Monthly Archives: November 2014

Facing the pain of abuse part 1

It was last summer that I noticed something about my participation in courses and conferences for those abused by faulty religion. It was the fact that, unlike almost all my fellow attendees, I have never had to endure the experience of being abused and humiliated by religious leaders. That seemed to be the experience of everyone else, and it was particularly striking last summer in Washington DC. Participation in the conference almost seemed to require a story of pain, heartbreak and long slow recovery from an abusive situation in the past. Attendance at the conference was indeed, for many, part of this long process of returning to psychological health. Having pointed out this fact that, apart from facing parishioners who believed that they had all the answers to what they thought was wrong with my church, I am largely free of the pain that Chris and many others refer to in their experience of church. Any reader who wants to know more about why I choose to involve myself in this whole area, should consult the pages at the beginning of this blog. They may get some idea how I came to be in this place of wanting to help those who suffer pain because of religious abuse.

There is an argument for believing that I could be more effective in assisting others, who have gone through times of cultic or religious abuse, if I had suffered something similar. But there is also a strong case for saying that my freedom from this particular kind of emotional pain allows me to be clear eyed about the problem. As the followers of my posts will witness, I do understand a bit about the dynamics of religious groups which gives me some insights into these problems. Sufferers of religious or cultic abuse sometimes prefer to hear, not ‘I feel your pain’, but a more detached analysis of how person A. manipulated and plotted to take over a group in order to extract emotional and financial benefit for himself. (It is normally a him!) This objective comprehension of the dynamics of abuse will help some to rise up, even if only temporarily, above the emotional pain and take back a certain level of control. They now understand better why they feel in the way they do. It is my claim that new insight into a problem of a painful nature in your past will normally assist you to deal with it better. Sometimes it even helps to see the perpetrator of some evil against you as themselves a victim. What they did still hurts terribly years later but the insight that can be gained as to why they found it ‘necessary’ to damage others, will ease a little of the emotional pain felt now.

Blog followers will know that I am following closely the events taking place in Brentwood where an abusive church is being pressured to face up to its past. The former leader, Michael Reid, who was sacked (at massive expense) by the Trustees in 2008, continues to haunt the church, partly because no one wants to look back at the appalling history of his abuse. Ostensibly he was removed for an illicit sexual liaison with a church member but there is much more abuse hidden in the church’s history. My interest in the church is partly because I visited it during my research into abusive churches in the 1990s, but also the blog, that is run by one Nigel Davies, continues to throw up fascinating material both from current as well as former members. In my retirement, I cannot access case studies as rich as this for my interest in religious abuse, so this blog and its evolving story grips my attention. I find myself able from time to time able to offer comments and interpretation on-line. One thing that intrigues me, in particular, is that, to all appearances, Michael Reid seems to fulfil all the criteria for being a prototypical narcissistic charismatic leader. Lest this sound as though I am trying to level at Michael Reid an insult of maximum impact, let me say at once that this description from psychoanalytic language is as much about the damage probably done to him at an early age. In other words although the description of ‘narcissist’ sounds like an accusation, it is also a description of someone who may have had much evil visited on them first. Further the fact that a particular narcissist has been allowed to wreak horrendous damage on others, is a criticism of the culture that tolerates this kind of grandiose behaviour, as though it were acceptable. Churches, especially in the States, seem to love the larger-than life personalities that emerge within the charismatic evangelical world, but these places, where these personalities are allowed to lead and run amok, are ones best shut down. So to repeat, the prototypical narcissist like Michael Reid is often a victim of faulty rearing, so that, in adulthood, such an individual has a massive ‘deficit’ of self-esteem. He works hard to experience the self-esteem once denied to him as a child and consequently other people are ruthlessly manipulated to achieve an emotional ‘high’ which may fill a yawning emptiness within him. The literature suggests that, along the way, the narcissist has become less than empathetic to the needs of other people, because his need to be constantly affirmed is massive. Other people are ruthlessly exploited as the targets of his power games. The narcissist may dominate them or demand their slavish adoration, and these behaviours are both stock in trade for the narcissist. It is in noticing this dynamic that can offer an insight into the dysfunction and problems that pervade so many cult-like churches.

The pain of becoming subject to a malign narcissist can be terrible and life-long. The two aspects of the relationship that I have mentioned, demanding from people slavish adoration or subjecting them to abject humiliation, are both incredibly damaging. I realise from my word count that I need to bring this post to a close for now and leave further comments on the subject of the pain of victims for another time. But today I ask my reader to consider the damage that religious leaders can and do create in their followers. There is of course more to be said and I will return to the topic of the pain of abuse in another blog.


totalitarianismThe twenty fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was also the anniversary of the collapse of the most extraordinary social and political experiment that the world has ever seen. Marxism/Leninism in and around the Soviet Union was an ideology that believed it had all the answers to the economic and political problems of society. At the same time it put out the idea that it was possible to create a new type of humanity, Soviet man. This great ‘Idea’ that the ultimate victory of socialism was assured and that, whatever the set-backs, nothing could defeat its ultimate victory, was all embracing. In theory it inspired and filled the imaginations of every citizen in the Soviet empire. That it collapsed both as an economic idea and a social movement is a fact of history. It had been sustained through the lies, self-deceit and propaganda of the system. Millions of actual human beings died of starvation because the authorities wanted to promote false statistics of grain production in the Ukraine in the 1930s. Because much of the pretend grain did not exist, people starved. The great ‘Idea’ was in fact a fantasy but it achieved through the propaganda machine a period of apparent success. Meanwhile it never resolved the actual problems of motivating people and allowing them to breathe the fresh air of human individuality and desire for freedom.

The 40 year experiment in changing human nature was only possible because the Soviet authorities seized all the tools of communication within Russia and its satellite states. Having shut off every alternative voice by creating a totally closed society, they were then able, in the words of Solzhenitsyn, ‘to elevate the primitive refusal to compromise into a theoretical principal and regard it as the pinnacle of orthodoxy’. In other words the political elite ‘knew’ what was true, and discussion and debate were to be ruthlessly suppressed. Even before the Revolution of 1917, Lenin had written that his aim in polemics was not to refute but to destroy his opponent. This paranoid ruthless streak which is part of the ‘Idea’ has a kind of fundamentalistic quality not dissimilar to the totalitarian thinkers of the American Right of today. The power of Soviet leaders was rooted in something that rendered it beyond even the possibility of dissent or debate.

Totalitarian ideologies and political systems exist because there is always a part of human nature that wants a strong individual to make decisions on its behalf. The political success of Putin in Russia is of surprise to us in the West because we cannot imagine how anyone would want to follow a totalitarian leader who uses the lies and the old propaganda tools of the old Soviet empire. Otherwise intelligent people can also be duped in believing this take on history and society. As a 12 year old I listened as the ‘Red’ Dean of Canterbury spoke about his visit to Russia for the 40th anniversary of the Revolution in 1957. Thankfully we were also being exposed to another version of contemporary history, so there was little chance of the corruption of young minds. Social justice was an honourable aim for any society but this high ideal blinded many to the truth of what was actually going on in Soviet society. Nevertheless the admirers of the Soviet system in their blindness to actual facts, were in the words of one commentator, ‘traitors to the human mind, to thought itself’.

What point do I want to make about totalitarianism and the church? First I want to acknowledge that similar patterns of coercive and ‘infallible’ thinking have existed throughout the history of the church. I need just to mention the shame of the period of the Inquisition and the cruelties of the Reformation on both sides. But having admitted to the way that Christians have behaved in the past, it is deeply shameful that totalistic systems of thought still exist in the Church today. It is one thing to take sides in a religious war back in the 16th century and kill others in the name of God, but quite another to support an ideology today which cannot tolerate dissent or disagreement. Christians, thankfully, do not kill each other but the language of contempt and vilification of their ideological opponents is fairly vicious at times. Any system that cannot tolerate debate or discussion is in danger, like the ‘Idea’ of Marxist/Leninism, of becoming a system that destroys and tramples human beings under foot. The stand that this blog is taking, is saying is simply this. When a belief system cannot defend itself by reasoned argument and politeness, it is in danger of becoming totalitarian. Such a system must be resisted because, otherwise, it will go on to destroy people, if not physically, at least emotionally and spiritually. Sadly we meet today many such systems within the Christian church itself.

How to ‘disagree well’

The Archbishop of Canterbury has called on Anglicans to ‘disagree well’ in the debates that divide Anglicans. However a recent survey indicates that so far from disagreeing well, the majority of male Anglican evangelical clergy believe that separation is a better option than tolerating disagreements in the Communion. They would also prefer that agreement would somehow be insisted on by a central authority. Their support for such a (papal?) pronouncement would, of course, depend on it conforming to their pre-existing convictions.

It is important to unpack what is being said on both sides in this debate. The Archbishop with his elegant phrase, ‘disagree well’, captures a gracious ability to live with people who do not agree with you or who use a different set of concepts and language to talk about God or moral issues. The ability to allow for a different narrative about such things alongside your own, is not difficult for the inclusive Christian. They will have a strong awareness that their own position is never the last word. The liberal inclusive thinker will also recognise, as this blog has emphasised many times, that words themselves are sometimes unhelpful in the task of describing truth.

The contrasting position, which has been revealed in a recent Yougov poll organised by the Westminster Faith Debates, reveals that two thirds (68%) of male evangelical clergy have no sympathy with the idea that the Anglican Church as a whole should embrace diverse ideas. A smaller number (61%) of evangelical women clergy would also take this line. For both groups, the idea of propositional truth trumps any idea of the possibility of ‘disagreeing well’ with those who do not follow the ‘correct’ line, whether it be on moral issues or on doctrine. From this perspective, truth, as presented in doctrinal statements or in the words of Scripture, cannot be changed or compromised. God’s will has been revealed in words and any attempt to change these words and propositions will be firmly resisted.

Overall the Yougov poll shows that most clergy approached support Archbishop Welby with his call for the church to ‘disagree well.’ 75% would back this appeal. But the problem of a fixed determined intransigence among a certain proportion of the clergy seems to be not easily resolved. As I have said recently on this blog, the reason for this failure to agree or to tolerate difference is unlikely to be completely theological but rather to tap into other aspects of personality and psychology. This blog continues to explore what these non-theological factors might be. But whether this intransigence comes from an individual psychology or a tribal mentality, it continues to be an institutional nightmare for our leaders in the church. The days of absolute episcopal power seem to be over as lay people, who pay for the church, begin to flex their institutional muscles. These same lay people will listen, not to a remote bishop, but to the clergyman at hand. If he defies the local bishop, then they will support him, when necessary, by withholding the Parish Share. A financial famine is the one thing that could cause the whole Anglican structure to collapse. It appears to be quite close in certain Dioceses in the North of England and in the Diocese of Truro.

The ability to ‘disagree well’ is something that I, as the editor of this blog, can firmly endorse. The problem is, however, not what I, as an individual, think but whether the church as a whole allows its intransigent minority to become more and more dominant. This year, according to the poll, those who cannot and will not shift from a fixed position numbers 25%. In five years time, what will that total be? This blog has its aim the desire to suggest that the tsunami of conservative thinking in the church should be challenged and if possible checked. Resisting intransigent thinking, even in a very tiny way, is a worthy activity, not only because it stands up for truth of a generous and inclusive kind, but also because truth of this type is less likely to cause pain and suffering to those who encounter it. Truth and compassion are two very good reasons for welcoming the Archbishop’s call on all of us to ‘disagree well’.

The Church and Misogyny

The Anglican Church has recently been completing the crossing of the final hurdles before women in England are permitted to become bishops in England. A female bishop could be in post as soon as next year. But in noting the historic events taking place at General Synod today (Monday), I am immediately led back to some reading I did some weeks ago about the depths of misogyny that is practised by most religions not least Christianity.

At the time when women were first ordained in the Church of England in the early 90s, I was asked to speak to a group of sixth formers in a girl’s private school on the issue. At that time the prominent opponents of female ordination were the Anglo-Catholic party in the Anglican Church and I spoke about their reasons for opposing it. I thought I was being perceptive in focusing on the issues around impurity and the uncleanness of women to perform sacred acts, like celebrating the eucharist, while ritually unclean. This sense of the unclean is what also lies behind the so-called ‘churching of women’. In the past women who had had children could only re-enter society after they had been to church to be ‘churched’ or purified. It was quite clear that the origins of this ceremony reached back to the Old Testament, and the ideas there and taboos surrounding the uncleanness of women after they had had a child. These visceral feelings about the nature of women’s bodies and its functions were presented alongside the rather tired arguments about how Jesus only chose men as his disciples. More recently I have discerned still deeper levels of hatred against women which lies behind the opposition to women priests and, by extension, to the notion of women bishops.

One strand of opposition to the ministry of women as priests and bishops is held by conservative evangelicals. This resistance is not universal among evangelicals but is expressed forcibly a strand of evangelical theology represented in the UK by a group called Reform. The Diocese of Sydney in Australia is a whole diocese that has set itself apart from the mainstream of Anglican church life by declaring that it will not ordain women to the priesthood nor receive the ministry of women ordained elsewhere to practise as a priest. A woman bishop from New Zealand was only allowed to preach in the Sydney diocese by being robed as a deacon. This solid opposition to the ministry of women priests is something that needs to be explored. What possible reasons are there that lie behind this implacable opposition to the idea of women exercising a priestly ministry?

It is reading the arguments put forward by the representatives of the Diocese of Sydney over a number of decades that allows us to get the flavour of the argument put up by this strand of conservative evangelicalism. Elsewhere in the Anglican world, the arguments against the ordination of women is not allowed to be the dominant voice in the discussion. It could almost be said that the case against women’s ordination is a lost cause among evangelicals, even though there remain strongholds of resistance in every Anglican country. In every presentation of the evangelical case against women being ordained, we hear the argument about ‘headship’. From a number of texts, mainly in Paul but also from Genesis, the argument was put forward that God’s will, as revealed in Holy Scripture was against the ordination of women. Headship in both church and family belongs to men. This is a fundamental truth revealed by God. In a revealing interview given by Peter Jensen when newly appointed a Archbishop of Sydney in 2002, he indicated that he would be more concerned about a Rector who supported the ordination of women than he would about one who questioned the nature of the resurrection. Whatever Peter Jensen meant to say in this comment, it is clear that his version of Protestant Christianity puts the opposition to women’s ordination very high up on the agenda of the important marks of a ‘true believer’.

What does this inordinate opposition to the ordination of women actually say to us? We had cause in a previous blog to claim that the opposition to gay marriage had more to do with politics and psychology than with theology. The opposition to women having authority of any kind over men could also be seen as a political struggle tinged with deep psychological roots. What do we have here? What I believe we find in this theological position is nothing less than a theologically flavoured misogyny. Hatred of women by men can come from many sources, but it is a truism that that throughout history men have found it necessary to dominate and control women. The feminist literature has explored the extent and breadth of this warfare against the female sex. In summary the female voice has been suppressed or ignored, her sexuality tightly controlled and her rights to dispose of her property as she thinks fit severely limited. It is clear that men traditionally have found the ways of the feminine deeply unsettling and their need to control what they cannot understand has been overwhelming. The traditional patriarchal societies of the past evoke a strong affection from evangelical thinkers. They appear, through rose-tinted spectacles, to be havens of order and godliness where women knew their place in society under the total dominance of men. It is perhaps no coincidence that that two consecutive principals of Moore College in Sydney, from where the anti-women theology receives so much support, were both experts in Reformation history. The period of the Reformation, to judge from comments of Luther, Calvin and John Knox, was a period that allowed women little power or influence. They too seized on stories of the failings of Eve and God’s will for the headship of man from Paul with great alacrity.

The ordination of women as priests and now as bishops may create problems for the Anglican church as it loses its relationships with the Catholic church and the Orthodox. It does however represent a victory over a rather seedy piece of theologising that passes for biblical theology. We in the Anglican church have not been taken in by this attempt to pass off misogyny as good or even adequate theological reasoning. The misogyny of certain Christian groups has caused untold suffering to many, and its final defeat in our church is a cause for celebration and thankfulness.

Updates at Trinity Church Brentwood

The final denouement at Trinity is yet to take place but the sense of drama and activity at the church continues apace. Since the revelation of the historical allegation of rape which was reported on this blog, the church has put out a number of statements. One contained the closest thing to an apology that the church has ever published but there was little sense of the incongruity of the words after six years of secrecy, forgetfulness and a seeming total unwillingness to unpack the events of the past. The latest attempt to stave off the wall of criticisms and recollections of the appalling events of the Reid era was the request to send in messages of support for the leader Peter Linnecar. The invitation was extended only to current members, with the implication that comments of former members would be ignored. In the event the church published results of the opinions of members and ex-members alike. It showed predictably that Peter L still has a lot of support from his congregation, many of whom are related to him by blood or through inter-marriage. The statements were slightly tempered by the suggestion that the church trustees was minded to appoint a new assistant pastor from outside the church. Such a person, it was suggested, might help the church to deal with the past. The tone of the messages suggest that the trustees may be being pulled in two directions. One group actually wants to deal with the past while another is in strong defensive mode with and for their pastor. A future of honesty and openness for the latter group is just too much to face.

Meanwhile the blog continues to recount some pretty awful stories by ex-members. None of them cross that line into illegality but they make painful reading all the same. A fourteen year old was expelled from the school with no notice after some apparently harmless behaviour and it was suggested that this action was taken by Peter Linnecar as a way of getting back at the parents who were challenging the church in some way. Another ex-pupil recalled being humiliated and lambasted for his ‘sins’ in front of the whole school assembly. What made his account poignant was his thought that this was a Christian thing to do in making his humiliation so public. Clearly there are numerous other stories that do not make the blog but there seems general agreement that the school was the scene for some foul power games against the parent of the children there. Humiliate the children so that parents fall into line.

The latest piece of drama is that Peter and Carolyn Linnecar have flown to the States. It is suggested that they have gone off to consult George Kovoor, now in America. George was formerly Principal of Trinity College Bristol and was reputed to have helped the congregation recover from the Michael Reid era. One blog comment however has suggested that he failed lamentably to challenge the church when particular allegations of misconduct were raised two years ago. George was handed an open letter asking him to question Peter and other officials, when he came to preach, about an extensive correspondence sent to the church over misconduct at the school. There was a suggestion that the entire batch of letters was shredded. His demeanour on that occasion suggested that his task was not to challenge anything in any way but simply to enjoy the church’s lavish hospitality. While George may have helped the church pick itself up after the departure of Michael Reid, there is absolutely no evidence that he has ever challenged it in the six years since then. For a man of wide experience of ministry, it is curious not to see evidence that he has offered any guidance or advice of a constructive kind since then.

Peter and Carolyn return from the States today (Friday) and there is some expectation, once again, that important announcements will take place this w/e. Will Peter continue as chief pastor or will he succumb to the pressure of the continuing revelation of the appalling events of the past? Meanwhile Nigel Davies, the blogmaster, has been invited to a meeting with the Trinity trustees at 7.30 am on Saturday December 6th for 30 minutes. No doubt that will be an important and interesting encounter. We wait to see.

Notes from Dromantine 2005

The intense hostility of conservative churches within the Anglican Communion over the issue of gays has been alluded to several times on this blog. As I explained in the previous post, it would be hard to claim that the divisions are purely matters of theology. The battles within Anglicanism are also a direct out-working of other wider struggles that are taking place across the world, most notably the push by the political right in America to obtain power and influence over their opponents. Where there is politics in America, there is nearly always someone who is motivated enough and wealthy enough to throw a great deal of money to support the chosen cause. The struggles to promote the cause of the extreme conservative right against the liberal mainstream within denominational Christianity in America have drawn considerable sums of money from right wing foundations in the States. There are in fact five secular organisations which ‘throw’ money at any situation which might promote the ultra-conservative position. There is also a notorious individual called Howard Ahmanson, a follower of Rushdooney, who supports with his interest and money the Anglican conservative cause which has as its target, the ‘gay lobby’ within the church. The money flowing from all these sources has allowed a small of activists to mount campaigns of considerable strength against the Episcopalian Church in the States, particularly after the consecration of Gene Robinson, the gay bishop in 2003. These funds support right-wing lobbying groups such as the so-called American Anglican Council and the Institute on Religion and Democracy. American money also reaches conservative groups in the UK, in particular Anglican Mainstream.

We cannot on this blog uncover all the strands of activity that have been unravelled by careful investigators over the years. But enough material has been gathered to indicate their methods and allow their opponents to cry ‘foul’ at some of their machinations. In this post I want to focus on the activities of lobbyists at one particular meeting, a gathering of Anglican Primates at Dromantine in Northern Ireland in 2005. The meeting was supposed to be a private gathering of bishops under the chairmanship of Archbishop Rowan Williams. In fact it was the interference of those outside the gathering that dominated the proceedings of the conference. One the issues to be discussed at this meeting was how the Anglican Church as a whole was going to react to the American Episcopalian Church after Bishop Robinson’s appointment. Was the Episcopalian Church to be removed from the Anglican Communion? Some of those present, the Archbishops of Uganda, Kenya and the Southern Cone were closely working with the organisations in the States who were lobbying hard for this outcome. The situation of the meeting began to descend into farce as the Primates in the meeting were being in part coordinated by activists who were staying nearby. Notes were being passed to conservative sympathetic Primates as to what they should say and how they should vote. Expensive dinners were organised (and paid for) by the American lobbyists and it appeared that everything said at the meeting was reported to these same activists. It was even claimed that Archbishop Akinola was having material drafted for him to say and even the final communiqué was altered by the lobbyists on the outside. The discussion on this final text went on into the late evening, after Archbishop Akinola staunchly defended this lobbyist text.

The highly respected Archbishop Robert Eames who had been brought in by Archbishop Rowan to assist with the process of holding the Anglican communion together declared that he was ‘quite certain’ that African bishops were being offered money to cut their ties with the Episcopal Church. Archbishop Akinola challenged Eames to produce evidence but the claim was supported from other sources. The provincial secretary to the Uganda Archbishop confirmed that US conservatives contributed towards the salaries of provincial staff from 1998. Archbishop Akinola hinted strongly in a sermon to his fellow African Anglicans that the resources of the conservative Anglican Communion Network were only available to those who had cut themselves off from ECUSA, the mainstream American Anglican body.

Enough has been said to give the flavour of the way things were operating in the years that led up to the founding of GAFCON in 2008. The claim of this blog once again is to say that the so-called divisions in the Anglican church have much more to do with politics and psychology than to theology. Of course the Bible is quoted and used but one suspects that political agendas are at the foundation of many of the disputes that take place among the churches. I for one would feel greatly cheated if my church started to pursue right wing political objectives but wrapped them up in the language of piety and holiness. That is, in fact, precisely what seems to be happening right across the world in conservative congregations. We have to face up to the fact that the rich can choose to use their money to obtain power and influence in church and society as they wish. What they can do, they often will do. The church, as with other institutions need to guard against this invasion of political manipulation by the wealthy. The cause of honesty, truth and integrity needs to be defended against those who would destroy it in the name of what we would identify as an abusive manipulative form of Christianity.

Issues around power in the Church of England

As the reader of my blog posts will know, my concern for the problem of power in churches in Britain extends far beyond my own Anglican set-up. Many of the worst cases of clergy or ministerial abuse in fact take place in independent churches. These abuses, like those of Trinity, Brentwood, typically take place because of a complete lack of proper oversight. Such oversight would hopefully spot and call into question financial or emotional manipulation of members of congregations. The Anglican church does, however, have a particular issue connected with power of a somewhat different kind. The institution of bishops provides needed oversight but this management structure is counterbalanced by the extraordinarily power, rights and privileges invested in each clergyman who is appointed as an Incumbent. In the past every Incumbent possessed what is known as the freehold. This made him or her virtually unsackable. If the Church is determined to rid themselves of a particular clergyman for whatever reason, a legal process of immense complication and expense has to be followed. The institution of freehold has been weakened over recent years in favour of a system called Common Tenure. This sets out in details of what is expected of the clergy, their rights and privileges, including their access to support. It also importantly provides for a weakening of the freehold principle. The big draw-back to Common Tenure for the church as a whole is that it cannot be applied retrospectively to those who already possessed the freehold. As before they remain powerfully unsackable to all intents and purposes.

The anomaly of the continuing of the freehold for many thousands of Anglican clergy has emerged with a powerful topicality in recent weeks. I wrote about the trial of a priest in South London who was accused of conducting sham marriages over a long period of time. He and his co-accused were acquitted after the prosecution blundered in their presentation of the evidence. Technically the priest came out of the process innocent of the charges. There does not seem, however, to have been any argument that 400 weddings had taken place. As any priest knows, there is a proper process to be followed in accounting for the fees for these weddings. These all belong to the Diocese. In the case of the accused priest some £50,000 to £70,000 had gone missing. The trial which collapsed had focused on the illegal weddings so the issue of apparent theft was seemingly forgotten. The priest, now acquitted, was allowed to return to his Vicarage and the whole incident of missing money apparently ignored.

The question that occurs to me is this. Is there any institution in the world that would be unable to have a process for disciplining a member of its staff who had apparently failed to account for £50,000 + of the organisation’s money? It seems on the face of it that the freehold of the clergy is a more powerful legal force than the matter of large sums of missing money. Is the church going to have to take out a private prosecution to recover the money as, presumably, the police will no longer be interested in pursuing this man? The situation is full of anomalies and must be giving the legal advisers of the Diocese of Southwark a complete nightmare.

The power of the freehold is also emerging as an issue in my own Diocese of Carlisle. I speak in general terms as I don’t want to identify individuals. Briefly the situation is this. In the face of decline in both congregations and money, the Diocesan authorities have produced, with the leaders of both the Methodist and United Reformed Churches, a scheme for dividing up the diocese into 40 Mission areas. This was voted through at the last Diocesan Synod at the beginning of October 2014. The idea is that eventually each of these areas will have a paid ordained leader from one of the denominations, who will oversee a cluster of churches served by non-stipendiary local people. Some of these latter will be ordained and some not. The idea seems good in theory but in practice, it may never work, at least not for decades to come. The reason for this is simple. Several Anglican clergy with the freehold have been heard to say that they want no truck with the new system. Their legal quasi ‘ownership’ of the parochial areas under their charge is, as far they are concerned, not going to change for anyone. They also have no experience of working with other denominations and don’t want to start now. They know that no directive from the bishop or archdeacon will be able to force any change in the way they choose to do things, at least as long as they are around. Some freehold clergy are still in their 30s and thus it could be a very long time before future clergy, who do in fact buy into the Mission Areas idea, take over in every area of this diocese. The fact also that many of the clergy in this diocese are deeply conservative theologically, means that the practical difficulties of successful ecumenical co-operation are compounded still further. Supporters of groups like GAFCON are not good at conceding that people who are different from them theologically, or who come from another denomination, might have something important to say.

In these two cases it would appear that the clergy freehold is able to strangle both the proper administration of the institution and the ability to adapt and change to fit new circumstances. The task of the Bishops and other members of the hierarchy seems more and more problematic as they deal, first, with a laity who have increasingly the power of the purse-strings and, secondly, a clergy who can, when they wish, block change and the smooth running of the institution. The situation in South London is an organisational nightmare and the problems of unveiling and putting into practice an imaginative plan in Cumbria will become increasingly apparent over the coming months and years. Although I have set out the problem, I can see no obvious solutions. All that I would ask for is that someone in the institution would wake up and admit that there is a serious problem about both authority and power in the Church of England.

Schism and Separation

schism One of the topical issues in the church today is whether one group of Christians can stay in the same communion with other Christians who think in a different way from them. The particular example I have in mind is the fragmented state of the Anglican Church over the situation of gay sex and the ordination of practising gay people. In the past Christians separated over differences of doctrine, especially, in the first five centuries, when there were different views on the nature of Christ and his relationship to God. In 1054 the Eastern Church formally separated from the West over the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father or from the Father and the Son. Obviously there were other cultural and political factors at play, but there were some serious theological issues to be resolved. Maybe they would have been but for the enormous issue of the fact that hardly anyone in 11th century Rome was familiar with the Greek language. It was never going to be easy to discuss erudite the theological points that were outstanding between the churches, when the language of one was so little known by the other.

The differences that exist today between Anglicans in different parts of the world is, arguably, quite a different kind of separation. A large group of Anglicans stretching from Sydney in Australia to sub-Saharan Africa with supporters in Britain and America have chosen to withdraw from association with other Anglicans on the grounds that some Anglican churches are turning their back on centuries of Anglican tradition by tolerating a gay life-style and ordained gay clergy. Although formal separation has not yet taken place, the rhetoric put out by GAFCON, the conservative Anglican grouping, in 2008 and 2013 makes it unlikely that a full gathering of Anglicans will ever take place again. This is tragic but we need to understand that unlike schisms in the past, the differences are not matters of theology. They should be seen as divisions that involve visceral dislike, even disgust, on the part of one group of Christians for the acceptances of another.

The Christians represented by GAFCON affirm that they are minded to separate from the wider Anglican body because they find it impossible to receive communion, or share it with someone in a gay lifestyle. This extends, not just to gay ministers themselves, but to entire church bodies which are tolerant on the gay issue. Although the expression is used ‘unfaithful to Scripture’ to justify this stance, one suspects that here, in this area, theological issues are not in fact high on the GAFCON agenda. In the past Christians did argue and separate on theological questions and some of us have had to revisit the finer points of Arianism or Monophysitism as part of our theological training. But I am suggesting that in this case Christians are separating because of an intense dislike of the lifestyle of others. The separation is wrapped up in theological language but psychological issues seem to be pre-eminent in this case.

If we have to find a theological/historical precedent for the present schism, we need to go back the heresy of Donatus in 4th century North Africa. The issue was about the acceptability of certain bishops who had handed over their books to the persecuting emperor Diocletian as a way of warding off martyrdom. As far as Donatus and his followers were concerned, this bishop had for ever cut himself off from the Christian body, and thus would never again be able to administer valid sacraments. This presumption that valid sacrament could only be offered by sinless clergy was clearly unacceptable to the wider church. St Augustine, a century later, in particular stood out against this puritan rigorist idea. It made the institutional integrity of the wider church impossible to sustain if a group of Christians could declare a sacrament invalid because they did not like the lifestyle of a particular bishop or clergyman. The validity of the sacraments had to depend on the action of Christ, not the moral rectitude of the individual priest.

Thanks to Augustine in particular, Donatism was defeated decisively even though it lingered right up to the time of the Arab invasions of North Africa in the 7th century. We do however seem to be having a re-emergence of the Donatist heresy in the actions of GAFCON today. They disapprove of the life-style of certain bishops and clergy and for them that is a reason for splitting and schism. It is not possible for Anglicans beyond GAFCON to allow one group to decide what is and what is not acceptable behaviour on the part of clergy. If such decisions are to be made, it must be with the mind, wisdom and understanding of the whole church. Anglicanism along with most of the rest of Christendom has firmly rejected Donatism. The present splitting is at heart not theological but, as I have said, ultimately to be understood through psychology, history and culture. If there were real theological issues but genuine goodwill on both sides, then the theological issues could be unpacked and, hopefully, resolved. Psychology and visceral hatred however are not so easily resolved. The issue is further complicated by the way that conservatives appeal to a unworkable pattern of reading Scripture. This sometimes claims that a single text, even taken out of context, can be made the foundation for a complete theological system. That problem goes on raising its head every time we try to understand and respond to conservative Christianity which, according to this blog, uses and abuses Scripture in a flagrant and unhelpful way.

Thinking about boundaries -Brentwood continued

In following the Brentwood saga as reported in the last blog post, I found myself making a comment about the nature of cult-like churches on the other blog. I mentioned that cultic leaders create rigid boundaries. These have two purposes. One is to stop people finding out information about what goes on inside the group. The other is to stop people inside finding out about the way that the rest of the world lives and thinks. These boundaries afflict those in leadership as well as the ordinary members.

What are the boundaries that are built around authoritarian churches and groups? Obviously they are not physical, but they might just as well be for the way they function. The way into an authoritarian set-up is relatively easy, but the way out is extraordinarily hard. The first part of the boundary is created by the paranoia of the leader, which is then passed on to his followers. He will teach those in the group that the world outside is incredibly dangerous. Michael Reid found a good way to terrify young parents who came to his church. He told them that local schools were hotbeds of loose morals and Satanic activity. The only safe place for their children was to attend his Peniel school. Once the children had entered the school both children and parents came under his dramatically volatile exercise of power. Reports indicate that some of the parents who displeased Reid were then controlled by unfavourable treatment being meted out on their children. The paranoia was also a constant part of the preaching. In common with many similar churches, the preaching emphasised how all other churches failed to provide access to God. The fate of those who did not had proper access to God, was, needless to say, a place in eternal damnation. The only safe place was to be a member of Peniel. Whether this humiliating, coercive style of preaching still exists, it certainly was still around at the time when Gail attended the Bible School at the church.

The second part of creating boundaries in a church is the personality of the leader. A leader who uses charisma in its secular sense, sets up a vulnerability in those who are initially attracted to the larger than life personality. Many people lack a full dose of self-esteem, so that when they meet a large powerful personality who takes an interest in them, they are attracted to them. Charisma is quite simply the ability to attract others to oneself, whether because of a magnetic quality or because they put forward a vision that seems both to make sense and provides a direction for life. The interaction between charismatic leader and led is of course not an equal one. However exciting the initial contact had been, it quickly develops into a relationship of dependence. The ‘big’ personality needs the fawning adoration of the acolytes while the dependent ones hanker after the scraps of attention from the leader. It is unhealthy in both directions.

In looking at the history of Peniel as revealed through the blog and recalling my one visit to the church, it would seem that the present dynamic is vastly different from the old. The current leader, Peter Linnecar, does not seem to exercise power in the same way as his former mentor, Michael Reid. MR exercised a lot of power through the exercise of charisma, of which much was self-serving and malign. PL, on the other hand, exercises his power by appearing to cultivate a mystique around himself. He appears to do very little in the way of pastoral activity and, apparently, never answers emails or phone calls. But, by being inaccessible to the ordinary members of the congregation, he is able to suggest that he is a man of depth who is too important to bother himself with the day to day issues of the church. By concentrating his appearances to Sunday mornings, Peter maybe is exercising a charisma of remoteness which is in the last resort is just as powerful as the former regime. In the present regime, there is still in the congregation a hunger to be dependent on a charismatic personality who can solve the problems of not feeling sufficient self-esteem. MR did this by the exercise of charismatic power which involved shouting and humiliating alongside occasional words of encouragement. PL exercises a form of charisma which does not use force but the power of an inaccessible mystique.

How does the exercise of charismatic power create boundaries? The best way to think of this dynamic is to think of iron filings. Anyone who submits to charismatic authority is like one of the charged pieces of metal that are drawn to a magnet. In looking at the pattern that is set up, the observer can note other pieces of metal that have not been charged in this way. The boundary lies clearly between the two types of metal. Many people look on churches and cults where the strong charismatic figure at the centre holds so much power. How is this possible they think, why do people get caught up in this? It is possible because this seems to be the way that groups operate. People will always follow the strong personality who will help to make up for their own feelings of not being complete. They are drawn to the magnet and after a time they become dependent on its energising qualities. They cannot imagine ever living beyond the orbit of that energy again.

The situation at Brentwood is still unresolved. No resignations have taken place and PL has challenged the congregation to come out and say if they want him to go. As at least 50% of the congregation is related to him by blood or through marriage, such a vote is unlikely to go against him. He has also created, as I have tried to describe, a charisma of mystique which operates in a gentler way than before, but may be equally powerful. The situation is finely poised. Gail’s testimony may indeed have opened a flood-gate. But we will see.