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.

About Stephen Parsons

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

2 thoughts on “Thinking about boundaries -Brentwood continued

  1. It sounds to me as if this guy is getting paid a full time wage for a couple of hours work on a Sunday. Nice work if you can get it! I do know of a church leader who rules by fear basically even though he is a weak man. You know how some inadequate people lash out every now and then, often about the wrong thing? Well, his underlings fear his temper. So they twist themselves all out of shape to try and give him what he wants. Or what they think he wants. I’ve seen that before, too. The person who gives out so few signals, that people don’t actually know what he wants them to do. They are desperate to please, but in fact, they end up irritating him because that wasn’t actually what he wanted at all! Control can be exercised in many different ways.

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