Monthly Archives: July 2014

95 Getting the gay issue into perspective

Once upon a time, the issue of whether or not people were gay was little discussed. Within the Anglican church however, it was quietly understood that there were places which were, if not accepting, at least tolerant of a gay lifestyle among the congregation. If a clergyman was gay, it was understood that his bishop could place him in an inner city parish where no one enquired about the domestic living arrangements of the Vicar. It is no coincidence that the Diocese of London is, by reputation, the most gay friendly in the country.
The situation of an uneasy ‘truce’ had existed for around thirty or more years. The motto, ‘don’t ask and don’t tell’ seems to have worked after a fashion fairly well. As long as a gay clergyman was not appointed to a small village or country town, where everyone knew exactly what was going on in the Vicarage, all was well. The ‘difficult’ parishes which had local schools totally unsuitable for clergy children could continue to be manned and served by an Anglican vicar.
This situation of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ could not, of course, last for ever. Two things forced a change in the landscape of the Church of England. In the first place, the section of the Church which was quite clear that gay life-styles are incompatible with biblical laws became more prominent and powerful. This evangelical conservative section of the church began to speak out about the issue, having been shut out from the cosy collusion that existed within the liberal and high church end of the Church of England over the years. Whether it is true of not, these conservative Anglicans claimed not to have known about the uneasy acquiescence of gay lifestyles in parts of the church. They began to make their voices heard and increasingly join up with Anglicans across the world to protest against this rampant evil, as they saw it. The conservative position received particular support from African Anglicans where cultural taboos made gay sex a especially sensitive issue. The second thing that was taking place was a revolution in Western public social attitudes to the problem. Just as the general public as a whole was beginning to become more tolerant and catch up with what had hitherto been radical liberal views in society and the church, the conservative part of the church was beginning to protest loudly against these changes.
The situation we have today is one that is deeply damaging to the church. On the one hand the suppressed voices of the gay lobby are finding a voice after the decades of secrecy. On the other hand the voices of reaction, that believe that this issue is the most serious threat to the church’s integrity that has ever existed, are also being heard. In the middle are the vast swathes of people who wish that the whole debate would go away. ‘How can’, they think, ‘the church’s position on the gay issue be that important? The world is full of so many other problems on which we should be focusing our energy. Is not peace and reconciliation and the relief of hunger far more important than what people do in bed together?’
It is clear that the church needs to come to a mind as to how to tread a path through the challenges thrown up by the new legislation on same sex marriage and the many changes in society that follow it. It is equally clear that the disproportionate amount of energy that continues to be expended on discussing the topic has gone too far. Sadly the voices of those who oppose the legislation are perhaps the loudest so that the general public believes that the word ‘Christian’ means homophobic. Because of this vast amount of implacable opposition to gay sex by conservative Christians, the voices of their opponents are also beginning to be heard, sometimes in a strident way. There is one blog site, which I occasionally follow, of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow. The issue of gay rights is so prominent that one gets the (perhaps wrong) impression that nothing else is ever preached about or discussed. Clearly the pro-homosexual lobby in this case may have gone too far. It is one thing to take up a worthy cause but it is another to allow an issue to take precedence over all others.
As editor of this blog, I need to reiterate my position. There are issues to be discussed and debated around this matter but clearly my readers will not expect me to believe that the whole thing is sorted by an appeal to selected and fairly obscure Scriptural texts. The conservative part of the Anglican church has, for a variety of reasons, made the gay issue a defining one. Those who do not agree with the ‘biblical position’ are deemed to be heretical and outside the orbit of what it means to be Christian. This attack on non-conservatives who do not agree with the position of traditionalists, is not tolerable. It is one thing to have a point of view and draw on scripture to support it. That is a possible and legitimate position to take. It is quite another to declare that those who oppose your arguments are un-Christian or failing in some fundamental way to follow Christ. Throughout my previous 90 posts on this blog, I have consistently repeated this position. People can say and believe what they wish but they should never be allowed to shut down dialogue with those who disagree with them. When that is done, that is the beginning of tyranny. Where there is tyranny, there is the abuse of power.

94 Four reasons not to be a conservative Christian

I have been reflecting further on the issue of what makes an individual a conservative Christian. Whatever the reasons, whether from personal psychology or from circumstances of life, I can think of several practical reasons for not wanting to be among their number. Apart from the issues around surrendering my independent thinking to another individual or institution, let me list four practical reasons for resisting the temptation ever to go down this path.
1. This conservative Christian is committed to a belief in the utter reliability of Scripture. Such a position means that there is no wriggle room and possibility of change or development in thinking about the ultimate things in life. The implication of this belief is that no one, beyond the small group of fellow conservatives, has anything to teach you. Also absent is the possibility of a good discussion with another point of view where each side can learn from the position of the other. This is indeed a sterile place to be. Never having one’s mind changed, or allowing this as possibility, makes the world an extremely dull place.
2. Arising out of a sense of the utter reliability of Scripture, there is no sense that the future has anything new to reveal to the earnest Christian. It has all been discovered already. Words like creativity, newness and its accompanying excitement will have no meaning. Of course sometimes someone will reveal something fresh about the teaching of the Bible, but this will be done in a highly controlled way. There will always be a background sense of anxiety in case the ideas are found eventually not to be completely ‘sound’. By and large the future is only important because that is where death and a final reunion with God in heaven is to be found.
3. Along with a sense that the future has nothing to bring to the world, there is also a profound pessimism about whether or not individual ambition and striving have any real meaning to the conservative Christian. It may be possible to earn money and even to do a reliable responsible job, but is there any real joy in such an occupation where no real discovery and possibility of change are part of that vocation? No, the occupation that one undertakes is purely for practical reasons of survival and has little to do with the real business of being saved and encouraging others to enter into this relationship with God.
4. A fourth reason for not being a conservative Christian is a partial or complete absence of humour in your life. The conservative Christian is unlikely to be comfortable or familiar with the ideas of paradox and incongruity. Everything is normally black or white and thus there are no greys. It is unlikely that such a person will understand humour which depends so much on ambiguity and word meanings that are not tied down and fixed. The earnest and humourless caricature of the evangelical Christian is not far short of the reality.

These four characteristics of a conservative Christian can be summed up in a single adjective – boring. All the qualities I have mentioned, or lack of others, end up at this description. People who cannot discuss, have no sense of the newness of life or indeed its humour, are unlikely to be good conversation companions. By choosing to stand apart from broad mass of ‘unsaved humanity’, many Christians have become unattractive company for the rest of society. Perhaps others can suggest other reasons not to be a conservative Christian. I would hazard a belief that most of the characteristics that we do not want to possess, would also come under the broad category of being boring and without humour. If there are good reasons to be this way, perhaps someone could help me understand. Jesus for all his seriousness, seems to have been able to see the humour of life. Although this is a discussion for another time, the parables and his use of them show him to be a teacher with a strong imagination, flexibility and sense of humour.

93 Further reflections on women bishops

The decisive vote on women bishops in the Church of England has thrown up some interesting comments from the rest of the Anglican Church. I am not going to comment on these in detail but we should note that the woman bishops decision has been welcomed by the Anglican church in Uganda. The Archbishop of Uganda, who has welcomed the vote, leads a church that is part of the GAFCON group. As we noted on this blog large parts of the GAFCON grouping are virulently against the idea of women becoming priests, let alone bishops. These churches, particularly the Diocese of Sydney in Australia, would claim that their position is made inevitable by the passages from St Paul which speak of men being in a position of headship over women. Their position is well summed up on the REFORM website by their leader Rod Thomas. To be fair to members of GAFCON, they did admit at their conference in Nairobi last October that their members differed on certain issues, including their position on women. But one still wants to ask: ‘If you can differ about this very serious issue in the life of the Church, one that has caused grief and pain for large numbers of your members, then should you not come together and learn how to read the bible together? It is after all the same bible that you are reading.’

Coming at this issue from a quite different perspective, one would suggest that the reason Sydney, Uganda and members of REFORM disagree about the ordination of women has nothing whatever to do with biblical interpretation but everything to with history and sociology. I do not have all the facts to prove this point but if we were to look at the church history of Uganda and Sydney respectively, I would expect to find particular personalities and local traditions that caused the bible to be read in these different ways. To suggest that the leaders of the Australian diocese of Sydney read the bible in any other way than strict Protestant scholarship allows them to, would of course be thought by them to be insulting. But it would seem obvious that local factors, many of them not theological, can be found to account for the way this particular tradition in Australia grew up. One idea I have seen floated is that the paucity of women in the convict period of Australia meant that men were disempowered by the ability of women being able to extremely choosy as to whom they took for husbands. Whatever the reasons, the Sydney position is one that diverges not only from mainline Anglicanism but also from fellow conservatives in Africa.

Some might wonder why I have continued this discussion about women bishops. The answer is simple. Those who claim to follow the bible as being the inerrant word of God seldom agree as to what it actually says. Even those who gather in great international assemblies such as GAFCON 2008 and 2013 for the purpose of undermining, even destroying, the Anglican Communion, cannot agree on what the bible says. One response to this failure to agree on women’s ordination might provoke a response of humility. We do not agree, therefore we will seek to discern in humility and patience what God might be saying on this and other contentious issues. There is in fact not a smidgeon of humility in either of the statements from Jerusalem 2008 or Nairobi 2013. If we were to summarise the tone of both statements, they might be held to say simply ‘We are right and anyone who does not agree with us is wrong. ‘

The number of Anglicans who read the bible in the Sydney way and believe in the notion of headship is, thankfully, tiny. But there are many who read their bibles in a way that leads to dogmatic and fiercely partisan oppressive ways. Many women and children have suffered over the centuries because the male sex has taken upon itself the right to dominate and control everyone else. It is a serious matter that the Bible is claimed to be the source of this dominance. If the bible is a cause of stumbling for many, then let us learn to read our bibles in a new way. If we cannot manage that, let us at least introduce a note of humility before we declare that we KNOW what God’s will is for our fellow human beings.

92 Women bishops – a reflection

women bps

I belong to the generation which once accepted as cast in stone that the clerical profession in the Church of England was male-only territory. My own acquiescence in this situation was reinforced by a knowledge of the way that the Eastern Orthodox (and the Catholic Church) thought on the matter. They were unable to accept change in this area (or in any other!) and I assumed that Anglican church would never decide to abandon its claim to ‘catholicism’ by considering the claims of women for priesthood, let alone episcopacy.

By the time the Anglican Church in England accepted the right of women to be ordained in 1992, my thinking had shifted considerably. I had begun to understand some of the deeper reasoning that prevented the Orthodox Church from accepting women to occupy a sacred role in the church, and it was not very edifying. According to Scripture (Leviticus) an issue of blood, including menstruation, made the individual unclean. In the Orthodox book of rules, called the Rudder, or Guide, no woman could receive communion or even enter church at the time of her period because of this uncleanness or impurity. Behind this reasoning lies a primitive horror of blood that makes her taboo. Such a reaction to the mystery of menstrual bleeding is of course far older than Christianity or even Judaism, but has been there in primitive thinking from the dawn of time. This kind of reasoning, I felt, was way out of date at the time of Jesus. It could hardly be appealed to in the twentieth century (or the twenty first!). An attempt to argue women out of priesthood was to some degree steeped in this kind of pre-rational sensitivity.

Knowing the history of an idea often helps one to remove its power to impress and convince. Once I had personally encountered some of these unedifying roots of misogynist attitudes in the church, I was not likely to be convinced by all the special pleading of those who argued that Jesus only chose men. No, as far as I was concerned, the prejudice against women being ordained was far more rooted in cultural, pre-rational feelings than any serious theology. How could anyone seriously argue against the equality of the sexes when at least some of the reasons for their inequality had been exposed by this appeal to history and anthropology?

The case for the ordination of women is not just about equality and fairness. My own studies in the nature and dysfunctions of leadership have shown me that in some important respects, women are less likely to abuse their power than men. In particular they are statistically less likely to suffer from the personality disorder known Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The exact reasons for women being less likely to be drawn into this disorder cannot be discussed here but probably are connected to the fact that women, as a rule, seek a consensual rather than a confrontational solution to problems. I hate generalisations about the sexes as much as anyone else, but it is apparent from common sense observation that there are differences between the sexes and some of them make women better able to perform the functions of priesthood. It would probably also be true to say that each of the sexes brings different strengths and gifts to the tasks of priesthood. I am still pondering from the lecture earlier this week the implications of the theology of God as ‘mother’ and the idea of mothering as being an apt metaphor for the pastoral care.

Having placed women firmly into the role of priesthood, it is but a small step for them to become bishops. Episcopacy itself in the Anglican Church has become far more challenging today than it was and it is no longer possible for a bishop to get his/her way by simply expressing a point of view. Like with all authority positions, bishops are under challenge as never before. But there is a particular reason for welcoming bishops from the ranks of women priests at this time. This is because it is suggested that the pool of talented men to serve in this function has begun to dry up. Able candidates for the top jobs are in short supply. To have a cohort of able women to draw on for the next generation of episcopal appointments may give the leadership of the Church of England a shot in the arm which it needs. Perhaps the women bishops about to achieve preferment may bring in an entirely new feel to the Church of England. Perhaps they will also bring into the church a sensitivity to the issues of power abuse with which this blog is concerned. Let us hope so.

91 Modern Church Conference

This week I am on yet another conference, but this time in Britain.  It is a gathering of around 80 people who are supporters of an approach to theology which is broad, liberal and inclusive.  I have not been to the conference before but I decided to come because the organisation has graciously over the past couple of years published four articles by me so I felt it important to meet them.  As is typical of conferences of this kind, the conversations are the key part of what brings one to these sort of gatherings.  I make a rule never to sit with the same person twice at meals so that I have met up with a wide range of people as a result.  There are also two or three individuals who I knew from college days 40+ years ago and it is good to meet up with them again.

Among the talks we have listened to over the past three days on a variety of topics, there was one that stood out as being good to share with the blog.  It was a discussion on a little known passage in I Thessalonians 2.7-8 where Paul likens his ministry to that of a nursing mother.  Emma Percy, the speaker,  sees the nursing mother as a paradigm for pastoral ministry.  This surprising metaphor seems to work at various levels.  It points to a relationship of tenderness and care between the pastor and congregant.  Although there is an obvious mismatch of power between mother and child, there is no way that a mother would ever abuse that power and harm the infant in any way.  In the context of our concern to see that power is not abused in the pastoral relationship, it is of interest to ponder the nature of a  relationship where the ’leader’ cannot abuse the relationship.  I place the word leader in inverted commas, because the nursing mother metaphor makes it a decidedly inappropriate word to capture the nuance of Paul’s metaphor.

A further way in which the metaphor of nursing mother works as a description for the relationship of pastoral care, is the way that the supply of milk is (normally) experienced as inexhaustible.  Emma pointed to the way that  infant’s milk is something that flows through the mother.   It is as though the mother just has to put the child to the breast for the miracle to begin again.  This she likened to the experience of the Holy Spirit filling the pastor with the words of comfort and consolation that appear apt to each occasion.  That is indeed my own experience of pastoral care working properly.  Meeting people at times of need, does seem to draw on a fountain of wisdom and grace which flows through one in a most extraordinary way.  Once again power abuse is ruled out of any pastoral encounter of this kind.

There were other points made in the talk but it was refreshing to have set out a model of care that ruled out the possibility of power manipulation.  The New Testament is full of metaphors of this kind.  Each one can form a bulwark against the possibility of a ‘leader’ harming a congregant in order to satisfy a craving for domination.  Let us all be sensitised more and more against this sad andtragic feature of church life.

90 Academic theology – friend or foe?


As part of my theological formation over quite a number of years, I learnt to respect the academic tradition of study and writing. For a piece of writing to be considered ‘academic’ it must be presented with rational arguments. Statements cannot be plucked out of the ether, but they must be backed up by argument or an appeal to the position of others who are considered authorities in the field. Each discipline of study has its own rules, but they all look ultimately to the scientific model to validate their worth. Science itself always looks for proper evidence, repeatable experimentation and other factual material. This overall method of testing and scrutiny is applied, as appropriate, to all disciplines across the board. Theological writing of course does not have to read like dry scientific study to justify its worth, but neither would it be able, in academic circles, to appeal to a Biblical ‘proof’ text to justify a truth claim. A proper method of seeing a text in its historical and theological context would have to be undertaken first. All theology has to be argued with clarity and rationality, drawing where necessary on other disciplines such as philosophy and history. Where there are in addition relevant archaeological or psychological insights to be noticed, these also should be considered.

While at my American conference last week, I came to an insight about the cavalier and confusing use of historical material by many extreme religious groups. History, when written by professional historians, is normally presented as an interpretation of events in the past. Historians can and do differ in the way that such events are interpreted but overall there is a consensus about the facts of historical events. If there are gaps in the records about a particular period, then the historian will be ready to admit to the limits of his knowledge. They will then proceed to a presentation of what can be reasonably surmised from the existing evidence. When I was at school and studied Roman history, I initially wondered why the syllabus stopped at 180 AD. The reason turned about to be that the 3rd century is lacking good contemporary historical writers so that we know comparatively little about this period.

Last week I was confronted by two distortions of history that are put out almost universally by extreme religious groups. The first one is the story of their origins. In many cases the facts of how a particular group came into being is a story of conflict or a massive falling out between individuals and groups. Michael Reid, whom I have mentioned on this blog before, was asked to leave one Christian group for his aggressive behaviour. He then went off and founded another group which grew into Peniel church. The ‘success’ of this in terms of numbers and finance cannot be disputed but the people who still attend after 30+ years have bought into a massive distortion of many historical facts about exactly what went on, in terms of lies told, corruption in money matters and sexual scandal. This church, even after Michael’s departure, is still suppressing the history of its past.   The dispassionate scrutiny of good historical enquiry will never be applied to this church. How many other churches gloss over history to sanitise the story of their origins?

The second ‘lie’ that permeates almost every Christian cultic group, and many others for that matter, is the one that says; ‘Our teaching according to the Bible is the one that is completely true, and no other church reads the Bible in the faithful way that we do.’   When we consider this claim, which is being made up and down the country and across the world, it beggars belief that anyone can fall for it. How likely is it that God’s final correct revelation should end being correctly interpreted by an often poorly educated Pastor in a small out of the way place in, say, deepest Oklahoma? The only way that such a claim gets accepted is because of a chemistry between charisma on the part of the Pastor and need on the part of the congregation. I would want to say more on this but now is not the time.

Back in February the bishops of the Church of England put out a statement on their position on same-sex marriage. Within the statement they spoke about the way that church teaching on marriage issues and the law of the land had always been in harmony. Professor Linda Woodhead, a distinguished academic from Lancaster University, immediately emailed the Director of Communications, Arun Arora, to challenge this claim. The examples from history she gave of the church and state diverging in the teaching about marriage, are not important here, but what is important was the response that came out of the debate a week or two later when other academics had become involved. A disparaging email was sent to the Archbishops from Mr Arora describing the challenging of historical fact as taking a different ‘view’ and that it was being organised by ‘liberals’. In one sentence the ‘establishment’ of the Church of England seemed to be turning their backs of properly argued debate and suggesting that ‘academic’ equals ‘liberal’. The second word was being used in its political sense and there was the strong implication that the Bishops knew best and how dare anyone challenge them. If the Church of England ever does turn its back on the academic theological/historical contribution to church teaching in favour of subjective, arbitrary dogmatism, that will be a sad day. It is hard to see, in such a church, how there will even be the potential for the bishops to stand up the powerful forces of obscurantism and fundamentalism and help the victims of this theology. This blog, or at any rate its editor, recognises the need of good academic theology, to help fight for truth in the battle against abuse. Much of that abuse, as we have seen, comes from the bad theology preached in cultic churches.


Thoughts on the American experience

It is now four or five days since the last blog but my small band of readers will understand when I tell them that getting back from the States was complicated and tiring. A plane to Reykjavik from Washington was delayed and I missed my connection to Manchester. I was then put on a plane to London which was also delayed and so I was scrabbling around to find the hotel booked for me in London after 11 pm. The final indignity was the discovery that the boarding pass for Manchester did not work at 6 this morning so I missed my plane while getting a replacement pass. Luckily another ticket was given me so I finally arrived home safely, but 24 hours late!

I am still in a state of jet-lag tiredness but I wanted to say a few things about the way the conference touched on the themes of this blog. I am hoping that some new American readers, recruited at the conference, will want to join in the discussions with their ideas and experience. They are very welcome.

One of the overarching themes of the conference was the way that laws of different countries approach extreme religious groups. I think I mentioned before that the American system is very reluctant to interfere in any situation where religion is mentioned. Thus cases of extreme emotional cruelty towards children are sometimes tolerated on the grounds that they are an expression of religious belief. The laws in this country are also confused in this area. An interesting point was made by one person on the issue of grooming. Legal processes are having to take into account that children are gradually sucked into an abusive relationship by the person wishing to abuse them. A legal definition of ‘grooming’ might well prove useful in describing the way high-demand groups operate and provide some legal recourse over cult’s more nefarious activities with vulnerable individuals. When I use the word ‘vulnerable’, I do not use it in the normal way because it seems that there are a multiple list of ways in which people are vulnerable and thus capable of being drawn into extreme groups. I personally believe that every young person negotiating the passage into adulthood is ‘vulnerable’ in my sense. There are in fact very few people who are never in a state of this kind of vulnerability and thus potentially capable of being drawn into this kind of leadership and idealism. Vulnerability is a notion that needs to be re-interpreted and re-defined.

The conversations I had with individuals who had spent anything up to 30 years in groups were fascinating. One of the things that came out of discussions and conversations was the fact that the early 70s was a ‘golden age’ for starting new religious groups. It was a time when the anti-Vietnam protestors and political agitators shifted from the outer issues to the inner. Hippiedom sometimes became a spirituality of an extreme kind. This is a theme that I know I have discussed before, but somehow the understanding of this historical fact achieved new depth when I talked about the way the world was in 1968, 1972 or 1975. My own memories of this period gave me fresh insight into what made some groups attractive and how the idealism of the times was tapped into by these same groups.

There will be various other themes that I want to share on this blog arising from the conference. But I want to finish this post with one particular insight. One discussion was speaking about the way that a powerful leader can affect the personalities of every member of his or her group. In various subtle ways the member will reflect the characteristics as well as the weaknesses of the leader’s personality. This is to preserve the leader’s power over the follower’s personalities. One aspect of this insight is to note that not only will followers subtly reveal aspects of the leader’s unpleasant characteristics -paranoia, hubris and contempt for the world outside, but also their personalities will never be able to grow beyond that of the leader. The insecurity of the kind of leader we are talking about, the brash charismatic controlling leader, will prevent the flourishing and creativity of all the followers which belongs to their uniqueness and individuality. The merging of minds, emotions and hearts which is sold as ‘Christian community’ is in fact an assault on integrity and personhood. Such cultic behaviour, wherever it occurs, is something that is to be resisted and fought. Love, as I have said elsewhere, wants human flourishing. In the same way, the loving Christian leader will allow the untidiness of difference, even if everyone has to live with the potential conflict that will arise when people are allowed to live with the discovery of who and what they are.

Washington Conference

This will be the second blog post from my conference on cults in Washington DC.  The full conference began yesterday (Thursday) with a plenary lecture.  This covered the topic of the extent to which extreme religious groups are covered by law (in this case American law).  There seems to be a visceral reluctance for the courts here to interfere with anything that has religious content.  Keeping a child in isolation for his entire life on the grounds that his parents have allowed this, seems to be OK as long as no physical cruelty is perpetrated against them.  It is however possible, apparently to bring a case if ‘undue influence’ is exercised in money matters, though this is by no means easy to do.  Another potential opening is being explored through society’s recognition of grooming.  It is only a matter of time before grooming becomes legally defined and religious coercion may possibly be linked to this in due course.

My own paper was given yesterday morning and was well received.  My problem in speaking to an unknown audience of ‘experts’ is that I fear they know far about the subject than I do.  But it seems that my maverick approach to the topic of cults, namely to point out interconnections between the phenomena of extreme religious groups and (this year) themes of social psychology, is welcome.  I believe it important to share the insights that come from extensive reading and the raw data that comes from talking to people like Chris.  This is after all the blog is about.   My paper was a discussion of the way that social environments and institutions have a far more powerful effect on people’s thinking and attitudes than they would like to admit.  We think and make decisions all the time, not from our independent thinking process, but out of an unconscious reaction to what we feel that our environment expects of us.  I mentioned the way that a church building and architecture has a powerful effect on the behaviour of the congregation.  I noted that hospitals have the same effect on patients, not always to their own benefit.  Cults are perhaps just an extreme example of a group where the unconscious situational forces work frequently in a malign way.

My body clock seems addicted to waking up at 7 am UK time which of course is 2 am American time.  Today the hour and half for lunch was taken up with sleep.  The four strands of the conference programme, that I have attended, have been fascinating and I cannot separate them all out in my mind.  But I do want to share one intriguing talk this afternoon.  This was from a retired psychotherapist who had worked with Vietnam veterans and cult survivors.  There was no doubt in her mind that cult survivors were as much victims of post traumatic stress as the ex-soldiers.   The symptom s experienced and the treatment offered are identical.   The other point that I have picked from the other talks, and indeed my own paper, is that there are no instant cures for people who have been traumatised by exposure to an extreme religious group.  The current thinking  is that changes occur in the brain to the limbic system and difficult therapy is required to retrain these neural pathways to operate outside the influence of the cult.  One acronym that is banded about here is SGA which means second generation adult.  These are adults who were born into the cult and have never known reality outside it.  There is thus no ‘norm’ for them to return.  They thus have to learn the norms of society from scratch.  It is like growing up all over again.

The individual conversations continue and I learn from people many fascinating stories.  Many individuals have spent some time in a dysfunctional group before escaping and taking on training as therapists of various kinds.  There is a great deal of wisdom gathered here, both academic/professional and practical.  It would appear that the impact of ‘Christian’ religious groups outnumbers the ‘traditional’ cults.  My interest in abusive churches fits in with the profile of most people here.

The conference finishes tomorrow (Saturday) and I will be staying with a friend in Washington for two nights.  He is an active retired Episcopalian priest and I am meeting up with him at a gay-friendly church in the city where he is preaching.  It will be interesting to record how such a church deals with all the bile and hate that is handed out to gays in this country from some sectors of the population.


Tammy’s story

I am writing this at the conference of the International Cultic Studies Association in Washington DC.  Although the weather is extremely hot, we cope by relying on the massive amount of air conditioning flowing into every room of the Sheraton Hotel which is the setting for the conference.  The conference proper begins tomorrow but I arrived for the pre-conference session.  One of the topics was to discuss the academic research that is being done in the broad area of cultic studies.  I went along to this anxious to find out the academic tools that are used to research this area of life that is so hard even to define.

The session passed off fairly uneventfully with individuals describing aspects of research work they were undertaking in different parts of the globe.  My own method of research, which is to range widely across relevant disciplines seeking insights into this difficult area of study, seemed more interesting than collecting vast amounts of interview data before subjecting it to analytical scrutiny.  I told the assembled group about my random methods of study and then the woman next to me began to speak.

What follows is an impression of her story and some of it was gathered afterwards at lunch.  I asked her whether I could include it on the blog  and she agreed.  She was particularly grateful to me because I had been able to put some of her story into a wider historical and theological context.

Tammy was born to parents who had converted to an obscure Protestant sect in around 1971.  The date is significant because it is the time when vast numbers of ‘baby-boomers’ moved away from Vietnam protests and the ideas of ‘hippiedom’ to  embrace evangelical ideas and groups.  The whole family had joined including her uncle and aunt and her maternal grandmother.  At first the sect was fairly typical but very early on the group embraced fashionable teaching of ‘shepherding’.  This teaching ensured that everyone was under the ‘covering’ of someone else.  The whole church was like a massive pyramid so that each person was obedient to someone over them.  I explained that this teaching had emerged in the 1960s in Argentina to help beleaguered Protestants survive a period of oppression by a military dictatorship.  It was then imported to the States and countries around the world.  Whatever the intentions of its founder, Juan Ortiz, it was applied with great crassness and even cruelty.  The movement was officially abandoned in the mid 80s but, as Chris will testify, the ideas have lingered in many churches up to this day.  The church members received little benefit from being shepherded and instead many suffered severely when the care was applied by immature shepherds.  These no doubt were attempting to gain compensation from being badly shepherded by others above them.  Tammy mentioned that the leader of her group was supposed to receive oversight from some ‘high-ups’ in the movement but broke away from them when they demanded he go through a session of deliverance from spirits.

Higher education was denied Tammy as being inappropriate for young people, so Tammy was married off at the age of 18 to another member of the group.  The marriage produced three children but eventually broke down when Tammy began to question the teachings of the group.  It was easier for her when the dispute between the leader and those above him became an issue and the energy of the group was deflected to this rather than retaining control over the lives of all the members

In due course Tammy and her children fled leaving behind the husband in the group.  To date Tammy has had to spend vast sums of money to prevent the father claiming custody.  When the lawyer helping her had explained to  him the issues and patterns of control that existed in the group, he expressed surprise.  The simple answer is that almost anything in America goes in the religious realm on the grounds of freedom of worship.

Tammy is making a good recovery, and in her 40s has stated studies which will lead her to being a counsellor.  I have not recorded every detail of the conversation but I was struck how many times over lunch, I would comment, when she referred to some practice by the leader in the group, ‘that was to maintain their control’.

Shepherding was one the massively abusive practices by the church which spread from obscure beginnings in Argentina via the States to be found all over the world.  It provided a method of coercion and control which fed the egos of those in charge and left those at the bottom with very little sense of self-worth.  Such identity that remained was  often filled with shame and self-loathing.  I hope that my ability to interpret in part Tammy’s story will help her on her path to healing.  She has done well to escape but in telling a part of her story, one is reminded of all the many, many others who still remain in thrall to extreme cultic groups.

I expect to have more to report over this week.