Monthly Archives: May 2015

Brutalising children -Peniel again

call me evilAfter writing something about the dynamic of marriages at Peniel under Michael Reid, I ordered the book written by Caroline Green, Call me evil, let me go. She was the individual who successfully escaped from Peniel in around 1997 and also obtained a financial settlement from the church a few years later. Harper Collins published her account of her trial and traumas but the edition published in this country has had all the names changed for legal reasons. But it is quite clear that all the events recorded in her book are describing Peniel in the 80s and 90s. There are many things to be noted from the book which appalled me, but one particular theme which hit home was the treatment of very young children at the church. It was in fact witnessing the beating of her children at the school that provided the motivation and stirred the will of Caroline finally to break free. With her four children, it was no easy matter starting a new life outside the cage that represented Peniel Church.

Before we discuss the medieval treatment of children which was the norm at Peniel in the past, (now thankfully deemed to be criminal even in private establishments), I want to draw attention to the way Caroline describes the extraordinary hold that Reid had over those under his power. Described in a detached way, we can glimpse some of his methods through her descriptions. They could be said to be a combining of terror and charm. While a teenager in the church, Caroline was subject to a concerted attack on her self-esteem by Reid and others. Her parents had sent her to be a boarder at the school because they felt that the discipline would be good for her. As part of his effort to ‘break her will’, Reid would stand her on a stage during a service and pray for her loudly so everyone present could hear. His loud prayer would include a reference to the casting out of a ‘rebellious spirit’ that was deemed to be responsible for some minor breaking of a rule. Humiliation and embarrassment were all part of the church’s attempt to bring her under its control. She was constantly threatened with hell. Reid would also tell her that this was where her parents were going because they were not part of his church. It would be better for her to forget them and focus on her new ‘family’. Eventually she was so used to accepting what MR was telling her to do, she allowed herself to enter an ‘arranged’ marriage at the early age of 18. The groom ‘Peter’ was the son of one of the founding members of Peniel and thus used to having his life organised for him. The relationship with Peter was initially successful but for Caroline, ideas of university or proper choice of career were not able to be pursued. Because her own parents had been marginalised by the church, they had little or no input into helping Caroline on the path into adulthood or really supporting her when marriage came along.

The marriage which as Caroline put it, was ‘micromanaged by Reid’ down to the choice of date and bridesmaids, was not at first unhappy. Tensions rose when it became clear that her husband, Peter was far more dedicated to serving the church than the family. In addition to his full-time work, he was always putting endless hours working in and around the church and school in a maintenance capacity. Being a second generation adult in Peniel, he also seemed not to have a mind of his own. Every time there was a problem between them, it seemed that the issue got straight back to Reid and those in charge. Marital privacy was not something that Peter expected or sought and Caroline felt that their marriage relationship was being scrutinised by large numbers of church members.

The part of the story that aroused a strong reaction in me was Caroline’s description of the toddler group attached to the church. Everyone who used it was expected to help out with its running and the care of the children. This ‘care’ was against the background of Reid’s ideas about how children should be reared. They needed to be ‘brought under control’ by the age of 2 and under ‘firm control’ by the age of five. This form of ‘love’ was expressed through regular chastisement. When toddlers refused their food in the nursery, they were to be force fed. This would be done by holding the nose of the child so that the mouth would open and food could be pushed in. When the babies spat out the food, they were then smacked on the hand to combat their ‘rebellion’. Sometimes the process of feeding the children would take as long as 40 minutes while the other children went out to play. Caroline admits that this smacking of children over food became so common that she became more and more desensitised to its occurrence. The principle at work was the Biblical idea that beating was in some way making them obedient Christian children. One particular child in the pre-school group was inconsolable after his mother dropped him off. The ‘teacher’ took him into the toilet and beat him on the behind to the point of bruising. This particular case was raised by Caroline with the Head. All that happened was that she was taken out of the pre-school and sent off to work on an allotment. But the school ‘philosophy’ about how children should be reared spilt over into Caroline’s own home. Peter, her husband, administered smacking on her own children from the age of nine months. When her parents came to visit, they noticed the bruises on the child’s behind and thought of reporting it to the police. Nothing was in fact done for fear of causing disruption to the family.

One of the main issues that caused Caroline to break free from Peniel was the violence meted out to her own children at the church school. Both older children started to suffer from stress related symptoms, headaches, stomach aches, bedwetting etc. To make things worse, the beatings at school were repeated at home, as Peter, her husband, was unable to see anything wrong with the treatment of his children by the school and felt the need to re-emphasise the punishment. Even Caroline found herself sometimes smacking her own children, as she could not completely overcome the power that Reid had over her and his constant refrain of the wickedness of children and the need to save them from hell.

Space does not permit me to recount the circumstances of her ‘escape’ from Peniel. She was prepared to continue her marriage but Peter’s conditioning was such that he chose Peniel rather than his family. In escaping, Caroline received help from a number of organisations, helping her both legally and practically. It was extremely costly emotionally and financially. The book of her adventures came out in 2011 but not without a threat of lawsuits etc which tried to prevent its publication. Only the American edition ascribes the book to her. The English edition calls her Sarah Jones.

There are many things that I could have drawn out of Caroline’s story but I have chosen one main theme, the mistreatment of children, because it is at the heart of her story. The violence meted out to children in the name of ‘godly’ discipline is a theme that resonates back over the centuries in Protestant households and the fact that we find practised right at the end of the 20th century is something that all Christians should feel thoroughly appalled at. But as a final encouraging thought, Caroline’s children, while none of them now practising Christians, have recovered from their stressful traumatising childhoods sufficiently to live good and useful lives in the community. All now hold down responsible jobs and, in spite of their early schooling, have all gone through higher education.

Dirty Tricks and paranoia

dirty-tricksReligion and politics make unhappy bedfellows. There is a particular issue when extreme political views are wrapped up in innocent sounding ‘Christian’ slogans like family values. In this post I am focussing on three organisations in the States which are dedicated to the cause of fighting the so-called gay lobby right across the world. The first two were founded by the Christian psychologist, James Dobson. His ideas have been broadcast across the States and, through the power of the Right Wing lobby, have reached to many corners of the globe. These two organisations, now operating independently, are called Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. Focus on the Family was founded back in 1977 and the Family Research Council was spun from the parent organisation in 1992.

Both organisations have as their aim to ‘equip concerned citizens to make a difference in politics and culture on behalf of life, marriage and the family’. This is a coded way of saying that they are a politically/religiously inspired lobby to fight against the gay cause perceived to be spreading its influence across the world. One spokesman from Focus on the Family (FOFT) has described homosexuality as ‘a particularly evil lie of Satan’, while another describes it as ‘Satan roaming the earth like a lion, using sexual and relational brokenness to destroy individuals, families, churches, groups and businesses’. The organisations attract to themselves massive funds and are active in Christian radio broadcasting throughout the world.

The Family Research Council (FRC) is an active lobbying group in Washington with a revenue of around $14 million. In 2010 the US Congress denounced Uganda’s proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill and this was actively lobbied against by the FRC. Also in 2012 when Hillary Clinton declared that ‘gay rights are human rights’, this was fiercely attacked. FRC is responsible for producing a lot of pamphlets and material that suggest that homosexuals are likely to molest children. They also openly attack the attempts to address the bullying of LGBTQ individual in schools.

Another organisation based in the States, but with a world-wide ambition to attack the gay lobby, is the so-called World Congress of Families (WCF). WCF describes itself as a ‘rallying centre for the world’s family systems grounded in religious faith’. Financially supported by FOFT, it holds vast international conferences around the world to support its cause. Leaders of the American Christian Right are given prominence at these Congresses and no doubt they have a political impact beyond the particular battle against the perceived enemies of Christian moral obsessions. One particular individual mentioned as currently active in the political/religious struggle on the gay issue is the American, Sharon Slater. She urged delegates at a conference in Nigeria in 2011 to resist the UN pressure to decriminalise homosexuality. They risked losing their religious and parental rights by endorsing ‘fictitious sexual rights’ for those in same sex relationships. On other occasions she has compared homosexuality to ‘incest, sexual abuse, and rape ….drug dealing, assaults and other crimes’. These words are perhaps mild compared with the words of one Scott Lively, an American evangelist, who told an audience in Uganda in 2009 that legalising homosexuality could be linked to accepting ‘molestation of children or having sex with animals.’

In recording material about these organisations, I am not, contrary to appearances, wanting to establish a firmly held position on the issue of acceptance or non-acceptance of gays in the church. I do, in fact, have a liberal position on the issue but that can be left to one side for the moment. What I am concerned about are the examples of what I refer to as institutional abuse or bullying by ‘Christian’ organisations. These groups and others like them are exerting pressure across the world in the name of Christianity and are undermining and subverting, with all the power that money and influence can give them, the human rights of those who think differently. It is a battle being fought between and within institutions. When the methods used are unfair or underhand, one wants to cry foul! Two of the claims made right wing anti-gay groups speaking in Africa are simply wrong from all available research. It is not true that gay men are a threat to children. It is also not true that psychology or reparative therapy offers a way forward for gay men and women who wish to ‘escape’ their situation. Such false ideas uttered by ‘Christians’ do not do the faith any credit. This battle between ‘liberals’ and conservatives on this issue is being waged all over the Christian world, not least in my own Anglican Communion. It is the conservatives that have chosen this issue to create their position of power, by being totally inflexible on the morality of same-sex attraction. For myself, possibly many of those who read this blog, it is not a first order matter. And yet, because I do not agree with either their teaching on the status of gays or their use of science and the Bible, I am considered an enemy of ‘true Christianity’. In short, Christians are abusing and bullying other Christians, using tactics that are false and coercive. That has to be wrong – very wrong.

To repeat my main point – the battle that is being waged by groups such as GAFCON, FOFT and WCF against those who disagree with them, is not ultimately about the issue of gays. It is a battle about whether an authoritative vision of Christianity should prevail over one that stresses freedom, human rights and the exploration of truth over fixed dogma. This battle, if I can use such a strong metaphor, has to be spoken and described by those who recognise its importance. Otherwise Christianity across the world, will, in a generation or two, become the authoritarian monster that the Christian Right believe is the will of God for the world. Just as ISIS has achieved in a decade a massive amount of influence within the Muslim world, so Right Wing Christianity wishes to impose its strong patriarchal Old Testament version of the faith on all Christians. The battle for the soul of the Southern Baptist Convention in the States was lost to the fundamentalist reactionary forces of the Right in the 90s. Similar battles await many denominations over the next twenty or thirty years. I for one, will normally support the liberal cause, not because I necessarily agree with it at every point, but because I know that they will be standing up to those who want to control my denomination in the name of an authoritarian and punitive God. This understanding of God is not one that I warm to or even recognise.

The recent news from Ireland is to be welcomed. Reaction has not won!

Reflection for Pentecost

After actually getting ahead of myself, with two posts already written for this blog, I then had an idea based on something sung by the choir yesterday for Pentecost Sunday. The anthem was an invocation to the Holy Spirit, beginning with the words ‘Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:’ The anthem includes these words: ‘Such a truth as ends all strife.’ After writing about strife, coercion and struggle for over 18 months, I know that there is a very good case to be made for saying that when ‘truth’ is pursued, it is a major cause of strife. Churches all over the world proclaim the truth of their dogma, their teaching and their traditions. These teachings are then often compared with those of other churches, and it is declared, sometimes aggressively, that the theology and truth held by these other bodies is dangerously in error. Conflict is aroused, even wars are fought over the question as to who, in fact, possesses truth. Such use of violence to promote a version of truth is supposed to show devotion, not only to this truth, but also to the God who is its author. A thinking along such lines is evidently going through the minds of the Isis fighters. ‘We have the truth and others must be compelled to accept it, even if we have to kill them to achieve this.’

When a Christian or anyone else believes that they have the truth and must fight to protect and preserve it, it can be said that they do not have it. What they have may or may not have some approximation to the ‘Truth’ but it certainly can never be identified completely with the real thing. Why do I say this with such confidence? It is because that when we give a moment’s thought as to what God’s truth might look like, we know that it will have a perfection and a compelling quality about it which none of us can really imagine. It is a kind of blasphemy to attempt to associate it with violence or any kind of compulsion. Truth like that will need no defence from others – it will be its own testimony. We can safely assert that the ‘truth as ends all strife’ is not likely to be in the complete possession of anyone. It is a truth that we can move towards and glimpse rather than ever possess. The truth that is the gift of the Holy Spirit will include many other facets- love, forgiveness, compassion and peace, all in abundance. It cannot lack these same qualities that we want to ascribe to God. The logical conclusion that we can make from referring to this kind of truth, is that all the truths we have are, at best, partial incomplete manifestations of this Spirit truth, or, at worse, distortions of it.

As I went on to reflect about the meaning of truth and the way we try to defend and contest for our partial versions of it, I realised that there is another word we use which, like truth, needs no defence. That word is goodness. Both truth and goodness, when they are fully realised, will never take refuge in violence; they will always reach out with loving compassion and understanding to places and people where they are absent. ‘Overcome evil with good’, said Paul. How we actually do that in practice raises many problems. I am not suggesting for a moment that Paul’s injunction is an easy one to follow but at least we can see that he is right, even if we don’t know how to put what he says into practice every time.

Our blog has encountered many situations where a individual or group seeks to impose a version of ‘truth’ on another, using coercion and force. Our Pentecost motet about the Holy Spirit suggests that their understanding of truth is simply wrong because Spirit or divine truth never has to defend or promote itself in this way. This truth that is being referred to is one that we are, at best, moving towards or aiming at. The truth of God himself can never be possessed . If Christians were ever to be able to agree that none of us in fact possesses God’s truth, then ecumenism could begin to be reborn. This would say, in so many words, that each Christian tradition has glimpsed something of God in their time and context. To use another image, Christians within different traditions have all been given different pieces of vast complex jigsaw puzzle. Many of the pieces have been revealed but there are perhaps still more to be found in the future. A general acceptance of this idea of the incompleteness of ‘truth’ would help to take away the antagonism and the hostility that exists among and between Christians, just as it also exists within Islam.

If all Christians were truly to believe in a truth that ‘ends all strife’, then we could start to see a healing of all the centuries old divisions that exist at present. One particular quality that has to be reborn, and which is in short supply at present, is the gift of humility. One Christian would need to say to another. Our traditions are different from one another but you have something to teach me. Learning from another Christian is one way to remove the arrogance and superiority about others that corrupts many Christian bodies. To strip away the centuries of caricatures directed towards other groups and focus on the actual experiences that have brought Christian bodies closer to God, would indeed be a revolution. The sad reality is that many Christian groups are defined, not by their fresh understandings of God, but through a polemical stand that was taken by a founder, decades or centuries before. The word ‘Protestant’ has this double meaning, one good and one bad. The good meaning of ‘protest’ is the proclamation of a new insight or discovery of the Christian gospel. The bad meaning is the targeting of other Christian bodies which are opposed for reasons that have nothing to do with God, but are perhaps social, personal or political.

A Pentecost prayer: Faithful God ….by sending to us your Holy Spirit and opening to every race and nation the way of life eternal: open our lips by your Spirit, that every tongue may tell of your glory.

Peniel marriage – another view

keep-calm-and-have-a-happy-marriageKathryn has written a response to my piece of yesterday. I am posting it as a guest post as it raises several issues alongside my concerns. Both of us agree, I think, on the need for maturity and growth in marriage. I would maintain that this is made far harder after someone pushes you towards a partner.
Yes, it is true that there were many “arranged” marriages in the Peniel’s on both sides of the Atlantic, though I suspect it was more common in the Brentwood church. I think though, that while there were certainly unhappy marriages and even (gasp!) a few divorces, many of these unions were and are happy ones. One reason for this is, despite the many times abusive atmosphere within this church, there were also many, many people who sincerely and honestly wanted God and to live for Him as best they could. Because of that, most of us took our vows very seriously. One thing we were all taught is that love is not a feeling, it is a decision. Because of that teaching, and I believe there is truth in that idea, many of us made the decision to love our life partners and to seek God for His help in making our marriages work. I did not have an arranged marriage, (I can’t count the times I was told no man would ever want me and they would never be able to find anyone willing to marry me!) but my husband and I did become engaged 2 weeks after we met and were married not long after. That was 25 years ago and while there have been rough times, I would say our marriage is happy with no more or less troubles than the average couple. I do know several couples that were arranged and I know of only 1 union that ended in divorce and, as the others are friends of mine, I think I can say those marriages are not any happier or unhappier than the average couple. I do have a theory about why this may be so in some cases, though it would hardly apply to every case. There is a bonding that occurs when you go through a trauma with someone. I think, in some instances, the shared traumatic experience of the abuse and mistreatment of Peniel actually strengthened the bond between people. I know that was not always the case, especially when one wanted to leave and the other did not, but I know that has been true in many cases. You reach a place where all you have is each other and no one else. As much as I think they would sometimes to have liked to, the ministry at Peniel could not actually invade the most intimate places of a marriage relationship, it could certainly influence it. I know of marriages that the ministry were successful in destroying, some of them close friends, and that is heartbreaking, but there is something about the bond created in marriage that is strong enough to withstand a lot of attack. Like in many unhappy unions, sometimes it is simply because of the wounds brought into the marriage by one or both that make it unhappy. Of course, most of those wounds can be laid at the feet of the ministry at Peniel.

I was actually in a relationship when I was in Bible College there. He was a wonderful young man with a very bright future ahead of him and we are still friends, but we were told we were not allowed to date because he was not in a place to marry. So we were separated and the ministry ended up fostering such abuse on him that he ended up leaving the church. His is a story that I hope the commission hears. Looking back, we should not have married as we were both carrying baggage from our pasts that would have destroyed our relationship. If we had both remained there we may have eventually married and I would not know the love of my life or have my 5 wonderful boys.

The bigger problem, in my opinion, with all of this relationship control is that young people never learn how to properly be in a mature relationship. I am not encouraging premarital sex but we were never allowed to learn how to interact with members of the opposite sex because there was no casual-type dating. You sort of knew someone, then you decided if you would be interested in marrying them and, if so, you dated for a month or two and then you got married. I did not have many romantic relationships prior to meeting my husband, but I can say that I learned something from each one of them about what it means and how it works. Even with that, I cannot say that I was prepared for marriage, most of us in Peniel weren’t. That is another factor in unhappy marriages.

I guess to sum it all up, Peniel did arrange some marriages, some happy, some not so much. But the cause of most of the unhappiness was not the fact that the unions were arranged so much as no one was allowed to mature relationally in order to become ready for such a commitment. We were all so damaged and wounded with no idea what it meant to be in that type of relationship. It was one of the ways we were all kept controlled, we were not allowed to mature in many ways. We were so dependent on the ministry that many of us didn’t really become adults until we were out from under the church, regardless of our chronological age.

I can’t speak for everyone, these are only my thoughts on my experiences and what I witnessed. It is just one more area Trinity/Peniel managed to screw up. I am thankful that I have been blessed with a wonderful husband whom I love very much and who returns that love. We went through Peniel together and we came out together and it is part of our history. I, for one, am truly glad it is history!

‘Arranged’ marriages at Peniel/Trinity Brentwood

arrangedmarriageRecent information, shared on the Victims of Michael Reid website, reveals the fact that marriages at Peniel/Trinity Brentwood were often in the past arranged by the then leader, Michael Reid and his late wife, Ruth. According to the comments on the blog, single women were urged to consider only men who were members of the church or they should remain single. Looking beyond the community for a partner was not tolerated. Another blog post by someone, evidently ‘in the know’, has set out a long list of all the leaders and trustees, showing how they are mostly connected by marriage to each other or through the marriages of their children. Even though the memory of Michael Reid, the former discredited leader, is something that many current members would want to forget, it seems that his relatives still loom large in the blood lines of the current membership. David Coleman, Dan Van Enkevort and Mark and Melvyn Cooper (all current trustees) are all related by marriage to Michael Reid. Colin Clemison , Jonathan Cope ( both in the leadership team) and John Shelton (trustee) are linked to Peter Linnecar, the current pastor, also through ties of marriage. No doubt if the children of these marriages stay in the church then the church will become literally one big family where everyone is related to everyone else by blood.

I record these links within the church because ties of this kind will naturally create massive distortions in the dynamics of the life of a congregation. How does one join a church when the leading members have not only been there for most of their lives, but are also linked to one another by blood and marriage? The privileged core members will not easily surrender their position of power and influence to new ideas and people. Perhaps when we consider how much has been sacrificed by these individuals to attain their positions of status within the organisation, we can sympathise with their resistance to any kind of sharing of their power with newcomers.

The members of Trinity Brentwood that I have named above, along with many others, have handed over almost everything they have to be part of a fantasy created by the arch-magician and weaver of dreams known as Michael Reid. In order to access what he seemed to be offering, namely security, protection, access to financial and social status, the individuals signed up willingly to Michael’s promises. After thirty years of convincing themselves that they are indeed living in the dream, they have now probably lost the ability to know whether they have found what they sought or not. Having allowed themselves and their families to become immersed totally in the organisation through their marriages and close friendships, they are unlikely to have an objective perspective on the church. The experience of never having attended another church for most or all of their lives will mean that they have nothing to compare it with in their minds. They will take it for granted, for example, that their church is disliked intensely by the community around it and is constantly fighting lawsuits against ex-members and an ex-leader. That has been the norm for church life at Trinity Brentwood for a long time. The members know nothing else. I am sure that the appointment of a Commission to investigate past wrongs is also shrugged off as just one more example of the way things are at the church. For those of us on the outside looking in, we see people who have given up a great deal for their membership, including the ability to think for themselves. An even greater sacrifice that has been made is the surrender of any possibility of growth and change in their personalities. When someone joins a cult the process of psychological growth towards maturity is put on hold the moment they walk through the door. The only change that actually happens is a gradual shaping of their personalities to fit in with the cult personality as defined by the leader. I do not know personally any of the people I have mentioned above, or indeed any member of Trinity Brentwood. But to judge from my knowledge of others who have become part of cultic groups elsewhere, the first impression they would make on me, I am certain, is to indicate an absence of any richness of personality – in other words they are one dimensional and boring.

Members of cultic groups like Trinity/Peniel are people who have surrendered the precious parts of their personality to a charismatic leader. In return for their money, their attention and devotion directed towards the leadership, they have received only unfulfilled dreams. Because these dreams have cost them so much in terms of time, effort and ideals, they cannot let them go as it would be a final abandoning of the delusions and hopes to which they still cling. When Michael and Ruth Reid insisted that members married other members, they knew what they were doing. They were consolidating their power and influence over each couple, making it almost impossible for either to escape. The husband would control the wife on behalf of the church and the wife would do the same. The Caroline Green story, the published account of a Peniel marriage, could only end one way. Caroline was prepared for the sake of her children to escape, even though she had to sacrifice her marriage and watch while her husband contracted another relationship within the tribe. That was no small sacrifice. I have ordered Caroline’s book and maybe I will have more to say when I have read it.

A last point is one I raised in my anonymous contribution to the other blog. One contributor mentioned that, as the result of the insistence of all marriages being contracted within the permission of the church, there were a number of bachelors and spinsters in the congregation. I commented that, as the result of the system of arranged marriages, there were probably an equal number of sad and unhappy partners in the marriages that were ‘convenience’ relationships. I have no means of knowing whether my suspicion is actually justified. I cannot help but wonder how two people coming together in a cultic controlled environment can grow together in mutual wisdom and understanding. Michael and Ruth knew that the husbands and wives they had ‘arranged’ would check each other from having disloyal thoughts about Peniel. They did not care that, at the same time, they would also prevent each other from any kind of spiritual growth which was not under the control of the cult. I cannot imagine that any of the marriages organised in this way were models of depth, excitement or unexpectedness. In other words, as I suggested above, many of the marriages would probably show signs of boredom and shallowness.

I am grateful to the anonymous bloggers on the other blog for setting out this aspect of the dynamics of a cultic church in terms of who is married to whom. My instinct about what would constitute a happy, fulfilling and successful marriage does not suggest that good marriages are very common in this church in Brentwood. To marry in such an environment will seldom create the result that the Anglican marriage service tries to describe in the following words: ‘Marriage is given (that) each member of the family … may find strength, companionship and comfort, and grow to maturity in love.’ Maturity will always be in short supply in places where individuals hand over their ability to make decisions to a leader who is beyond questioning and challenge.

The dark side of healing

One particular proclamation of the Christian gospel which is made in many places is that it is God’s will to heal the sicknesses of those who follow in the Christian path. The example of Jesus in his earthly ministry will be pointed to as well as the words recorded in St John, ‘greater things than these will you do’. There are also the instructions of Jesus which occur in Mark’s gospel in chapter 16. Although these words do not occur in most of the original manuscripts of Mark’s gospel, it is clear that the early Christian church took seriously the command that healing was to be a continuing and important aspect of the church’s life.

Throughout the 2000 years or so there has always been a somewhat ambivalent relation with healing in the Church. Some Christians claim that healing continues to be part of the church’s ministry while others take a different line. They justify the fact that healing, if it happens at all, is a very rare unusual occurrence. This reticence about healing is expressed in a doctrine called ‘cessationism’. This, in brief, states that although miracles happened in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, this is no longer the case. Miracles belonged to that early period in order to get things going, but once it was established, it is no longer needed for later generations.

In some evangelical circles Christians are invited to take a stand and declare whether they are on the side of the cessationists or those who oppose them. This debate is a bit like the one that goes on between charismatic-evangelicals and non-charismatic evangelicals or between Arminians and Calvinists. From the outside, which is where I stand, I can see positives on both sides in all these debates and thus I would refuse to place myself on either side of these positions. In the case of the cessationists and those who oppose them, my position would be to say that both are right and yet both are wrong.

To explain what I mean by such a paradoxical statement I want to look at the arguments of the cessationists. They would claim that healings in the name of Christ belong only to the years of the early church. For myself I would argue that they are wrong in their assumption that healings do not happen today and have not taken place across the ages. I have in my possession a two volume book which relates the accounts of the miracles that took place at the tomb of Thomas Becket soon after his death in 1170 at Canterbury. The accounts of miracles and healing were written down at the time and were carefully recorded by monks who were chosen for their accuracy and probity. The details of these miracles is remarkable. If miracles of healing happened then, why should we doubt the miracles at Lourdes or many other places today? The issue of how the mechanics of these healings works is one that we must leave to one side for now. The cessationists are however right in some of their claims. In particular they are right to be suspicious of the instant miracles that are manufactured to order by big named healing evangelists across the world. There are just too many stories of fakery and dishonesty in this world. The cessationists can thus be forgiven in part for being cynical about any reported healing in Christian context. The truth within this debate lies, I believe, in a process of exercising careful discernment. Neither side seems to be very good at this. The one side, I shall call them the enthusiasts, seems to be guilty of exaggerating the occurrence of healing, while the other side, the cessationists, is guilty of downplaying it. Christian healing happens, but not with the regularity or tidiness that the enthusiasts would claim for it.

It is in this world of debate between those I call cessationists and enthusiasts, that a dark side of healing emerges. It is a memory that comes from Chris’ time at Bible College in the 60s that has reminded me how the enthusiasts’ arguments can result in enormous amounts of suffering for the sick. We have, over the blog posts, looked at the issue of poverty in the context of Health and Wealth teaching. Poverty is, according to this teaching, caused by not exercising sufficient faith. The poor may have not given enough to the church to harvest the material riches that God wishes them to have. The same thing will apply to sickness. If anyone is sick then that is a result of failing to exercise faith. Chris told me over the phone how the practical outworking of this teaching meant that fellow students tried to ignore, not just coughs and colds, but quite serious illnesses. In one case a student nearly died in the attempt to exercise ‘faith’ and deny the possibility of sickness. The dark side of a culture that exaggerates healing, is the dangerous inability to deal with sickness and physical or mental weakness of any kind.

No doubt we will be returning to this theme again. But this blog post simply wants to draw attention to a style of teaching that once again puts disadvantaged people into a place of despair because their poverty or sickness ‘proves’ that they are failures in the sight of God. The Christianity of Health and Wealth teaching succeeds in pushing already disadvantaged individuals further into a pit where they feel abandoned by God and unworthy of his attention and support. What a hideous contrast with the message of the actual Jesus of the gospels who said: ‘Come unto me, all you who are burdened with heavy loads.’

Words, words, words

words wordsYears ago as a child, I tried, as a somewhat pointless exercise, repeating the word ‘tomato’ endless times. I can’t remember why I did it but I do remember that the repetition of the word had the effect of changing it from being a sound that pointed to a particular fruit to a sound with absolutely no content or meaning. Repetition of a word will always eventually destroy or remove its meaning. We can think that a word is always able to suggest a defined meaning but that link eventually breaks down in our minds when the word is repeated too much.

I was reminded of the tomato ‘experiment’ after listening to a sermon recently when the word ‘love’ was endlessly repeated. I don’t know how many times it was used but by the time I thought of actually counting the occurrences, the word had already drifted into the category of cliché so that no meaning was being shared by the preacher when he used the word. Perhaps this is the meaning of cliché, the repetition of a word so much that any possible impact from using the word is lost. During the recent election campaign, I wanted to shout at the television every time a politician came up with a well worn but largely meaningless slogan. The one in particular we heard repeatedly used was ‘hard-working families. I am sure my readers can think of several other examples.

In my last post, I mentioned the problem of using words so that they can have precisely the same meaning for both hearer and speaker. All too often this is not the case. I now want to refer to another problem that occurs even when speaker and hearer do know exactly what a particular word means. The problem, this time, is that the meaning that both sides extract from the word or expression is such that there is a kind of coded shorthand in operation. The common understanding of a particular word has become an unquestioning assumption of some ‘tribal’ commonplace. To use a slightly irreverent example, and thinking back to my time as a member of evangelical prayer groups, I noted the interjection of the word ‘just’ into many prayers offered to the Almighty. ‘We do just pray to you Father for the problems of the church overseas’. The word ‘just’ adds absolutely nothing to the meaning of the prayer, but it does have the effect of linking the prayer to other people either in the room or elsewhere who also pray in this way. In other words a word has become a kind of tribal marker for a particular style of expressing the Christian faith.

A word that is frequently used in certain circles to have a precise meaning for those who use it, is the word ‘saved’. The question ‘are you saved?’ may be said less often than in the past, but as an example of coded ‘in’ language, it has a very precise meaning. To offer a longer ‘translation’ for those not in the in the loop of this coded language, it might mean this: ‘Have you made an active acceptance of the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal saviour? Have you accepted his death as the one atoning death for the sins of the world and do you believe that the Bible contains the inerrant word of God, possessing all that is needed for salvation?’ A Christian who lives in the world that is defined by such a statement of belief, will have large numbers of words defined for them by their church. These will have only a single way of being understood. The permitted interpretations of these words will be endlessly repeated in sermons. This tight definition of particular words like ‘faith’, ‘salvation’, ‘truth’ and ‘love’ will fit in with a philosophical idea which is found in conservative churches, the notion of propositionalism. This is another way of saying that truth can always be rendered accurately and precisely in words. After all, the argument goes, the Bible, God’s Word, come to us in the form of actual words. If God reveals his truth in words, who are we to demand anything beyond the same words?

The great fallacy of this position is that it is untrue to say that God only reveals himself to us in words. Words have a built-in limitation. After a while they can become meaningless when they are misused or repeated too much. Human beings are also not just cerebral creatures, They respond to truth in a variety of forms. They respond to symbol, colour and visual experiences of all kinds. Above all they respond to other people. God, in his wisdom, has chosen to reveal himself, not in propositions or philosophies defined by words, but in a person, the person of Jesus Christ. The encounter with a person, getting to know someone, requires a quite different set of human skills to that of understanding particular words. The encounter with God in Christ is at the heart of what the Christian faith is all about. But annoyingly for those who want to create a single pattern of encounter, using approved words, the range of possible ways that this encounter is realised has many manifestations. Some encounters will use words to describe the experience. Others will be far more sparing in the way that language is used. Some encounters with God in Christ may even wish not to use words at all. A word that I use frequently is the word ‘mystery’. It is a word that at its heart has the meaning of keeping silent before what is unknowable, least of all through the medium of words.

St Francis of Assisi had some fitting words to say on the topic of evangelism. He said: ‘ Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.’ Perhaps Francis had a deep recognition for the limitation of words in our communication of the Christian faith. He saw how eventually they, in the words of T.S. Elliot, ‘strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension…’ Words will always be an important part of our culture and our faith. But perhaps we need a new reformation where Christianity is rediscovered using a minimum of words. The task of presenting the faith should be handed over to the artists, the musicians and those who understand best how human beings form relationships to each other. Through this new reformation we would start to see an end to the dry cerebral dominance of verbal presentations of our faith. In its place we would learn better to glimpse the heart of God, who is best understood as transcendent beauty and mystery.

Learning to communicate

communicationThe Church of England has been engaging in the process of what it calls ‘facilitated conversations’ on the topic of the gay issue. Groups of Christians who take opposing views on the subject have been brought together in a hotel to hear what others have to say about their stance. Because there are professional facilitators present, the conversations have not been allowed to degenerate into a slanging match or any kind of confrontation with those who take a different view from their own. The emphasis is on listening in a spirit of generosity. We have been reminded once again, as we emerge from the exhausting process of a General Election, that positions on any topic can be held passionately but these are also often immovable and fixed. It is not my intention to say anything further about the rights and wrongs of the gay issue; my purpose is rather to reflect on the general matter of communication, particularly where two sides have trenchantly opposed positions.

There are many problems that occur when we meet an individual who takes a point of view about anything which is both passionate and convinced. Before I suggest what can be done to try and engage with this depth of conviction, I want to mention one particular reason why two people may find themselves in a place of passionate disagreement. This reason may be that they have grown up speaking different languages. I am not of course suggesting that this is an explanation in the current debates within the church but I am thinking of any kind of language miscommunication that may take place in a debate. I want to illustrate my point by referring a literal linguistic confusion that left a terrible rent in the church in the 11th century. This was the formal separation of the Orthodox and Catholic churches which took place in 1054 AD. It is generally accepted that a major cause of this split was because of the fact that the two sides had become ignorant of each other’s language. Few theologians on either side had any knowledge or fluency in the language of the other. As part of a study I once made on the issue of the influence of Greek ideas in the West in the early mediaeval period, I learnt that the work of one single translator, Amalarius of Metz in 725 AD, spread a number of influential Greek theological ideas into the West during his life-time. For the next hundred years or more there was no one else qualified to continue this task of translating Greek into Latin. The result of this was that the vast resources of Greek theology remained obscure and virtually unknown in the West at the time of the great schism in the 11th century. There was an additional problem. Even if an adequate knowledge of the language of the other was available to theologians, there were, and still are, many problems of translating Greek technical theological terms into Latin and vice-versa. A good knowledge of Greek requires a student, not only to understand how words should be translated, but also the exact nuances in the way the words are used in the original. It will be recognised that translation is always an approximation of what was written in the original context. Theological education for the clergy today will, if possible, include some knowledge of Greek and Hebrew precisely for this reason. The ancient languages yield their deeper meanings only after imaginative penetration of their cultures.

Today when we talk about failures of communication, we are probably not normally talking about people using different languages. But we are talking about the way that the words we use can be distorted in their meanings by the way that words acquire particular meanings from the education and culture of the speakers. All of us can think of occasions when we have come unstuck in talking to someone, because an English word is being used by another person to mean something different from our use. What do we do? Do we insist on using only our meaning or do we rapidly try and adapt ourselves to what we think they mean? The possibilities for misunderstanding what other people are really saying in conversation are endless. In this blog I have the luxury of being able to define my meanings so that the reader has a good chance of knowing what I am talking about All too often in actual conversations words will be used in such a way that two people will be at cross-purposes even though they are using the same words. We may use theologically profound words, like ‘truth’, ‘salvation’ and even ‘God’ but each be meaning something subtly different when we use them.

Good communication between two or more people on profound topics will probably happen most easily when the people concerned have had a similar type of education. They thus instinctively know, reasonably accurately, how the words of the other person are being used. This sounds like an elitist comment but I believe we need to be more open about the problem of communication when people share ideas, while using language in subtly different ways. One of the advantages of having received a relatively good education is that I would claim, not to know many things, but to be able to recognise how seldom I can be sure of knowing anything securely. For every educated person, I believe, knowledge is seen to have the element of being provisional; it is capable of being changed when new information comes along. This would apply to the scientist as well as the person who, like me, has had some theological training. The readiness to articulate ideas with a degree of tentativeness is a great aid to true communication. The person whose educational background has taught them only to deal in solid ‘facts’ is unlikely to respond positively to this kind of insight. They will not understand ‘knowledge’ as a work in progress. Knowledge of the facts of our faith is believed to be contained in the words of the Book, the Bible. For others of us, the words provide a beginning of the process of understanding, not the conclusion.

Christianity has in many places across the world been taught in a dogmatic way which denies the possibility of sharing in the way I have indicated above. In other words it possesses none of the humility, the sense of permanent growing into knowledge and the incompleteness that I would want to claim for it. This task of holding ‘facilitated conversations’ in a Christian context may be about teaching people the art of humble listening and learning to recognise that the other person may be speaking a different ‘language’. Learning that language, recognising how our background may have predisposed us to understand ‘truth’ in quite different ways from the person we are speaking to, will always be salutary. Although I am a believer in the provisionality of theological statements, I have to learn and communicate with people who reject the idea of ambiguity in the language we use to describe God. No doubt the other person feels safe in having the ‘word of God’ between their fingers in the form of a Bible. I would want them to understand that way of believing better. But also I would ask them to listen and know that the language I speak is a language that embraces mystery, beauty and unknowability. For myself, the language to talk about God and Christ is explored far better, not in the edgy dogmatic discourse of Paul, but in the visual symbolic language of St John’s Gospel. Both ‘languages’ are valid Scripture, and a Christian needs, not to choose between them, but to become fluent in both.

Christianity and Incest

IncestThere are numerous patterns of behaviour that occur under the umbrella of religious abuse, and one of the most disturbing is incest within Christian families. By incest I am here referring to the sexual exploitation of girls by members of their own family. The study I am basing my comments on is a Dutch one and appeared in a book which first appeared in 1985 and was translated into English in 1992. I have no idea as to whether the figures quoted in the book about the incidence of incest would apply to this country. But a survey in Holland reported that 15.6 % of women reported sexual molestation within the family before the age of 16. The figure for boys is much lower which is why the published study focuses on the female experience. Altogether a total of 34% of women in Holland experiences sexual abuse in or beyond the family before they reach 17. This statistic fits with figures produced by Marie Fortune for the USA where one in three girls is sexually abused in some way before the age of 18.

These statistics are horrifying in themselves but they take on a still darker tone when we discover that ‘many’ survivors of incest had been made, ‘through their religious upbringing, easy prey to sexual abuse in the (extended) family’. The study does not make clear how many survivors of incest overall come from such religious backgrounds but it is clearly a significant proportion. This blog piece does not claim that religious incest is in any way common but the fact that it occurs at all is something to be addressed, as the Dutch study has done. Any overlap between Christian beliefs and incestuous abuse should not even exist. Because it does, it is important for us to explore. The possibility that religious teachings can be and are, from time to time, used to batter and dis-empower the weak and defenceless – in this case girl children – must be looked at.

Readers of this blog will already know that I have little time for the ideas of complementarianism, which is an idea among certain conservative Christian groups that forbids women to take a position of leadership in the church. This is based on some words attributed to Paul about the need for women to submit to men and to remain silent in church. This idea is also held to be implied in the story of Adam and Eve. Eve is held to be somehow more responsible for the evil that that comes through the event of the Fall. These highly selective readings of Scripture are used to prop up a patriarchal understanding of Christianity, which keeps women firmly in their place and subject in obedience to their menfolk.

The issue for this post is not whether or not women should exercise power, but whether the culture of the church also creates an environment where men feel free to dominate and control their women in any way they choose. In some cases this culture of control can lead to rape or sexual abuse. Kathryn, the Bible school student at Peniel Church Brentwood, identified the way that certain abusive teachings by Michael Reid created an environment where young unmarried women were looked down, humiliated and treated with contempt. In such a setting, the sexual humiliation of these women might even be understood to be a perk owed to the powerful dominant males of the church. At least one of them, we now know, did in fact act out this fantasy in the appalling crime of rape.

One issue that is raised by the Dutch study on the occurrence of incest in Christian families is the place of bible teaching in the minds of both abusers and abused. From the interviews with the victims, it is clear that within some Christian families some kind of perverse justification for the activity is felt to be found in scripture. The first message that many young girls in a conservative Christian culture will hear is the story of the disobedience of Eve. As we have seen, this sends a powerful message about her own need to obey. The girl should be subordinate to the will of the father, no doubt following the example of her already subservient mother. To follow a ‘biblical’ model, girls also have to be self-effacing, silent and certainly never aggressive or assertive in the ways that boys can be. The mother of the family will also be teaching her female offspring how to placate the father and endure whatever anger and tantrums he may wish to indulge in as ‘head’ of the family. Any deviation from this path of forgiving obedient compliance is seen to be inviting sin. Sin leads to the terrors of hell.

The teaching of passive compliance as the ideal of biblical womanhood is complemented by some strange notions of the role of sexuality. Women in many conservative circles, are sometimes seen not to have sexual needs but nevertheless they are quickly blamed for arousing sexuality in men. They are, consciously or unconsciously, the temptresses and seducers. I myself have heard a woman blamed for the misbehaviour of a Baptist pastor who used his influence to coerce her into an abusive sexual relationship. When sexual misbehaviour occurs in the family, the other members, if they cannot blame the woman for what has happened, may be very quick in demanding that the Christian has to forgive. This is required even when the rapist or abuser has not asked for forgiveness. The main teaching which may have been internalised by a young girl in a conservative family will be the importance of passivity before those to whom she owes obedience. A father, an elder brother or an uncle will always find a way of justifying their abusive behaviour, if that is their wish. It is hard to fight off a sexual aggressor when you have been conditioned always to see them as your divinely sanctioned betters. The failure of mothers to protect their female offspring in these patriarchal families is tragic. They appear to have internalised through decades of practising ‘biblical’ passivity not to question the decisions of the dominant men in the family. Also the child will find it extremely hard to see themselves in the role of a wronged victim. All the teachings that they have absorbed in a conservative setting about the importance of chastity and obedience will make the experience hard to interpret. If incest takes place, there will be no clear understanding of the significance of what has been done to her except the feelings of intense shame and painful confusion. In all likelihood she will be convinced that she is in some way responsible for what has taken place. In some way, she may feel, God has allowed this terrible thing to happen. It must be his will and, if something sinful has taken place, then the girl will feel that she has to take some of the responsibility. The trauma of the event may even be understood as God punishing her for some unspecified sin.

A lot more could be added to this brief reflection about the experience of incest in a Christian family. It is an appalling crime but perhaps far commoner than we would want to believe. We have seen that churches can, by distorted teachings on women, sexuality and forgiveness, contribute not only to the possibility of this crime happening, but also they can obstruct the process of recovery. Any church teaching which places the woman in the role of temptress, subject to male authority in church and in the home will indirectly foster an environment receptive to incest and rape. Of course we know that such teachings officially provide no justification whatever for the evil of incest, but, it is clear from the research, men will do in fact twist scriptural ideas to suit their nefarious purposes. Also a superficial teaching on forgiveness will add to the trauma of guilt and pain suffered by an abused child. The Church much be extremely careful in the way it presents it teachings about the role of women. Perhaps Kathryn would wish to comment on this post about the teachings at Peniel that, according to the reports, degraded and humiliated women. Christian misogyny is indeed an evil and needs to be named and banished from all our churches.

God TV: Blessing or Scam?

GodtvIt appears that of all my blog posts, the one that has attracted the most attention is my piece on God TV (Jan 1st 2015). I want to add some further thoughts to that blog post, not only about that particular TV channel, but about the phenomenon of religious broadcasting generally.

In a conversation with Chris he described to me the picture of an elderly widow, with few outside contacts, sending quite large sums of money, which she cannot afford, to a religious TV channel. The motive for such giving is, no doubt, the thought, encouraged by the TV channel evangelist, that this money is kind of seed which will grow and provide her with an abundance of blessings both material and spiritual. I have no doubt of the texts used to encourage such ‘generosity’ . There will be the example of the widow casting her two copper coins into the Temple treasury, which Jesus commended. There will also be the quoting of texts about God loving a cheerful giver.

What is the real motivation for these relatively small donations repeated some thousands of times? The first thing that this money buys is the creation of a fantasy world for the giver. Well dressed presenters sit around in opulent studios telling the listener the old, old story that God has promised them all his blessings. With sufficient faith, which is expressed by a sufficiently sacrificial donation to the channel, all the blessings of health and prosperity can be theirs. The first-fruits of prosperity can be seen right before them on the screen in the expensive suits and coiffured hair-dos. The message is implied rather than precisely stated. ‘If you want what we have, then think like us, have faith like us and follow us’.

The attraction to a channel like God TV is like a process of seduction. The presenters, with their homely, pseudo-intimate ways, become important to the listener. Over a period they will become fantasy friends and attract a kind of brand loyalty which is all the more attractive to the listener if they are lacking real friends in their own restricted worlds. Once the listener is ‘hooked’ by the fantasy that Wendy on God TV actually cares about them personally, then the purse strings are automatically opened. The sums of money that are needed to keep the TV on the air start to flow. All this is possible because TV evangelists have discovered the secret of how to milk the vulnerable, the needy and the lonely of their hard earned money. Those who give to the religious channels have entered a fantasy promised land created by the presenters. They are now like drug addicts and it is almost impossible to break free of this fantasy without suffering massive withdrawal symptoms or breakdown. Many watchers of these programmes continue in this addiction till death finally frees them.

What does the money sent to a religious channel like God TV actually get used for? It has to be admitted that running a religious TV station is pretty expensive. Sometimes, however, even religious broadcasters overreach themselves and find that their ambitious empire building goes beyond their capacity to pay. A God TV project to convert a cinema in Plymouth into an international prayer centre seems to have stalled. The financial challenge to get this centre up and running has apparently proved too much for the directors. The builders employed to complete the project have simply walked out, not having had their invoices paid for work already done. A branch of God TV in Sunderland has reportedly simply closed with all those employed losing their jobs. It is reported that a number of people in Plymouth, working for the station, have also been ‘let go’, but not before they were forced to sign ‘gagging orders’. It is hard to imagine why such orders should be required unless the organisation has secrets, such as being a massive cash machine for those in charge. Those who look into these things, report that Wendy Alec, the owner and chief presenter, is paid £100,000 plus expenses. With all the perks of her job, her package is reportedly worth around a million pounds a year. In spite of the stalling of certain projects in the UK, there is no evidence that the perks of running this franchise have lessened for those in charge.

As I reflected on the phenomenon of religious broadcasting, I realised that the only theology that could work to get such a station up and running is the ‘Prosperity Gospel’. Why would anyone send money to fund the expensive lifestyle of a Wendy Alec, unless there was something in it for them? More cynically, why would anyone go to the trouble of setting up a religious broadcasting station unless there were worthwhile returns, and I mean financial ones. The Christian tradition does provide, when we read Scripture very selectively and in a distorted fashion, the possibility of meeting the needs of two groups of people. The first group are the lonely, the disconnected, the unsuccessful and the generally needy. This group, because they cannot get out of their homes, have become addicted to their television sets, which appear to offer them hope in the shape of Christian prosperity teachings. On the other side is a small group who have discovered how to exploit the needy group by using Christian language to create a fantasy world of hope, promises and colour to the grey dull lives of their audience. Do the providers of these cloying programmes actually believe their messages of hope or do they, as some would suggest, see their audiences as suckers to be exploited? My understanding of human nature would suggest that probably the owners of religious TV stations are probably not completely heartless scam artists. At some level they have come to believe their own rhetoric but the harm that these stations do to the integrity of the Christian faith is massive.

To finish I wish to list some of the reasons why religion broadcasting that uses the ‘Prosperity Teaching’ (I don’t know any other type) is a massive blot on the Christian landscape.
• The dynamic of religious broadcasting aims to create ‘addiction’ among a group of very needy people. This experience of dependency among this group constitutes abuse.
• The Christian teaching of religious broadcasting narrows the gospel down to encouraging people to believe that the only thing that matters is the access to health and wealth for the individual. There is no awareness of society or the place of the individual within it.
• The Christian teaching of the religious broadcaster is a version that eviscerates the tradition and takes it far from any challenge, set-back or pain. Such things are said to be the result of a lack of faith. When this message is internalised, the levels of despair among those addicted to the prosperity teaching become even greater.

I shall go on reflecting on the issues of religious broadcasting, as I suspect that most ‘main-stream’ Christians ignore it as not being worthy of their attention. Chris has helped me to see that it is in fact a big deal to many people who live on the edges of our society, those whom this abusive form of Christianity is able to touch and in some cases destroy.