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.