Monthly Archives: February 2015

Exploitative pressure – issue for churches?

force_marriage_7In the last blog post I expressed some regret at the fact that churches, unlike care homes, were often never subject to inspection. In a denominational structure, each congregation might have a bishop who maintains some oversight of all his congregations, but in practice it is only when members of the congregation start writing letters of complaint to the bishop or superintendent that the powers that be sit up and take an interest in a congregation’s internal happenings.

This lack of interest in the internal workings of congregations by the outside is particularly acute in the case of independent groups. The situation at Trinity Church Brentwood seems to have reached stalemate on this precise issue. Many of its problems seem to have arisen from a lack of oversight over three decades and now that they have been forced to accept the need for some sort of inspection and review because of the rape allegation, the structures around them have no mechanism for putting this in place. The Evangelical Alliance, an umbrella organisation to which Trinity belongs, was thought to have promised to provide an external chairman for its commission of inspection. After eight weeks, no chairman has appeared and one is left with the thought that no one of the relevant calibre is prepared to do the job. The fiercely protected independence of Trinity has meant that all outsiders have hitherto maintained their distance. If a church has a reputation for resisting all outsiders except those it can use or manipulate for its own purposes, no one else is likely to want to take on such a task. The qualities required of an independent chairman are those of a high court judge. Is anyone going to get involved with a place with such a dysfunctional reputation? What would be in it for them? A recent blog post suggests that the EA may have done nothing except make a suggestion of one name. Assuming that this name has turned down the ‘opportunity’, then we are back to square one. Before Christmas, Trinity made a great play of a new openness that would take place through this commission. It would appear that the years of isolation and refusal to engage with the outside world and churches have rebounded on it. Structurally it cannot find a way forward because there is no one or no institution is prepared to provide an external mirror which is needed to reflect a balanced picture of Trinity’s life and conduct. The only mirror that it has is the one that Narcissus used on himself in the myth. It is the mirror that it sees only its own reflection, and viewing this particular mirror Trinity sees only a fantasy of power and brilliance. Needless to say that brilliance and power is a total distortion.

The issue of the dangers of independence among churches is one that will not be resolved any time soon. The law struggles with any kind of sanctions or involvement against religious groups which manage to avoid actual criminal activities. As we have said before, the only time that the law takes an interest is when money or sexual misconduct are involved. For the rest, it assumes that religion is ‘good thing’. It has nothing to offer to those who wish to show that religious groups can abuse, fleece and generally mess your life up very badly. The assumption is also that a belief system – any belief system – is a matter of individual choice.

There was a glimmer of hope that the law might one day change a little when Sir Edward Garnier MP spoke in the Commons about the Modern Slavery Bill in November last year. He spoke about the idea of ‘exploitative pressure’ being an issue in the events that lead to someone becoming a slave. For someone to become a sex-slave there has to be some initial non-physical pressure to persuade a young woman to leave her family and country for the promise of pastures new. Actual physical coercion probably becomes a factor only later on the process. This may sound a long way from the issues at Trinity but if Parliament were to be able to get into law the idea that some people are harmed by the false promises and emotional coercion during the slavery process, then we might see such a law eventually covering other similar examples of emotional exploitation that take place in churches up and down the land. The many victims of cults and cultic churches like Trinity are arguably as much victims of ‘exploitative pressure’ as the victims of sexual slavery.

Up till this moment, the law of America and Britain has no concept of ‘exploitative pressure’ being in any way illegal or detrimental to a young women’s well-being. France, by contrast, has robust laws to protect its citizens from charlatans, religious and otherwise. But at present British and American law is unwilling ever to get involved in religious matters. There would however seem to be a new urgency for the lawmakers to formulate some new legal definitions to cover the numerous examples of young men and women being persuaded to fight for ISIS, which is clearly a variation on the theme of enslavement. Surely it is in the interests of society to define legally the pressures, emotional and otherwise that coerce and groom young people into actions that are clearly against their best interests. Do we always have to wait for these ISIS fighters actually to commit some atrocity or be caught in some plot before stopping them in their tracks? Is it not possible to intervene legally earlier in the process? Do we not need some new legal definitions to hold to account those who groom the impressionable and vulnerable young in the Muslim community? Such legal definitions might help also to protect some young people in cultic communities avoid the worst excesses of emotional exploitation.

The failure to protect the vulnerable, an issue that is becoming all too apparent in the Trinity saga, is a failure that ultimately concerns the whole of society. The exploitation of the young in the name of religion, whether Muslim or Christian, is unable to be addressed by our law-makers at present. Let us hope that it does not take a new 7/7 before society wakes up to the enormous power of religion in people’s lives. Many times this is benign and life-giving. It should not be beyond the wit of legal minds to show how the opposite kind of religious power, that of malign influence, should be outlawed and made illegal.

The Care Homes Scandal -reflections

elderly_care_refor_2138754cIn the Church Times last Friday, there was a story that touched me personally. It was about a retired Bishop, John Satterthwaite, who died last year in his late 80s in a care home. During the 60s I had had dealings with this clergyman when he was first appointed to be a church bureaucrat in Lambeth Palace to look after relationships with churches abroad on behalf of Archbishop Michael Ramsey. I was then abroad in Greece studying the church there and sponsored by his office. Bishop Satterthwaite never married and so in old age he entered a care home after living for many years in Cumbria. While in the care home, he began to suffer from dementia and eventually died. The story in the paper was about the fact that he had, in the last months of his life, been subjected to abusive treatment at the hands of a woman carer. The mistreatment included bathing him in cold water and neglecting him in other ways. Without going into further details, anyone would find this story shocking. I however feel almost certain that there is another story to be told beyond that of the abuse of a vulnerable confused individual by a middle aged woman. Chris is often reminding us of the plight of care-home workers and how they are manipulated to the point of exhaustion by managers and proprietors who see the care home business as a means of making a great deal of money. Whatever the crime of the woman carer found guilty of abuse, it would appear that the care home industry has in many places become an example of institutional dysfunction. More and more stories are told in the press about the plight of some elderly people at the hands of their unskilled and underpaid carers. We also hear at the same time of the way that the caring instincts of the majority of the labour force are squeezed and exploited. Large numbers of people, particularly married women who are not free to take other forms of work, work very hard in what is often a ruthless and exploitative environment. The beneficiaries are the care home owners.

Why do I mention the issues of care homes in this blog? It is not just because this is a particular concern of Chris, but because I see parallels between churches and the places for the care of elderly people. Both are institutions concerned with vulnerable people. Obviously the type of vulnerability is different in each case, but arguably people who find their way into church are people who looking for support and help which makes many of them potentially vulnerable to abuse. In the case of care home residents, the vulnerability is obvious. But it can be claimed the potential for receiving abuse applies not just to the residents but also to the staff. Working for hour after hour on minimum wage, trying to show human compassion to confused elderly residents is never going to be easy. Stories of bullying, understaffing and a climate of fear are all too common. Chris has direct experience of this shadowy world of exploitation and greed.

These stories that erupt into the press from time to time about care home nearly always involve harm and abuse done to residents. Most residents have relatives who visit and many of them are sensitive to changes and new unhappiness in their confused loved ones. There is of course a body of inspection set up by statute to oversee care homes, the CQC, the Care Quality Commission. No doubt they do a good job in many places but one suspects that by giving notice of their arrival many examples of neglect and abuse are covered up. The whole industry is too obsessed with making substantial profits ever to be able to rid itself of its underworld of oppressed staff and neglected patients. To repeat, there are bound to be good examples of care and compassion for the extremely vulnerable elderly, but equally we will often find places where the reality is dark and abusive to staff and patients alike. The difficulty of ridding the care home industry of these problems will always remain as long as the economics of running care institutions depend on employing many unqualified, unmotivated and underpaid staff. In other words there is a tragic inevitability for these scandals to occur from time to time. The structural problems are, in other words, endemic.

The problems of abuse in the church are also endemic in the system. I am not of course claiming by this that every church allows such abuse or even that the majority of churches are not places of human and spiritual flourishing. But, as with the care-home system, there are some institutional structural issues that create the potential for danger in some places. In the first place there is a breed of church leader who thrives on being the centre of attention and power. A desire for power may have caused him/her to seek a role as a minister in the first place. Over a period of time their style of leadership may become a source of danger to others, particularly when unhealthily dependent relationships have been established. Also, while churches of course do not officially have a profit motive for existing, in America (and sometimes in Britain) some leaders are paid obscene amounts of money to lead a congregation. In the church that we visit from time to time, Trinity, Brentwood, the leading pastor is paid between £80,000 and £90,000 p.a. When such a sum is handed out, there is likely to be an incentive to cover up and suppress anything that could challenge the leader’s position and threaten his hold on power. The congregation at Brentwood appears to be riven by politics, in the sense of power games and information control. Truth and straightforward dealing seem to be in short supply and there seems to an obsessive preoccupation with the protection of the huge assets of this congregation. The simple rule seems to be that in any institution where power (and money) is to be found, there will be found the potential for and actual existence of corruption and power games around this exercise of power.

To summarise it can be claimed that every institution, sacred or secular, has potentially a problem with the abuse of power. The abusive use of power is a particular threat where vulnerable people are gathered, the very young, the elderly or just ordinary people who look for support. In the secular world inspections are made of the institutions which deal with the young and the elderly. While there is no doubt that these inspections are sometimes flawed and incomplete, at least they happen. The church on the other hand seems to be trusted to manage its own affairs and be thought to be above suspicion in this matter. It is this complacency about the abuse of power in the church that needs constantly to be challenged.

Get new subjects sent by email

formOn each page of this blog – half way down on the right – is a little form you can complete. (just like the picture here)

When you complete it you will get an email to the address you have entered.  In this email there will be a link you must click, this confirms that you really want to subscribe.

Once subscribed in this way you will get an email every day on which a new subject was just started.   You wont get any more than one email per subject – and you wont get emails of the comments that people enter.

Here’s hoping that helps!

Love.  Dick Davies.

The Christian martyrs of Libya

islamic-state-coptsThe death of twenty one Egyptian Coptic Christians at the hands of ISIS in Libya has rightly grabbed the headlines in the Western press. Without reading all the details of their grisly deaths, it was apparent that these men called on Jesus as they died. The appalling actions of the murderous Islamic faction have for many created a new crop of martyrs for the Christian faith. But for one Baptist preacher in the States, J.D. Hall, these Christians do not deserve to have this name of Christian. They ‘aggressively deny salvation by a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ…… what on earth makes them think that they should be categorised as Christians?’ He goes on to say that they ’embrace a meritorious, works-based salvation nearly identical to that of the Roman Catholic church’.

The comments of Pastor Hall have, needless to say, raised a storm of controversy on the blogosphere. This is how this story has come to my attention. In my comments I don’t want to say more on how offensive Pastor Hall’s remarks are or even tackle his highly dubious theology of salvation. It goes without saying that his readiness to declare on behalf of God, no doubt, who is and who is not a Christian is an act of reckless conceit which I hope will go on being challenged by his Christian neighbours. No I want for moment to try and get inside the place of isolation, fear and mental imprisonment that a person of these views occupies. I see in these remarks something utterly dark, lacking in intellectual integrity or humanity. Theologically they seem to fit into a strict Calvinist position that defines very tightly who is worthy of salvation. Perhaps Pastor Hall will be congratulated for following the logic of his beliefs to the bitter end. But these beliefs are indeed bitter, both for himself and for his congregation.

As someone who was brought up entirely innocent of the Calvinist belief system, I remained for a long time in ignorance of the debates about who deserves to be called Christian. Still less was I aware of the agonising about who was going to be consigned to the pit of Hell. So I find it hard to imagine the place that Pastor Hall and his supporters occupy. To call it a loveless prison is perhaps an understatement. It is a place that lacks imagination, joy, wonder and the curiosity about the world that every child is born with. The attenders of the Southern Baptist church in Ohio are denied all these things in deference to certainty, the certainty of an inerrant Bible, the certainty of something called salvation. Certainty is designed to give you security, but I see only that this certainty also deprives you of all the things that make life worth living, the discovery of a world of wonder, beauty and discovery.

If certainty of salvation is rooted in a denial of all those things that make life worth living, then it is a utterly diminished place. I do not of course accuse every Christian evangelical of thinking like Pastor Hall. But I would point to the fact that his Calvinist world of creating boundaries and barriers, who is in and who is out, is also a world that starts to become like a prison. The person who seeks salvation in order to be safe, may find that their safety has become such a prison. Certainty and safety close down for many Christians the possibility of new learning and new discovery. If I am not allowed to think new thoughts, then my freedom is compromised. If I am not allowed to see things in a way that deviates from my religious leaders, then my freedom is also compromised. To give up freedom to think and to be is a very high price for becoming a Christian.

In concluding this piece, one that has generated in me a good deal of passion, I am reminded of Jesus’ first words to his disciples. He said the Kingdom of God is upon you; repent. I have preached numerous sermons on this single word, ‘repent’. It has little to do with the normal meaning of the English word, but everything to do with an attitude that I believe is at the heart of the Christian journey. It is a translation of a Greek word that means something like, turn around, change your mental attitude. There is also the implication that the person so changing their direction will be receiving something new. Jesus is telling his soon-to-be disciples to open themselves up to the reality that has appeared before them, the kingdom as embodied in his person and ministry. To repent, to receive the kingdom of God is to be open to the person and words of Jesus.

How Christians have in fact opened themselves to receive Jesus over the centuries is a long and complicated story. The twenty one ‘martyrs’ from Egypt who called on Jesus during the last moments of their lives were calling on him with equal validity to any theological professional who has studied the entire corpus of Calvin’s writings. My theological position thankfully does not require me to have any judgement about the ultimate state of other people’s souls or indeed their ‘soundness’ of their theology. For this freedom I am profoundly grateful, just I am profoundly grateful that my God allows and indeed encourages me to go on learning and discovering new things without fear of being led into error. My Christian faith may lack the precision of many ‘orthodox’ Christians, and indeed may be considered untidy. But I am grateful to have it just the same.

The yes to evangelicalism?

Evangelicalism-580x308A recent discussion on the last post suggests that I need to correct the impression that I am against all evangelicals. This blog has absolutely nothing against evangelicals as a tribe but I have been around long enough in the church to know that, when things go wrong in churches with this description, they can go very wrong indeed. Of course the same could be applied to any church congregation but my claim is that there are certain inbuilt institutional factors in many conservative evangelical set-ups that put them in special dangers of becoming an unsafe place for their members. The two most obvious institutional dangers are found, as I mentioned in a recent blog post, are an inerrant bible closely followed by a leadership which on occasion behaves in an unaccountable way.

Before I develop these points any further I want to express my appreciation for certain aspects of evangelical life and worship which make their churches, for many, exciting places to visit. The reader will note that all of these factors arise, not from their written theology, but from the culture and ethos that has evolved out of that theology.
1. The expectation of religious experience. In contrast to many churches in the ‘middle of the road’, evangelical churches in many places encourage their people to feel God within. There is time and opportunity to rise above the rational controlling mind to explore the non-rational aspects of God, including his love and his close presence. I personally do not resonate to much of the modern charismatic music and its lyrics, but the fact that individuals are encouraged to give time to the contemplation of the mystery of God can only be applauded. I am influenced in this comment by a book I am reading entitled ‘When God talks back’. It is an intriguing exploration of religious experience among American evangelicals by an anthropologist.
2. The expectation of inner change. Christians who go to some churches actually look for and expect that their lives will change after the experience of conversion. Whether they do in fact change is not for me to judge, but this expectation makes a change from Christianity being understood by many as a convenient mark of respectability to be added to a bourgeois life-style.
3. Along with the expectation of change is an openness to spiritual healing. Evangelicals pray more, it seems, for the sick both in intercession and in the presence of the afflicted. The possibility of miracles is talked about quite a bit. Whether miracles in fact happen or not, there is an air of expectation around in their observance of Christianity which puts other more rational Christians to shame. Personally I would always want to be among people who were hopeful and open to change than with those who prefer to keep the lid firmly on emotion and openness to new experience.
4. Adventurousness in community experience. Evangelicals seem better at the ‘fellowship’ thing. In other words they mix with a degree of confidence with other people, even though they combine their closeness to fellow believers with a measure of indifference or even hostility towards who fall outside the boundaries of their fellowship. Community is for them extremely important and the congregation may be their chief experience of family, sometimes more important than their own relatives.
5. A further point is that evangelicals are prepared to speak about their faith. While I may not agree with all that they actually say, I have to express a measure of admiration of their articulation of what they think. Outside evangelical circles, Christians are notoriously tongue-tied when it comes to talking about what they believe and why they believe it.
6. Finally I should mention the level of learning among many evangelicals. Alongside their readiness to speak about their faith there is a determination both to study and learn and remember information about the Scriptures and other theological material. Once again the content of this learning has, from my perspective, sometimes pushed them in a strange direction and away from a coherent grasp of what the Bible is really saying. But a distorted idea and understanding of scripture is perhaps better than no understanding at all. That seems to be the default position of many other Christians who, after hearing literally thousands of sermons, seem to have retained very little in terms of knowing the content of Christian doctrine.

So from my perspective there are a number of positive aspects of evangelical belief and practice. The problems that arise, and which this blog is concerned with, come from two sources. The first comes from unsupervised independent churches which do not look to any authority beyond themselves. My psychological studies suggest that if anyone is left to lead a group for a lengthy period without such supervision, that leadership is very likely to become corrupted and tainted. My blog readers who have an interest in Trinity, Brentwood know exactly what I am talking about. Such leaders will claim eloquently that they are under the authority of the Bible. It is the way the Bible is actually being read that gives me cause for concern. In practice leaders are good at reading the Bible in a particular way that reinforces their authority and thus protects them from scrutiny when things go wrong. One issue that evangelical churches never come clean about is the fact that in a country like the States, there are some twenty thousand separate Protestant churches all claiming to preach and teach from the same Bible. These churches claim to have the same basis of faith but they disagree over many issues. They are divided, for example, as to whether women can preach in church. Both supporters and opponents of women’s ministry will claim their position is rooted in scripture. The Anglican church is perhaps more honest than some by admitting that it does have divergent beliefs within its communion but continues to try and live and worship together in spite of those differences. As far as evangelical churches are concerned, there is one issue that unites almost all of them and that is the gay marriage issue. They are gloriously, some would say obsessively, joined together in telling the world that this is evil and that all ‘real’ Christians agree on this matter. Thankfully there are other evangelical groups such as ‘Accepting Evangelicals’ who have broken rank over this and who challenge the apparent unanimity and settled opinion of their tribe.

In conclusion this blog is not unappreciative of some aspects of the evangelical world for the reasons I have outlined above. At the same time I am reserving the right to criticise that monolith on theological and practical grounds, particularly where these same factors cause harm and abuse to individuals. Because I don’t think in binary ways, it is not a question of the evangelical world being all-good or all-bad; it is rather a case that, like the curate’s egg, it is good in parts. I genuinely appreciate the parts that are good but will continue to show where it is bad or harmful.

Sally’s story part 3

verbal-abuseSally’s final encounter with a Christian church takes place takes place some twenty years after the last encounter with a Church leader. She is now 39, the mother of six sons and married to a husband who is successful and well-to-do. A detail which is important for the understanding of this final incident is that Sally comes originally from South America and so is what we would describe as ‘Latino’ in appearance. The situation that brings her to a church is that her marriage is in trouble, her husband is verbally aggressive and controlling. His aggression sometimes leads to her feeling she has to leave the house for a period. All in all her husband is creating in her a massive sense of powerlessness where she feels completely demoralised.

In her distress she once again seeks the help of the church. Because the episode that Sally is recounting is to do with marriage and family matters, the male pastor feels unable to cope and so Sally is passed on to his wife. The wife listens to the account of aggression and manipulation and her first response to the tale is to suggest to Sally that there is ‘definitely a demonic presence at work here.’ This pastor’s wife goes on: ‘You’re so controlling in your thoughts and that needs serious delivering’. There is no suggestion that the husband contributes to the problem, that he rather than Sally needs to be brought to account. She then makes an indirect allusion to Sally’s Latino racial background. She goes on: ‘I know a husband -wife team from South Africa who specialise in dealing with strong demonic activity like the black people type.’ Presumably with these words she was implying that Sally, being a Latino, was especially subject to demonic attack. The actual practical advice that was handed out is equally unhelpful. ‘You cannot expect any particular behaviour from your husband. When you expect things, you are making conditions on him. When you stop expecting anything at all, then your husband will see that you are not controlling him and his behaviour will align to you. It is your demon that is making you controlling and manipulative. I want you and your husband to be happy but you definitively need to see the couple from South Africa so that your demon can be dealt with.’

Fortunately Sally did not return for more of this inept pastoral advice. She found herself utterly demoralised and devalued by this bruising encounter which had the effect of compounding the issues that were undermining her marriage. As with the stories in my study of abusive Christianity, I am left with fragmentary words remembered from a conversation. Such words were obviously said but there is a need to give these words an interpretation and a context to make them comprehensible

The first thing that comes over is that the Pastor’s wife had bought into the ‘biblical’ idea that the wife’s role was to be obedient in all things to her man. Her needs are always to be subordinate to his. Her only true glory is to reflect his glory. Such paternalistic patriarchy is a wide-spread phenomenon in conservative religions across the world, especially Islam. Conveniently for those who think in this way there are passages in scripture which appear to allow the male sex to believe that his control in the family and church cannot and should not be challenged by anyone. The current debate about gay marriage is, I believe, fuelled by an abhorrence on the part of conservatives to see disturbed the traditional patriarchal pattern of family. Sally clearly will never receive a proper hearing in a church which has bought into this kind of understanding of the role of the female sex both in the family and the church. Thinking psychologically for a moment, the fact that the pastor’s wife had been forced into this kind of world-view, would mean in all probability that she herself would also be deeply frustrated by her own powerlessness beyond her family. ‘Pastoral care’ of women in the congregation would be the one outlet allowed her. The reported conversation shows impotence combined with vindictiveness in her inability to challenge male power and cruelty.

I have already strongly criticised in the first part of Sally’s story the immediate recourse to ‘demons’ as a way of explaining an individual’s pain and misfortune. Here it gains an added twist by the racial dimension to which I have already referred. Sally’s Latino heritage was to be an additional reason for the instantly discerned demons that were believed to have taken up residence inside her. Words fail me in trying to express my contempt for the ineptitude and utterly damaging expression of pastoral care that is recorded to have taken place.

It is perhaps easy for us in Britain to sit and think that we would never allow ourselves to become victims of this kind of abusive pastoral practice. But Sally’s experience is taking place every day in churches all over the world. Demonic explanations for tragic events coupled with appalling theological ideas dubiously grounded in scripture are being peddled by ill-trained Christian leaders every day. Sally’s three episodes of being the victim of abusive care were not perpetrated against a strong independent minded person who could then push them aside as ‘clap-trap’. No, these events occurred in the context of Sally’s vulnerability. While part of her was able to resist and question what was being said or done to her, another part of her was deeply and damagingly undermined by these events. I have recorded them to help us, the readers of this blog, to understand what happens on occasion in churches. But I have also recorded them to help Sally herself see and understand what has happened through the eyes of others. We trust that she will gain strength from these insights and will be able to put the abuse behind her. Understanding better is one part of the path to healing. That perhaps is part of the whole point of this blog.

Authoritative and authoritarian

It is often the custom when discussing the meaning of words to begin by going to a large dictionary and then reproducing the definitions that are given there. I want to talk about the meaning of the two words in our title without boring the reader with a series of definitions. I would suggest that we can go a long way in understanding whether churches control their members appropriately or not by looking at these two words. To anticipate my argument I am going to indicate that one is good and desirable while the other, while not necessarily all bad, is open to problems and sometimes abusive practice.

Both words in our title come from a common root, the word ‘authority’. Authority is virtually synonymous with power, but it implies that the power has been given to someone through some legal or hierarchical process. Police and politicians are accorded power and authority and so are, in a different way, religious leaders. Power and authority enables individuals to change things because they have the means to compel others to do what they want. Sometimes it is said that this power is used well with the consent of those over whom authority is held. Other times the person in charge, possessing the power, does what he wants with little consultation with those who have to suffer the consequences of the power. It is when we have the sense that power has been used without consultation or consent that we are led to describe it as authoritarian.

Before we return to our second word, I want us to think about the first – authoritative. This word implies that an individual has obtained a level of power, not because he/she has been awarded it by an institution, but because there is an observable a level of expertise, knowledge or experience in the individual for them to have earned respect and influence. I suppose the best example of this contrast between institutional authority and the other kind is found in the gospels. There Jesus is compared with the authorities, because ‘he taught with authority and not as the Scribes’. From this passage we pick up a sense of a self-authenticating authority and power which in no way depended on an institution to give it strength.

The quality that we refer to as ‘authoritative’ can of course be faked in the short term, but over a longer period, the genuine man or woman who possesses those qualities of expertise, knowledge and experience, will continue to hold their position of trust in the hearts and minds of their followers. When that position of trust has been justly earned, then that person can become a reliable leader, whether as a politician or church leader. People feel able to look up to them and rely on them and also trust what they say. While it is not impossible for that position of trust to be corrupted in some way by human power-seeking, the hope is that the leader and user of power will continue to hold their integrity for the rest of their lives. People deserve to be able to trust those people to whom they have made themselves vulnerable by accepting them as their leaders and guides.

From what I have said so far, it is not difficult for us to imagine the opposite qualities contained or implied in the word authoritarian. Authority that is awarded by an institution is not necessarily awarded justly or appropriately, as we all know. The actual moment when the authority becomes ‘authoritarian’ is when the exercise of power shifts firmly to the interest of the one holding it, rather to anyone else. Unfortunately, as we have discussed before in other posts, people who come under authoritarian leadership don’t always realise that there is anything wrong. I gave a poignant example of this when I described the experience of the humiliated schoolboy at Trinity Brentwood. His treatment before the whole school fitted into what he thought was normal Christian behaviour. No doubt he had an image of an authoritarian God whose means of control and punish was to belittle and humiliate those that displeased him. The culture of the authoritarian church will be very familiar with the passages of the Bible that are all about punishment and sit lightly on those passages that want to suggest that the Christian path is one towards human flourishing.

There is a lot more I could say about the contrast of meaning between the two words of our title. I think the reader knows enough to realise that I do not feel that an ‘authoritarian’ Church adequately reflects the style of an ‘authoritative’ Jesus. Jesus’ style was to invite, never force. He invited individuals to come to follow a God who wanted us all to live richly and generously. The authoritarian God, who can of course be read out of the Bible, seemed much interested in destruction and control of his people, and he seems to have had little attraction to Jesus. In the last resort the question of which kind of God do we feel Jesus is pointing us to, has to be left to the individual. Do we focus on a God of punishment and control, or do we glimpse through Jesus a God of overwhelming generosity and goodness?

Sally’s story part 2

We left the story of Sally at the age of 15. Sexual harassment and a botched exorcism had left her fairly vulnerable. There was no one either in her family or elsewhere to help her interpret what had happened or to make any sense of it. Although her father was to become an active Christian seven years later, his silence at the time was of little help to her in her confusion. Without any discussion, she stopped attending church, but she was not free of the thought patterns of conservative Calvinism with its emphasis on depravity and sin. Just before her 18th birthday, she found herself in desperate need of help to deal with a major incident in her life, a pregnancy and a subsequent abortion. It was in an effort to deal with the guilt that consumed her over these events that she decided to join a second Baptist church. The congregation seems to have been a smaller set-up and it was led by an apparently genial 67 year old male pastor. Sally described him as a ‘wise old granddad who couldn’t hurt anyone’. However she found it odd that he chose to involve himself closely with the youth group. This pastor and his wife had adopted three Asian children who had all by now left home.

One night the pastor came and took an act of worship for the youth group. During the course of this service he preached a strong sermon about forgiveness. In the course of his address he emphasised the importance of confessing sins to others and how that no sin was too big for the Lord to handle. Sally found this sermon helpful and so, afterwards, she and another girl, who was also dealing with the aftermath of an abortion, approached the pastor with the hope that ‘all would be fixed’. The pastor made an appointment to see Sally alone but she found things getting ‘creepy’ when he insisted in rubbing her back and shoulders while she told her story. He then declared that Sally needed to spend more time with him. The sessions became regular ones and he would pick her up on Fridays for a lunch appointment. During the course of these meetings his hands would stray to touch her leg and her hair. Finally he would send her on her way with what Sally describes as ‘horrible hug’. These sessions were terminated by Sally. She found herself having to lie to the minister, that her boss could not release her for Friday lunchtimes. While she was able to protect herself from a full scale sexual assault, her identity as confused teenager on the cusp of adulthood was little helped by these ‘sessions’.

Sally herself has realised that for an elderly male pastor to be discussing details of boyfriends, sexual activity and abortion with an 18 year old girl was entirely inappropriate. This has to be said before any comment is made about the touching, the stroking and the hugging, none of which were ever sought or welcomed. From the perspective of a clergyman, I can also see that the preaching about forgiveness to a group containing impressionable young women could be seen as a form of grooming. Sally and her friend were both extremely vulnerable and they were having to carry the burden of unresolved guilt without any psychological or family support. For the pastor to enter into that situation without specialised skills and background and to imply that he could ‘fix’ the problem was a piece of grotesque dishonesty. The reality was that he seemed to want to get close to this young woman both physically and by knowing her inmost secrets for his own emotional gratification. This is abusive emotional exploitation. If he had been genuinely interested in helping her, he would have established certain basic facts of the situation and then quickly referred her on to someone (most likely female) who would have offered her appropriate support and help. Instead he used his position of being the ‘above suspicion’ pastor to pursue his own selfish purposes. Once again, although she was not in fact sexually assaulted beyond the unpleasant touching, she was made to feel a ‘thing’ whose only value could be found in being a source of entertainment to an elderly man of God. Sally has not told me what this betrayal by a man of God has done to her image of God, but it is commonly reported that cases of this kind not only destroy trust in people of spiritual authority but make it hard for a victim to believe in the God that the pastor supposedly serves.

This story which Sally is sharing with us is sadly something which seems to be fairly common. One ‘creepy’ pastor or clergyman can pollute the possibility of trust in God for other individuals who come into contact with them or hear about their reputation. The Catholic church has suffered appalling damage through the revelations of child abuse. It is not just the individual boys and girls who were abused that have suffered; it is also the large numbers of others who shy away from the possibility of finding God through a man of the cloth because of what a few ‘black sheep’ have done. To think that a large number of people in our societies do not even expect to find the world of the spirit through a clergyman is the height of tragedy. There must be many Sallys around but still more people who shy away from the church through finding out, directly or indirectly, what certain men of God have done. A single such betrayal allows an unknown number to be cut off from even the possibility of trusting a man who is supposed to be a servant of God.

We will be hearing more of Sally’s tale but I should express my own pleasure in the fact that Sally is still searching for God and is still able to trust a minister (in this case me!) with her story. The two incidents I have recorded of the impact of representatives of the church meeting up with a vulnerable individual is sufficient for most people to think of giving up on the church completely. Sally has not given up but we have her story with which to help others who may face the awfulness of abuse in one place in which they ought to have to felt safe. It is this kind of betrayal that that this blog wants to expose and, in exposing it, help it to be outlawed. Such evil always finds it difficult to exist in the full light of day.

Diocese of Oxford – war of words

oxforddioDuring the last month a row has blown up in the Anglican Diocese of Oxford here in England. The diocesan newsletter published a book review in December by Dr Martyn Percy, the newly appointed Dean of Christ Church. Martyn is personally known to me and was a help to me in the 90s when I was gathering material for my book on fundamentalist Christianity, Ungodly Fear. His speciality is the sociology of the Church and his doctoral studies were on the topic of the theology of revival, especially the ideas and practice of the late John Wimber. As an academic his published writings have covered numerous topics, particularly in the area of the Church and its ministry. He was for ten years the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, an establishment for ordination training in the Anglican Church.

The December issue of ‘The Door’, the diocesan newsletter, contains a review by Martyn of two works on the topic of same-sex marriage. The first book, receives a favourable review and is one that takes a accommodating line on the issue. It is written by the Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, a suffragan bishop in the Oxford diocese. The other by Sam Allberry is, as Martyn puts it, a ‘discussion closer’ because it lays down the law and says firmly what the author believes Scripture has to say in not in any way countenancing the possibility of same sex marriage. This blog post is not going to discuss further the content of the books, or even whether these reviews are fair. What is of concern is the furore that has broken out in the diocese over the new Dean’s words. A letter has been written to the ‘The Door’ with the signatures of some 24 mostly well-known and influential conservative evangelical clergyman in the Diocese of Oxford. Presumably the letter, containing all these signatures, has been tweaked and edited so we can take it to be a statement of conservative Anglican opinion, not only in the Diocese of Oxford, but also throughout the country. It is the tone of this letter and the assumptions of its theology that raise for me considerable concern.

Why do I make an issue of the letter of these 24 conservative clergy in another diocese? The reason for this post is that the letter is an important reflection of the up-to-date thinking of conservative clergy in the Church of England. Two particular issues stand out. First the theological position they are taking ungenerously claims that there is only one stance on the gay marriage issue possible for members of the Church of England. They are no doubt depending for this claim on resolution 1:10 from the 1998 Lambeth Conference. This ‘correct’ Christian position on gay marriage stated there seems to allow conservative Anglicans to argue that they are right to seek to close down all further discussion on the topic and pretend that this Lambeth resolution is the last word on the subject. In fact to suggest that the Lambeth resolution is the final verdict by Anglicans on the gay issue is palpable nonsense. The defeat of the so-called Covenant proposals right across the Anglican world in the last five years put an end to the pretence that ordinary Anglicans were prepared to tolerate doctrinal and moral issues being decided centrally. The letter writers also seem to have forgotten that we are in the middle of a ‘conversation’ process where the supporters and opponents of gay marriage have promised to listen to each other with respect and care.

The second somewhat unpleasant part of the letter is the way that the author of the ‘liberal’ book under review, Bishop Alan Wilson, is attacked. The letter says: ‘It is extraordinary that a serving Bishop can attack the basic values of the organisation he works for …. in any other walk of life, it would result in suspension followed by an investigation.’ In short the clergy writers are implying that the whole church should not only embrace a single point of view on the gay marriage issue but also anyone who does not agree with the conservative position should be forthwith expelled.

This letter is an indication that intolerance, bullying of others and a refusal to listen is alive and well in the Church of England. It is also un-Anglican, in the sense that I understand the meaning of the word. Anglicanism has always stood for the holding together of different theological positions and perspectives together with the encouraging of mutual respect. There is no respect here of any kind on the part of the letter writers towards their opponents. There is only the desire to demand total control of the institution in the name of a single perspective – the conservative one. Of course the Dean of Christ Church is also in their sights and the writers of the letter further imply that, by publishing his liberal opinions, the ‘Door’ newspaper is somehow favouring the liberal side of the argument in the debate. As the Church of England embarks on the so-called ‘conversations’, this review is thought to be undermining the possibility of even-handedness on the part of the hierarchy in the Diocese.

My reading of the letter by the 24 conservative clergymen of the Diocese of Oxford, who probably speak for clergy of their background right across the country, indicates that the future for the church, with this kind of polarisation, is somewhat bleak. The tone of the letter lacks charity, tolerance or any kind of openness towards their perceived enemies. Let me repeat the point – the issue at stake here is not about the gay issue itself. It is about the creation of an environment where true dialogue between people of convinced but differing opinions can take place. Such conversation cannot be easily conducted in the kind of atmosphere that is created by the vindictive tone of this letter. For me also the real discussion should be, not about the gay marriage issue itself, but whether it is ever right to allow a particular way of reading scripture to close down discussion and dialogue. In a human relationship between two people, we would consider it abusive and overbearing if one side in the relationship alone was allowed to speak and have an opinion. Sally’s story which is being serialised in this blog, is a clear example of the way a powerful coercive system or ‘truth’ is imposed on an individual who is denied a proper voice. In conclusion I would suggest that the apparent overbearing confidence and intolerance of the conservative lobby is a sign, not of strength, but of massive insecurity and defensiveness. Also the failure of conservatives actually to talk to gay individuals, to understand their world and their experience, is a failure of love and a sign of profound inhumanity. The dialogue I look for is a dialogue that can change both sides. Both sides in any dialogue have to admit that they may be wrong. Certainly they need to see that there is always another way of looking at things. Certainty will always involve a denial of faith and love.

Abused with demons – Sally’s story (part 1)

SlainInSpiritRecently I have been contacted by one Sally (a pseudonym) who has been helped by the words of our blog. For the sake of confidentiality I am not going to reveal Sally’s real name or even the country she lives in. Sally has sent me some details of abuse that she has suffered at the hands of Christians and she has graciously allowed me to share this material with my readers. Both sides I feel will benefit. From Sally’s point of view she stands to receive support and understanding which will help her come to terms with the various things that have happened to her over several decades. In addition, insofar as my reading and study give a fresh perspective and insight to these types of issues, she will, we trust, be far better protected from similar attempts by earnest Christians to humiliate and abuse her in the future. From our point of view a frank disclosure by a woman of her experience of Christian abuse will open up for us the whole topic from the female perspective. Chris has fed into the blog experiences of abuse from the man’s perspective but I would guess that the bulk of cases of Christian abuse are directed against women. The majority, but not all, of the perpetrators are men.

I have the material for three blog posts in the material that Sally has sent me so far. I hope that she will in fact provide further material. I have particularly asked her if she can remember the actual words used by the Christian leaders who have attempted to control and abuse her. I am interested in this theme of control and the way that, being a woman, sometimes involves in Christian circles having to submit to the authority exercised by men. In short I believe, and Sally’s story does nothing to contradict this idea, that much Christian abuse takes place within the context of old-fashioned misogyny and the sexual domination of women by men in the name of a claimed biblical principle of male superiority.

Sally’s first experience of Christian abuse took place when she was just 15. She was a member of a Church youth group and one of the leaders became sexually attracted to her. She felt distinctively uncomfortable in his presence and this was made worse when he came too close to her. During a cinema performance, this young over-attentive leader sat next to her and then proceeded to bang the back of her seat as a way of trying to attract her attention. She ignored this but on the journey home on a train, he once again tried to corner her. She managed to get away. The problem of the unwanted attention of this leader became still more complicated when, having built up what she believed to be a relationship of trust with a woman leader, she told her the story of what had happened with the first leader. This second leader called a further leader and she had to go through the story a second time. This then involved the Senior Pastors who, while lovingly putting their arms around her, told her that she had a demon which had come to cause division in the church. This bomb-shell was delivered to her in the presence of the youth worker who had abused her. The fact that she suffered from asthma was also a sign of this and that she needed prayer and deliverance. She then describes what happened to her next. ‘ They laid their hands on me to start delivering me from the “demon” and I felt that I couldn’t breathe I was coughing and coughing and they kept praying and praying as though my asthma attack was a full manifestation of their “delivering” me.’ Fortunately her father who had been waiting impatiently outside came in grabbed his daughter and removed her. Nothing was said on either side but she never returned to that church.

When we reflect that each event in the cycle of happenings was far more than any child should have to deal with, the compounding of sexual harassment with demonic abuse is totally unforgiveable in a church. Not one person in this story appeared to recognise that the sexual harassment of a girl of 15 is first of all a totally believable situation. Instead of even asking themselves whether the male youth leader might indeed have done such a thing, they managed to spiritualise it and thus remove any responsibility for asking proper questions that would call into question their oversight. The betrayal of confidence is also shocking. When Sally told the second youth leader about the event on the train, the woman leader should not have mentioned it to anyone else without Sally’s permission. Of course now the protocol that exists in most responsible churches would have required this woman leader to report the allegation straight to a person professionally equipped to deal with child protection issues over the heads of the senior pastors. Whether what had happened was serious enough to involve disciplinary action or even the police to be informed was something that required professional assessment. This event occurred in the 80s, so while we can make some allowances for sloppy procedure, there is something deeply disturbing about the way that a belief in devils and the desire to protect an institution overrode a desire to believe and protect a vulnerable teenager. Once again we can see that the mythology of devils has been brought in to prop up and support a thoroughly unhealthy power structure within the church. Sally’s father is the one person who comes out of the story as the hero of this sorry saga. It took a non-churchman to act in the face of the utter nonsense and hypocrisy in the series of episodes concerned with his daughter. Sadly Sally told me that her failure to tell her father fully what had been going at the church meant that there began a pattern of not sharing things, a further factor in her vulnerability to abuse later on.

Sally’s story, as we shall see in later episodes, frequently involves a belief in devils by Christian leaders. In each case we shall note, as I have said in other blog posts, that the devils are often a convenient scapegoat for some utterly dysfunctional ideas and harmful church structures. To have a devil to blame allows a leader to avoid facing up to a common-sense perception of what is truly happening in a human situation. Satan is blamed for bad behaviour (the devil made me do it), situations of conflict which no one wants to sort out and inconvenient opposition to the prevailing ideology of the church. Liberal theology, because it may challenge prevailing ideas of biblical inerrancy, for example, must have been inspired by a demon. The believers in satanic or demonic infestation are relieved of the responsibility of having to question their thinking or their understanding of what is going on. The child protection policies that have come to be universal in churches, schools and similar institutions might conceivably have changed the way Sally was treated some twenty five years ago. But sadly, the belief in devils is still alive and well, distorting, on occasion, the judgement and common sense of many Christian leaders.