As my readers will know I am a fairly regular reader and contributor to another blog about Trinity Church, Brentwood, http://victimsofbishopmichaelreid.blogspot.co.uk. I do this for various reasons. The first is that I am learning an enormous amount about the dynamics of this one particular church, past and present. I did once visit the church in the late 90s while researching my book, but the accounts of people, who have been involved recently, are fascinating. A second thing is that by making a blog comment from time to time, I am able to get a sounding board for some of my own ideas and insights. Some of my comments are also an attempt to reach out to the victims of this frightening cultic church, while other comments are aimed at encouraging the blog master, Nigel Davies.
In the past week I made a comment in response to someone who was describing the endless use of certain tell-tale words and phrases which have become commonplace in Trinity Church. There was one particular word that was mentioned, ‘tirelessly’. This was used to describe the efforts of the present senior pastor, Peter Linnecar. But it was also pointed out that the same word was used to describe the work of the former discredited leader, Michael Reid. I began my comment by saying how this kind of repetition of words was a form of sloganising. This suggested a lack of originality in the thinking of a church which practised it. Were I to be a member, I would find such a church, which repeated words like this, utterly boring and lacking any sense of vision for its future. I then went on to wonder out loud why people remained in churches that went in for this kind of sloganised thinking. I suggested that one reason was that they had invested so heavily into the church over the years, through their time and money, that they could not now leave it behind. All that now remained of their ‘investment’ were familiar faces on Sundays and, what I described as ‘jolly music’ provided by the choir. Leaving would be a final abandoning of their investment
I would not normally comment on my remarks on this other blog but it was the response to my comment that struck me. It came from a member of the church who has recently left and who had some pertinent things to say. He began his reply with these words: ‘ The other motivation (for being a member) is the drug of superiority, pride, arrogance and all that Trinity entices the flesh with, because by joining, or by staying, you can buy into aspiration, more status and instant acceptance or belonging.’ I realised instantly that this was a very helpful insight as to why people join not only a church like Peniel/Trinity but many other churches as well. I also realised that ‘superiority’ applies not just to a social reality that a church seems to promise, but it is also a theological category.
A person observing small children will notice how, from a very early age, the child develops a strong competitive spirit. Much of the time the competition with other children will be over fairly trivial things. Which child has the highest pile of bricks or whose is the better painting? There will also be competition to be the ‘favourite’ of the parent or the carer. All this competiveness will ultimately be about feeling superior. It is from a place of superiority that an individual feels safer because other children have to look up them as the winner, even if only for a brief time.
As part of growing up, most people discover that the value of cooperation over competition. But the competitive spirit never completely leaves people. You see it in the lining up of cars outside peoples’ homes. In buying a car that is bigger and grander than the others in the street, the competitive adult feels that he/she is gaining an edge over the neighbours. Looked at in a detached way, it seems as trivial and unhealthy as when a toddler fights to get on to the top of the climbing frame first so that he/she can taunt the ones who are left behind. Cooperation, on the other hand, delivers many advantages, but even when these are experienced, the need to win seems to be a very powerful urge for many, particularly the members of the male sex.
It is not surprising that churches that feed into the competitive addiction shown by so many, do well in the world. ‘Come to our church and you will mix with and associate with successful people. We guarantee that they will befriend you, thus making you a person of significance.’ That seems to the subliminal message picked up by the former member of Trinity, Brentwood. But it is not just a feature of churches of a conservative bent. I can imagine people being attracted to churches of all kinds which, because, when they do things well in some area or another, they help to exalt the status of those who attend. There is a process of osmosis. ‘Our church has the best choir’, or ‘our church is run by the best leader in the area’, or ‘we do the liturgy properly in our church’, might be the cry. It is hard to keep out a competitive spirit from the church, and in this respect conservative churches are no worse and no better than others.
The claim to exalt people socially on the part of this particular church, Trinity Brentwood, is not the only claim implicitly made. There is what I would describe as theological one upmanship. Although some of the churches I have belonged to have subtly played the ‘social card’, none have claimed superiority over the matter of truth. As I have said before, truth is something to which we aspire, not something we own. A typical claim of many conservative churches, like Trinity, is that they preach the ‘pure’ gospel, unlike any other church. If members of the congregation buy into such an arrogant claim, it is not surprising that they are doubly addicted to a desire to belong to that particular church. They believe themselves, not only to be part of an upwardly mobile social group, but also the owners, through their leader, of a unique access to God and his truth. This is an intoxicating as well as toxic combination. It is not hard to see, the other blog contributor does, how hard it is to let go of such claims. It needs a massive dose of humility to come down from the place of arrogant superiority to a more realistic place. Realism and humility are, in fact, both in short supply in many churches, not only the conservative variety.
I have now exceeded my word allowance, so I need to conclude with a final remark. Is not the cure for our addiction to feeling superior in our Christian life, a proper and thorough understanding of the word ‘repentance’? That word, when it is understood in the context of Mark’s gospel, enables a Christian to eschew artificial superiority of any kind and come humbly into the presence of God and be one who knows that we ‘have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.’