Monthly Archives: January 2015

What is going on at Brentwood?

Since my writing this on Tuesday, Nigel has posted a new post on his blog. He has written to the Director of the Evangelical Alliance, pointing out the delays and the apparent unwillingness of the Trustees at Trinity to move towards either him or the Bible School student. I posted a comment suggesting that there may be a problem in appointing a Chairman, as per below. He responded with the thought that it is more likely to be indolence, which was my other suggested reason. Things may happen by next week-end as the terms of the internal Commission are due to be published by the end of January.

‘If you have a problem, ignore it and it may go away.’ This seems to be the conscious or unconscious motto that rules among the Trustees and members at Trinity Church Brentwood. After the flurry of activity that went on up to Christmas with the allegations of historic rape and some unprecedented admissions of failure on the part of the Trustees, including mention by them of a past ‘toxic culture’ in the church, all has now has gone quiet. We are still awaiting the nomination of an external chairman to oversee an internal enquiry over the historic wrongs at the church. This was something that was to be organised by the Evangelical Alliance. Such a person has not appeared. We are left wondering what is going on and even the indomitable Nigel Davies sounded discouraged. What is going on?

In the absence of official news from Trinity Church, we are free to speculate on what may be happening behind the scenes. My speculation are based on my experiences and study of the way that similar toxic religious groups behave. My surmises are speculative but if I am later proved wrong, I will freely withdraw my comments.

The problem of not yet finding an external chairman for the internal Commission is totally unsurprising. Michael Reid spent 30 or more years carefully rubbishing most other Christian institutions and their leaders, and now Trinity Brentwood, even under its supposed new management, does not have a good reputation with non-affiliated bodies. Few of the ‘friends’ and individuals that the church cultivated in the past have, as far as can be determined, blameless reputations. None of these ‘friends’ would anyway be eligible to act as an independent chairman. Is it surprising that getting involved as an independent chairman at a place like Trinity Church is not going to be immediately popular? Without of course knowing what is going on behind the scenes, I surmise that several people may have already turned down this ‘opportunity’. What would be in it for them? This is one situation that no amount of Trinity wealth and ‘love-gifts’ can resolve.

The dynamics of a church like Trinity Brentwood will always be resistant to meaningful reform. Churches that possess a narcissistic controlling leadership and a congregation that individually and collectively has long ago lost the ability to think or feel for itself, are virtually impossible to change. The particular aspect of Trinity, that makes it particularly hard to embrace the future, is the Reid legacy of members becoming married to one another and having children together. Peniel School was set up to keep these children carefully apart from the outside, free from exposure to influences outside the control of the church. The church has thus become the ultimate suffocating family. There are many comparable religious groups, particularly in the States, where members all live together and marry one another. The fate of the children in this situation is often tragic in the extreme. Having been brought by emotionally immature parents, educated apart from children their own age, these children have a hard struggle to make their way through life. In the States there is a literature devoted to the needs of so-called SGAs (second generation adults) in closed communities. Meanwhile the parents, these inter-married immature adults, find it extremely difficult to think for themselves having handed over the thinking process on big issues to their leaders. They thus cannot easily break out of the cocoon. What sort of maturity are they handing on to their children, if their membership of a toxic group has prevented them from ever growing up and maturing themselves?

Nigel’s blog revealed that some Trinity members thought that with the setting up of the Commission, the crisis was over. Those of us who have read all the material both from the church and the bloggers (especially the moving testimony from the Bible Student) know perfectly well that nothing has yet been resolved. What can we can say about an individual who, because nothing has been said in the church for five weeks, believes that everything is sorted? Various words come to mind to describe the attitude of an individual who believes that because something is not mentioned for a time, it has gone away. Some adjectives would describe an apparent lack in their intelligence. Other adjectives would denote that the individual concerned cannot face up to any reality as the result of severe conditioning. Dissonance is not easily tolerated. If the leadership tell them that all is well, then they will be quick to believe it. Anything else is uncomfortable; thinking through problems on their own is something that members of a toxic group normally do not have to do. As with children, they have always have had ‘Daddy’ to do their thinking for them.

Stalemate is going to be a typical scenario when a closed religious group decides to investigate itself. It is my firm belief that internal enquiries will never succeed because no one involved in a such a group can ever stand outside the established habits of thought long enough to see what is going on. Also the privileged leaders of a closed group will always make sure they remain materially comfortable and, in defence of that privilege, they will obstruct investigation with every power game known to man. In partial defence of these same leaders, I actually believe that most such leaders believe at least some of their own excuses and rhetoric. Like President Assad of Syria, they are convinced that they are the victims of ‘terrorists’, past and present. Without his guiding hand, the toxic group leader recognises that everything built up over the years would simply collapse. Any change would bring the whole house of cards come tumbling down because there is no one to manage the intricate network of relationships and dependencies that have been created to keep the whole thing going.

For all the effort, sacrifice and pain among members past and present, a closed religious group like Trinity will eventually collapse in tears. The high-level of intermarriage at Trinity means that no one outside the ‘tribe’ will ever easily be able to manage the dynamics of the place and successfully lead it in the future when the present leadership is gone. One could just imagine that, had the Commission sparked a sincere desire to put things right, there was a hope for the future. That spark of hope seems to have died as a result of the deafening silence that has descended on Trinity since Christmas. We wait to see what will happen next.

Change and Decay

Everyone who attends funerals, has frequently found himself singing these words, ‘change and decay in all around I see’. God is then described as one ‘who changes not’. He, unlike the creation, is beyond change and decay. One way of understanding these words is to conclude that humanity, like the rest of creation, is ultimately destined for destruction and final extinction.

The theological teaching which is implied in the hymn ‘Abide with me’ is questionable as well as fairly gloomy. It helps to instil, at a popular level, theological ideas which need to be challenged if we are to do justice to the actual claims about God taught by the New Testament. The teaching of Jesus tries to communicate, not a distance between God and his creation, but a coming together, an at-one-ment, to use the technical expression. While the teachings of Jesus and indeed Paul both presuppose a movement towards a merging of the created order and the divine, the Greek-speaking world that surrounded them wanted to keep the two firmly separate. In an earlier blog post I used the word ‘binary’ to describe a way of thinking that wants to divide experience into two, the black and white, the true and the false. I said then that this kind of thinking was unhelpful and misleading. Binary is also an adjective that can describe the division of everything into spiritual and material. Once again it is a false dichotomy and certainly it is not supported by a perceptive reading of Scripture.

Let us go back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus called his disciples, what was he calling them to? We have been blinded by the accounts of Christianity that see everything promised to the followers of Jesus in terms of ‘salvation’. For many modern Christians, this salvation means eternal life with God in heaven – a reward for virtuous living. In thinking only in this way, we have closed our minds to an imaginative understanding of what Jesus was offering his disciples when he called them. One thing that Jesus was not offering his disciples was some new-fangled version of ‘truth’ based on the latest and most fashionable reading of the Old Testament scriptures. He was in the first place dealing with a bunch of ordinary men, some of whom may not have been even literate. I also don’t think we are to imagine him preaching a sermon while eager followers looked up each scriptural quote to check that he was using it in a proper fashion. Literacy, words and text seem to have played little or no part in what Jesus had to offer in his first encounter with those who were to be his disciples. For background the disciples had a broad experience of living according to the Jewish Law, but this experience would have been as much a matter of lived out convention rather than anything that went deeply into the hearts and minds.

To return to the question as to what Jesus had to present to the disciples. The important clause is the one that says in the first chapter of Mark ‘the kingdom of God has come close’. This is a statement by Jesus that invites his disciples, not to learn something new, not to get their heads around a new idea, but to experience something. We can imagine that if there had been an intellectual Greek present when Jesus mentioned the kingdom for the first time, he might have asked Jesus to explain what he meant. Jesus’ reply might well have been. ‘This is not a matter for explanations. This kingdom is for you to recognise as a reality within your heart and to enter in.’ In short what Jesus meant by the ‘Kingdom of God” was a lived reality of God coming close. It was in no way an intellectual concept to be grasped by the mind.

There are two words that capture the meaning of Jesus’ teaching about the at-one-ment between God and everyday reality. The first of these is ‘participation’. Jesus’ focus is on calling humankind to participate in the new reality, the kingdom of God reaching out to embrace the world in acts of love, forgiveness and generosity. Being a Jew, Jesus would not have understood the Greek preoccupation with contrasting the world of spirit and of matter. He would have thought in categories that we would call now ‘holistic.’ The world and the God who created it are at root integrated together, even though the activity of human kind, we call sin, has thrust them apart. Sin creates a dis-integration, a disharmony between the creator and the created world but the link between the two is never totally destroyed. Human beings are being called by Jesus to face up to this alienation that we call sin, and help them move back towards the source of grace, love and forgiveness. That seems to be what Jesus was doing in calling his disciples. He was inviting them to participate in something new, something transforming, something that would decisively change them and their attitudes for ever. God was reaching out to them so that, by knowing Jesus, they would know and participate in the source of the final reality in the universe.

The second word that I want to mention is ‘transformation’. A Christian is an individual who has entered into this process of seeing through Jesus how the world and God are ultimately one. The Christian has recognised the call to make this a reality, by participating in an opening up of the individual personality to God. This is done by acts of self-examination and the giving and receiving of forgiveness and love. The more the individual participates in this process, the more that person is transformed. The process will never be complete. At the same time the transformation will never be some sort of vertical process, a becoming more ‘spiritual’. It will involve a recognition of all the ways in which integration is that which binds us, not just to God but also to other people. Forgiveness, love and integration are, in short, not just categories that describe how human beings should relate to the divine but also to each other. The same dynamic will also bind him/her to a new relating to the created world.

To return to the hymn at the beginning of the piece. The Christian is invited to reject the notion that ‘change and decay (is) in all around I see’. We are to participate in a process of gradual transformation of humanity and the world as we allow the divine gradually to change us and our relationships to this world to resemble those of Jesus. May the Kingdom of God be a reality in us as we learn to love and be loved and to forgive and be forgiven.

Education, education (part 2)

In the last few days a row has blown up over the inspection by OFSTED of two Free Schools. For those not in the UK, it should be explained that a Free School is one set up by teachers and parents independent of the mainstream system but funded by central government. They are, however, subject to inspection by government inspectors, collectively known as OFSTED. The system has proved popular with minority groups, whether religious or ethnic. In the case that is reaching the news at present, two Free schools have received poor results and one of them, at Durham, is expected to close after Easter. The inspectors found failings in every area, teaching, organisation, discipline and bullying. Pupils were found to have homophobic attitudes and showed prejudice towards minority groups. According to television reports, most of the parents are furious about these inspections and they are supporting all attempts to have the inspections overturned.

The interest to our blog about this row is the fact that both of these schools are so-called Christian schools. This is a code for saying that their original inspiration for setting them up is the desire to teach a curriculum that accords with a conservative Christian agenda. This may or may not include such things as the ‘Young Earth’ theory which involves a denial of Darwin’s theories. This area of controversy does not appear to have been an issue in either of the inspections. What did upset the inspectors was the fact that the version of Christianity that the pupils were being taught was closing their attitudes towards modern life and increasing their prejudice towards minorities. In short the culture of the schools resembled a Christian cocoon which was completely cut off from the rest of society.

We have not heard the last of this story as no doubt the appeal processes will rumble on for some weeks to come. But I want to reflect on the general issue of why it will always be difficult for conservative Christians to set up schools which chime in with the consensus of what education is all about. My comments will be general ones rather than anything else to be gleaned from the press reports about these two schools in particular. In my blog piece about ACE schools I wrote over a month ago, I probably made similar comments to the ones I want to make now. The comments I make now will offer some thoughts about the incidence of bigotry and prejudice that was reported in both these Christian schools. That needs to be accounted for in some way, or at least some kind of explanation offered.

At the heart of the conservative Calvinist Christian system is a confidence that the believer has been let into the secret of God’s will. Christ has revealed God’s truth in his teaching and the words of God recorded in Scripture confirm that teaching. There is no trace of the reticence that is found among less conservative Christians where hesitancy and a certain tentativeness about the nature of ultimate truth is found. The Calvinist tradition only deals in the currency of certainty and finality. Anyone who attends a church where a conservative theology is taught will know the style of confidence that the preacher exudes and which he wishes to pass on to his congregants. In thinking about this confidence about what can be known and the way it is communicated, we can see that it does not fit well into the style of learning that is at the heart of the educational process in the West at least since the 18th century. Here the educational model is based on questions and experiment. In a tradition that goes right back to Plato, knowledge comes to us as we learn to ask the right questions. Scientific experimentation originally involved there being uncertainty about what was true and valid. When the Church tried to impose dogmatic answers on area of knowledge, it generally got things spectacularly wrong. I don’t need to rehearse the sad story of Galileo here. To summarise the failure of the Roman Catholic authorities at the time; it was the assumption that all knowledge had been given to them by God so they could pontificate on every conceivable area of learning. That was wrong and it took a largely secular movement of thought, the Enlightenment, to get scientific advances back on track.

The complaint of the OFSTED inspectors about the Christian schools does not appear to have been about the actual curriculum. What is being referred to is apparently the effect of a system of teaching on attitudes to those outside the school who do not adhere to the same narrow ideology which is taught in the schools. In summary the children at these two Christian schools were imbibing assumptions about the world that gave them an unwarranted sense of superiority towards individuals who do not belong to their Christian tribe. The Christianity they learned about was not making them more generous, loving and considerate. Rather it was teaching them a smug satisfaction that their version of truth was complete and final and for this reason they could look down on anyone who did not belong to their system of belief.

In conclusion, educational values of openness to truth, the discovery through experimentation, and learning through dialogue do not sit easily with any dogmatic system, whether Catholic or Calvinist. The OFSTED inspectors appear to have stumbled upon two institutions where such a closed system was in operation. This closed system with its consequent closed prejudiced attitudes, was they believed, creating failing educational institutions. On the basis of what we have seen, this analysis must be applauded and supported.

Religious Grooming

A story which leapt out at me this morning in the Times concerns a GP who is facing a hearing at the General Medical Council in Manchester. Dr Thomas O’Brien allegedly told a patient that he could heal her pain without medication and that she was to submit to an exorcism. It was only after Dr O’Brien was reported to the GMC by the patient’s psychiatrist that the case came to light. The present hearing that is ongoing brings to the fore a number of issues relevant to this blog.

During the course of the hearing which began yesterday (Tuesday) the expression ‘religious grooming’ was used. This expression, as far as I know, has no place in law but the fact of its use in a quasi-legal setting may be of importance for the future. The pre-exorcism religious grooming included taking the patient to a local Pentecostal church, meeting the minister over lunch and giving her a copy of a book Doctor O’Brien and his wife had written, an Occult Checklist. This type of checklist, in favour among a certain genre of Christian, has been around since the 80s and it lists all the forms of behaviour that have the potential for allowing an individual to be demonically possessed. The lists are comprehensive and indeed anyone reading such a checklist will find at least one experience or situation that has made them susceptible to ‘Satanic influence’. I cannot imagine that many people have never once read their horoscope while sitting in a dentist’s waiting room and that activity open up the individual to demonic infestation. I encountered the influence of these types of checklists in the 90s when researching my book, Ungodly Fear. One vulnerable woman was told to destroy all her possessions after a group of Christians had persuaded her that she was possessed through having worked as a nurse at a Masonic Hospital in London. Fortunately she did not oblige. The checklist will mention the demonic power of elephants (pictures or models) because elephants are sacred to Hinduism. All adopted children are likely to be possessed because the act of their conception was performed out of wedlock. Needless to say, gay sex and any sexual activity outside marriage is taking the perpetrator straight to Hell. I used to have such a checklist but its contents were so disturbing and unsettling that the book was destroyed. The purpose of the book seems to have been to terrify the reader into cutting themselves off from any influences that might challenge the power of the religious leader under whose authority they have placed themselves.

The occult checklist culture in the UK reached a peak in the early 90s with the scares connected with satanic ritual abuse. I have discussed this issue in a previous blog post. I can say in summary that the demonic paranoia that was rampant among Pentecostal and other evangelical groups has mercifully subsided. One hoped that enough people had seen the horrendous harm caused to vulnerable individuals by such teaching. Clearly, as the present hearing shows, this is not universally the case. For one highly educated person, such as Dr O’Brien to hold on to such medieval and harmful beliefs, there needs to be a supporting culture of books, theological teaching and convinced individuals. People do not wake up one morning with all these beliefs in their head fully formed. They have to learn them in a church and the church has a minister who has learnt these ideas from an institution of some kind. As I have said on a previous blog post, there is a time for appropriate ministry to deal with paranormal and occult issues. But the exorcism as practised by Dr and Mrs O’Brien seems to have been laced with bad pastoral practice, weak theology and abusive assumptions. This kind of practice needs to be named and shamed.

Out of this sad episode, which is as yet unresolved, may come two positive results. One is that the expression ‘religious grooming’ may slip from its use in the General Medical Council to become a category understood by lawyers and courts generally. It would be a tremendous boost to the cause of helping vulnerable and damaged people who have been further abused by religious leaders if their plight could be understood by the courts. The second thing that gives me hope is the need for churches generally to have to consider where they stand in responding to this particular case. Some, no doubt, will claim that Dr O’Brien is a poor persecuted Christian who is suffering for his beliefs. Others, and I hope the majority, will declare that Christians of any kind have no business in making the suffering of an individual worse by the application of a type of Christianity which is clearly abusive. Any discussion in Christian circles, and I hope there is a lot, will help Christian people to see that certain beliefs can and do harm people. The unravelling of all the moral issues in this case may well help the cause of a greater self-awareness among Christians who sincerely want to apply biblical truths to the issues of people’s lives but need to be taught to do it with tact, intelligence and sensitivity. The battle against abuse by Christians of Christians has to go on. This is the task of this blog and your interest and support will help and encourage my very small role in this struggle.

Linguistic idolatry

“From a theological perspective, this fixation with propositions can easily lead to the attempt to use the finite tool of language on an absolute Presence that transcends and embraces all finite reality. Languages are culturally constructed symbol systems that enable humans to communicate by designating one finite reality in distinction from another. The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping, as all the great theologians from Irenaeus to Calvin have insisted, and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry.”

This is a quotation that I came across in my perusal of various web-sites that want to support the ideas of a movement called ‘Emergent Christianity’. No doubt my new interest in this US based movement will be reflected in future blog posts, but I was also fascinated by some of the arguments against the ideas of this movement. But when you read a statement, like the one above, that is supporting a set of ideas and you feel you want to cheer, then you feel an automatic attachment to the rest of the ideas that are contained in the movement’s teaching. I do not however propose to conduct a full-scale defence of Emergent Christianity, but to take one single thread of the argument among its ideas, and show that, as far I am concerned, the grounds on which its opponents attack it is fallacious and wrong.

Emergent Christianity contains many strands in its thinking and I do not propose to deal with most of them. However a broad summary would say that it is a movement within evangelical Christianity which seeks to present the ideas and insights of Christianity in a way that allows it to speak to contemporary life, not least the culture and thinking of younger people. The issue our quotation speaks to is the issue of language as a tool for communicating and containing truth. Emergent Christianity has attached itself to the ideas of postmodernism. Once again, risking the dangers of over-simplification, we can say that postmodernism strongly resists the idea that there is a single over-arching version of truth, a meta-narrative to explain or interpret the universe. Truth thus cannot be contained in a single philosophy or theory. To some extent truth is found within the experience of every single individual. This is not the place to defend or attack post-modernism but to note that it has received much negative comment from evangelical writers. They, being attached to the idea that God has revealed himself in the words of Scripture, cannot allow truth to break out from its confinement within these words. The traditional conservative Christian perspective is that faith, truth and doctrine are all expressible through the medium of the God-given words of the Bible. Such an idea can be described as propositionalism, the notion that everything, spiritual or material, can be articulated or defined through words. It is worth commenting, in passing, that propositionalism no longer holds sway in modern physics since there are observed phenomena which sometimes go beyond the scope of ordinary language to explain them. In summary, the conservative Christian wants to claim that truth can always be contained in the medium of words while postmodern ideas of Christianity will want to allow that truth on occasion, breaks out of the straight-jacket of words and is allowed to be discovered in such things as symbols, or visual and musical experiences. The infinite God, to quote our extract above, ‘is beyond all our linguistic grasping’.

It is several months now since I wrote a piece on the contribution of traditional Eastern Orthodoxy to the Christian tradition of today. I have not looked up my precise words on the topic but the kind of thing that I would have written would have been to emphasise the place of ‘mystery’ in Christian belief. The word is based on a root meaning of being silent or struck dumb. Mystery is thus a word that emphasises that words in themselves do not deliver very successfully a sense of the ‘beyond’ in Christian experience. Paul himself speaks of experiences that go beyond words and the mystical writers speak tantalisingly of the unknown in expressions such as ‘divine darkness’. A fourteenth century English writer, who wrote a book called the Cloud of Unknowing, spoke of the fact that God cannot be grasped by the mind but only by love. The Eastern Orthodox to this day fill their worship and their traditions of prayer with a strong sense of the way that God cannot be known, described or even spoken of, except by inference. The so-called ‘apophatic’ tradition, widely discussed in Eastern Christian traditions, declares that God can only be described by saying what he is not, rather than attempting the impossible task of comparing him to created realities in our world.

I leave further consideration of Emergent Christianity for another day. I suspect from the tone of the arguments against it, that I shall find myself, if not siding with it, approving of many of the arguments that writers such as Brian Maclaren put forward with great energy. When I hear the argument that truth is only to be expressed in verbal forms, I automatically feel a strong support for whoever is being condemned through the use of such spurious arguments. I am extremely grateful for my education which taught me from the earliest age that truth is to be found in many places beyond words – in beauty, love, longing and silence. I leave the reader with two short quotations from the Psalms where God is approached and known without the use of lots of, or even any, words.
‘Be still and know that I am God.’
‘O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.’

Jesus and the Old Testament

Thinking about the BibleWhen I was an undergraduate I remember a rather unprofitable discussion with a fellow student about what Jesus knew or did not know. The student, being linked to conservative Christian circles, took the line that Jesus, being God, knew everything, even if he did not choose to talk about it. So I asked whether Jesus knew all about nuclear weapons. ‘Of course’ was the reply. It was important for the belief system of this young man that Jesus knew everything. That knowledge would of course include insight into information about the Old Testament and Jesus’ opinions were held to be decisive. When Jesus declared Moses to be the originator of the laws on divorce, for example, that was a clear indication that the whole Law was penned by his hand. The conversation stuttered to a halt as I realised that, although there was something profoundly wrong with this line of argument, I did not know how to respond or take it any further.

Recently I came across a similar argument in a book discussing the so-called Chicago Statement about biblical authority published in 1978. One of the authors of the Statement, Norman Geisler, claims that Jesus confirms the ‘divine authority of Old Testament Scripture .. on numerous occasions’. Having brought forward passages like Matthew 5.17-18 and Luke 24.44, Geisler is able to say ‘the authority of Christ and Scripture are one.’ The claim is that the authority of Christ can be appealed to and it confirms the claims made by conservative Christians for the inerrancy of Scripture. As James Barr put it: ‘This endlessly repeated argument seeks to use the personal loyalty of Christians towards Jesus as a lever to force them into fundamentalist positions on historical and literary matters’. In short the argument of Geisler appears to carry weight behind it at least as far as generations of conservative Christians are concerned.

The assumptions of Geisler do however need to be challenged and for this we need to examine the passage from Matthew 5 more closely. The text declares that ‘not one letter or stroke will disappear from the Law’. For this passage to have authority, one has to presuppose first that these words were actually spoken by Jesus and secondly we know the context in which it was spoken. Any student of the New Testament is aware of the dispute within the pages of Acts and Paul’s letters over whether Christian converts should be subject to the dictates of the Jewish law or not. Paul himself represented one side of the argument and the author of Matthew the other. The expression ‘until heaven and earth disappear’ is an idiom in Hebrew that basically means ‘until forever’. So Matthew has Jesus come down firmly on the need for Christian converts to keep the Jewish law after conversion. Luke on the other hand sides with Paul when he inserts this saying of Jesus in chapter 16.16. He has almost the same words as Matthew but the passage immediately before it allows Luke to understand these words in a quite different way from Matthew. In the previous verse Luke writes that ‘until John (the Baptist), it was the Law and the prophets: since then, there is the good news of the kingdom of God, and everyone forces their way in.’ In short Luke is claiming the total opposite to Matthew, that the Law has been set aside to let the Gentiles enter the kingdom. The same saying of Jesus has for these Gospel writers a quite different meaning, reflecting their distinctive theological backgrounds.

The second observation to be made about Matthew’s saying about the Law is that conservative Protestant theology does not agree with it. The classic Protestant position is that is that the laws of Moses were nullified after Christ’s death on the cross. In other words, Matthew’s Jesus is teaching something now universally rejected by most Christians. A final observation to be made is that even if the statement in Matthew 5. 17-18 was true to what Jesus said and thought, it is not an argument for the inerrancy of the whole Old Testament. The Law and the Prophets refers to only two sections of the Old Testament, while leaving out the third section, the Writings (Psalms, history books and the wisdom literature).

We could of course, go on to look at other ‘proof texts’ for Jesus apparently giving his support for conservative position on the Bible, but there is a deeper question to be asked about the nature of Jesus’ humanity and whether we should even expect his understanding of the Jewish scriptures to be decisive for the way we think about them and study them today. One writer puts it succinctly when he says ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to be its Saviour, not an authority on biblical criticism.’ While Jesus may have assumed that David wrote Psalm 110, Daniel the book of Daniel and took for granted the historicity of Jonah, these were notions that he shared with his contemporaries. The Chicago statement on inerrancy will not allow the possibility that there was any ‘natural limitation of His humanity’ . He is not allowed to adopt the understandings of scripture and the traditions into which he was born unless these are perfectly correct. This position, like that of my fellow student at the beginning, does not allow Jesus to be properly human and experience the limitations of his humanity, including a lack of complete historical understanding. Are we to suppose that Jesus grew up without having to learn anything, the gift of speech, the ability to read etc? If Jesus thought the world was flat, does that neutralise his whole ministry because he was mistaken in this? If we do believe that Jesus was omniscient, at what point did this happen? There are clearly many impossible problems to be solved, if we follow the conservative line that Jesus in some way ‘proves’ the modern ideas concerning biblical inerrancy. The Christian tradition wrestled with all these problems in the early years of the Church’s life. One part of the Church wanted to over-emphasise the divine nature, so that Jesus could not be said to be fully human. The final verdict on this debate was delivered at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD and stated categorically that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. This has become Christian orthodoxy to this day. The notion of full humanity would appear to directly contradict Chicago statement about the omniscience of Jesus. To be fully human means that, whatever else we want to say about Jesus, he was at one with the limitations of his age over scientific and historical understanding. No one has ever suggested that limitations in these areas have been able to limit Jesus’ apprehension and knowledge of the mind and will of God. The belief that Jesus ‘incarnates’ the full reality of God in a human life is a paradox and mystery which we struggle to understand and always will. But whatever it means it does not necessitate his being able to offer an infallible opinion on the questions about the authorship of the book of Daniel and the Psalms.

Trinity Church -study of institutional power

trinityMy readers will forgive me for returning to the topic of the notorious church, Trinity, Brentwood as a jumping-off point for the understanding of a particular aspect in the life of churches that cause harm. Trinity Church in many respects is an archetypical church of its type, theologically and in terms of its internal dynamics. Some of what I have written here is a recounting of actual events in the tortured history of this institution. Other pieces are using the well documented descriptions of its life and times to illustrate general points which may apply to many churches of this type. All the information about the Brentwood church comes from

The news at Trinity suggests that little is, in fact, going on at present. A Commission for investigating past wrongs is to be appointed with an external Chair recommended by the Evangelical Alliance. The church is soon to publish terms of reference for this Commission and it is hoped that the whole process of meeting, investigating and producing a report will be completed by the summer. All this sounds very civilised and the information was relayed through a news item on the official website last night (Monday). But in the middle of the anodyne and formal language, there was this startling statement. The church mentioned that there were nine allegations to be investigated, six of which that were anonymous. No details of what was contained in these ‘allegations’ but Nigel Davies’ blog has given us a good indication of their nature and seriousness. Some probably relate to bullying and the humiliating of children by staff at the school and the Bible School. Others may be about gross interference by leaders in the family lives of members, with wives or husbands pressured to leave their partners for the sake of their ‘salvation’. Maybe others touch on financial matters. The details of these allegations are not available or indeed important for the moment. Probably, apart from the rape allegation, none involved actual criminality though they were, no doubt, extremely unpleasant and traumatic for those concerned. The significant thing that the church is telling us is that serious allegations exist from the past which the church did nothing to address at the time they occurred. It is only the pressure from Nigel’s blog and possibility of police investigations that has forced the church to acknowledge that these complaints even exist.

Nine serious allegations of misconduct from the past is quite something for any organisation, let alone a church, to admit. It is freely confessing that things happened in the past of some seriousness which the leadership either did not know about or, if they did, were unwilling to pursue. Why would anyone in leadership not want to face up to such allegations at the time they happened? If they claim not to have known, what does that say about the power structures in place? These questions led me to reflect about the dynamics of power that would appear to exist in any organisation where serious abuse issues happen and are not dealt with.

One model that might be applied to the apparent power dynamics at Trinity/Peniel is the pyramid where all power is concentrated at the top. The power is surrendered to the leaders and control and coercion flow in one direction only – downwards. The leader in this case, Michael Reid, is a one man ruler who concentrates all the power in himself. One part of this power dynamic is that he will not listen to anyone who challenges him. His narcissistic world view has convinced him that he has messianic qualities. He has also internalised a battery of bible quotations which reinforce his position. The Holy Spirit speaks to him direct as leader and anyone who dares to suggest that he is a money-grubbing tyrant will have the quote ‘Touch not the Lord’s anointed’ thrown at them, before being told to leave. It is in fact unlikely that full insight as to the tyrannical nature of charismatic leadership is ever given to members. They will just become aware that their continuing survival in the church has become impossible. They feel an immense dissonance between what they think about God and the experience of being constantly bullied, humiliated and shouted at by the church leadership.

The reason that the nine allegations could never be investigated at the time they occurred is simply because the organisation that investigates itself, has to have a sense of its own potential fallibility. It has to admit that things can go wrong at times. Fallibility in an institution does not sit well with the sense of infallibility that seems to attaches to the norms of charismatic leadership which we have looked at above. If, as I claim, the power in this kind of institution goes from the top downwards, it will also be apparent that ordinary people in the structure will not be heard. ‘Touch not the Lord’s anointed’ can be translated into a command not to bother the big important man with petty complaints. The complaints will not be necessarily be petty but any challenge of the leader who has all the power and influence in the church, is not tolerated.

Nine allegations of power abuse from the past represents probably only a small selection of gross acts of misconduct that have actually occurred in this church. It is also suggestive of a grotesquely dysfunctional church. This church had organised itself in such a way that all the power was invested in one man and a small number of his hangers-on. Small people, ordinary people within the structure, experienced power flowing in one direction, downwards, overwhelming and extinguishing whatever voice that they might have had. To admit even one complaint and investigate it properly would have meant accepting in principle the possibility of fallibility in the leadership. At Trinity/Peniel this possibility could not even be entertained. The inability of leaders ever to be wrong or mistaken is part of the culture of such institutions and this infallibility makes them very dangerous places indeed.

Religious fundamentalism – place of danger

closed-mind2It is worthy of note that today (Friday) the Church Times has a leader entitled Fundamentalism. I have noticed over the years that the word is one that is normally avoided in articles and comments in the paper. I suspect that this reluctance to use the F-word is based on two fears. One is the fear of being misunderstood and the other a fear of giving offence. There are of course some precise definitions linking the word fundamentalism to Christian groups in the USA in the 1920s which stood firmly against the ‘evils’ of modernist tendencies in the church and in society. Also in a looser context the word is sometimes used to describe people of a religious conservative bent you do not like. Many Christians of an evangelical background hate the word and bristle at the thought of being identified with Creationists or with people who work tirelessly to keep women in church under strict control. The Church Times leader, no doubt aware of all the problems of using the word, helpfully provides a definition from a 1992 article. It goes as follows: ‘(fundamentalism is) the belief that there is one set of religious teachings that clearly contains the fundamental, basic, intrinsic, essential, inerrant truth about humanity and deity; that this essential truth is fundamentally opposed by the forces of evil which must be vigorously fought; that this truth must be followed today according to the fundamental, unchangeable practices of the past; and that those who believe and follow these fundamental teachings have a special relationship with the deity.’ The leader comments in its conclusion that such a system of belief for Christians fails in one important way – namely in its attitude to outsiders. Jesus himself gave special attention to those who were unclean, those who could be argued to have the least claim to a ‘special relationship with the deity’.

It is unsurprising that the press both secular and religious is now using the word and giving particular attention to extremism in religion in the context of the terrible events in France. Philip Collins, the Times columnist, today writes that ‘when people lay claim to certainty about ultimate questions, sooner or later there is going to be trouble. If the truth has been in some way vouchsafed to you by the divinity then dissent is not reasoned disagreement, it is blasphemy. I am no longer an interlocutor, I am an infidel.’ This Times opinion piece can be summed up by some words that I wrote on the topic fifteen years ago. ‘Fundamentalism cannot and will not listen’.

I want to unpack my own pithy definition of fundamentalism, acknowledging that the other quotes I mention with approval provide a background of explanation about this slippery word. My own definition tries to preserve two aspects of the phenomenon of fundamentalism, one to do with the thinking intellect and the other to do with psychology. The extent to which the non-communication is intellectual or emotional will vary in every case. To say that someone cannot listen to another person in a situation of potential dialogue or communication is on some occasions, I believe, to do with a failure at an intellectual level. Here the conservative Christian (or Muslim) cannot deal with more than one explanation of truth. As the CT leader said, ‘there is one set of religious teachings’ for the fundamentalist. If that is true, then logically there will be, as my definition states, an inability to hear or listen to anything else from another person. For someone to be in this place of intellectual deafness is a sad plight. How they end up in this place is not clear but one cause would be a failure to be exposed to the norms of educational process as we understand it in the West. ‘I cannot hear you’ may be statement about a weak education. It may also be the result of a long term conditioning which we recognise as having created a closed mind.

The second part of my definition picks up the emotional and psychological aspect of being a fundamentalist believer. In this second case, the reason for the deafness is that the believer chooses not to listen. Listening or hearing something that would disturb a settled point of view and belief is uncomfortable and to be resisted. According to this way of thinking, discomfort of this kind is interpreted as the forces of evil mounting an attack and these must be vigorously fought. There is of course a desperate need to remain in a place of stability and certainty. Space forbids me going further in my description of the fundamentalist stance beyond the basic observation that there seem to be these two aspects or components, the intellectual and the emotional.

For the final part of this post, I need to say why I believe, as my title suggests, that religious fundamentalism is a place of danger. Most of what I intend to say on this has already been suggested in what has been already written. First, would any of us want to place a child in charge of those who cannot allow the cut and thrust of discussion and debate? Would any of us leave another person with a view on life that denied the possibility of anything new being discovered? Would we ever be happy for ourselves to have our lives controlled by a existing fixed set of rules? Can we imagine that every conversation with another person would have to be checked by an internal censor for fear that it might lead us into areas of unsoundness? The world that I am describing is indeed a place of danger, and the danger arises from the fact that important aspects of a wider humanity are suppressed or denied. When we think about the fundamentalist universe, it is hard to distinguish who is being harmed the most, the abuser (teacher) or the pupil-victim. Simply living in this paranoid universe is opening oneself up to the infection and danger of having one’s full humanity damaged and partly destroyed. How far we are here from a master who said ‘I have come that they may have life, life in all its abundance.’

Confronting fear in Church life

When I reflect on some of the stories of Christians abused by Christians, one of the common themes, that often seems to come into the accounts, is the word ‘fear’. A lot more could be said on the topic as to the way that fear is such a mind-numbing and dispiriting experience for the one experiencing it. I want here to reflect not on the experience itself but why this emotion appears so often in the process we describe as Christian abuse. Abuse, in whatever context it occurs, normally takes place because certain individuals enjoy power. One thing that sets up an appetite for power is that the individual seeking power has at some point in their lives felt insignificant and less than appreciated. Exercising domination over others, through the exercise of authority and power, seems to relieve a void of powerlessness because there is another person who looks up to you in some way. To have someone frightened of you seems to satisfy this longing for domination.

The desire to dominate other people has always seemingly been a part of human nature. Sometimes entire nations are encouraged to feel superior over other groups or nations. The Germans as a nation were taught by their Nazi rulers to despise Jews, Slavs and other non-Aryan races and this was seen to be an aspect of their vocation to be the master race in the world. Indian society is riddled with the imbedded caste system which is a socially sanctioned system of power abuse over despised groups on the part of the privileged. We see the effect of power hierarchies and the bullying they create everywhere, whether in the family, the school, the company or the church.

For domination to work there has to be the possibility of sanctions. The master has to be able to punish the slave for disobedience. The soldier in an army of occupation has to be to able threaten the civilian with punishment and the child in a bullying relationship with another threatens to make life a misery for his victim. These implied threats cast a miasma of fear over a dominating relationship. Even if a stability is achieved so that actual violence rarely happens, this possibility, the threat of violence and the fear that it produces, can pervade the atmosphere of an institution or relationship like a fog.

The miasma of fear arising from bullying and an authoritarian structure is something that exists in certain churches. The members of these churches of fear have, paradoxically, often become so acclimatised to the atmosphere that they have forgotten that coercion and domination are built into the system. They have avoided encountering the sanctions built into the authoritarian system by keeping their heads down. The attitude that places all responsibility for thinking out problems on to the leaders has been adopted. Pastor So and So has been to college so he understands the difficult parts of the bible. I can rely on my Pastor because that is what Bible says I have to do. The no-questioning and no-challenging of the leaders seems to work and an un-eerie peace is allowed to prevail as a result. But in that peace there is a recognition that, were it to be challenged, the Pastor could make life very uncomfortable indeed for the questioner. Peace is ultimately preserved through fear, just as the Soviet system appeared to ‘work’ for countless numbers of its citizens.

The Brentwood situation to which I often refer in this blog is one where the miasma of fear allowed a situation of cruelty, deceit and power games to prevail for 30 + years. The habits of fear are still around even as the constant challenge of Nigel Davies through his blog undermines the pretentions and hypocrisy of the leaders. While the leadership can suppress questioning within the group, it is less successful when an ex-member, who has cast off the fear-laden attitudes of the past, questions and challenges. I am one of those who offers support from the outside. A battle against past and present fear is a battle well worth fighting.

What are the weapons that can induce fear in the victims of church abuse? The first is the one we have already mentioned, the right of a Christian leader to demand absolute obedience from members of his flock. This demand, backed up by select number of bible quotes, still seems to work in more churches than we would expect. The second fear-inducing tactic by some Christian leaders is one which claims to have the right to decide whether or not the church member is going to enter heaven or not. There was a story in the press in the past week where a Baptist church in the States refused to take a funeral service for a 90 year old member of 50 years standing on the ground that she had stopped coming because of illness, thus not paying her dues. The effect of this kind of decree on the other elderly members in the congregation could be massive, as the funeral service would be seen as crucial to eternal salvation. This power to hold and withhold the keys to heaven is a serious matter. Third the authoritarian church holds all the cards in the matter of interpreting Scripture. One simply cannot challenge or discuss if the minister comes down heavily, for example, on matters of sexual conduct. One has to listen as the minister condemns, divorce, gay relationships or whatever is fashionably ‘un-Christian’ at the moment, This might mean hearing that members of one’s own family are beyond the pale. Fourthly, we have to face the possibility that the Church leader may be given to angry outbursts, sexual misconduct or generally dominating conduct which makes life unpleasant for everyone, not least himself.

In a piece of 1000 words, I now need to come to my conclusion quickly, though no doubt I shall return to this topic again. Jesus would have had absolutely no time for any of the antics in churches that produce fear or the threat of fear. He never threatened anyone with hell; he never blackmailed people into behaving in a particular way. The words ‘Perfect love casts out fear’, are the words of someone who wanted to repudiate creating fear in others as a weapon of control. Jesus saw all the power games that were played by inadequate people, the pomposity and hypocrisy that went with them. Jesus saw right through all that took place among the religious leaders of his day. A great deal of what he thought about power can be summed up in those words from Mark 10. ‘ the world the recognised rulers lord it over their subjects …..That is not the way with you.’ Service is to be the hallmark of their mutual relating to one another.

Internet discoveries

InternetSince starting this blog, I have become more aware of the power of the internet to do many of the tasks with which we are concerned. In the first place information about churches and individuals that abuse is freely discoverable. I am mindful, of course, of the laws of libel that should protect individuals from malicious gossip, but there is nothing to stop an observant resident of Plymouth, UK walking around a huge derelict cinema complex, making a short video, and asking this question of God TV. How is this building going to be ready to be an international Prayer Centre in 2015 when the builders have abandoned the site for six months or more? When are you going to tell the thousands of viewers of God TV the plans you have for the money which has been given for this huge £3 million project? It is thanks to the Internet that such questions can be asked, and one hopes that accountability among Christian enterprises can be in this way sharpened up. Also when an individual in a church setting acquires a bad reputation, either as a power abuser or is guilty of financial malpractice, these facts come to show up through an internet search. More and more people are running such searches to find out something about Church leaders as well the most ordinary people. Few of us have left no trace at all on the internet.

The second thing that makes the internet helpful for our cause is to discover that there are other people on line who have interests similar to one’s own. Thanks to Twitter, which I have recently joined, I have encountered a man in America, Benjamin Corey, who writes some very good thoughtful material on the topic of this blog. Today I unashamedly intend to plagiarise some of his material. His background is that of a typical American evangelical but, through the passage of life, he has come to question many of the old certainties with which he grew up. The reason I do not just give a reference to his material straight out is that I myself also want to comment on two of his insights. The particular post I have in front of me is one with the intriguing title: ‘5 reasons why American Evangelicalism completely lost me’. (I will give a link at the end of my post.) The first two reasons apply more to the American scene and its deep involvement with the politics of the country. That is of course of interest but I need to leave these points to one side for now. The third comment is one that is dear to my heart and it is an accusation that this blog has made from time to time. He states: ‘Today’s Evangelicalism seems generally unteachable and unwilling to wrestle with theology’. He makes the point that there is, in certain churches and church cultures, a willingness to learn, but only if that learning reinforces what is already believed. To quote his words direct, ‘There’s little room for growth, reinterpretation, or the constant need for contextualisation of the scriptures. For a movement that prides itself on following the scriptures , I’m repeatedly shocked at the unwillingness to see what the scriptures actually say, and a willingness to malign those who attempt to point the movement back to the source.’ To interpret his words, he is pointing out to us, once again, that the leader/interpreter has the dominant voice in the way that scripture is encountered by Christians in the pew. The invisible ‘system’ has already decided what is written there, how to interpret it and how to iron out ‘problems’. There is thus no freedom to discover anything new or indeed make fresh discoveries beyond the received interpretations. That is a form of bondage in the Christian life, never to be able to read the Bible as though for the first time and let it speak afresh to the reader.

The other ‘reason’ out of the five in Benjamin’s piece on which I want to comment is his final one. He notes that ‘today’s Evangelicalism punishes people by withholding of relationships’. As visitors to this blog may remember, this is a theme which I resonate with very readily. Indeed it is to be the topic of my presentation to the International Cultic Studies Association meeting in Stockholm next June. Benjamin speaks of his own ostracism by his former church family and the pain that this caused. It is an isolation that affects not only him, but also his family and he speaks movingly of the incomprehension and pain of his own daughter at the loss of old friends. As I have pointed in previous blogs, conservative churches frequently offer a total environment, where all social and emotional needs are met. The price of this is that when the individual questions the system, the emotional ties are swiftly cut. In Benjamin’s words: ‘Today’s Evangelicalism does this to folks who think outside Evangelical lines – it strips them of relationships, cuts them off, and severs ties.’

I hope that some of my readers will go to Benjamin’s blog and read the full piece and other things that he has written. For myself I have noted a piece by him on Calvinism where he succinctly describes why he is unable to worship the God that is presented by Calvin. It is outspoken stuff but my long-term readers will recognise that it closely resonates with the tone of my own writings on scripture and church tradition. I am indeed fortunate to be able utter fairly stringent points of view without losing my livelihood and my place in the church. There has been, by all accounts, a high price that Benjamin has had to pay for uttering ideas, that are by the standards of this blog, fairly mild and uncontroversial. I shall continue to search out other heroic bloggers who are writing on both sides of the Atlantic. Their work will be acknowledged in this blog. Meanwhile it is good to find someone who is doing something comparable to surviving church, even though we have started in different places.