From time to time when I am writing this blog on the topic of power abuse in a religious setting I find that I connect with quite powerful feelings of internal rage. Although outwardly I may be writing about what might seem to be two differing opinions about the bible or religious politics, what I am often describing are, in fact, examples of the attempt by an individual or a group to gain power over another. Over the centuries we see how power has been used by (typically) men in positions of religious influence, often inappropriately or wrongfully. Sometimes power abuse has been accomplished by the use of armies, such as the Crusades and other wars of religion. In 1099, during the First Crusade, tens of thousands of Jews and Muslims were slaughtered in the streets of Jerusalem by the conquering Western armies. In a period of around 2-300 years, tens of thousands of women were tortured and burnt in Europe by the legal and religious authorities for being witches. During our present time hundreds of individuals are being killed and enslaved by members of ISIS for belonging to a group different from those in charge. Religion sometimes has this ability to make an individual feel that his actions involving coercive power can be justified by an appeal to a holy book.
The origins of this blog go back to the meeting (by telephone) between myself and Chris over the suffering he had endured at the hands of sincere Christians. Over the 170 blog posts, I have wrestled with the paradox of the fact that followers of the man Jesus, who never himself advocated violence or used coercion against people (apart from the incident with the money tables), should feel it possible to use coercive power in his name. The actual power employed is today, in the case of Christians, seldom physical but it is just as effective all the same. Individuals who encounter this use of religious power find themselves having to negotiate arrayed against them the weapons of fear, humiliation, verbal violence and the threat of everlasting torture in a world to come. As Chris would put it, such weapons of power ‘mess your head up’, and those who try to try to stand alongside the victims of religious violence, like myself, can be excused for feeling impotent rage as they hear these stories. As readers of this blog will know I spent two or three years in the 90s interviewing and reading for my book, Ungodly Fear. The effect of hearing all the stories left me with a sense of weariness with the topic of extreme religious groups and that I had said all I could say on the topic. Indeed, after the book came out in 2000, I got rid of most of my collection of books concerned with extreme conservative Christianity. The reason for my returning to this world of religious abuse is partly to do with meeting Chris but also my discovery that while the States have numbers of researchers into these issues, there are comparatively few in the UK who take an interest in this area of study. I now network with the American based organisation, the International Cultic Studies Association and through them I am in touch with the handful of academics and psychotherapists in the UK who are interested in these issues. Of the ones I know, none is an Anglican or holds a position in any religious organisation. So there falls on to my shoulders a certain responsibility for keeping up a concern for these issues around religious abuse, particularly that which occurs in a Christian context.
I need to repeat what are my true concerns for this blog. My concerns are primarily for the victims of abusive Christian teaching and behaviour which leaves these individuals demoralised and sometimes badly damaged. The Christian teaching that creates these victims is not in itself obviously bad and it normally follows laws and principles that are, on the face of it, good and necessary. This teaching is based on a book, the Bible, which for most people is a source of inspiration and encouragement. But this same Bible is able to become a tool of coercion in the hands of certain individuals who want, for their own reasons, to use it this way. My task, as I see it, is first to challenge a use of the Bible that shifts its nature from being a text of joy to being one of oppression and fear. The very act of challenging this kind of oppression in the name of a loving God does evoke in me quite a lot of passion because it takes me back to times I have sat with and tried to support victims of this kind of bullying. Writing about such people reminds me once again of their pain. My piece on the Southwark Diocese also brought out of me a level of passion when I thought of so many people being caught up in what I see as a dishonest political action. Good faithful church people, with whom I have no quarrel, are being persuaded to sign a document that appears to be a sign of their good faith and loyalty to the church. From my perspective this Southwark Declaration works at two levels. At one level it is an innocuous statement of belief. At another level it seeks to attack the Bishop and his senior staff, making it a political grab for power. Anyone who signs it, unwittingly and unknowingly, becomes an instrument of the political power games being played by the leaders of these wealthy minority of parishes in the Southwark diocese.
At the beginning of my time of writing this blog I tended to see the problem of power abuse in a church context as something that concerned just individuals. My book had followed the stories of actual people and the way that each fell foul of the church in different ways. Since starting this blog I have come to see that it is not just individuals that are affected by the misuse of power but whole groups of people, even institutions. As I have studied and read about the appalling treatment endured by Archbishop Rowan at the hands of his critics, I began to see that the story of power abuse is not just about individuals but it is also about a battle that is sometimes going on within entire denominations. I am particularly aware, of course, of the battles within my own Anglican setting. This deliberate use and abuse of power within the church, directed against both individuals and institutions, will continue to be my preoccupation. The reader will have to forgive me if a degree of passion comes into my writing, but it is a reflection of the pain that has been endured by others, from Archbishop Rowan down to the humblest parishioner who is tragically abused through membership of a church.