostal-style worship.  This college situated in Sydney is largely responsible for the reactionary tone taken by some Australian bishops, especially Bishop Peter Jensen, the secretary of the conservative group known as GAFCON.

To return to Albert Vun.  The problems which lay people brought up to the House of Bishops and the secular courts of Malaysia fall into two categories –pastoral and financial.  To take the second first, it is enough to say that the Bishop was constantly involved in complicated land and property deals which were, according to the complainants, unsupervised and questionable, both legally and ethically.  Also there appears to have been a culture which allowed the Bishop to spend large sums of money, both on his family and on those favoured by him.  He also travelled all over the world business class on ‘mission’ trips.  These seem to consist of the Bishop preaching to large gatherings, using all the techniques of charismatic rhetoric.  One particular institution in this country blessed with his missionary activity is the Anglican theological college, Trinity Bristol.  I do not think it unfair to suggest that such hyper-active ‘big tent’ activities only form a tiny part, if any, of a rounded missionary outreach.  To have a overexcited Malaysian bishop visiting you for a one off charismatic event is of doubtful benefit for the health of your church, whether in Australia or Britain.

Beyond the financial shenanigans which , I regret to say, are seen to be increasingly common among a certain genre of charismatic leaders (the famous Yonggi Cho of the million strong Yoido Church in Seoul has been recently jailed for fraud) we come to look at the pastoral issues that were raised by the complainants.  In summary, the compilers of the report saw no reason to doubt the accusations of pastoral abuse on the part of the Bishop.  The events included refusing to allow a clergyman to attend his mother-in-law’s funeral even though there were other clergy able and willing to step in to cover for him.  Another incident was the refusal to allow a clergyman who had had a heart bypass operation to have adequate recuperation time.  He died a few weeks later.  The diocesan staff, particular the women working in the office, were treated with contempt by Bishop Vun.  A particular technique was to shout loudly at them and other clergy over periods of up to an hour.  This would also happen at church meetings.  Bishop Vun was also an expert in holding threats over people’s head that he would sack them.  When individuals were dismissed by him, including his Archdeacon, they received less than a week to pack up and vacate their homes.

To say that the diocese was demoralised would be an understatement.  A further power game that the Bishop has played was to control totally the intake of future clergy, making sure that none of them were intelligent or independent enough to challenge him.  They were then trained ‘in house’ in a course that was not accredited for any other diocese.  Thus none of them had the option to move elsewhere in the country, if and when they realised that their future under this bishop was bleak and uncertain.  The poor training that was being given to these clergy resulted in sermons lifted from the Internet and inept pastoral care.  One sentence sums up their conclusions over the charge of pastorally offensive behaviour.  ‘The committee believes that that Bishop Vun needs professional help to assist him through this ‘dysfunctional behaviour’.     This was a mild way of saying that the Bishop was guilty as charged of sociopathic and narcissistic tyranny against the majority of the people in his diocese.

What did the House of Bishops do?  They took the option of asking the Bishop to take a six month sabbatical to receive spiritual support and time for reflection.  He then took his family off around the world visiting his supporters and receiving their hospitality.  On his return he appeared to have learnt nothing but resumed his vitriolic attacks on those who had challenged him before his departure,  The story has recently taken a new twist, in that Bishop Vun has recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  The gloomy prognosis for his earthly survival does not appear to have lessened his anger and vindictiveness towards those that he believes to be his enemies.

The story of  the Diocese is, from the point of view of the editor of this blog, a story ultimately about the use and abuse of power.  People who acquire power of whatever kind often want to use that power for their own gratification.  Bishop Vun first of all found a power given him by his ability to move people through charismatic rhetoric.  This, we would speculate, went to his head so that when he became bishop, he started to use power for his own ends.  I have spoken before of the three ways of exercising power – sex, money and power games.  Thankfully the sex  part appears not to play a part in this story but clearly the other temptations were part of Bishop Vun’s ‘dysfunction’.  If there is any conclusion to be drawn from this saga, it is that the powerful charismatic preacher must never be allowed to believe that his power and inspiration extends in every direction.  Even he/she can be wrong and they should surround themselves with people who are ready to tell them so.  Power corrupts and absolute power should be checked at every point – to misquote the old saying.


56 Pilling report – reflections pt 2

This is the concluding section of James’ very wise reflection on the Pilling report.  Among other things it picks up the fact that certain Christian groups find it hard to tolerate opinions that are different from their own.  Unbending inflexible opinion in the Church is something that many of us find hard to stomach.  We know the effect it has on people within the Church and the impression it gives to those outside.  This blog wants to defend people from all kinds of tyranny and enforced ideas.  The damage of such things is too great.

The Science of Homosexuality. In 2009, Gillian Cooke and Alan Sheard in ‘Christianity and Homosexuality in the 21st century’ stated that “the (scientific) evidence is clear that sexual orientation, whether hetero or homosexual, is not under the control of the voluntary will and is determined by the time of birth, partly by genetics but more specifically by hormonal activity in the womb.” Pilling, four years on, states: “The idea that science can give us clear and unequivocal answers, even on its own terms let alone in the field of morality, turns out to be over-optimistic.” These two statements can’t both be right. The reason this matters is because it addresses a key question: Are homosexual desires sinful? The so-called ‘Higton motion’ passed by General Synod in 1987 (and which Pilling observes is still valid) states: “homosexual genital acts…fall short of this ideal (an act of total commitment), and are (likewise) to be met with a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion.” If you call someone to repentance (and how often do we these days hear a call for repentance to any other kind of sin than homosexuality?) you must accept per se that there is a sin which requires repentance. Therefore the science is critical. If homosexuality is not an act of choice but is pre-determined at birth, might it be God-given, and if it is God-given, how can it possibly be sinful?

In view of the critical nature of this question, the visible science in the report is lamentable. The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ submission is the only one that the panel received from a scientific body, and its thin evidence is belittled in the report by the ‘Core Issues Trust’. This Trust is a non-scientific body which seeks to encourage those trying to move away from their homosexuality. They are one of a raft of Christian-based bodies globally who are desperate to prove that people can be ‘cured’ of their homosexuality, so far with not a shred of evidence that such ‘treatment’ is effective and with a growing body of evidence globally which implies that such treatment can be deeply damaging to gay people. N Coulton showed in 2005 that homosexuals accounted for more than half the male youth deaths from suicide in this country. This evidence is brushed aside in Pilling, courtesy of S L Jones, who is quoted as saying that any psychological distress arises because homosexuality “cuts against a fundamental, gender-based given of the human condition.”

The Interpretation of Scripture. The Bishop of Birkenhead claims that his position on scripture is the traditional one in the church, but this ignores Augustine of Hippo’s statement, (which goes back much further than the Bishop’s literalist views) that it is our duty always to seek the most charitable interpretation of the text. As we know, Christians through history have used the Bible to support slavery, the death penalty, apartheid, the suppression of women in the Church and the barring of remarriage among those divorced, among many other things now considered unacceptable. If the Bible is so clear, why have we changed our views on these things? And why is it that those who think the Bible is clear are so selective in their reading? There are very few verses in the Bible that actually address homosexuality. One of them, Leviticus 20:3, states: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Why is it that Pilling quotes not this verse but Leviticus 18:22, which does not refer to the death penalty? Could it be that those who would want us all to take the Bible literally might find it uncomfortable to campaign to bring back the death penalty for homosexuality, particularly in the light of their statement that they “welcome the presence and ministry of gay and lesbian people”? Or should we, when identifying ‘tradition’, read history selectively? It’s not the only place in the report where claims are made to have the only definitive answer. The Report as a whole, and the Bishop of Birkenhead’s submission in particular, makes a number of jaw-dropping claims about scripture. For example, The Bishop states that an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman for life is ‘the only form of partnership approved by God.’ It’s hard to know where to start with such a prejudicial reading of the scriptures and it’s frankly frightening that we have people with such views as Bishops in the Church of England. There is actually no word in Hebrew that means ‘marriage’ in our modern sense. The phrase used instead is ‘to take or give a woman or daughter as a wife.’ Anyone who has studied the position of women even in the first century, let alone through the Old Testament period, would shudder at the thought of women being returned to such a state of ‘biblical marriage’, held out as exemplary by the Bishop.

One of the aspects of Church life for which we may have our new Archbishop of Canterbury to thank is an encouragement to deal with controversial issues by a process of facilitated discussion and listening. Such a move must surely be welcome in a Church where so many hurl bricks at others who hold opposing views, whom they may never have met, let alone engaged with. However, the monumental task ahead, upon which the whole of the future of this debate depends, is underlined by the fact that the Bishop of Birkenhead states: “I am in agreement with Recommendations 5-7”, but he dissents from the rest. Recommendations 5-7 cover rejecting homophobia and making a commitment to pay close attention to the science. But, pointedly, he does not agree with Recommendation 11, which encourages “the Church to continue to engage openly and honestly and to reflect theologically….to discern the mind of Christ and what the Spirit is saying to the Church now”, which is one of the main conclusions of Pilling. Why? Because the Bishop fells that if facilitated listening and discussion take place, they will undermine the Church’s teaching. So we should apparently refuse to listen to debate and address this subject with a closed mind? If this is what he is proposing, and he seems to be, let me quote the Bible back to him. In Acts 7, there is the story of the stoning of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen. There we read “they covered their ears and with a loud shout all rushed against him.” Isn’t covering of ears exactly what happens when abuse takes place? Isn’t it as true now as it was in the first century? Isn’t it the story that Stephen has written about on this very blog, relating to Trinity Church, Brentwood?

The Issue of Church Leaders. The official Church policy on active homosexual relationships, which Pilling saddles us with for at least another two years, sets a lower standard for ‘laity’ than for those who wear a dog collar. The policy, which Pilling seems to think is acceptable, includes this statement: “Because of the distinctive nature of their calling, status and consecration the clergy cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships”. I must admit to a shudder when reading these words, which surely cannot be healthy if we are serious about driving abuse out of our churches? I would even go so far as to suggest that this statement is close to idolatrous. Pilling states that it is legitimate for the Church to require higher standards of conduct for its clergy than for laity. We have seen elsewhere on this blog, particularly from Chris’s posts, how dangerous it is to place clergy on such a ‘holiness pedestal’, using words like ‘distinctive’, ‘status’ and ‘consecration’. How does this play into the abuse issues that we’ve looked at on the survivingchurch blog? Requiring clergy who may have been born with attraction to members of the same sex to live their lives in celibacy might sound like a good idea if you start from a position that homosexuality is a sin. But the history of churches where celibacy is a requirement for the priesthood, would not suggest that this rules out abuse; rather the opposite. And, worst of all, it implies that it is perfectly acceptable to be an autocratic and domineering leader, so long as you are married to someone of the opposite sex. How sad. How very, very sad. Surely there can’t be any safe or fair standard for clergy other than equality with the people in the pews and a commitment to see themselves as sinful people ministering to other sinful people? Anything else must surely be doomed to fail and to lead to further abuse?

Summary. The Pilling Report looks like an old-fashioned English fudge to me. Sir John Pilling seems to have glimpsed the intractability of the disagreement underlined by this issue, which probably exceeds even that of the debate on Women Bishops, and has decided to kick the can two years down the road. This may well result in an even bigger problem breaking out in 2016, if no consensus is possible even then, which seems likely. Who are the losers? It’s not those who will vote with their feet and decide that the Church, as a place that rejects them and everything they stand for, is a place that they can do without. No, the real losers will be those clergy who can’t let go of their deeply-held faith, despite being rejected by their own Church, and even more so for their partners, who have even less choice. And finally, those in same sex relationships who sit in the pews whose hopes have been dashed by Pilling and who will continue to feel the pain of being told from the rooftops that they must repent, by a Church whose feet are set in clay.