Monthly Archives: October 2014

Events at Trinity Brentwood

Back in March I did a blog post about the church in Brentwood which suffered under the cultic regime of Michael Reid. MR, as I shall call him, was removed from post after details of an illicit ‘affair’ with the choir mistress came into the public domain in 2008. In fact there were numerous skeletons which tumbled out of the cupboard and these included the use of arbitrary power and manipulation as well as highly questionable financial dealings to benefit MR and others among the charmed circle of leaders. Following massive legal expense for the church, MR was removed from office. It still took a further five years to get a court order to evict him from the church premises that he occupied.

With the removal of MR, it might have been thought that the church could have a new start. But unfortunately for the church, the trustees appointed MR’s number two, Peter Linnecar, as pastor. Paying him an inflated salary of £80,000 pa, they believed that he could take them to a new future. The trustees had not calculated how much remained to be done to remove the old patterns of cultic church life that remained and in which Peter Linnecar had been deeply involved. A blog was begun by one Nigel Davies asking that a full account of the abuses of the past be acknowledged and proper apologies made. Many people had left the church with the departure of MR and the majority of them had suffered severely at his hand. These people wanted the church to come clean about the appalling events that the church had allowed to happen over 30 + years. From my point of view the church had exhibited all the typical signs of a cult so this blog, which I followed avidly, was of great interest, particularly as it revealed attitudes of both current and ex-members. From time to time I had cause to comment based on my studies of church dynamics or arising out of reflections on a visit to the church in 1998 in preparation for my book.

About five weeks ago, our blog came to interact with the Brentwood story. I had a chance email from one Gail (a pseudonym) who had visited this blog and liked the tone taken here on the theme of abusive religious groups. She had been part of Peniel, as Trinity church was then called, some thirty years ago. As a young woman from America she had been sent here to study in the so-called Bible school at Brentwood. In practice that meant the church had a group of young females to do chores around the premises of the church. Eight of them slept in a room with one toilet between them. In addition they were subject to relentless and aggressive bible indoctrination when they were humiliated and generally made to feel worthless. Gail also hinted to me of a darker aspect of her time in Britain.

I responded two or three times to Gail expressing my appreciation of the fact that she had chosen to trust me with this personal information which I promised not to pass on. I was also pleased that she had found helpful some of the material on the blog. The situation changed dramatically a week ago when Gail asked Nigel to publish on his blog a full account of her traumatic time in Brentwood at the so-called Bible school. The account is well written and is devastating in its effect on the reader. For those who do not want to read the account in full (connection to post given at end), Gail’s story is a description of cult life where total control was exercised. This extended to clothing, social contacts and even diet. Passports were taken away and money that had been sent by parents was intercepted and doled out in arbitrary small amounts. The dark secret, which Gail had hinted at in communicating to me, was rape at the hands of a church member. In spite of the devastation caused, Gail has emphasised in a subsequent contribution to Nigel’s blog that even more painful were the months of endless humiliation and mistreatment that preceded the sexual violence. Her words are as follows: ‘The emotional damage done by that night is terrible but, in all actuality, it pales in comparison to the damage done in the weeks and months leading up to that night. ‘

In the week since the publication of the account, the publicity machine at the church has gone into overdrive. There is a hint of panic in their public utterances. In a statement published some four days ago, the statement spoke of their intention to ‘investigate formally an allegation of impropriety’. A further statement spoke of the leaders desire to ‘apologise unreservedly for the hurt and distress caused’ and they expressed shame for ‘negative attitudes shown by the leaders towards various people at the time’. The statements represent a massive shift by Trinity Church even though genuine remorse for the events has yet to be shown. But the statements are possibly preparing us for a change of regime at Trinity and the removal of the chief pastor Peter Linnecar. Why do I think this? The language being used has for the first time used the language of apologies, something they have hitherto been unwilling to do. Previous statements by the church have spoken of regret that some people felt they had suffered. It has always been said that Trinity could not apologise because it would open them up to court cases. Now that they have been pushed into a corner by this allegation of a crime committed on their patch, they see perhaps that the fastest way out of the problem is to ditch their leader who was deeply implicated in everything that Reid was up to in the Bible College days.

I am of course speculating as to what will happen next, but the path to truth and justice for hundreds of people abused by the narcissism of Christian leaders is always difficult and tortuous. As I have pointed out before, the narcissistic fantasy for a many leaders like MR and Peter Linnecar is to believe that their utterances are beyond argument and infallible. This position of course goes hand in hand with a belief in the infallibility of the bible text. Gradually the authorised expounder of the infallible text becomes infallible themselves and it becomes almost impossible for them ever to admit being wrong. Gail’s testimony (and Nigel’s blog) is a powerful weapon against such pretentiousness and pomposity. Events are moving fast and things may change as soon as tomorrow. Meanwhile we believe in a God who scatters ‘the proud in the imagination of their hearts’. More to come.
Here is ref. to the student’s testimony

Destroyers of Images

iconoclasmThere is a word that resonates across Christian history which means ‘destruction of images’ which is iconoclasm. There were two times in history when Christian leaders attempted to destroy every vestiges of picture or representation of religious themes, whether carved or painted. The two main periods of this iconoclasm were the eighth and ninth centuries in the Christian East and the sixteenth century in the protestant West, particularly in Northern Europe In many ways Eastern Iconoclasm is the more interesting, especially in the way that iconography was first rejected and then reinstated in the churches of the Byzantine Empire after 843 AD. This episode, although it is something I personally resonate to, is less relevant to our overall theme than the massive destruction of art and imagery in this country, among others, at the time of Edward VI right up to the English Civil War. Only this morning I walked past empty plinths on Carlisle Cathedral which would once have had statues on them. These were then prised from their place by puritan zealots in the name of a reformed faith in the mid 1500s.

In both East and West the reason given for removing images and statuary was that it was essential to destroy idolatry and the worship of ‘graven images’. The argument as to whether images on church walls could be said to constitute real objects of worship, needless to say, was debated extensively in both parts of Christendom. Clearly there were also deeper issues at stake. In the East the Byzantine Emperors were influenced by the iconoclastic behaviour of the Arab invaders. They had their own cultural reasons for rejecting imagery but to say here more than this would be to lengthen my post too far. As far as protestant Western Europe was concerned, the old medieval symbolisms of Catholic theology seemed to be a distraction from the new protestant emphasis on the Word as the means of approaching God. The ordinary faithful member of congregation had been cut off from the Bible text because of illiteracy and the refusal of the church authorities to tolerate translations of any part of the Bible. One the main spurs of the Reformation was the availability of affordable printed Scriptures in the vulgar tongue. This could now be studied free from the control of the priests and other church authorities. All the pictorial imagery of the churches which had been the ‘Bible of the Poor’, now seemed to be a drastic filtering and censoring of the plain message of the Bible. Art which had communicated the Christian faith to the illiterate church members now came to be seen as the enemy of the protestant faith sweeping across Northern Europe.

The destruction of countless statues, paintings and illuminated manuscripts in the name of the ‘new’ religion represents the greatest acts of cultural vandalism the world has ever seem. But however much we may decry this period of our history, we may be grateful that most of the cathedrals and parish churches of England were spared, a fate not afforded to the equivalent buildings in Scotland. If anyone has ever been to the city of St Andrews in Scotland it is possible to see the fate that might have befallen all our cathedrals. We have to ask the question as to why there was so much hatred of art and sculpture. We have hinted at the way that the written word was a dominating idea in the understanding of what faith. If you had the written text, so the thinking went, you had direct access to the mind and laws of God himself.

The English parish church never plumbed the depths of artistic austerity that we find in protestant Northern Europe. There the pulpit was placed right at the centre and raised up high. This communicated clearly the idea that the preaching of the Word was the most important thing that happened in the church building. Preaching of necessity involved actual words, so this currency of the word became the chief method of communication. Images, symbols and pictures became redundant to the supremacy of verbal communication of saving truth.

There are of course many Christians who agree with the iconoclasts of the past and can say nothing good about imagery and symbolism. The idea that truth can be shared through a picture or image simply means nothing to them Such Christians probably also reject beauty and architecture as relevant to the task of worship. Once again I find in this discussion an awareness of a parting of the ways in what one might call Christian imagination. For me and for many others, both past and present, both external and internal pictures enable a participation in mystery and the aspect of the divine which can never be reduced to words and concepts. To take away such images, of whatever kind, is to impoverish my grasp of religion enormously. Iconoclasm is not just a destruction of images, it is a destruction of faith.

I am one of those people who rejoices in the aesthetic, the symbolic sides of religious faith. I rejoice that the human spirit can use to its enrichment the art of every culture and age to penetrate and to understand better the mysteries of faith which so often transcend words. We all need words (as for this blog post) but let us never be trapped and strangled by them. Artistic images and symbols, mental images, all form part of the means whereby human beings can ascend to the knowledge and contemplation of God himself.

A new vision of church?

I have just been reading a blog post by the Secretary of the organisation called Modern Church on the topic of the parochial system in the Church of England. The reason that I refer to this blog post by Jonathan Clatworthy is because it has got me thinking about the question of the future of the parochial system in the Church of England. My original comment can be read on the link that I shall give at the end, but my present blog post is an extension of my reply to Jonathan.

Among the many problems of the Church of England is the question of finance. The most expensive part of financing the church is the provision of clergy and paying for them and their housing and pensions. One existing solution to the expense of stipendiary clergy is to employ ‘self-supporting’ clergy who earn a living elsewhere and provide support for churches at week-ends. This system is in part a response to a need, and we can say that it is thanks to these non-stipendiary clergy that the parish has just managed to limp along and survive. But there is one great draw-back to any dependency on not paying an increasing percentage of the clergy in the Church of England. The draw-back is that it will never be possible to reproduce the educational standard that was required of clergy in the past and to provide it for this army of part-time unpaid clergy. In my generation the State paid for my undergraduate theological studies and my two years in residential training. They even agreed to pay for a four month sojourn studying in Switzerland. Such largesse is no longer to be found and the fact that ordinands are to be found in an older age group, means that few of them would, in any case, have the time to take the training that those of us in our twenties could once enjoy.

For a whole number of reasons the ordinands of today, particularly the non-stipendiary ones, have to enter ordination with less time for study under their belt. This does not make them second-class clergy but it does mean that many of them will find the teaching and preaching role something hard to sustain. Jonathan Clatworthy’s solution is to face this situation head-on and suggest that teaching and preaching should be a specialised ministry, undertaken by a few specially trained people. This would mean that the parish churches would be places where people gathered for worship and prayer. The teaching role would a parallel but less frequent occurrence, either taking place in particular centres or as an itinerant ministry. I mentioned in my response to Jonathan’s post the existence of preaching crosses in many villages, which is where people gather to listen to a passing Dominican friar in the mediaeval period.

I don’t want this blog post to be too critical of the sermons I have heard since retirement, but some have been dire. My criticism of many of the sermons I have heard is two-fold. Some have been poor because of a simple lack of understanding at any depth of the Bible or Christian theology. Others have been below standard because the preacher is operating out of a theological perspective that is narrow and deeply partisan. There is an evangelical-type sermon that has a few endlessly repeated motifs and too many clergy are repeating this litany of appeals over and over again. For me, and this is a controversial criticism of the evangelical conservative position, there is a type of preaching that finds its appeal only because it is simplistic, banal and without subtlety. For anyone who likes to be taught something in the experience of listening to sermons, these appeals are irritating at best. They potentially destroy any sense of adventure or growth in the activity of going to church.

What might church be like if the attempts at preaching were removed? For a start the services would be shorter. Instead of sermons there could be times of reflection when the leader invited the congregation members to offer their own take on scriptural passages. There could also be times of silence and an attempt to experience what it is like when words stop. There could be a dynamic closer to a social meeting but interspersed with prayer and reflection. The church building might not necessarily be the best place for this kind of gathering. However it takes place, it would not require an expensively trained clergyman to lead it. To make up for the lack of sermons at these gathering there would be a monthly occasion when there would offer a first-rate professional teaching event at a near-by town. This would be led by someone who understood communication and teaching. Alternatively/additionally the same teacher/preacher would come, say, once a quarter to each church to deliver a memorable address which could be chewed over in the following weeks.

Moving preaching from being an ordeal to something exciting and worth waiting and travelling for, could inject a new energy into the Church of England. The small often demoralised churches in the countryside could be places of gathering and prayer, led by local people, while the teaching and challenging aspect of church life would be done by those who knew what they were doing. From my personal position, there would be an escape from the bondage of an ever-increasing dominance of conservative dogmatic preaching. If the Anglican Church stands for breadth, it would never hand the task of teaching only to those who advocate a partisan and narrow point of view. The level of theological learning required of these diocesan teachers and preachers means that that the vast majority anyway would come from a liberal perspective. In this case liberal is not about a party line but about taking a perspective that is grounded of an in-depth broad non-partisan view of theology. All that would of course have to worked out in detail by the powers that be in the future, But meanwhile it is an idea that possibly may represent the future, a future where there is genuine hope for the Church in England.

Abuse of power with a difference

There is a story that is coming out of the area of South London where a long time ago I used to work as a clergyman. It concerns a clergyman, originally from Uganda, who was until 2011 the Vicar of the parish next door to where I had been in the 1970s. His alleged misdemeanour is a strange one. It was to officiate at the marriages of people who had no right to be in this country and thus provide them with the right of residency. The numbers of couples involved came to almost 400 over a three year period. The story, as recorded in the newspapers, described couples queuing up to be married, sometimes changing for the service in the church loos and normally having no witnesses or guests.

Having been a clergyman for many years, there is one part of the story I can identify with. There is the moment when by handing a green certificate to a happy couple, you are party to a fundamental change in their life story. Because of something you have helped to set up, you have become part of a life-changing moment in the couples’ lives. You are a bit like a midwife to a new birth.

Obviously the clergyman concerned may have been motivated by money and there was a missing £50,000 sent off to his homeland of Uganda that had not been declared to the diocese. But the crime seems an extraordinary one to commit for money as it is extremely hard to hide evidence of this particular crime. Also as the South London Vicar knew, you cannot conduct bogus weddings without the cooperation of others. So in court with the Vicar is a verger and a PCC secretary. They presumably were complicit with all the fake paper work that had to be sent off the Registrar at the end of every quarter. While filling up registers is not hard, it does take an eye for detail. It is no fun having a query from an eagle-eyed registrar in Basingstoke who spots some discrepancy or actual mistake. I am also puzzled by the fact that the same registrar, that sometimes queried my marriage returns, did not apparently wonder why the numbers of weddings in the parish in South London had shot up from 6 a year to 200. Do registrars not communicate with Archdeacons when something deeply suspicious takes place?

There are various aspects of the story that do not add up and I shall never know the answers. But I want to add my commentary on the story by noting that it may not have been primarily a matter of greed that sent this particular clergyman apparently down the path of illegality and crime. I would suggest that at the heart of the crime, there is also the possibility that it may have all began when the Vicar found for himself enjoying the power of taking marriages. Possibly he learnt to enjoy this exercise of power in people’s lives so much that the whole thing went to his head. Power is something is addictive and insofar as a Vicar exercises real power in acting as a registrar for the state, this enjoyment of power may eventually come to be a motive for crime.

It is hard and probably wrong to speculate about the motives of another person’s actions. But it is, I believe, instructive to think about the way that the love of power is at the heart of most wrong-doing and crime. Gaining money is of course one particular manifestation of human power games but Christian ministry in fact offers multiple ways of enjoying power. One can almost say that for the wrong kind of personality, the ‘vocation’ to ministry might be a calling to the enjoyment of privilege and power. Most enjoyment of power in ministry can be achieved honourably without illegality, but when power is through the naked pursuit of money or sex, the minister at some point will be tripped up. In the case of the Vicar who is alleged to have made money taking illegal weddings, it may have been a case of two sorts of power games colliding in one person. As the chances of getting away with a crime on such a scale are fairly slight, one might claim to see an addictive, almost self-destructive aspect to the Vicar’s actions. Whether the Vicar was addicted to power of money or the power of having control and influence over people’s lives, there was a kind of recklessness about his behaviour which suggests he was strongly driven in a self-destructive way. But there is an important difference between the moment of satisfaction in handing over a certificate to a happy couple to the desperate murky manipulation of the system which is alleged in this case. One was, hopefully, a legitimate satisfaction as part of the role, the other a grubby grabbing attempt to bolster up deep inadequacies. But once again we enter the realm of speculation and hypothesis.

Every church leader is given the responsibility of exercise of power. Some do it honourably and well while others find themselves propping up character weaknesses by using the same power in a self-directed way. When power is used badly by those in charge in any institution, then someone gets hurt. Abuse of individuals in the church is always through the abuse of power. That is why we keep coming to this subject and reflecting on its manifestations from one of its many angles.


I have already, in an earlier post, mentioned the preference of the Christian Right in America for Old Testament law rather than the mercy-laden commands of Jesus. Much of the current rhetoric aimed at homosexuals, is indebted to passages from the Book of Leviticus. Previous hate-targets of decades gone by include those involved in abortion, feminism and secular humanism and all these ‘evils’are attacked with similar quotes from the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. The question might arise as to why there is this obsessional attachment to books of Jewish law, while apparently ignoring the commands of Jesus to love enemies, serve others and practice mercy and forgiveness. The reason for this Old Testament approach to society and its ordering can, to a degree, be laid at the door of one R.J. Rushdoony, an American of Armenian extraction. He wrote a huge three volume work in 1960s, known as the Institutes of Biblical Law. This was modelled on Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion. In this work, Rushdoony proposed that Old Testament law should be applied to modern society. We have met the word ‘theocratic’ to describe the thinking of the Witnesses. The word to describe Rushdoony’s thinking was a similar one ‘theonomy’, which means the application of the law of God. He argued for a Christian theonomy to be applied to society. Thus, in accordance with Mosaic law, the death sentence would be administered for homosexuality, adultery, incest, lying about one’s virginity, bestiality, witchcraft, idolatry or apostasy, public blasphemy, false prophesying, kidnapping, rape and bearing false witness in a capital case. I cheerfully copied this list from a web-site, wondering if Rushdoony had left anything off. Apparently there is one death deserving crime omitted and that is drunkardness. Also, Sabbath breaking is also quietly left off the list, even though the Old Testament thought it worthy of the death sentence.

Behind this nutty version of Biblical interpretation is a visceral hatred of democracy. ‘Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies’, Rushdoony is reported to have said. ‘Christianity is completely and radically anti-democratic; it is committed to spiritual aristocracy.’ Such sentiments of course fit neatly into a right-wing paternalistic version of politics, and it is not surprising that his ideas have been embraced by another version of politics known as Dominionism. This is a right wing political vision that embraces the death penalty for all the categories mentioned above and proposes a Christian dominated system for American government. This combines a laissez-faire attitude towards economics and the violent oppression of all thinking and actions that are not approved of.

It was probably obvious to Rushdoony and his followers that his political vision was intemperate and totally impracticable. But the very existence of his massive tome and its apparent closeness to Calvin provided it with great influence both on Calvinist Christianity as well as other right wing forces at work in America. The idea that society can be run according to the Laws of the Old Testament sounds very grand until you start to think it through in practice. Quite apart from whether we wish to stone a public blasphemer or a Sabbath breaker, there is the unpalatable picture of group of unelected men gathering together to administer God’s law in his name. When they are no checks and balances in a system, the consequences for any society are potentially catastrophic. There is nothing to stop such a system becoming similar to that which prevailed in Nazi Germany during the 30s and 40s. The one who takes the power is the one with the guns and the largest ego. Even if such a scenario is hard to imagine even in the States, where guns and survivalist ideas are widespread, such ideas can still become influential in the thinking of mainstream parties. That is where Rushdoony and his ideas have become important as well as dangerous. They are not an actual political blueprint but they act as a kind of evil political virus, working on the imaginations and thinking of those who think they want to bring ‘Christian’ ideas into society.

Why do I bring up the rantings of Rushdoony on this blog? The reason for this is that much of the right-wing rhetoric that spills out against the rights of women and gays has already been rehearsed in the pages of Rushdoony and his followers for decades. Ranting against ‘public blasphemers and false prophesying’ may have been quietly suppressed but pressure can still be placed on the wicked, in the form of those who practice gay sex. Today in the Anglican Church, we who suffer from the poison of Christian homophobic vitriol, do so partly because of the dangerous rabid ideas of a fundamentalist preacher of 60 years ago. I need to repeat, once more, the simple observation that Jesus did not come to reinstate the harsh tenets of Old Testament law. He came to fulfil them, which in practice meant that he came to neutralise the poison, the bile and the hatred that flows through some of these texts. We cannot allow our thinking, political or religious, in any way to be influenced by an atrocious piece of writing which owes more to the murky depths of Fascist rhetoric of the 1930s than to anything emerging out of modern political or religious thought. Even when the origins of these primitive and bestial ideas have been long forgotten, we still need to be reminded how easily Christian thinkers have been prepared to drink at the cess-pit of extremist thought. We must not be among them!

On not reading the Bible

Thinking about the BibleIt is a source of pride in many churches to have pew bibles for the use of every congregational member. I, for one, question why these Bibles are needed since each member of the congregation will have a Bible of their own at home. If having the complete text in front of them at every service is really important, then the Church leader could encourage them to bring their own copy.

What do I think is really being said when Bibles are provided for everyone in the pews? I offer my interpretation as it might apply to some more conservative churches. Followers of this blog will expect me to come up with a somewhat perverse interpretation of such an apparently innocent act, and they will not be disappointed. By giving my opinionated interpretation for this action, I hope, at least, to get us thinking about the use of the bible in church. While thinking about what pew bibles signify, we may also reflect on another related topic. This is the fact that among the churches, where Scripture is most outwardly honoured and respected through preaching and mission statements, there is also an apparent laziness among members when it comes to their knowing what the text actually says.

The placing of a Bible in front of each person is done in many places so that when the preacher refers to a particular text, the person in the pew can look it up. This will assume a facility for this kind of switching from book to book or from text to text and this ability is taken for granted in most Bible believing churches. There will be also the implication that the argument of the preacher has added weight and authority because it is supported by particular texts. The preaching is then perceived to be authoritative and this in turn will boost the status of the preacher. In other words the provision of pew bibles seems to link in with a particular somewhat ponderous style of preaching in that church. If I wanted to be critical of this style of preaching, I would describe it as tending towards being heavy and dogmatic. While taking its authority from scripture, the preaching will probably sit lightly on other sources of inspiration, for example, the images derived from nature or the wider culture. The style of preaching that I and many others would prefer, is one that can reflect on a passage, draw insights from everyday life and also seek to encourage an understanding of the mind of Jesus to deal with the business of living in the world.

The second reason for my not being enamoured of the pew bible idea concerns the way the bibles, that are used in this way, come to be thought of. I would suggest that the practice of focusing on single verses or even single phrases, gives the Bible a bitty quality. In other words, people get used to the idea that the best way to read it, is as a series of quotes or proof texts to support preaching. What is tacitly discouraged is the idea that the Bible should be read as a continuous narrative. From a cynical perspective, if anyone actually does read the Bible in this way, they might find out that certain strands of teaching are not precisely as they have been taught. Woman in one version of the Genesis text was created simultaneously with man (not after), seven pairs of some animals went into the Ark (not two) and you must not speculate where Cain’s wife (Genesis 4.17) came from! If you sit faithfully in the pew and only consult the verses the preacher tells you, then your little brain will never have to bother itself with these sorts of imponderable questions.

In the third place the choice of edition is important. There are some versions that are, on the basis of a few verses translated conservatively, considered ‘sound’ translations. The versions that are generally recognised to take a more scholarly approach to disputed passages are discouraged. In the New International Version, much favoured by conservatives, Isaiah 7.14 is translated as ‘virgin’ to reflect the conservative theology of the translators and their convictions about prophecy. The other versions, which are faithful to the actual Hebrew words, have the translation ‘young woman’ . The Revised Standard Version which first appeared around 1950 was publically burned in the streets in America for containing such a heretical translation of the Hebrew word ‘almah’. While overall the number of these disagreements across the versions are few and relatively minor, no conservative church would tolerate the current New Revised Standard Version. From a scholarly point of view it is considered the best translation, but this NRSV version is never found or read from in conservative churches.

For me, the provision of pew bibles contains the implied message that ordinary Christians should not read their Bibles except under supervision of a preacher. It is easier to go along with the preacher’s pronouncements about the bible as a ‘God-breathed’ text, if you are in fact ‘protected’ from reading it for yourself. For anyone who does in fact read the text properly, the claims of inerrancy for the narrative may very quickly become fantastic and unsustainable. The faithful and loyal members of the ‘bible-believing’ church will thus often desist from the attempt to study it for themselves, precisely because they want to avoid feelings of dissonance that the reading of the actual text may stir up in them. For that reason the Bible continues to remain a virtually unknown text for countless thousands who nevertheless will express great admiration and respect for it. What remains in their memories are up to a hundred verses committed to memory because they are frequently mentioned from the pulpit. Psalm 23 can be recited virtually from memory and most people will know 1 Corinthians 13 and John 3.16. But these will be like choice pearl nuggets mined from the vast but unknown depths of the biblical text. The bible in conservative churches remains the world’s bestselling book which is the least likely to be actually read. Sadly, for perhaps different reasons, most Christians share with conservatives an indifference and ignorance about the content and meaning of Scripture. How many times in Bible study groups have I had to give page numbers? The members do not know which Testament a particular book is in, let alone whereabouts in the Bible it is to be found!

Charisma – rise and fall

worshipSeveral decades ago, the distinguished sociologist Max Weber made some important observations about the nature of charisma. I hope my readers will not mind if I record his ideas in a less than precise way, but the gist of what he noted was as follows. Charisma is a kind of effervescence that attaches itself to an individual in the realm of politics or religion. The charismatic leader will infect the followers with a sense of the beyond, new possibilities and new horizons. This community of followers will have an energy about it, and for a time the energy of this original vision will be sustained. I do not remember what Weber said about the way the charismatic energy was renewed, but the important thing that follows is what Weber calls routinisation. This process involves a collapse of the original energy. This takes place when the founder has died, moved on or simply lost the early vision.

Since Weber’s day, no one has seriously questioned his observations that enthusiasm gives way to routine and flatness. Obviously there are countless other things to be said about charisma in a religious setting but the basic claim of Weber about what happens to charisma has not been challenged. Take any group of Christian set on fire by ‘enthusiasm’ and thirty years down the line the nature of that enthusiasm will been transformed into dull old rules and regulations.

I mention Weber’s observations in connection with the work of Trevor Dearing among villages in Essex that Chris raises in a comment. Without knowing about these original missions I would expect that little remains of the ‘fire’ that spread across these villages in 1970s. If ‘revival’ actually hit a parish church, the next generation of ‘routinising’ Christians will have elbowed out the remaining enthusiasts. Some few might have joined an independent church and tried, probably in vain, to keep alive the original excitement. The churches that they belong to now are subject to the same social forces that Weber described and probably if any of us who strayed into one of them, we would not detect any of their early history. The churches that buck this Weberian trend the longest, are those that are found in towns, i.e. with congregations well above 50. A different dynamic again is found in the largest churches with congregations of 200+.

Chris is right to suggest that there are places that have congregations which are strongly fundamentalist in tone which were once touched by charismatic enthusiasm. But I would maintain that the fundamentalism style is often all that remains to them from the original package. They have a loyalty to ‘inerrancy’ doctrines, not because they are convinced by them, but because the original ‘prophet’ thought in this way. A loyalty to his vision is expressed by a loyalty to his theology. Now that much of the charismatic excitement has vanished, the prophet’s doctrine is all that remains to them. This is in fact a feature of many of our churches. There is a memory of something from the past, which is kept half-alive by the singing of tired ancient chorusses. The preaching may be about enthusiasm but there is normally little sign of it in practice, especially when the congregation numbers around 15 -20.

The reality that Weber pointed to is that vision and charisma are things that quickly fade unless they is renewed from within. Many of the people within the so-called ‘Charismatic-movement’ have realised this, and so we have the new ‘outpourings of the Spirit’ from places like Toronto, Penascola or Brownsville. To use a cooking analogy, these outpourings seem to be the old dishes which have been re-heated. Only a few will get to taste this food that has, with great difficulty, been kept warm. The normal way that this enthusiasm is mediated to ordinary Christians is by attending large gatherings like Spring Harvest, but most find it hard to take the excitement of the large group back into their local gatherings.

As someone who lived through the 70s and who followed the early days of the Charismatic movement with some interest, I was at the time deeply disappointed with the way things turned out. At the very start of the movement before it had been strangled by fundamentalist theology, there was a vision for a different future. Christian charisma, without its theological trappings, is in essence a spirituality. It is also a spirituality that allows Christianity to look with sympathy at other spiritual traditions across the world. As a spirituality of openness to the unseen, it can be compared to shamanic traditions, traditional African religions and the religions of the East which focus on spirituality before dogma. The charismatic contribution to the existence of a Christian tradition of healing is massive. I doubt very much whether the tradition of laying on of hands would exist at all without the charismatic impulse. At the same time this spirituality aspect of charisma receives absolutely nothing from the crude Protestant straightjacket which normally imprisons it in the West.

In this post I have appeared to say two contradictory things. One is to support Weber in his claim that ‘charisma’ invariably becomes routinised over time. The freshness of charismatic excitement cannot be sustained for very long within our Christian institutions. And yet I have hinted at another direction. I have suggested that were charisma to be released from the dogmatic straightjacket that Christians have placed it in, then it could be set free to sustain itself in a new way. It could be seen to be an impulse that exists within all spiritual traditions, including our own, which speaks of freedom, enthusiasm and newness. My own vision for the potential of charisma is at present a work in progress. All I can say at this moment is that my vision for it grows as I read and expose myself to spiritual traditions other than my own. This ‘work in progress’ may form part of my blog posts in future months.

Patterns of cruelty – Witnesses of God*

(* I am of course talking about JWs but don’t want this article to pop up on searches by the supporters of said group. Just as I don’t enjoy having my door knocked on, neither would I enjoy an online attack.)

My blog posts have, up till this point, been confined to examining the behaviour of Christian bodies. I don’t intend to deviate from this, but I feel it appropriate to bring to attention published material that sets out how Witnesses deal with uncooperative and dissident members of their group. I make no claim to have ever involved myself with the Witnesses so what I write is based solely on what they have written themselves. This material opens us up to a world-view and a mentality which may or may not help us to understand the mindset of other extremist cultic groups. I shall leave that for others to judge. What is true is that ‘religion’, as exemplified by the Witnesses leadership, can think and act in what seems to be a completely cruel and heartless manner towards some of their own membership.

Apart the practice of refusing blood transfusions, the practice of ‘disfellowshipping’ is the one that most disturbs the general public when encountering Witnesses. Two quotations of chilling brutality sets out the context of ostracism, as practised by the group. ‘The one who deliberately does not abide by the congregation’s decision, puts himself in line to be disfellowshipped’. One can only speculate what the words ‘abide by the congregation’s decision’ actually means. One imagines that it basically believing without question what one is told. A second quote: ‘any attachments to the disfellowshipped person, whether these be ties of personal friendship, blood relation or otherwise, must take second place to the theocratic disciplinary action that has been taken.’

I pause to consider what might be the meaning of the innocent sounding word ‘theocratic’. It literally means the rule of God, as opposed to other systems like democracy or even non-democratic systems like Marxism or Fascism. To the untutored ear it sounds like a good idea, in that brings divine values into society, rather than relying on the untidy methods of democratic debate for political decisions to emerge. In practice, there are always specially chosen groups of men, who have a ‘hot’ line to God and know exactly what his will is. History, even that of our own time, tells us exactly what theocracy actually looks like. Whether it is expressed in a Christian or Islamic form, it normally involves a fierce autocracy that suppresses any idea of cultural or social advance. It is conservative in its passionate embrace of the idea that nothing of any value can be discerned outside the group, or the society, it is trying to create. Education is about mastering the tools of literacy and numeracy but little more. Theocracy comes down hard on creative ideas or innovation, whether these are expressed among the Witnesses or in the so-called Caliphate in Iraq. To put it bluntly, you are more likely to survive in this ‘theocratic’ society if you have never eaten the apple of thinking for yourself.

Further instructions about the treatment of the ‘disfellowshipped’ follow. “Those in the congregation will not extend the hand of fellowship to this one, nor will they so much as say “Hello” or “Good-bye” to him. … Therefore the members of the congregation will not associate with the disfellowshipped one, either in the K. Hall or elsewhere. They will not converse with such one or show him recognition in any way”. Further instructions specify: ” we also avoid social fellowship with an expelled person, This will rule out joining him in a picnic, party, ball game, or trip to the mall or theatre or sitting down to a meal with him either in the home or in a restaurant.” While it is true that there have been adjustments to this system over the decades, the ‘system’ still comes down heavily on anyone who even questions, even inside themselves, the teachings of the movement. What we witness in these instructions is that people are encouraged to cut themselves off from others and silence them, not on grounds of dislike but because the Movement decides that this is right. There is a justification for this behaviour offered when instructions state: ” If you shun a person enough leaving her down and without friends, she will have no other alternative but to reintegrate the Movement and submit again to its control.” This sounds like a generous slave owner trying to recapture runaways! One’s heart goes out to such survivors who are the subject of such barbaric treatment.

I need hardly say that the line of ostracism and shunning loved ones in the Witnesses movement has caused massive unhappiness worldwide. That a body of religious leaders, at the instruction of those set over them, should decide to fracture so thoroughly human relationships of people they know well, is incomprehensible. Such a system, according to these dreadful injunctions, invites no sympathetic understanding from the outside world. Indeed it is hard to imagine how an individual could get close enough to study their beliefs and listen to them without finding their sanity and sense of identity under attack. I am not encouraged, after reading this material, even to extend the hand of friendship to those who come knocking at the door. I am even less inclined to embark on any discussion with them, knowing that our perspectives on the Bible and God are so far apart.

Witnesses are clearly outside the mainstream of Christian life in this country, but it is clear that they operate in ways that are practised by a variety of extreme religious groups and cults. What is interesting and unique about the JWs is that they have actually printed instructions for local leaders which we can read and study without having to get close to the group. We can begin to understand a deviant world of belief and practice and recognise that however much we may be enthusiastic for God, their so-called ‘ theocratic’ pattern of church life, is one that holds absolutely no attractions.

Taking stock with the Blog

blog-writerHaving written over a hundred pieces for this blog, I ask myself whether I have got anything more to say. The answer is probably yes, as long as I keep reading and drawing on the insights of wiser people than myself. What does surprise me is that I have, more or less, not deviated away from the main theme of the blog, the abuse of Christians by other Christians. I sit down at my computer two or three times a week wondering which issue to speak about. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes I find it less straightforward. What keeps me going are two reasons. The first is the thought that some of this material in the blog may help victims of various kinds of Christian mistreatment to have a clearer understanding of the forces that have been deployed against them, intellectual and emotional. The second reason is perhaps more selfish. It is a recognition that if I keep writing things down, like a student writing essays for a university tutor, I am giving myself an extra incentive for keeping up my reading in fascinating areas of study. Without this incentive, I might wonder if there was any point of keeping myself informed. As a retired clergyman , I don’t have the stimulus of adult confirmation classes or discussion/teaching groups anymore. So you, my blog readers, are a kind of substitute ‘parish’ discussion group.

This brings me on to a second point. There is a small group who make comments, not always complimentary but all of them to the point. Without these comment makers, I would feel that I was speaking into a great silence so I am very grateful to all who do comment. Beyond the group who comment there are also others who come on to the blog more or less regularly but who do not say anything. Although most of these individuals are unknown to me by name, there are some who have written to me privately to let me know of their existence. I am extremely grateful to them for this. In some ways it is more encouraging to have a general expression of support than a strong reaction of disagreement to something I have said. As an encouragement to others, I am mentioning here the possibility of communicating with me direct, via the main page of the blog, or direct to my email. My email address is Talking to an invisible crowd has its own challenges.

As you all know the genesis of this blog was the letter sent by Chris Pitts to the Church Times in June 2013. This letter set out way in which Chris had suffered negative experiences at the hands of other Christians. Chris and I are regular telephone contact with each other and I try to reflect his concerns in the topics of the blog. His experiences are obviously grounded in a set of particular events, past and present. I have interpreted the theme of this blog within a wider context, without losing sight of the basic theme that Christians can and do hurt each other. Some of this hurt may be unconscious or unintentional, but a lot is caused by the crassness and cruelty of human beings who use power abusively. A particular complication is caused by the fact that there are theological systems that appear to encourage human cruelty, by the use of such techniques as shunning or ostracism. I have also spoken about the use of fear tactics in preaching. Both ostracism and fear tactics can be justified from the words of Scripture, but that fact does not, according to my thinking, remove them from needing to be scrutinised in accordance with our moral and ethical reasoning. There is something quite terrifying about evil being perpetrated from the words of a book that is supposed to promote life and goodness.

So this blog post is a commitment to carry on with my posts for the foreseeable future. My determination will be increased by hearing, even briefly, from those of you out there who follow but do not comment publically. There is a programme run by Google, called Analytics which gives me total of hits each day. I cannot completely interpret them as it is difficult to decide who are regular visitors and who are those who stumble on the blog by chance. For the record there are about 35 hits each day. Not a huge number but it is sufficient to encourage me to think that there some people, even though a small number, who think this project is worthwhile. I for one think it is!

An Orthodox Perspective

saintsFollowers of this blog will have noticed that I do not resonate with various of the standard statements of Evangelical theology. In particular I have shown my unease with the standard, and to some, essential explanation of the death of Christ as a substitutionary atonement. My main objection to the doctrine is biblical. Granted that the doctrine can be read out of certain biblical texts, there are also other models. Logically, to be properly ‘biblical’, we should be prepared to hold all the models together and see them as different but complementary attempts to explain something that is by nature beyond explanation. My particular favourite model is that given in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Christ is seen to fulfil the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement. By his sacrificial death, he enters into the Holy of Holies, the actual presence of God. We who are his followers go with him into the heavenly realms. This theology is reflected in the passage in Hebrews 4.14, ‘Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession…..’

A second reason for querying the standard protestant explanation of Jesus’ death is that there is another branch of the church, the Orthodox, that have never given much attention to our Western preoccupation with doctrines that have as their aim the avoidance of Hell. I cannot of course in this short piece, do more than outline these differences but I want to begin with a much overlooked text in 2 Peter 1.4 that has inspired the Orthodox to develop theology in a different direction. The passage reads as follows: ‘Through these (power and knowledge) he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.’ This passage seems to have been unnoticed by the Augustinian/Calvinistic strain of Christianity that wanted all Christians to ‘grovel’ in their utterly depraved wickedness. Instead of being required to wallow in filth and depravity, the Christian is being invited to contemplate the possibility of sharing with Christ the divine nature itself. The same theme was expressed by Athanasius who in around 350 AD summed up the Incarnation in the famous words, ‘God became man so that man might become God.’

The Orthodox have developed a theology that is optimistic and more focused on the potential of human beings on their Christian journey than in emphasising how they are a hair-breadth away from Hell. I am one of many people in the West who appreciate these positive themes within Orthodox theology, while recognising that it has suffered from many reactionary conservative forces over the centuries that sometimes make it difficult for the Westerner to penetrate and properly appreciate it. But I would like to continue with this theme of an optimistic, hopeful theology about humankind that I find in the classic presentations of Eastern Orthodox teaching.

Orthodox theology has never downplayed the fact of Original Sin and indeed the disobedience of Adam is spoken about in many texts in strongly literal way. But although there is agreement with the West over the way that corruption has, through Adam, entered the entire human race, there is a softer tone in this presentation. After the fall, humankind still has some freedom and there is nothing to suggest that total guilt and depravity is what marks the human race. When presenting the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the Orthodox put a greater emphasis on the Resurrection than on the crucifixion. The Resurrection is the climax of his life and the full revelation of the way that God and the human race are joined in a burst of glory. The story of the Transfiguration is also celebrated as an anticipation of this triumphant proclamation that God has broken into our material world. The Crucifixion is also celebrated but it is never allowed, as in the West, to be separated from the Resurrection. The two belong together.

The life of the Christian following the Resurrection can be summed up in this single word implied in the 2 Peter passage, ‘deification’ or participation in the divine nature. The Orthodox point to other New Testament passages that imply this idea, notably the passage from the ‘High Priestly prayer’ in John 17. ‘As thou Father art in me and I in thee, so also may they be in us.’ Deification is a strong theme through the centuries and it undergirds what can be called Orthodox mysticism. The Orthodox also have a strong sense of the way that the human body is to be involved in spiritual practice and the literature is full of accounts of the bodies of saintly people glowing in a physical manner. The tradition of icon painting also shows how the saints and men of prayer possess the radiance of a heavenly light.

The emphasis on ‘deification’ or the transformation of human beings through prayer and attention to the sacraments of the church is a simple one. I cannot of course discuss it in any further detail at this point, but to repeat what I said earlier that it is a hopeful and attractive presentation of the Christian faith. I share it with my readers because it summarises part of the reason why I am so critical of other presentations of the faith that use fear and the threat of deep despair in promoting the Christian faith. Perhaps this short piece will help some of my readers to see that Christians who promote their version as the only version of the faith are simply wrong. There are versions of the Christian faith, far older than our own, that have nothing whatever to do with the squabbles in the West around the time of the Reformation. To breathe Orthodoxy, even if only for a time, is like breathing fresh air, after being for a long time in the fug that we call Western Christianity. From the Orthodox point of view, having never known a Reformation, our theological debates all seem rather petty and provincial!