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.

About Stephen Parsons

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

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on the American experience

  1. Welcome back -you need some time to recover!
    Your blog raised 2 issues I have thought about a lot.
    1)The distinction between Evangelism and Proselytism. Evangelism is preaching the Gospel. Proselytism is communicating the Gospel by means that are not of the Gospel.In other words any means which are not based in love respect or which treats people as things and in my understanding that includes techniques of persuasion of almost any sort. But we are so used to it because it the way we are treated in our media led society and all those people seeking to extract money from us.
    2)Since the Reformation, society has exercised considerable control on who can be a minister and what training they need. Authorisation was also required.These days in many faiths it is as if anyone can set themselves up a a preacher or teacher without any training or qualifications. This is now even creeping into the teaching profession. But exactly how we establish fit qualifications for priests, ministers, rabbis, imams or gurus is not at all clear but it is becoming a matter of serious concern. Otherwise more and more gullible people are going to be manipulated and treated as objects and their full humanity being denied

  2. Thanks Robert,
    Abusive religion, like capitalism has to have the disempowered ‘lower people’. In the case of capitalism, who would clean the toilets or sweep the roads or, work in the sweat and toil of a conveyer belt care Nursing home, without being disempowered (poorly educated/other)? I personally experienced that for 40 years. In the case of religion its the disempowered followers of the Pastor that shout about ‘fulfilled prophecy’ and imminent ‘Second comings’? I was one of those too.
    In 1967 I was part of a (What some misinformed called ‘hippy’) loving community. The ‘Christian proselytes’ took all that away and left me with a vending machine personality! God help those still out there in the wilderness. Chris

  3. I appeal to all those concerned with the issue of abuse and power control to really think of ways to assist the victims. They, as I did, feel rejected by God and experience a desolation and hunger that words fail me to describe. Suicidal depression and self hate soon follow.
    We on this blog have studied the causes and vast networking in relation to this problem, can we now put our heads together and think of ways to reach out to the victims? surely at the very least we could write to the Archbishop (I’m talking about a letter signed by all of us, possibly written by Stephen?) and ask for a skilled Counsellor to be appointed in each county. If this could include victims who have survived and who could perhaps be given some training? If that letter could also raise the question of how the church is being perceived by the ‘seeking outsider’ (Confused by the happy clappy to the austere) as almost schizophrenic? This would be a start. Thank you Stephen for your absolute consistency and masses of hard work. I hope that you Robert can also give the above serious consideration? Peace, Chris

  4. Chris – I am not sure that we have the head of steam yet for the action you propose. We can hardly be said to be riding the crest of wave in this whole area. Of course there is need, but hardly anyone in the counselling profession understands church abuse as a concept. Many people suffer from Post Traumatic stress after involvement with extreme groups but the Church has not woken up to this. Let us keep going and it just maybe that we will achieve some recognition but we have not got to the critical mass yet. Incidentally I am only aware of one specialist in religious abuse in Britain from the counselling point of view and she was in Washington last week.

  5. There are lesser forms of abuse that carry all the same hallmarks. They leave smaller scars but my life has been totally changed by bullying. Favouritism, neglect. It does need to be addressed, if for no other reason than it’s a hell of a way to run a company, never mind a church.

  6. Thanks English Athena, I relate to and am sorry for your experience. The mechanics behind organized religion have taken hundreds of years to evolve. The ‘Trick’ that it achieves the best is to present God as absolutely connected to it? So if like most of the human race you are a ‘square peg in a round hole’ you are made to feel inadequate. The next step so cleverly crafted is to get you to seek advice from the hierarchy who are expert at making you dependent. You are then at the mercy of every abuser bent out of shape by the pliers of that society. I don’t know if the denominations and what we call churches will ever really talk to us, perhaps never in my lifetime? The seeming dragging of feet to talk will go on. Look at how long it has taken for us to talk about ‘assisted death’? Desmond Tu Tu has put himself in the firing line, and that is for just talking or thinking out loud! ‘Nothing new under the sun’ Nothing really changes, profit before people, doctrine before truth. If like me you wake up 44 years later and see the strings, well how do you cut them if they have lasted that long? Chris

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