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.

About Stephen Parsons

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

11 thoughts on “Trinity Church -study of institutional power

  1. We do need to be aware of this sort of church, and savvy enough to recognise it wherever it appears. I have known CofE churches with similar behaviour patterns. I have also known places of work like that. And I have known bosses of various types who think themselves to be infallible. It’s strange how common it is, and how few people can see it clearly or who are prepared to do anything about it. Oh, and I know of two cases where CofE clergy advised people to leave partners. In both cases the leaver just packed and went while the other was out. One was a 19 year marriage. In neither case was violence involved.

  2. The rape allegation is not the only one which involves a crime. There are others just as serious. It is not merely cases of bullying by school staff. There are matters that should be attended to by the police, but I can almost guarantee they will never be.

  3. The blog that Nigel runs and from which all my information derives, makes clear that many unsavoury actions have taken place over the decades at Trinity. I thought the whole new ‘game-changer’ was the fact that criminal activities have now been identified at the church in the form of a rape allegation. If there are other criminal activities then the people concerned could have gone to the police. We have not been told about such claims anywhere on the blog. If you have any information, surely you need to share it. What is the basis of your guarantee that nothing will happen? Is there corruption among the local law enforcement establishment? This blog is concerned about all the countless acts of bullying, humiliation, destruction of ideals, creation of dependency etc that do not count as ‘criminal’ but are abusive and harmful to ordinary Christians. These are the ones that need focusing on as the other criminal activities are hopefully dealt with by the law. As far as I know civil cases have not been pursued in the past at Peniel as there is nothing in civil or criminal law to stop a church leader, for example,verbally abusing or humiliating an individual. Let us know more. Meanwhile we hope that ‘Gail’, the Bible School student, who has contributed to this blog, will pursue her pursuit of truth and justice, whether or not it results in a criminal prosecution. If you are right about other events, then this one should be allowed to see the light of day to represent all the others.

  4. yes, there are a bunch of what you call “unsavory” acts by the leadership at Trinity, both present and former. but there is a couple of things that I know about first hand that are also criminal and a couple of them have to do with a kid. I don’t think the police are going to do anything because everybody is still too afraid to really do what it would take to make that happen. and then there is the case of financial fraud where people gave money for something specific and it was used for other stuff. plus, the bible school student can’t get the police to talk to her.

  5. Thank you Anon for further input. You will appreciate that this is not a blog about Trinity but sometimes uses the example of Trinity as a way of understanding how churches can become abusive institutions. I hope you appreciate that this is quite a different agenda from Nigel’s blog. Are you saying that the potential complainants or the police are too scared to take things further? I hope that the Bible school student will read this and comment on what you say about her particular complaint. I had understood that there is an ongoing police investigation but things may have changed over the past few weeks.

  6. Hopefully, the police and other establishment bodies are much better at this sort of thing these days. I’m sure the days when if you were important enough no one would investigate are not past. But equally, I’m sure things have improved. We should all pray that the victims are brave enough to testify. It’s not easy. Fear is the name of the perpetrators’ game, after all.

  7. I would just like to say Anon that I hope you are strengthened to keep
    on speaking out.
    I speak as a victim. It was late summer 1969 when I first fell into the hands of this system of belief.
    The human carnage that I have witnessed I have no words for. I have known of children loosing their families and families loosing their children.
    We must defend the freedom of religion and free speech (If there ever has been such a thing). However, mind control/ brain policing must be attacked and attacked at every opportunity.

    The God channel set itself up as a superhuman work of God. We must ask ourselves; is the love of God something less than human love?
    I personally cannot imagine even the hardest person I know approving of that stuff!
    ?? Superhuman religion or, superhuman inhumanities?

    Chris Pitts

  8. Hello again,
    I cannot speak to the specifics of the situation with the police. Let me just say I will be taking my complaint to the next level. As far as other criminal allegations, I know of a couple. I must be careful what I say at the moment. I’m sure you understand. I am waiting for a meeting to be set up between myself and the trustees to discuss my story. I will not wait forever so by this time next month I will have more information – one way or another.

    1. Thank you for joining our discussion again. There seems to have been a slowing down in the process at Brentwood so anything you can do to keep things moving, that will be helpful. In a very important sense what you are doing Gail, either in talking to the Trustees or the police, is something that you are doing on behalf of many others. It is hard work standing up to injustice, exposing evil etc but it is important to do it because otherwise things get left, abandoned or forgotten. When I talk to members of my own church (Anglican) about the issues of this blog, they look at me with surprise as this must be something incredibly rare. I assure them that abuse of various kinds is taking place at a church near them. Anything that any of us can do to bring it into the open will make it better known and perhaps less likely to happen in the future. The sexual abuse of children is widely understood today but it always went on but people did not want to see it around them. Power abuse, bad teaching and the creation of unhealthy dependency must be held to account alongside actual criminal activities. Perhaps this blog can help sensitise people to these realities in church life.

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