Monthly Archives: December 2014

Undue Influence?

LawI was pleased to see that an important lecture which was given at the ICSA Washington conference last July on cults and the law by Alan Scheflin has been put on You-Tube. My readers may not want to spend 37 minutes watching it in its entirety but it is worth-while, I feel, giving some account of its content, in that it affects the concerns of this blog.

The issue that has bothered all those who seek to help those affected negatively by religious groups is whether they have any recourse in law. It is in fact not easy to persuade a judge that an individual has been emotionally, sexually or financially exploited by a religious leader because the individual concerned can be said, arguably, to have made an adult choice to join the group. The law apparently will always assume, unless it can be argued strongly to the contrary, that we always preserve our adult reasoning and thus are free to make irrational or foolish decisions if we so wish. There is no such thing in law as brain washing or mind-control, concepts that have been popular in the popular imagination when talking about extreme religious groups for some decades.

The one area of law that has proved to be relevant to judgements connected with religious groups is the notion of ‘undue influence.’ The law in most countries recognises the potential power of a religious leader to coerce an individual to change a will in favour of the group, particularly when in the last stage of life. This state of vulnerability when dying, is seen to be potentially a situation when a person’s free choice is compromised. Thus any pressure exercised in this context by a religious leader, can make the testator’s decision inadmissable if it is challenged by other parties. Cases connected with this issue of the disposal of an individual’s assets after death have been heard for the past 300 years. But the definition of ‘undue influence’ still remains elusive, especially when attempts are made to suggest that this idea could be applied to another area, that of an individual in full health submitting to the unequal power relationship which we associate with high demand religious groups.

The California Supreme court defined ‘undue influence’ as ‘pressure directly brought to bear on the testamentary act sufficient to frustrate the testator’s free will, amounting to coercion destroying the testator’s free energy.’ The writer on cults, Margaret Singer, wrote that virtually anyone can be ‘unduly influenced if the influences and techniques used against them are powerful enough’. Another American court ruling of 80 years ago in a will case agreed with this, by saying that ‘soundness of mind and body does not imply immunity from undue influence’. These statements appear to recognise that undue influence arguments could be applied not just to financial cases concerning wills, but could apply in other areas, such as financial or emotional exploitation .

There is clearly a line to be drawn between an adult making a free decision and someone who is coerced into an action that would go against their better judgement. The problem is where that line should be drawn. The law will always find it difficult to judge in this area because it has to deal with opinions about a situation and not definite facts. But the law needs to find that point where a reasonable person is able to say to him or herself, you can’t treat people like that. Legal protection should be able to operate in places where abusive treatment of individuals is proved to have taken place as the result of coercive behaviour.

In America one area of protection afforded to religion, good and bad, is the First Amendment which gives freedom of religious expression to all. This has made it extremely difficult to challenge anything that happens in religious institutions, even when, from a common-sense perspective, it is abusive. To take an extreme example which few would argue against, would anyone claim to bring forward the First Amendment in favour of the Boko-Haram kidnappers of the Nigerian schoolgirls. Should no one attempt to rescue the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, who were shown reciting the Koran, on the grounds that they had changed their religion? Their rescue would surely be considered an act of liberation, whatever the words of faith uttered by those girls in the bush. Common sense would suggest that coercion is being applied. Although most of them are children and presumably have some protection in law, no one would seriously argue that those over 18 had had any real choice in the religion that was being forced on them.

The lecture by Professor Scheflin then went to review some the new theories and categories in social psychology and in the study of social influence. This material may make it possible for the courts soon to be able to admit new forms of expert testimony in cases connected with cults etc. One powerful argument that suggests that this development may not be far away is that there are some new social evils in society that need dealing with definitively from a legal perspective. For example we have the horrifying fanatical events in the so-called Islamic State and the growing recognition that the so called ‘grooming’ of children by adults is a phenomenon that happens in situations which sometimes involve adults. This was exemplified in the recent case of the Marxist cult in London and also in the widespread incidence of human trafficking. In each of these examples we have the grotesque abuse of power which involves ‘undue influence’ of a kind which does not involve money. We may soon see the term ‘brain washing’ re-enter the courts and legal arguments as a valid category. This time it will be a concept backed up by a new academic and expert rigour which make it robust enough and able to stand up to the scrutiny of legal dissection.

The lecture is important because it shows how the legal world is slowly moving towards the possibility of protecting some of the abused individuals who are the concern of this blog. The common sense arguments that readily identify certain places as being dangerous for the mental and emotional well-being of individuals have not hitherto been backed by the law of any country in the world. That may soon change as the research of social psychologists and researchers on the concept of social influence refine their methods and show, beyond all reasonable doubt, the mechanisms by which the strong can manipulate for malign purposes those who are weaker. The time when those abused by religious organisations can easily have their day in the courts of our land will be a day of great rejoicing. May it come soon.

Good news of our Lord Jesus Christ?

conversionThere was an interesting comment today (Friday) from one of the Times’ columnists, Janice Turner. She was talking about the Archbishop of Canterbury and saying that generally this has been a good year for the Church of England under his leadership. But then she commented that he was given to a ‘simple-minded sloganising’ when he frequently comes out with the expression ‘the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ’. She likens the slogan to something that you hear in a supermarket, an ‘inelegant formulation …..that isn’t very English.’

The columnist has a point; we do hear many clichés uttered in the course of sermons that, when they are left unexplained, are, no doubt, a source of confusion for those not initiated into this sort of language. In this particular case there is some unpacking to be done. I would however begin by saying that the expression the ‘good news of our Lord Jesus Christ’ is not one that I personally would ever use. But let me begin by giving an explanation of what I believe the ‘good news’ of the New Testament is in fact all about, taking, first, the perspective of the Synoptic gospels. Right at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, we have that memorable sentence (chapter 1. 14-15) when it is said of Jesus that he ‘came into Galilee proclaiming the Gospel (good news) of God’. The Greek word for Gospel here is often translated as good news, so we can regard the English words as identical in meaning. What is the good news or gospel as Jesus understands it? The passage goes on to explain what this good news is all about. Jesus is reported to say, ‘The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you; repent, and believe the Gospel’. We would be correct in taking the natural meaning of these words and see that the good news is closely identified with whatever Jesus means by the ‘kingdom of God’.

I can still remember the moment in my theological studies when it became clear to me that the understanding of this term ‘kingdom of God’ was the key to understanding much of what the synoptic gospels were about. In particular it was a term that was the key to unlock the meaning of the parables and thus much of the teaching of Jesus as a whole. Recalling a lot of reading from almost fifty years ago, I can remember how the writers like Norman Perrin and Joachim Jeremias opened up the meaning of both ‘Good News’ and Kingdom of God for me. The overriding idea of these terms was that Jesus believed that in his words and actions, God’s rule or activity was becoming visible. Those who attached themselves to his ministry could encounter God reaching out to them through the acts of healing and forgiveness that Jesus performed. Among the most vivid announcements and outworkings of this Kingdom were the meals with the ‘tax gatherers and sinners’. Here both forgiveness and outreach to the outsider were being powerfully enacted. The Lord’s Prayer itself was a prayer for the kingdom of God to come into the here and now. The ministry of Jesus was summed up in the words that were sent to John the Baptist when he asked if Jesus was indeed the one that was to come. The answer that was given (Luke 7.22-23) ‘The blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are being raised to life, the poor are hearing the good news…’ Here the good news (gospel) is about a new vivid encounter with God brought about through Jesus.

I suspect that the Archbishop’s summary of ‘good news of Jesus’ owes very little to the words of Jesus and far more to the use of these words by Paul. We get the flavour of what Paul understands by good news or gospel in the very first words of Romans. Here we see clearly that the good news has nothing to do with the teaching and ministry of Jesus but everything to with what Paul believed about the act of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus, now called Christ. The gospel has, in thirty or so years, changed its meaning from being something that was experienced to something that is an interpretation and understanding of an event in the past. The Gospel, to quote again from chapter 1 of Romans, is the ‘saving power of God for everyone who has faith’. It is beyond this blog post to go much further into Pauline theology to expound this beyond emphasising a second time that there is a marked contrast in understanding what the Good News (gospel) actually means according to Jesus (as understood by the Synoptic writers) and Paul. But what exactly does the Archbishop understand by these words?

This blog here makes a stab at an interpretation that seems to explain the Archbishop’s use of the words. I have in previous blog posts indicated that modern evangelical theology has a great loyalty to the particular theology of Christ’s death known as ‘substitutionary atonement’. This is a preference for certain ideas that can, no doubt, be read out of various passages in the gospels and epistles. This theology states that Christ’s death in some way ‘satisfies’ God so that he can free humankind from their sin. Once again I am skating over huge areas of biblical and dogmatic theology to make a point in summary. But I want to say that this particular reading of the significance of Christ’s death is one among several in the New Testament. It’s popularity, if that is the right word, among many Protestant and Evangelical theologians, is that it dovetails neatly with another central feature of conservative theology -the theology of conversion. Evangelical theology has always placed a great emphasis on human depravity and sin and the need to escape the ‘wrath’ of God. This preaching emerging from this theology always seems to lead into the creation of a ‘crisis’ where the individual discovers that Christ has taken his/her sins on to the Cross. He offers now a new life, a redeemed life where one can escape everlasting damnation and the threat of hell. The new life always takes place within the setting of a authoritarian institution where the leaders always have the last word as to how this life is to be lived in practice.

In summary the ‘good news of Jesus’ according to the Archbishop seems to be the promise of conversion from sin to salvation by an act of faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Perhaps the one who uses the expression, the ‘good news of Jesus’ with this meaning, needs to explain two further things. The first of these that this ‘good news’ is not what Jesus actually taught or understood by this word. Secondly it needs to be explained to those outside the Evangelical circles, the agnostics and intelligent journalists among others, that the good news of Jesus is far more varied (and exciting) than simply escaping the wrath of God. It is in fact about entering a new life of unimagined richness and depth of experience – the human life shown to us by Jesus.

Christmas reflection

nativity-with-the-torchI was talking to Chris recently about a poem he had written, which had the image of a person, himself as a child at an aunt’s house, looking through a window at a procession of people. The observer was warm and comfortable while the objects of his observation were poor, cold and victims of various kinds. Chris also mentions that the observer had no ‘thought or feeling for what he saw’. Gradually, through the process of growing up and life’s experience, there took place a crossing over, from being the warm observer to experiencing life from the same perspective as the victims of cold and deprivation. He had become one of the victims himself. And yet in reflecting on this divide in society between the observers and the observed, Chris notes the way that the way the gap between rich and poor has been normalised and not felt to be worthy of comment. The division between the two is symbolised by the double glazed window; on one side is warmth while on the other side cold and hunger and nobody seems to care or see anything strange in the situation.

I make no attempt to say more about this poem, but to note that it has created for me an image that leads into a Christmas reflection. In my imagination, I see, not a warm comfortable child watching the world go by, but God looking down through his double glazed window on a world, not just cold, but weary with the evil of rampant selfishness in the people. If God could be said to be able to have a conversation with himself, it might go as follows.

‘What can I do to make a difference in that place that is stuck with everyone trying to gain power and advantage over everyone else? How can I show to humankind another way to exist beyond that of getting one over their fellow human beings and using that advantage for their own selfish ends? The one thing I can do is to live there myself and show them what a human life can be. It may be able to teach them to live in a different way, the way of generosity, compassion and love.’

After this imaginary conservation, we can see God going on the other side of the double-glazed window to live a life alongside power-obsessed humanity. What happens to the one who lives out the life of complete generosity and love? He becomes the victim of the dynamic forces of constant power seeking in human beings. He is the victim of crucifixion.

But before God experiences this cruel punishment, he sows the seed of a different way of living among a group of followers. A light and a longing for something different is sown in the hearts of humanity. They are given a picture of what life can become if each individual can see others, not as the target of exploitation in any way, but as fellow beings who can be on a journey to living a different way, a way transformed by the love of God himself. But still more important is the realisation that after God has come through a ‘double-glazed window’, that that barrier has been broken down for ever. The words of Jesus resonate through the ages, ‘where I am, there you will be also’.

The Christmas story is the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way things are and the fact that the barriers between life and death, between earth and heaven, between God and man,
have now been breached. Christmas is about the passing through the ‘double-glazed window’. Because of the act of identification, human beings can experience a surge of hope and joy within them. Emmanuel God with us.

Trinity, Brentwood – the saga continues

michael reidSince my last update on the church in Brentwood, things are moving on. I will assume the reader is familiar with the material in two previous reports mentioned on this blog. We left the saga at the point where Nigel Davies, the campaigner and blog master received the silent treatment at the hands of the Trustees of the church on the 6th December during a meeting when he presented about past abuses at the church. This looked like a action calculated to intimidate Nigel, by not allowing any of the Trustees to speak to him or ask questions.

The latest reports from the church show that the intervention of the Evangelical Alliance in the person of its director, Steve Clifford, has created a momentum of its own. After the Trustees’ meeting on the 6th December with Nigel, another meeting took place between two trustees and Steve Clifford four days later. Nigel had an email about this latter meeting and the first impression was that Steve was allowing the church to run its own investigation, free of any external supervision by the Evangelical Alliance. On Tuesday 16th, a fuller picture began to emerge. The proposal was that there should be a Commission set up to examine the wrongs of the past. This will still be internal but would have an independent chairman recommended by the EA.

The length of the statement on Tuesday and the mention of corrupt leadership makes it look like the Trustees are at last beginning to recognise the nature of the cultic culture that has been the mark of their church for decades. They appear to understand far more of the past problems by using expressions like ‘wrong culture’, ‘past wrongs’ and ‘errors of the past’. They have even spoken of ‘toxic behaviour polluting the church.’ The Bible is referred to and in particular the passage from Mark 9.35, ‘Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else’. The whole statement still implies that the ‘wrong culture’ is the fault of Michael Reid,(illustrated above) but there is a recognition that his influence is felt in the church today. One of the interesting passages concerns the recognition of the fact that it has taken six years to come to the point where they feel the need to ‘analyse our culture’ . They talk about shock, anger and hurt but they do not really offer any insight into the defensive nature of the church over all those six years and their reluctance to seek out the many hurt victims of the church. It is they on whose behalf Nigel has been so tirelessly campaigning.

Before setting out on Tuesday for an appointment, I rattled off a quick response to this lengthy piece on Nigel’s blog. I mentioned one issue that concerns all the survivors of Peniel and Trinity, the issue of finance. The abuse of cultic leaders, like Michael Reid abuse is played out in one or more of three ways. One is the enjoyment of power for itself, as a way of feeding the leader’s narcissism. The second is the exploitation of sexual favours from congregants. This needs no further comment and was in fact the actual cause of Reid’s downfall. The third is the use of the church’s funds for the benefit of the leaders. The history of this church has been marked by financial irregularities, not least the extensive selling of insurance policies to members. This was alongside an insistence that everyone should pay a tithe to the church. Over the years this has allowed a number of questionable and secretive financial transactions to be made, in one case drawing on £500,000 of church money to allow Peter Linnecar to avoid bankruptcy. Also the various properties appear to have been registered in the names of the leaders so that the church found itself, on at least one occasion, buying a property twice. It would seem that whatever the truth or otherwise of these rumours, the church needs to be investigated thoroughly in this whole area of finance. Recently former members were writing in to the blog with estimates of how much they had given to the church while they had been members. The sums involved came to a half million in one case. Clearly there have been large sums of money floating around and there needs to be a complete forensic look at the finances of the church if there is to be a real attempt at openness and transparency about the past.

Nigel’s blog comment which accompanied his reproducing the new Trustees statement on Tuesday, did touch on the financial question. He also raised the issue on everyone’s mind as to how Peter L can remain pastor of the church when such strong statements have been made about the dysfunctional past of the church and in which Peter played a full part. We await to see whether the indirect but strong criticism of his identification with the ‘wrong culture’ can be ignored. It is significant that a meeting could be held by two Trustees with Steve Clifford and make concrete proposals about a Commission without, apparently, consulting the other Trustees and the leadership. Such independent functioning would never have been allowed in Michael Reid’s time and one expected it would not be tolerated under the present regime – until the present crisis!

Stop Press. A further testimony from a Bible Student indicating how constant bullying over weight from the Peniel leadership led to an eating disorder. It is a powerful testimony, not only because it is well written but also because it names two individuals, Carolyn Linnecar and Meidre Cleminson who are both still very much around in the leadership. This naming of current officials means that it is hard to see how the Commission will be able to avoid recommending that there should be a complete ‘clear-out’ at the top, including Carolyn’s husband, Peter.

Binary thinking -further reflections

or-thinking The discussion about binary thinking, right-wrong, black-white, clean-unclean, has led me to thinking about the prejudices that infect our society. The oldest prejudice was to hate the person not in your tribe, as alien and a presumed enemy. Over the years, as people learnt to live in social groups larger than one’s blood relatives, so the objects of emnity shifted. Enmity was felt towards anyone who was ‘different’, whether because of language, colour or simply being a stranger. It is possible to trace this instinctive hostility to the stranger to a need for self-preservation, a protection from the unknown and potentially dangerous. But over the centuries we have begun to learn to see the one who is different from us as offering us the possibility of learning something new. In short, most of us most of the time have grown up away from the kind of response that makes everyone either a friend or an enemy.

In the past few days in the UK, politicians of different parties have been caught in unguarded moments of expressing comments which reveal a deep homophobic or racial bias. In short they have been shown to be still mired in the old thought patterns which have become, not only politically incorrect, but also, in some cases, against the law. One suspects that many other people, apart from politicians, are still trapped in a world-view that can only distinguish between an us and them, friend or enemy. Social expedience and tact may reduce the times when this kind of prejudice is in fact uttered, but it still seems to exist just below the surface.

Let us think about what are the reasons why many people sometimes regress into what might be described as a primitive tribal way of thinking. The first reason is one we have already discussed – the capacity of the stranger to make us feel threatened and unsafe. That feeling may be traceable to experiences in childhood or to some deeper unconscious process. This desire for safety, as we all know, is not just a concern for our physical well-being; it also extends to feeling safe in our social environment. I am here referring to the unique ways in which each of us navigate through life, learning what has to be done to enable us to feel we belong and avoid those actions which can cause us to experience ‘social death’. This power to keep us conforming strongly in the social areas of life is often rooted in a real fear of being ‘left out’. It is likely to act more strongly on the young than the older population, the former feeling more acutely their social vulnerability. How do I keep my head above water, my acceptability intact and avoid all the social slip-ups that I am in danger of committing? The easiest answer to this dilemma is to ‘follow the crowd’. It may involve following an individual, whether a fashion guru or charismatic leader; it may involve joining a particular church. Each one of these can offer a haven to keep us ‘safe’, free to exist without falling in one of the many traps that spell, at best, ridicule and at worst, ostracism from the tribe that we want to be identified with, our gang or favoured group. The problem is that once we start to belong, we find that we take on the pattern of thinking that belongs to the particular group. That, after all, is part of the conditions of membership.

I have said in previous posts that many people live with a measure of unacknowledged fear in their lives. In this post we have been touching on the fear of a social gaffe that may put a person outside their favoured ‘gang’ and this is not a trivial emotion. Older people, who have a life-time of experience in creating an identity, can forget how fragile identity is to a younger person. The places that offer a packaged form of identity to these young people, are going to be places that often deal in simplicities and clear rules. Keep these clear rules and follow the leader and you will be safe, safe from the fear of being outside and safe from not knowing who you really are. This identity and this belonging however come at a definite price. The ‘gang’ that offers membership has, of necessity, to deal in generalities. If you join us, you will take on the persona of the gang, whatever it is. It may be one who hates Communists, gay marriage and ascribes many actions that we disapprove of as coming from the devil or Satan. These are the sort of generalities that are sometimes thrust on new aspiring members of a church. Equivalent demands are made on those who join political parties. The objects of generalised hate are here members of other parties or particular groups in society, whether they be bankers or Trade Unionists.

This blog post is perhaps claiming that black-white thinking may be one of the prices we pay to belong to any group that appeals to us. The church, in this respect, is no different from any other group, in that it often demands that we adjust our thinking to run along certain particular tramlines. In making this statement, I am perhaps simultaneously accepting and criticising a way of thinking that exists widely across society. It is wrong to think ill of groups of people who do not deserve such prejudice. At the same time, would we wish everyone to abandon the groups and parties who provide belonging and safety to so many? Prejudice may in the final resort be part of the price we have to pay for people to feel connected. I do not know the answer to this paradox. Perhaps we need to imagine a better way for people to bond together, other than in sharing the same ‘tribal’ assumptions which, according to this blog, are harmful to those whom they touch.

Education, education

albert einsteinOne of the things that is becoming clear in the reporting of extremism across the world is that fanaticism and good education are not natural bedfellows. The Nigerian extremist group, Boko-Haram, places rejection of Western education at the heart of its reason for existence. Their name in fact is translated as ‘Western education is forbidden’ in the local language Hausa. Recently a Muslim woman, Runa Khan, who had advocated jihad in Britain and posted a number of inflammatory pictures on her facebook account, was sentenced to five years imprisonment. One interesting comment was made at her trial by her defence lawyer. He said that she was given to thinking only in a ‘binary’ manner. In short, for her, everything to do with the Muslim faith was good and everything else was evil and fit only for destruction.

These first two examples are taken from recent stories connected with Muslim extremism but the same ‘binary’ pattern of thinking is embedded among many Christians. Recently I had an email from one Jonny Scaramanga who runs a blog concerned with the scourge, as he sees it, of Accelerated Christian Education. This is a course of teaching which is used by some 30 ‘Christian’ schools and also is followed by home educating parents. Jonny referred me to a recent apologist of this system of education who had written in the Times Education Supplement. He asked me if would write a response. I dutifully wrote a reaction to the article, which may or may not appear in next week’s TES. The scheme for ACE is strongly flavoured with an American Right wing approach to life. It is strongly imbued with laissez-faire economics, right wing political views and above all it is profoundly conservative and reactionary in both theology and morality. It takes an strong anti-evolutionary position and follows the so-called ‘young earth’ theory which dates creation to around 4000 BC. The thing that, for me, really discredits it as a system of education, are not the wacky ideas that are presented as facts, but the method of presenting them. The whole pattern for ACE is the centrality of work-books. Filling these in systematically enables the child to learn approved facts on a variety of subjects. Each work book is completed when the child has ticked the right answer for each question that is asked. The implication is that there is only ever going to be one correct answer. In other words binary thinking, right-wrong, black-white ideas are THE way to think. When you see the actual ‘facts’ that are presented in these work-books, you realise that the child will never have a chance to sort out fact from opinion, bias from truth. I quote from my TES letter. ‘One way perhaps of teaching history from a ‘Christian perspective’ is to ignore totally every other point of view. One quote that will give the flavour of the way that Christian/Right Wing rhetoric is fed into the curriculum is as follows. “The United Nations was created by Communists and has always been used by Communists to further Communist goals… Satan is the real force behind man’s efforts to achieve world government.” To present any subject like this and suggest that there is only one correct understanding of history is a kind of anti-education.’

I realise reading this kind of indoctrination that I have been fortunate indeed to have had a good education that allows one to sift facts before arriving at a conclusion. The conclusions we individually have come to on the topic of politics, religion or even science are always going to have a certain provisionality. Life itself allows one to change and grow into new insights. What a terrifying thought it would be if everything about life could be translated into a ticked box in a workbook. But, sadly, a large of Christians live in this binary universe where everything is good or bad, true or false or evil or sacred. This way of binary thinking feeds into the way that Scripture is read. Every statement in the Bible is literally true, it is claimed, otherwise the whole of Scripture cannot be trusted to be the word of God. Chris illustrated for me the crazy lengths to which this kind of thinking can take one. An earnest Christian woman that he knew, claimed that, of course, dragons once existed. They are mentioned in the Book of Revelation! Somehow in this woman’s education, the notions of metaphor and poetry were never introduced. What an impoverished education she must have had, not to mention the ways in which her thinking was permanently in a state of fear and confusion, having to deal head-on with all the passages about God’s wrath and anger.

In drawing this blog post to some sort of conclusion, I have to declare my understanding of education. I believe that it is about the ability to understand and communicate with other peoples, cultures and languages across the centuries. This requires the gifts of imagination, empathy and insight. These allow one to penetrate patterns of thought that are not your own but have existed in the past or in the present. This gift of empathy that enables this ‘culture travel’ means that one values language, while simultaneously being aware of its limitations. In my final year in charge of a parish, I spent the five weeks of Lent speaking about the ‘real’ meaning of five Biblical words. In every case it look more than a half-hour to tease out the nuances of meaning that were implied in these words. Thinking like an Old Testament writer is not possible for us now, but we can, with a little imagination, penetrate some of the key words that are used to deepen our understanding of what he spoke about.

Binary thinking is the product, not of education, but of ‘anti-education’. Our government and all citizens must see in this kind of crude simplistic thinking something that is deeply abhorrent and ultimately destructive. It destroys not only the well-being of the individual who thinks like this, by making them feel outside the mainstream of society, but also it is a way of thinking that ultimately is responsible for conflict and even violence in the wider society. Let us make it clear. The world is not made up of blacks and whites, but there are a glorious number of grey tones in-between. Let us rejoice in those shades of grey!

Abusing with a Bible. Brentwood reflections continued

Thinking about the Bible
The title of this blog post is deliberately provocative as it is quite clear that no book of itself can abuse. It is only when it is in the hands of actual human beings that it can sometimes become the tool of abuse. People who, in various situations, have the conscious or unconscious need to inflict harm on others, will seize any tool available. It may be a weapon, the written word, a spoken insult or sadly, in some situations, the Bible itself. Having said this it is also clear that the Bible in other hands can be a tool of healing, comfort, consolation and hope. The difference between these two, the Bible as an abuser or the Bible as a healer, will depend completely on who is holding it at a particular moment.

I am writing in this particular vein because over the past 48 hours I have become aware of the fact that a number of new readers have found their way to our blog. I thought it would be helpful for them to know what this blog is about. I have been writing blog posts for over a year and it does no harm to state again what the underlying principles of this blog are about. I am a retired priest and writer and I have for a number of years focused my reading and pastoral concern on individuals who have found in the church, not good news, but bad news. They have been battered in various ways, emotionally, psychologically and financially and in some extreme cases have been driven to suicide. Fourteen years I published a book on this theme, entitled Ungodly Fear. The correspondence that this book engendered, showed me that the topic of abuse within churches does not go away. In some ways, I seem to have been ahead of the game as the concept of ’emotional abuse’ seems to be coming under the purview of our law makers. The book was the retelling of the stories of a variety of people abused by the church. I tried to show, not only the individual suffering of each individual, but the context of the abuse, the theological ideas that helped to make it possible. Since that time I have garnered material from a variety of sources, psychoanalytical theory, social psychology as well as theology, to illuminate this whole issue and some of this material has appeared in this blog.

In recent weeks I have been an active participant in the blog entitled victimsofmichaelreid.blogspot. This blog is of great value to my studies because it gives a vivid glimpse into the workings of a cult-like church both in the present and the past. I have said enough about the church in the previous post not to need to repeat my comments I made then. But as I know that some readers of that blog have found their way here, I need to make one or two comments directly to them. As past or present members of that church, you are direct participants of an abusive system. This blog cannot, of course, sort out all the emotional and psychological damage of that church, but it can do one thing. It can encourage you to think with greater clarity about what was actually happening at Peniel over the long passage of time.

Before I make further comments about Bishop Reid and his manipulative ways, I want to focus on a key word that is utilised by Bible preachers in many places. It is a word that is ‘biblical’ but is also sometimes a tool of abuse. The word is ‘obedience’. Of course the Bible speaks about obeying the Lord your God but, along the way, obedience towards God is swung to unquestioning obedience of the church leader. In the minds of the congregation to obey God is the same as obeying the leader. That simple confusion leads to in many situations to outright exploitation of individual members of the congregation. That exploitation can be financial, sexual and at the very least emotional. Michael Reid seems to have squeezed the word ‘obedience’ for all he was worth and those who have followed him as leaders at Trinity are not much better. The way they have done it is also to extract favourable quotes from Scripture about leaders, which appear to demand absolute obedience. ‘Touch not the Lord’s anointed’ is one favourite and another is ‘submit to those set over you’ .

My blog posts do not last more than a thousand words, so I must come to a final point. Looking at Trinity from the outside I see a pattern there which is repeated all over the world in strongly authoritarian churches which practise charismatic type worship. I see a gifted individual (here Michael Reid) who has stumbled on the secrets of crowd manipulation. Whether he is sincere in his beliefs I am unable to judge, but what he was able to do is create for himself a large crowd of adoring followers who used to hang on his every word. This is intoxicating and even addictive for him. The bonus was that he became powerful both socially and financially as well. It was probably inevitable that this power expressed itself in taking advantage of the females of the congregation (as one of the perks of power) but everything ultimately became all about the leader and the few others chosen to share in the perks. What did the congregation get out of this? At its simplest level, the congregation picked up some of the reflected glamour of the gifted man of power. He had a certain amount of star-dust to spread around and people felt honoured when he gave them even a small amount of attention. All through the process of Peniel, (I did visit as part of my research for my book in 1998) there was a gradual strengthening of the ties between leader and led which in fact gave very little to the led. The leader ‘takes all’.

I hope the new readers will feel able to stay with us as we continue to uncover the dynamics of abusive churches. I shall be freely commenting here on the continuing developments at Brentwood, particularly as ‘Gail’, the American Bible school student has helped this blog think about the particular issues of that church. From the tone of this blog post, you will be aware that the Bible is not read uncritically, but is allowed to criticise the claims of those who take abusive power over vulnerable people in the name of God.

Update at Trinity Brentwood

peniel curch
As my regular readers will know, today, December 6th, was an important day in the history of one abusive church, Trinity, Brentwood. This is the day when Nigel Davies, the courageous editor of a blog seeking an apology for some grotesque wrongs committed by the church under Michael Reid, the former pastor, met the Trustees face to face. He was allowed some forty minutes to speak to them, giving both spoken and written testimonies about various acts of power abuse that took place when Michael Reid was in charge. The main problem for Nigel and his supporters and fellow sufferers has been that, apart from the removal of MR, the entire staff who participated in the financial and emotional abuse have been allowed to remain in post. They have never admitted to anything, apart from some platitudinous expressions of regret.

As I have explained in a previous post, the incident that led to today’s meeting was a statement by an American Bible School student who was at the church some 30 years ago. She was treated appallingly by the church, culminating in incident of rape by one of the church members. In her recent statement about the incident which was published on Nigel’s blog, she stressed that the real suffering she had had to deal with was as much the humiliating way the Church had treated over the whole 18 months she was in England, as the event of sexual violence. This testimony for the first time spurred the church into action. They contacted the police and the Charity Commissioners because they realised that a rape allegation could not be buried like the other accusations swirling around the church. The victim of the incident has, as I mentioned before, linked up with our blog and no doubt will be reading this update in addition to Nigel’s account on the other blog.

As soon as I read Nigel’s account on his blog this afternoon, I entered a comment on the fact that the Trustees were forbidden to ask of Nigel any questions. This strikes me as a typical lawyer-inspired gesture of defensiveness. I pointed out in my comment that if the Trustees really wanted to engage with the problems of the past and Nigel’s presentation, they would want to reach out to him as a human being by talking to him, not just treating him as the conveyor of a written testimony. This defensiveness seems to be a ploy to try and objectify the problem and deal with it through quasi-legal means, such as denial and forgetfulness. In other words the Trustees are still behaving like a closed group which has no intention of changing unless it has to. In my comment I expressed the hope that the Charity Commissioners would see the testimonies that Nigel had brought along as they will want to see that some changes are being made in the culture of the church, maybe even proper expressions of regret.

Trinity Church Brentwood seems to have confirmed that it is institutionally incapable of doing the correct thing, unless compelled. I am hoping that ‘Gail’ will read this and realise that she too needs to put pressure on the church to engage with her, not just as the writer of a testimony about a crime, but as a human being who has suffered severely. I would suggest that she demands to speak to them by Skype, but she will only address them to their face if they allow proper interaction with her testimony. If they treat her like they have treated Nigel, by forbidding questions and interaction, then she should refuse to speak with them.

Nigel’s meeting with the Trustees today is the latest stage in an ongoing saga. It is important to our blog because it is a live developing example of the kind of behaviour that I have been trying to study and understand over the past twenty years. One particular change over this time is that the law of the land now seems to recognise the existence of emotional abuse. How that will apply to churches like Trinity remains to be seen. It may be that the Charity Commissioners may intervene a little more quickly when the detect a regime in a church which is obviously not conducive to an individual’s psychological and emotional health. As the law has stood, it is only when behaviour extends to actual violence, sexual or otherwise, that the police and courts will intervene. As readers of this blog will know, there are many, many ways of abusing an individual which do not involve actual violence. Abuse can be devastating in a person’s life, as Chris has testified. If the church of Christ cannot recognise abuse when it happens, it is a strange thing that such an institution can claim to have anything to with the teaching of the Gospels.

Thinking about sexual abuse in churches

My previous blog post opened my awareness to a very crucial insight in understanding the dynamics of abuse in church. I mentioned that Christians were often people who were in touch with the child-like qualities of trust and openness. These same qualities are encouraged by Christian teaching and also necessary for developing the attitudes that undergird spirituality and the capacity to worship. In worship we are encouraged to open ourselves in hope towards an unseen heavenly Father. This ability to worship does seem to tap into abilities that we learnt as children, but it is none the worse for that. The problem comes when this capacity to tap into the ‘inner child’ is exploited in some way by another person. If I speak about naivety among Christians, I am not implying that this quality should be deplored. I hope I am simply describing the way that Christian naivety can lead to a state of dangerous vulnerability. The same child-like trust in a heavenly father can easily be transferred into a trust in a manipulative ‘man of God’.

The accounts of sexual exploitation by clergy of children and adult women almost invariably involve what is known as ‘grooming’. I leave to one side the whole issue of child abuse in the church as it is not a subject on which I feel qualified to speak. But the sexual exploitation of women in the church is something that has crossed my radar and I would even go so far as to say that it is relatively common. It occurs right across the board in the church and can happen quite independently of the theology that is preached in a particular church. The case study that I produced in my book, ‘Ungodly Fear’ did in fact concern a Baptist minister. Talking to or corresponding with a number of women who had been abused by clergy, I got used to the idea that part of the grooming technique by the minister or priest was to suggest that ‘God has brought us together’. Another ‘chat-up’ line appears to be the notion that the woman concerned was learning about ‘God’s love’ through the ‘love’ being shown by the exploiting minister. Many of the women concerned, who were caught up in these abusive relationships, were totally unaware of anything being wrong until the ‘affair’ ended. Then, like survivors from a cult, their eyes were opened to being able to see how much they had been taken advantage of and exploited for totally selfish ends. A particular cruel twist that was a feature of some of my accounts, was that the woman herself was blamed for ‘leading the minister astray’. People in the congregation found it too hard to let go of their fantasy of the perfect man of God who was their leader and guru. One abused woman told me that she was blamed for the minister falling sick with cancer. Ostracism and shunning were the order of the day for this wronged woman.

The technique of grooming, whether of a child or an adult, taps into the vulnerability of everyone to want to feel safe in a caring parental relationship. As I suggested in my last blog post, everyone is capable of regressing into a parent-child relationship, particularly in situations of stress. Nobody is ever so totally grown-up that they are allowed to be free from wanting on occasion to return to the safety of a father’s (or mother’s) care. The minister or priest easily provides the archetypal caring figure who can fulfil this role. Every minister has to work on developing a sensitivity to ward off this kind of projection or handle it extremely carefully. The psychoanalysts call the process ‘transference’ and it is very powerful. When such transference become sexualised on either side, the potential for disaster is acute. But one principle is clear. In any pastoral role, the minister has complete responsibility for every aspect of the relationship. Excuses that the relationship was in any way mutual seldom survive any degree of scrutiny. The minister carries all the experience and the responsibility to keep the relationship healthy. Any relationship that becomes sexualised after a woman is seeking some sort of parenting, can only be seen as abusive.

It is quite hard to see how clergy of any denomination actually form lasting relationships when they carry the baggage of being an archetypal figure to many who look to them for help. This task of successfully negotiating other people’s projections and being pastorally effective is a fraught one. All too easily clergy fall into the trap that I have outlined in a previous post. Here we arrive at the issue of narcissism and its capacity to cause havoc in pastoral relationships. In summary it can be stated that any minister who brings to his (or her) ministry unresolved hungers for self-esteem and status is likely to be in considerable danger for the kinds of pastoral disasters that we see from time to time. Sexual acting-out is but one possible manifestation of this ‘needy’ behaviour and, as we described before, the origins of this abusive pattern can nearly always be traced back to childhood.

From all this it can be seen that I consider narcissism to be an ever-present danger for ministers and clergy. Whether it is acted out sexually, in a variety of power games or through financial skull-duggery, it is something that should be monitored throughout their ministry. I would welcome mentoring and monitoring for all clergy, but sadly as previous blogs have indicated, the clergy of the Church of England are extremely reluctant to have any of their actions or decisions questioned or scrutinised.

Facing the pain of abuse part 2

In my last post, I found that, in my enthusiasm for explaining the dynamics of narcissism, I was taking up too many words for me to describe very much about the pain of religious abuse. This post is to take the discussion on a further stage. The easiest way to start to explain a bit more about what people tell me about the experience of abuse in a religious context, is for us to imagine this scenario. The experience I want us to imagine is that of a child who has parents who constantly humiliate her and never let her stand on her own two feet with words of encouragement and support. From a rational point of view, the right decision might be for that child simply to walk away from the source of harm and find another environment in which to which to try and flourish. In practice, as we all know, this is not possible, because children are biologically and psychologically bound to the individuals who brought them into the world. The bonds that hold children to parents are in fact so strong that they continue inside us all even after the parents have died. When Winnicott said that ‘there is no such thing as a baby’, he was talking about these decisive invisible cords that that tie us, willingly or not, to other people. While most of us eventually physically leave our parents to live a different kind of life within marriage, the ‘ghost’ of both parents continues to live inside us as long as we live.

This enmeshment with others, in this case our parents, is a point of vulnerability for every individual. When the process of bonding with parents has, in fact, been ‘good-enough’, it can help direct us to pursue other relationships of a wholesome and sustaining kind throughout our lives. Nevertheless the tie with our parents is rarely completed without leaving some ragged painful edges. A particular period of vulnerability is the young person going off to college or leaving home in their late teens. One part in him revels in the new independence but another part misses the emotional support that home had provided. As many parents know, the entire teenage period can be a fraught rehearsal for this time of independence and the process is seldom experienced without some pain on both sides. A typical young person living away from home for the first time will oscillate between self-congratulation on being ‘grown-up’ and a sense of home-sickness and feeling abandoned.

It is no coincidence that recruitment to cults and extreme religious groups typically takes place among young people in their late teens and early twenties. I am sure that I have drawn attention to the fact that recruitment to these groups may have a lot to do with the way that this age-group is coping with their sense of bereavement and loss at leaving home. The new group offers to them a sense of family, of belonging and above the opportunity of ‘adopting’ a new parent in the person of a religious leader. It is my observation that countless young people are attracted to religious groups because they have the opportunity to be re-parented by an apparently benign father-figure in the form of the religious leader. There is nothing remotely unusual or even unhealthy about this dynamic in itself. The dynamic, however, can become extremely unhealthy if the leader, himself exploits the relationship or simply has no insight into what can go wrong. We all know about the phenomena of ‘groupies’ who surround pop-stars and are frequently exploited by them. Similar dynamics can be observed in many religious groups, particularly where the leader possesses facets of narcissism which I described in the last post. While sexual exploitation of religious followers may be rare, the dangers of linking young adults who are developmentally vulnerable with narcissistically inclined leaders, is a dangerous mix.

The dynamic that holds a young person in thrall to a religious group, whether a church or a cult, will not normally create emotional distress as long as the young person remains in the group. The biggest danger is that, while they are in the group, the process of emotional development involved in growing up is put on hold. By reverting to the safety of the family unit through the group, the typical cult member will not be working through the emotional task of separating from their family of origin which is part of the preparation for adult independence. Most however eventually emerge from the group and continue with the task of growing up. The worst that can be said of such individuals is that their process of maturity was delayed. Thus they survive unscathed and take their place as mature adults after their period of emotionally ‘treading water’ within some group or other.

A minority of young people are deeply damaged by their passage through a religious group. Some never emerge properly. Their need for attachment has become permanently focused on the leader or guru and his teaching, so that they cannot imagine life without this prop. At an emotional level they have remained a child, totally dependent on the ‘parent’. When this happens, the process of disentangling from these kinds of bonds is never achieved without enormous amounts of pain and emotional distress. The group has created in the follower a dependency on itself every bit as lethal as an addiction to hard drugs. The literature on drugs offers an explanation of the way that dependency is never just physical but it extends to the brain so that addiction is psychological, emotional and mental.

The ‘survivors’ of cultic groups are sometimes deeply distressed damaged people. Their desire to trust others and to attach themselves to an ideal has been ruthlessly taken advantage of or exploited in some way. It would not be untrue to see that religion generally appeals to the child part of our personalities. We could never understand Jesus’ words about faith and trust unless we had learnt these qualities as children. But it is these same ‘child-like’ qualities that are also the key to our vulnerability and open us up to be being exploited in a variety of ways. Those who do in fact exploit this child part of their followers are power abusers of the worst kind. They should remember the words of Jesus about taking advantage of children and the way that millstones were used to place such abusers into the depths of the sea.