Monthly Archives: April 2015

Terrorisation preaching

preachingOn many occasions in my life I have listened to the archetypal Christian sermon. I call it archetypal because it is the sermon/testimony that I have heard in a variety of settings and contexts up and down the country in a variety of conservative churches. The sermon will begin with a description of the way society and morality has gone to the dogs. Human beings have surrendered their morals and politics to the ‘spirit of the age’, which is sometimes revealed to be no less than Satan himself. The particular sin that today causes the most outrage is the practice and tolerance of homosexuality. This particular sin is so heinous that I have never heard any preacher admit to practising it himself, even if the rest of his unredeemed pre-Christian life was fairly murky. From his past, the preacher may admit to other gross sins, drink, bad language and different forms of lust. In making these experiences part of his testimony, the sermon will have this ‘before and after’ narrative. Before his moment of conversion, life was, for the preacher, a time of depravity and wanton behaviour. That was a pathway which leads straight to Hell. Even though the preacher has now moved beyond any thraldom to depravity, he will describe it with great relish, giving the hearers the impression that sin was, in fact, rather fun. The narrative will be punctuated with dramatic pauses to emphasise the horrors of hell that had been awaiting him if he had not left his unredeemed state. The middle part of the sermon/testimony moves on to the moment of conversion and how the depraved life was turned around by a statement of trust in Jesus and the uttering of the ‘sinner’s prayer’. Now that this moment of new life had arrived, he could look forward to the joys of eternal life in heaven. The whole purpose of Jesus’ life, birth and death was, seemingly, to provide a way out of the terrors of hell for those who make this particular commitment to him. This will include openly expressing their faith in his substitutionary death on the cross. Through this sermon/testimony, a message of hope is being offered, but the offer has the implication that a refusal to accept it is to invite a future eternity of pain and despair in the never-ending punishment of hell.

My account of the ‘archetypal’ evangelical sermon may have some elements of caricature but it is still close enough to the reality for my readers to recognise it from their own experience. It is in fact based on the mediaeval/Reformation model that understands that the point of Christianity is to provide the means for an individual to escape the horrors of hell. It is not an exaggeration to draw attention to the way that medieval Catholic piety was obsessively focused on presenting the sacraments and observance as being about avoiding hell and the uncertainties of purgatory. The Reformation itself was initially brought about by the protest of Martin Luther over the way that indulgences were openly sold to lessen the time to be spent in purgatory. In many English parish churches are chantry chapels, built for the purpose of offering masses for the souls of the benefactors. Priests were employed to do little else but offer these masses. Much, if not all, pastoral work was centred on preparing people for death, so their souls were fit to be received by God.

The mediaeval obsession with the eternal state of a man’s soul passed straight through to the Reformers but the proffered answers to this quest for eternal safety were to be entirely different. No longer was the believer to focus on sacraments and indulgences but on the pure word of God and the possibility that faith in Christ and his atoning death would release the soul from the horrors of hell. This binary world of heaven and hell still filled the imaginations of Christian men and women right up to the present. To be saved was to be able to be free from these terrors. Ordinary Christians, captivated by their own terror of this fate, were prepared to do anything, say anything, to receive some reassurance that they would not enter hell at the moment of death.

I am surely not the only person who has noticed that much traditional Christian teaching, especially when it has been presented to ordinary people, has been concerned with teaching how a individual can avoid hell. In practice this has meant that much preaching, whether Catholic or Protestant, has been openly using the weapons of fear and terrorisation. What has been heard by many has been this: ‘Unless you do and say these things, you cannot expect any place of safety (salvation) when you die.’ Such a stark message is still heard in many churches today. It goes without saying that such a threatening message, when internalised, creates enormous fear. I need at this point to remind my readers that this is not the message of Jesus as recorded in Scripture. Most of this mediaeval/Calvinist version of the Christian faith is lifted straight out of legalist passages ascribed to Paul, while we find little support for any heaven/hell obsession in the words of Jesus himself. If we take the heart of the teaching of Jesus as being about the ‘Kingdom’, we see that his concerns were about transformation of human beings and society. His followers are called to live in a different way, not in order to escape hell, but in order to change themselves from within. The way of preaching at people using power and terror tactics was one of the temptations clearly rejected by Jesus in the desert. He was offered the possibility of using political power to enforce obedience through terror tactics, but he chose not to. Instead the method of Jesus was to make an invitation, open listeners up to a new vision of what God was like and see what the way of love might lead to. In the Beatitudes Jesus speaks of a way of living which turns conventional values upside down. His is a way of humility, surrender of power and finding God in each other, but especially the weakest, the children and the people who are despised by the world. The proclamation of the Resurrection, for me, is the statement that, at a very simple level, if you live like Jesus, following his path of love and in a refusal to manipulate and control people, God himself will be with you for ever.

It is ironic that two great systems of presenting the Christian faith, the Catholic and Protestant, seem to have had so little regard for the words and message of Jesus himself. Obviously I have had to drastically summarise what he seems to have been about, but it is clear that he very little to say about people going to hell if they did not conform to a particular series of actions and beliefs. He also had absolutely nothing to say about homosexuality that preoccupies so many Christians today and for some has become the touchstone of orthodoxy. It is as if large numbers of Christians read a different Bible, one that records only the obsessions of the mediaeval and Reformation period. That is not the Bible I read, or indeed the one that reflects what I understand Jesus came to present to us. If I read the Bible to discover what Jesus was really about, then I read a Bible that teaches nothing about control, has no interest in terror and uses nothing in the way of threatening language. Scripture, as taught by Jesus, invites us to a new experience of life, life in all its fullness.

Vulnerable adults -who are they?

vulnerable_adults_10In a recent discussion on this blog I threw out the comment that I did not agree with the definition accepted by the church as to who is a ‘vulnerable adult’. I have now checked the various web-sites that deal with this question, and I have discovered that the Church of England and the Methodist Church have worked together on a definition which fits into a use employed by society at large. A ‘vulnerable adult’ is defined as any adult who is receipt of statutory care of some description. This might mean a resident in a hospital, a care home or receiving some other form of care, whether residential or not. Excluded from this definition are groups of people who have a particular health issue, mental or physical which do not require any sort of institutional care. This is to avoid the idea of stigma, that an individual can be labelled for life as vulnerable when they succeed in living quite independently and capably.

Before I express my reservations on the question of the high-jacking of the word ‘vulnerable’ to fit a particular definition, I want to talk about the word itself. It comes from a Latin word which means to wound, so that the English derivation has the meaning of one who is in danger of being wounded, emotionally or physically. It carries with it the notion of being defenceless or incapable of sticking up for oneself against a strong opponent or attacker. Clearly it is a useful word to describe anyone who is a victim of the aggression or power games of another. A person is vulnerable when there is some kind of threat of an attack to their wellbeing. He or she also remains vulnerable after the attack, of whatever kind, has taken place.

It is clear that from my mention above of the formal definition of ‘vulnerable adult’ that we have an example of a situation where a word used in a particular way has taken to itself a defined meaning which is far narrower than the word on its own would suggest. My understanding of the adjective ‘vulnerable’ wants it to have a larger meaning than that its defined use and it is this wider meaning that this blog post sets out to reclaim. In this post, I want to suggest that we need to find some way to articulate the truth that most human beings at some stages in their lives are vulnerable.

Before writing this post, I had a conversation with Chris on the phone, and he agreed with me that his story would suggest that he himself fitted into the category of someone who could be rightly described as vulnerable. To think about the adjective as it applies to his particular story, the word describes the way he was initially encouraged to see God as the answer to a number of personal and emotional issues, including his failures at school and lack of qualifications when young. His experience of illiteracy made him an extremely suggestible personality and thus he was attracted to the religious rhetoric he heard as well as to the confident personalities of Christian preachers. The word I have here used to replace ‘vulnerable’ is suggestible. It does not quite capture the same meaning, as vulnerable picks up better the emotional aspect of the tendency in an individual to follow a powerful piece of persuasion, whether religious or political. For Chris and others like him, this attachment resulted in a rollacoaster of feelings from elation followed by a sense overwhelming self-abasement and self-loathing. The Christianity that he heard was a Calvinist amalgam of threat and promise. It used his vulnerability to create hope but this quickly was followed feelings of fear and self-hatred. Chris was hooked by the promises of this faith but was then left traumatised by his internalisation of a harsh punishing God. No doubt we will be returning to this theme of the damage caused by ‘terror preaching’. Only a few of us have never heard it expounded, but Chris to some extent remains one of its victims.

The word ‘vulnerable’ is a word that needs to be reclaimed by those of us who are interested in the way that religion is sometimes taught and presented abusively. It is an adjective that describes, less the individual personality, but more the particular setting that he or she finds themselves in. I want to list now just three of the particular settings within people’s lives that render them vulnerable to an abusive version of Christianity. I will not describe them as vulnerable adults but as adults who pass through a period or state of vulnerability. One of these arguably happens to everyone, the other two are the result of economic and social events.

The first vulnerability that some experience is that of poverty. Although I was brought up in a home that, by modern standards, was lacking in many respects, we were never poor in terms of going short of food and clothing. The fact that I never had new clothes, but survived on hand-me-downs, was more a general feature of the 50s than any particular poverty within our family. I cannot claim to have known the sort of poverty that even today destroys hope and causes depression and despair. I can imagine that this kind of poverty would make me very vulnerable to promises to sort out the problems of despair.

The second vulnerability, the particular one that Chris faced, is the total powerlessness of leaving school without a proper grasp of literacy. In Chris’ case this problem has in fact been overcome, but for many it remains a lifelong blight. With such a handicap how do you discover whether a preacher is genuinely telling what the Bible has to say or whether he is reading extracts with the aim of manipulating you into attending his church? That powerlessness is also a path to inappropriate dependency to people who are more capable than you.

The third area of vulnerability, and this is probably one that few escape, is the period of transition from childhood into adulthood. There is a great deal to be said about the negotiation of a new independent identity following the years of dependence on others. Religious groups are good at exploiting this period of vulnerability for their own purposes, whether malignly or for the good of the young person. A faith, whether a cultic variety or more mainstream, provides support in this time of, often, chronic uncertainty. Space prevents me from saying any more on this point but the reader can no doubt reflect on the particular difficulties that he or she faced as they passed through this particular ravine of human experience.

I could easily add to my list of three ‘vulnerabilities’ that impact on the way that a individual is rendered more susceptible to the blandishments of religious teachers. Some of these may of course have deeply caring motives, but others, as this blog never tires of saying, have exploitation of the vulnerable high on their agenda. Let us always learn to be aware that human vulnerability is a fact of life, and that it is always immoral to take advantage in any way of another person who is in this state for whatever reason.

Methodists on Bullying and Harassment

Methodist_Church_GBAt a recent meeting of the Methodist Council it was announced that a proposal was going to be brought to the Methodist Conference on the topic of bullying and harassment in a church context. If these proposals are passed, the Methodist Church will be expecting to spend £140,000 to develop further work in this area. One Tony Tidey, with the splendid job-description as the Connexional Wellbeing Advisor spoke about the topic. He suggested that it was ‘uncomfortable and difficult to admit that bullying and harassment do sometimes occur in our churches’. Everyone in the church is called ‘to treat one another with dignity and respect’.

The Methodist record in the area of abuse has, to my mind, always been one of high standards. Obviously, not being a Methodist, I have not followed the detail of their child-protection policies etc over the years, but it was noticeable for me personally that, when I was collecting stories to illustrate the incidence of Christian abuse in the 90s, not one of them occurred in a Methodist setting. That is not to say that such incidents never occur, merely that this group of churches, with their traditional hierarchical oversight of ministers, was less likely to harbour abusive clergy or have so many intractable structural problems which allow this bullying and harassment.

For this post, I would like to set out some of my own thoughts, based on my reading, on the kind of work that might be attempted by the Methodist Church. If the proposed research does result in some fresh insights in this area, it will not only be the Methodist Church that benefits but all churches that work with similar structures, including my own Anglican Church. One common structure shared by both our denominations is that ministers are nationally accredited and subject to a degree of oversight. Arguably the Methodist ministers are more accountable to their central structures, but that point can be left to one side for the present. What I would like to examine are first some issues that to do with the personality of the minister in both churches. Secondly, I want to think about the role of volunteers within congregations.

For me the first and most obvious area which requires study is an examination of the latest research about the personality profiles of those who seek ordination. We have lived for a long time with the idea that, if someone believes that they have been ‘called’ to ministry, then that indeed is a sign of divine choosing. The candidates for ordination are, in fact, scrutinised fairly thoroughly but we still end up with a fair number of people who are bullies and guilty of harassment of various kinds. We urgently need a fresh assessment of the nature of vocation, using the latest insights from the world of secular knowledge to see whether ‘vocation’ may be a cover, for some, to seek a life of power and influence. Obviously the clergy are not the only factor in the occurrence of bullying and harassment in churches, but they are generally able, by being in a position of influencing the culture of their churches, to stop a bullying style from developing. Obviously there will be exceptions to this situation, including the scenario where the minister is him/herself bullied. We will, however, start with the hypothesis that much bullying behaviour is either initiated or condoned by the minister/Vicar in charge.

A couple of years ago I wrote a paper for a magazine ‘Modern Believing’ looking at the incidence of narcissistic behaviour among the clergy. This personality disorder will be expressed by a constant need on the part of the sufferer to receive praise and affirmation from people around him or her. In the case of a minister this will inevitably involve the congregation. He/she will have the uncanny ability to manipulate those under his influence so that a regular fix of narcissistic feeding is available to this minister. The current research into this kind of behaviour suggests that it is caused, either by a deficit of parental attention in early childhood, or through giving the child too much in the way of praise. Within these scenarios, the child grows up, either having to make up for the lack of attention, or to seek a continuation of what he/she had got used to having in abundance when very young. Whatever the cause, the narcissistic clergyman is going to be a menace as the one in charge of a congregation. If we recognise that bullying, among other things, provides an enjoyment of attention, then the narcissistic personality may well be one explanation for this kind of behaviour. Some recent study also suggests that narcissism, as a personality trait, may arise solely as the result of being constantly at the centre of attention. This observation would apply particularly to celebrities and politicians. To be praised, to be made the centre of attention constantly, is, for some an addictive experience and to be sought for its own sake. The clergy are, like politicians, constantly at the centre of their worlds, albeit far smaller. One aspect of a narcissistic addiction to attention is that a leader will be hyper-vigilant to any challenge to their authority and power. We thus have the common phenomenon of anger and shouting at individuals which is a frequent manifestation of bullying. Needless to say, sexual acting out can also be traced back to a narcissistic profile, but that cannot be examined here.

Another area which needs a thorough investigation by the churches is the issue of volunteers working within congregations. When an individual offers their services as a volunteer, it sets up a dynamic which is quite different to that of the workplace. The volunteer, because he/she is unpaid, may feel that certain rules do not apply to them. Just as the clergyman may feel a sense of entitlement because they are perceived as a man/woman of God, so the volunteer may feel that they can do their jobs with a great deal of leeway as to how the tasks are done. The rules set out by employers do not apply to the volunteer. This status as a volunteer, in other words, will even allow them, in extreme cases, to attempt to manipulate and control the work of the church. One really useful thing would be if the Methodist research came up with a thorough understanding of the way that church voluntary work operates, for good and bad. It might then publish a set of guidelines which could show what is expected of all volunteers. Too many churches are battlegrounds between strong personalities among their volunteers. Some use the church to carve out an area of influence and power as way of furthering personal needs. The strength to do this comes from their status as volunteers. No one wants to seem ungrateful for what they do. No one dares to challenge them and make them accountable, let alone ask them to leave. If a set of guidelines could be published when sets out clearly the incidence and danger of these kinds of power games in voluntary organisations like the church, then it would be far easier for councils to oversee the work of church workers, volunteers or not.

The conclusion of this blog post is to suggest to the Methodist group that we need to use existing research from social psychology and psychoanalytic thought to set out clearly the power issues that exist in churches which make the bullying and harassment possible. I believe that every example of bad behaviour can be understood if we apply the right tools of analysis. I look forward very much to see what comes up at the Methodist Conference in July.

Developments at Brentwood

TrinityRegular readers of this blog will know that I keep a close eye on the events at Trinity Church Brentwood. The recent news from this church seem to indicate that at last the log jam is clearing. The terms and background of the Commission of Enquiry have been published and promises of dates, publication of the findings etc have been circulated. I have to say that in spite of a few phrases which, on their own, might be read as a pre-emptive attempt to anticipate findings generous to the present leadership, there are also phrases that suggest a steely determination to get to the bottom of all that was horrendously wrong in the past and see how the corruption contaminates and haunts the present. One can see in the document possible evidence of the way that the ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’ have sought to get their perspective into the text. I may be completely imagining this, but I suggest that a lot has been going on behind the scenes. Needless to say, the report, when it appears in the Autumn, will be of prime importance to the understanding of the way that cultic churches operate. Existing reports on dysfunctional churches have tended to focus on areas that constitute illegal and even criminal actions. I am thinking, for example, of a Charity Commission report which investigated a large Black-led church in London. The report said nothing about the life of the church, but focussed entirely on bad book-keeping and failures of financial management. In this particular report, it was revealed that millions of pounds were siphoned off by crooks who were supposed to be investing the money for the benefit of the church.

In looking at the terms of the Commission I detect a readiness to face the past failures, even if these are not in fact criminal. The Commission has said that it will not, in fact, be addressing issues of a criminal nature, nor those which might potentially involve the claiming of damages. Since many past members were financially exploited, this may seem, on the face of it, a set-back for the cause of justice. The misappropriation of funds, particularly the holding of special collections to buy property which was then put in the name of the leaders, is one area of particular concern to ex-members. However, in contrast to this area of church life, there seems to be some important concessions to the to the issues aired by the other blog. A commission that is prepared to look at issues of culture and theology in a church that led to abuse, is, as far as I know, a first in the history of report writing. This will make my detailed interest in this process understandable.

The first statement by the Church leadership concerning the Commission, is to say that, under Michael Reid, things were taught as biblical which were not. These same false teachings infected the church like yeast infecting dough. This unbiblical teaching caused ‘hurt and grief’. This image of yeast is a powerful one and shows that the Commission does not seem afraid of some strident theological deconstruction of the teachings of MR. This may, we hope, offer some trenchant critique of the theology which undergirded the cultic techniques used by Reid. The fact that he enriched himself in the process has to be acknowledged and it is difficult to see how the financial aspects of MR’s ministry will not be, in part, addressed by the Commission. The money spent by MR on himself and vanity projects which took him all over the world business class, may have vanished, but the theology that sustained this opulent life-style may yet be revealed.

The second statement about the Commission that I have picked up is the following: ‘We hold out a hand of fellowship to all those who have been hurt and assure them ….be reconciled to them in every way and move forward with them and with the whole church as brothers and sisters in Christ, whether they still attend Trinity or not.’ This statement that the church is going to regard its ex-members as possessing the status of ‘brothers and sisters’ is a massive subversion of the cultic structure of the church. Many churches play the projection game on their ex-members as a way of keeping the faithful close to the leadership. In other words, if the leadership can persuade its members that the former members are apostates and renegades, then the sense of solidarity is greatly strengthened. The Commission is setting out firmly that this cultic trick is no longer to be tolerated. The ex-members are brothers and sisters in Christ. Nigel is not to be regarded as the enemy at the gates, but someone to be offered the hand of fellowship.

The dynamic of Trinity will need to change to accommodate this new way of thinking and for many it will be extremely difficult. It is so much easier to believe you are a member of a persecuted misunderstood group than to acknowledge, as seems inevitable, that Michael Reid ran a church which exploited and cheated you. It is even more difficult to recognise that the individual at the gate, in the person of Nigel Davies who ‘prophesised’ week by week, was actually speaking the word of God more accurately than was being said inside the walls of the church. No, either of these two new ‘truths’ will be deeply subversive to the existing membership of the church and it is very hard to see how it will continue in its present form.

One detail who gives me great hope for the Commission is that ‘Gail’, the American Bible Student, whose allegation of rape began this whole process has great faith in the integrity and thoroughness of John Langlois, the chairman of the Commission. I have no hesitation in agreeing with her assessment, having read one of his earlier reports. I have already suggested in a previous blog that the Evangelical Alliance has had its own reputation challenged by its past support of Trinity in the face of challenges and complaints. It would help the EA if the entire structure of Trinity collapsed before being reformed, so that a reputation for toughness and impartiality could be claimed. In the meantime watch this space. You can be sure that the report when it finally appears in the Autumn will be scrutinised extensively by this blog. It may be one of the most important documents on the subject of ‘abusive churches’ ever to have been published.

Choice or coercion?

coercionIn a recent blog post, I looked at the issue of women who find themselves part of families where the dominant Christian teaching around them requires that they, in faith, bear large numbers of children. Some of these women might claim that they are willing participants in this extraordinary experience of family. Others might claim that they had no choice in the matter but that it was forced on them by husbands and church. Clearly there has to be a point along a continuum where free choice gives way to a submission to external pressure. Where exactly that point is will probably be unknown even to the woman concerned. But it is important that the question is asked. It is right also at least to acknowledge that pressure from others could well be a factor for decisions that we make about our actions as well as our beliefs. It would be worrying if the truth were always so ‘clear’ that at no point had doubts or queries been raised in us along the way. Decisions that are made without the experience of looking at all sides of the question would seem to be decisions that are shallow and probably reflect what is known legally as ‘undue influence’ by others.

One of the models I find helpful for my understanding of extreme conservative (toxic) Christianity, is to suggest that it is a perpetuation of the experience of the child who looks up to a parent to discover what are the answers to life’s issues. This may sound like a provocative statement but I cannot find any other way of accounting for the extraordinary way that some people believe that a problem can only be solved by consulting a text or an authoritative person The belief is that this text or other authority can be appealed to without any discussion, argument or appeal. To take the opposite point of view, I would claim that debate, discussion and the development of opinions about the world’s issues are all part of the world of true adult functioning. This is why we have disagreements in society and politics. The world would be infinitely poorer if everyone agreed with everyone else. Sometimes political systems have arisen, as in Nazi Germany and North Korea, where political and social uniformity is compulsory. Everyone is effectively ordered to think in a particular approved way and the penalties of failing to conform are severe. To judge by the readiness of the vast bulk of citizens in totalitarian regimes to think and act in a ‘correct’ way, it is obvious that fascism or dictatorship is able to tap into a universal psychological trait common to us all. My simple explanation is that the dictator or leader presents himself (normally a him) as a benevolent father who knows what is best for his children. Because a take-over by the extreme regime is normally preceded by a time of chaos and confusion, which has caused widespread fear and anxiety, the population are grateful for a ‘daddy’ appearing to sort everything out. I can remember, while growing up, the longing for a parent to come home and put something right in a way that only a grown-up person can do. Dictators are good at reactivating in people these kinds of longings.

The main feature of being an adult is the readiness and ability to make choices and decisions for oneself. We cannot and should not depend on another person to do this for us. The ability to make these choices involves our being ready to live with the consequences of such choices, sometimes for a long time. If we are to make such choices, then it is necessarily to look carefully both sides of the decision, looked at the pros and cons. The important decisions of life, like where we live, our choice of partner, are extremely critical for our happiness and well-being. We are not normally prepared to hand these over to another person or group, nor should we. The only time of life when it is appropriate to hand over decision making to another is when we are children. Hopefully all good parents allow their children to make increasingly complex choices as they get older as this is a rehearsal for the serious business of being grown up.

One question that has to be raised about our individual church experience is whether its culture allows the members to function as adults or children. Obviously there is going to be a continuum. At one end there will be a clustering of churches where the practice of infantilising all the members is the norm. In these churches the message of what to think, how to behave and what books to read will be stated authoritatively. Other churches will oscillate between treating their members as adults some of the time, while making them obey the instructions of the leaders in a parent-child model at other times. Yet other churches may succeed in treating their members as adults all of the time. These churches will probably not be the most popular, or even successful The task of making adult decisions all the time will deliver, not clarity and certainty, which people often crave, but ambiguity and lack of precision. Clearly being adult requires a tolerance for untidiness and uncertainty. Few of us who think for ourselves in religious matters have a tidy belief system.

To summarise this post it has to be said that being adult involves genuine choices. The task of making genuine decisions is hard, uncertain and possibly we can be simply wrong in these decisions. But even the possibility of being wrong or mistaken should not put us off the struggle to make such choices. The alternative, to have someone else making them for us, is dire. And yet this common pattern, whereby church members are allowed to opt out of decision making in important areas of life, seems to be a relatively common pattern across the world. The title of this post ‘choice or coercion’ sets out what seems to be happening in the places where people fear to take grown-up decisions. They often lapse into the kind of group or infantile thinking that is a feature of totalitarian regimes of both past and present. To have something think and decide for you is a form of coercion, even if it may be experienced as benevolent care. A father helping a child make decisions for life is one thing, but for a fully adult person to be told exactly what to believe and what the Bible says, is another. In too many churches we find an endemic coercion caused by leaders telling people what to think and believe. They are locked into immaturity and dependence. Such immaturity is hardly a feature of the kind of life that Jesus wanted us to have, life in all its abundance.

Stopping abuse in the church – some ideas

keep-calm-and-stop-abuseOn the blog connected with historic abuses at Trinity Church, Brentwood, a discussion has arisen about the role of the Evangelical Alliance in the UK. This body has a membership structure and is open to any group or church who can sign up to a simple evangelical statement of belief. Beyond signing this statement, nothing further is required of those who would wish to be members. There is no signing up to a code of conduct, allowing visits from the outside, or agreeing to any kind of supervision. It is a bit like a dodgy trade organisation which sounds great on paper but makes no attempt to regulate or discipline its members even when they stray badly. The only exception is made for a church group that enters the perdition of announcing support for gay relationships!

The Anglican Church which is my particular branch of the church, cannot always be proud of its record of ensuring the safety of people in its congregations. Officially it practises oversight and supervision but in normal situations this can mean very little if the Vicar keeps the powers that be at arm’s length. This is partly because of a system known as ‘freehold’ which makes a Vicar very hard to discipline or remove. This has now been replaced by a system called Common Tenure. In theory this allows for more flexibility, including the possibility of moving a Vicar on. Employment law in the UK means that a clergyman still holds a great deal of power in standing up to those set over him. Nevertheless diocese and bishops do exercise their power in indirect ways. A recent good example of this is in the fact that child protection measures have to be in place in every parish and it is compulsory for every officer, including us retired clergy, to attend a child protection event. We are also facing the same procedures over the care of ‘vulnerable adults’. While I disagree as to who are the vulnerable adults, the efforts are important and worthwhile in the fight against these particular areas of potential abuse in the churches.

The churches that submit to this degree of supervision, do have the result of providing a measure of protection for some of their members. It is in looking at the independent churches that real problems can be seen. Both in the States and in Britain the pursuit of religion and the conduct of worship is normally assumed to contribute to the public good and they thus receive tax exemptions which are worth a great deal of money to the organisations concerned. Independence from one point of view implies freedom while from another angle it can suggest a total lack of accountability. Because I write looking at these churches from the outside, I see the lack of responsible supervision or oversight that can be the bane of these communities. A leader, bolstered up with a number of Biblical texts, that imply that he is the ‘Lord’s Anointed’, will often resist any attempt by Trustees to hold him to account for misdeeds, whether financial, sexual or to do with bullying. Having, over a period of years, appointed Trustees that are compliant to his wishes, the Pastor will have no problem in controlling the whole church, its finances and life, without any dissenting voices. In the case of Trinity Brentwood, the situation is that the Trustees are mostly related to the Pastor by marriage or blood, and it is improbable that any would wish to challenge their own relative. One suspects that there are other favours given and received but that has to remain speculation.

When a church abuses its members, as Trinity is alleged to have done over many decades, then it ought to be possible for an outside body to offer to inspect it and write a report for the scrutiny of the public. Although churches do not take public money, their situation of tax exemption should make it possible for them to accept a degree of public scrutiny on the part of wider society. This task at present could be done by the Charity Commission but they seemed powerless in a recent case with a Brethren group after a heavy campaign of letter writing to MPs. Numerous letters have been written to the CC over Trinity Brentwood but once again these letters have apparently fallen on deaf ears. The Evangelical Alliance has also received a torrent of letters but, as we said at the beginning, the organisation seems only interested in the fact that a group affirms a statement of approved belief. Nothing else, whether misbehaviour or scandal, seems to impress them.

What is the solution? The solution might that any church who wished to have an independent constitution would opt into a Christian organisation which had the right to inspect these churches at any time. It would be a kind of Church Quality Care Commission. Its concern would be far more to look at the practical aspects of church life rather than the theological. It would not be willing to lay down the law as to the quality of sermons and teaching, but it would be concerned, for example, to see that the staff working there had proper terms of employment. It would employ people who were sensitive to the dynamics of organisational life, so that it was alert to the possibility of bullying within the structures. Every time an inspection was made, there would be an opportunity for individuals within the church to approach the inspectors with their observations about the dynamics and life of the church. Over a period, this Church Quality Care Commission would develop the expertise to set out a code of conduct that all independent churches would be invited to sign. In effect such a church would be opting in to accord the highest standards of care and respect for its congregation. Such churches would be given a Church Safety Award. In short such churches, while still independent, would be given the CQCC gold star. Without this award, or with the award of ‘could do better’, the other churches so designated would be affected by the public gradually shifting their allegiance to places that had a proven safety record.

At the moment, notions of a Church Quality Care Commission are a long way off. But sometimes ideas have to thought before they can become a reality. Almost all the problems, which this blog is concerned about, would vanish overnight if such a body were to exist. Its authority would only ever be a moral authority. Legal sanctions are unlikely ever to work. But it is just possible to imagine that many churches which at present have no external supervisory structure might submit themselves to an independent body of this kind. As long as such a body did not interfere with the theological insights that were claimed as precious to the group, it might be able to claim some moral authority over the other areas of life, the dynamics of the relationships where abuse is able to happen. Let us hope that such an idea may one day take root. At least a start has been made by thinking this thought, the first stage on its way to becoming a reality.

Quiverful Movement – an abusive idea

quiverfulAs readers will know I am often exploring the Internet to discover new aspects of Christian behaviour which may become abusive to those who come under their influence. The Quiverful Movement is such a movement while, on the face of it, it teaches something apparently wholesome. It commends to families a practice of family life which welcomes the ‘blessing’ of numerous children in accordance with Psalm 127. This psalm states that a man is happy when he has a quiver full of children. It goes on to say ‘such men shall not be put to shame’. The movement, which takes its name from this verse, believes that a Christian family, by welcoming the ‘blessing’ of as many children as the Lord provides, can trust in him to meet their material needs. I am grateful for the information put out by Vyckie Garrison on her web-site and her blog about this distinct movement within conservative Christian circles in the States.

While I would not want to suggest that large families are necessarily a burden to those who have them, a setting which puts pressure on a woman to go through child-birth year after year, for theological reasons, is likely to be an abusive one. Living in a family with eight, twelve or more children will bring the mother of the family to a place of exhaustion. In the conservative evangelical setting of the Quiverful movement, the father of the family is likely to leave most of the work to the mother while adopting a controlling, even abusive, patriarchal role within the family structure. This unequal division of labour is, as we have seen, in accordance with ‘Biblical principles’. The exhausting round of cooking, feeding and caring will leave the mother with effectively no time to have any social life or interests beyond the family. Vyckie Garrison suggests that the women who submit to what is effectively an abusive style of life, are often those who have known only chaotic patterns of living in their birth families. By entering into a ‘quiverful’ marriage, they may well believe they are entering an environment of encompassing love that they lacked for themselves as children. What is not clear to them, in their state of vulnerability, is that they are also being sucked into an abusive controlling environment which will suck them dry. The demands of a controlling husband and the needs of numerous offspring threaten to overwhelm such a mother. It is a kind of martyrdom, a self-sacrifice to an ideology that insists that it is indeed Christian to have total disregard for one’s own interests and comfort.

The reader might wonder as to who benefits from these large families. Even though the father, in his divinely ordered patriarchal role of authority, does probably far less than might be expected in normal families to care for his large brood, the struggle to provide financially will probably hang heavy on him. However much the church, to which the family belongs, proclaims that father and mother are fulfilling God’s word in Scripture, the costs, financial and emotional, are heavy, particularly when there is not sufficient money. But one group does benefit. This is the industry that sells the products promoting the idea of ‘Biblical Family Values.’

Vyckie’s article, on which this post is based, spells out the extent of this industry. Publishers are pouring out books on the importance of bringing children up in a Christian fashion against the background of a world that many believe has reached the ‘end-times’. This also creates a huge market for home-schooling materials. Typically children of ‘quiverful’ families will be taught at home by the mother, using the material from Christian publishers. The home-schooling material consists, as we have seen, of workbooks which present the world in a very binary fashion. History and politics are presented with strongly right-wing views while science is also contaminated by creationist and anti-evolutionary ideas. The children of these families will grow up socially and ideologically isolated. It is hard to see how they can ever adjust to a society where opinions and attitudes are varied. Can they ever get used to the idea that it is possible to get on with another person who does not share their biblically-formed version of truth?

Vyckie writes as a survivor of this particular strand of fundamentalist culture. Having been burdened in three ways, – by a fundamentalist patriarchal culture which sees the mother as the main nurturer of the children, an abusive husband and the practical demands of a large household, it was hard to escape. Somehow Vyckie did escape and was able to write a book about the experience and maintain a blog on this issue. While applauding her liberation, we can see that the vast majority of ‘quivering’ women will never escape. Vyckie makes the point that the women who do not escape, but continue until death within this patriarchal biblical straightjacket, are nevertheless examples of enormous strength and single-mindedness. They have nevertheless had to expend all this strength just to be able to physically survive and enable their children to grow up. They have been pushed beyond all reasonable limits – in short they have been abused by a system thought up by men. To quote Vickie’s article, ‘women are knocking themselves down trying to maintain a lifestyle which was manufactured by greedy, controlling men who don’t actually care about the well-being their wives and children at all’. In a later sentence which is worded yet more colourfully she says, ‘The rigidity and restrictiveness in maintaining strict gender role-based relationship will result in narcissistic assholes for husbands and manipulative martyrs for wives’.

The victims of this particular abusive culture are once again individuals who have learnt to think that God wants them to be devoid of self-esteem, pride in themselves and a sense of their unique value. Fortunately this particular abusive system of thought does not appear to have reached the shores of the UK. But, as we have seen, misogyny within UK conservative Christianity is alive and well. We must all remain vigilant that these particular mysogynistic ideas do not take root in this country to add to the sum total of pain and suffering endured by women whose only wish is to serve God. Tragically they are made to pay a high price for that loyalty and devotion.

Bullying and Abuse

anti_bullying_by_spiritofnature-d5koat8In the hospital last week, while doing ‘cover’ for the full-time chaplain, I met a man in his 40s who was one of the patients. It was not a particularly religious conversation but it was significant in that he opened up about issues that were on his mind. He told me about his daughter of 21 who had, in the past twelve months, dropped out of studying because of bullying by a member of the college staff. The case was complicated because the staff member was himself off work for ‘stress’ and so nothing could be resolved through tribunals or enquiries. The daughter was having to carry this unresolved episode around with her. She had done a number of temporary jobs but re-entering college was still on hold. On the surface she was claiming that the incident was not affecting her, but it seemed clear that there was still things to be worked through. I suggested that a counsellor might be able to help her see the extent she was perhaps suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress from the incident. In short, a proper owning up to what she was really feeling (and suffering) might assist the moving on process.

I mention this incident because it reminded me of the way that bullying is everywhere. Few people escape it at some point in the lives. Although, in this blog, we are focussing on the abuse that happens in the context of the church and religious organisations, we must not forget that almost every firm or organisation suffers from bullying somewhere. I decided to look at some of the literature about bullying to try and understand it better in whatever context it takes place. Two facets of bullying need to be thought about. One is the part of the bully – why they do it. The second part is what happens to the victim as the result of this psychological, physical or cultural violence.

Let us first address the first part of the equation. One thing to be noted about the bully, is that they do not normally fit the caricature of bullies that we carry in our heads. They are not necessarily brutish or crudely threatening, the picture that we carry forward from playground experiences. The sheer variety of abuses of power that we can describe as bullying is endless. It can occur using obvious coercive methods or it can be manifested quietly and barely noticed by the outsider. Another word which is almost a synonym for bullying is ‘manipulation’. Manipulation also occurs through both violence and flattery. In both words power is being used and abused so that one person can achieve ignoble ends, such as emotional or financial gain.

The great Burmese female politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, said some words which get to the heart of bullying and why individuals practise it. Her words were uttered in the context of the long political struggle with military dictatorship (or bullying) in Burma but they still illuminate our quest to understand. She said: ‘It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it’. It is a commonplace to say that bullying is practised by individuals who feel inadequate or isolated in themselves. A psychologist, Melanie Klein, spoke about the inner rage that the bully feels over their own inadequacy. They thus seek to relieve this feeling by projecting their weakness on to someone else. That ‘bad object’ that really belongs to them can then be harassed in the other person rather than in themselves. The more that other person is humiliated, the more relief the bully feels by not having to face up to their own emptiness and low esteem. A summary way of putting all this is to say that the bully is the little person, tormented by low self-esteem, fear or inadequacy, who has to bluster and manipulate others in order to relieve the inner emptiness.

Other psychological insights come from those who describe narcissistic behaviour. To summarise these ideas, it can said that bullies are self-obsessed, self-important individuals who have a powerful inner motivation to create a world around them that serves their emotional needs. They will bully and cajole others to serve these needs and they are often good at doing this. The malign charismatic personalities have, as we have described in another blog post, a particular gift in this distinctive type of manipulation. Further remarks could be made about the way that bullying and sadism are connected, but space does not permit.

Moving from an account of the profile of bullies to the description of those who receive such treatment, we can see that the targets of this treatment can suffer profoundly. Outwardly the victims may have to take drastic action to escape a bully, like move house or change jobs. Others collapse inwardly and may commit suicide. The reason that the bullying is so powerful is that the vulnerability of the bullied individual has been exposed and their self-esteem has been undermined. In the process they have felt themselves marginalised and of no possible value to anyone. Few people are so strong that their sense of who they are cannot be attacked and undermined by a determined bully. Within an organisation an individual cannot just walk away without severe consequences. As long there are bullies in any organisation for the reasons we outlined above, there are always going to be power games which are going to be won by the person who is further up the hierarchy. A common consequence is the one that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the experience of severe stress. Whether it results in the acute form, this stress can interrupt the normal processes of life. Damaged self-esteem takes a lot of rebuilding.

I am conscious of there being many more things I would like to say on this topic, but I always fear my reader will lose patience if I write too much. I will just end with a reflection from St Matthew’s gospel. In chapter 25, Jesus speaks of the people that his followers are to serve as a sign of being his disciples. They are to serve the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the ill and those in prison. In doing this they are serving him. ‘Anything you did not do for one of these, however humble, you did not do for me.’ What greater proclamation that followers of Christ are never to be complicit in any culture of bullying but rather be among those who always seek to build up the weak? The church should be a place where bullying cannot happen. May we all work to play our part in ‘naming and shaming’ it wherever it occurs.

Looking for Easter

resurrection-morning-iisIn a blog that looks to understand the nature and extent of abuse among Christians, it is not always easy to find happy endings. Many of the stories that I have encountered do not have such endings. People remain in the middle of their pain, without obvious solutions or justice. One would love to be able to say that every account had a long-lasting solution. When Jesus said ‘you now have sorrow…. I will come to you and your sorrow will be turned to joy’, we want that to be true for every suffering person. But so often that does not seem to be the reality.

It is sometimes said of Christians that they are ‘Easter people’. I am sure that there are many ways of understanding what this might mean, but I want to suggest a way that we can be Easter people in the context of the concerns of this blog. One of the things that we learn, as we go through the sombre events of Holy Week and contemplate the awful suffering that Jesus endured, is to see all this suffering in the context of the coming events of Easter. In other words, our imaginative immersion in Jesus’ suffering is made possible because of what we know is to come afterwards in the narrative. Without Easter, Jesus’ suffering and death would have no point or purpose and it would be utterly demoralising even for us to read about it. We would have to conclude that power always wins over goodness, strength defeats weakness – the bullies always triumph. But, as we all know, the story does not end on Good Friday. The gospel accounts tells us that the story has an unexpected twist. Christ rises from the dead and somehow the terrible suffering is able to be seen as a victory. The power exercised over Jesus during his Passion is seen to have no lasting hold. Death itself can be said to be defeated in some way by an act of God.

The central theme or message of Easter seems to have these two facets. The first is that Christ is the victim but at the same time we find him to be the one who, in and through his faith in God, is also victorious. He endures more in the way of abuse and torture that we can ever imagine. But he enters the place of abuse and torture willingly, confident that God was with him and would accomplish his purposes through him. We could go on to suggest various Old Testament passages that encouraged him in this hope in God, even though his humanity recoiled at the prospect of death. The final words on the Cross – ‘Into thy hands I commend my spirit’ are a summing up not just of this life-long sense of trust in God, but also of his confidence that God would receive him at the moment of death.

The event we call the Resurrection is not easy to understand in all its aspects. Many Christians stumble over the details as to whether or not Jesus returned with the same physical body. Some Easter accounts in the gospels suggest this is what was believed while other passages can be read as suggesting something quite different. The important thing in all the accounts is that Jesus was in some essential way alive. He had passed through to a dimension that is beyond the grave but in a new way he was and is alive and among us. His death and resurrection is also in some way a prelude to our own death and life within eternity. ‘I go before you to prepare a place for you so that where I am, you may be also.’

The first message of Easter is then, in summary, that Jesus is the victorious victim. The second message, of particular relevance to victims and all who suffer in the world, is that we can come very close to him as our risen Lord even now. In his earthly life, it is testified that Jesus sought the company of the poor, the sick and the outcasts. Today we would add the victimised, those who receive humiliation, violence as well as the victims of prejudice. It is not so strange that we should look for the same reality to be at work in his risen life. There is an old tradition of Christian prayer popularised by St Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century which put a great emphasis on our imaginative participation in Gospel events. The individual follower of this tradition would use the mind and imagination to reconstruct the events recorded in the Gospels. In short we are enabled to meet the risen Jesus by being imaginary participants in particular episodes within his earthly life. Ignatian prayer encourages the practitioner to see the sounds, smells and textures of the Gospel event as a prelude to a personal encounter with Jesus. The point at which such an inward meeting ceases to be product of our imagination and becomes a real encounter with Jesus is not for me to define. It should be noted however that the Ignatian tradition has been followed for hundreds of years and has been a source of blessing and comfort for many. Whether we seek to meet Jesus through this actual method or through another way, the Christian tradition of prayer has always invited the faithful follower to meet the risen Jesus. The record of his earthly life shows him as the particular friend, comforter and encourager of all who have passed through pain or abuse. Of course everyone is invited to be in this place, whether or not victims, but the Gospel testimony suggests that the risen Christ has a particular longing to place his hands on those in pain and who are the victims of bullying and abuse of any kind.

Easter, the story of victimhood followed by ultimate victory, is one that should especially resonate with the abused everywhere. The Christian tradition has always allowed us to know within our hearts, not only something of the transcendent God but also the human face of God in Jesus. As I write these words, I am reminded of the prayer of Richard of Chichester which speaks of Jesus as Redeemer and Friend and Brother. May the risen Jesus be such a redeemer, friend and brother to all, but especially those who need comfort and healing in the darkness of their abuse.

Reformation insights on power

reformation-imageIn reading around the subject of the Reformation, I came across a summary of the issues that I would like to share with my readers. It has a simplicity about it which helps to make it useful to our thinking about the Reformation, as well to our interest concerning power and its abuse.

The classic principles of the Protestant Reformation (Anglicans like me have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with them) are threefold. First there is the principle of ‘justification by faith alone’. This is in particular read out of the Epistle to the Romans. In the second place there is the teaching that Christ on the on the cross died a substitutionary death in an act of atonement for the sins of mankind. Thirdly there is the doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. These principles of theology were read out of Scripture and proclaimed by all of the Reformers with different emphases throughout the 16th century and later. Even though my reducing so much theological writing into a small compass will probably meet with scepticism, I ask that the reader bears with me sufficiently as I observe that each of these principles has to do with power, particularly reclaiming power from the religious monolith that was the mediaeval Catholic church.

It is a commonplace to note that the Reformation was a movement of protest. This word ‘protest’ has a double meaning in modern usage. It contains the idea of objecting to and targeting an idea or principle, but also simply making an opinion known. The early Protestants were in fact doing both these things. They were attacking the power of Catholic authority and at the same time they were articulating (protesting) a new way of being Christian. This new vision of how to be a Christian stood on its own but it had, at the same time, the effect of attacking the monopoly of the powerful institutions of the Catholic church. How were the three planks of Reformation teaching undermining the power of the mediaeval church?

The first principle that I mentioned as a key to understanding the Reformation ‘protest’, was the rediscovery that faith, as understood by Paul, was a matter for the individual and his relationship with God. This possibility of a relationship of faith with God, without the mediation of sacraments and the entire paraphernalia of clerical structures, was deeply subversive to the old order. A second principle to challenge what had gone before was the new understanding of how Christ’s death had been an atoning sacrifice. This sacrifice did not need repetition and Protestants, by making their claim that Christ’s death was a once-for-all event, were effectively undermining the Catholic claims for its theology of the Mass. Why was it necessary to re-enact the death of Christ over and over again in the Mass, when the original event was decisive? If the Lord’s Supper was to be remembered, it was a mere remembrance of an event in the past. It did not involve some magical process as suggested by the teaching on transubstantiation. The third point was the inner relationship with the Holy Spirit as taught by Scripture. This did not need anything beyond the believer and his life of personal inner growth to make it happen.

In this way Luther and the other Reformers of the 16th century challenged the institutional power of the Roman church with their ‘plain’ reading of Scripture. Whether they were in fact handling Scripture correctly through these attacks is arguable, but I have to leave that point to one side for the moment. What is important to realise is that, at an important level, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation after it were struggles for power. Theological ideas read out of Scripture had massive implications not just for the Christian faith but also for the world of politics, society and the whole course of history. John Calvin took political authority in Geneva in the name of the principles set out in his Christian Institutes. In every society in Western Europe since that day, power, political and sometimes military power, has often been exercised in the name of Christian truth. Arguably when Christian truth believes that it has the right to dictate to others, believers or not, how to live and behave, it then has the potential to become an abusive system. This is true whether it takes place at a national level or at the level of an individual congregation, or even at a family level. We can always imagine the authority figure being able to say: ‘God has given me the power to tell you how to live your life’.

The argument of this blog piece is simply to point out the way that power and thus power-games have infiltrated into Christian institutions at every level, sometimes to their enormous detriment. Obviously institutions have to have rules and order, but these rules and the order they promote, have often become instruments of control. Protestant and Catholic institutions have both failed in this area in many places. We need to remind ourselves, once more, that the Christian way, as proposed by Jesus, was a way that completely turned upside down the rules of power. Jesus stated quite clearly that while the kings and governors made people feel the weight of their authority, ‘it shall not be so among you’. The crucifixion, which is very much in our minds and imaginations at this time, was a powerful living out of a protest against conventional power and the way it is used. The way of God was to be the path of powerlessness and humility. Somehow we keep losing the plot over this call to learn the meaning of humility and love. Christian institutions should not be places where people are bullied sometimes and humiliated. I find it hard to understand why there is not within the churches a massive amount of knowledge and experience with which to put into practice the way of powerlessness as taught and practised by Jesus. We have had 2000 years to get it right. There are of course some places which seem to understand gentleness, true altruism and the way of service, but they are not as common as one would like them to be. Above all the Church should be far better at spotting very quickly when things are going wrong in terms of the failure to use power appropriately. Sadly the Church is better at leaving things to fester. Sometimes dysfunctional structures continue for decades before they are challenged, having left pain and abuse in their wake.