Monthly Archives: July 2015

Danger! Maverick evangelists ahead.

Peter Ruck2TonyAnthony2My attention has been drawn to the Trinity Brentwood blog once again, as new information relevant to my concerns has been placed online. The information concerns two evangelistic organisations that are attached loosely to Trinity. These two, respectively known as Zeal Outreach Ministries and Tony Anthony International Evangelist, are dominated by the people in charge, Peter Ruck and Tony Anthony. Both of these men share much in common with the style and methods adopted by Michael Reid, the former leader of Peniel and frequently mentioned in this blog. In each case there is a story of conversion followed then by the development of an evangelistic ministry. No formal theological training of any kind is part of the narrative. Both organisations show the opportunities available to an articulate person who wants to be powerful and significant in this often murky world of do-it-yourself evangelistic empires. This last expression well describes Michael Reid’s Peniel enterprise until his ‘fall’ in 2008.

Before I tell the outline stories of these two individuals, I want to mention the question I raised on the other Trinity blog site. I asked, and myself answered in a generalised way, the question as to whether an independent evangelist needs theological training. I suggested that many, if not all, independent evangelists fail to obtain any theological qualifications. The core preaching technique for the majority of these evangelists in independent fellowships will be to tell their conversion story or testimony over and over again. The details will be sometimes changed and the conclusions altered but the core message will remain identical. This testimony style of preaching is not in itself wrong but when a particular preacher uses it over and over again, one has to wonder whether they have anything else to say. In some Christian cultures, every Christian is encouraged to stand and make a public testimony of how they became a Christian. This declaration of an individual’s Christian journey is an important milestone in their journey of faith. It may boost their confidence as a self-identified member of the group so that they may find then that they are ready to accept new responsibilities. The testimony on its own should not, however, be considered as the same thing as a teaching ministry. But this, sadly, will be as far as many untrained evangelists aspire. They may also, as I mentioned on the other blog, practise, under the guidance of a mentor, the devices of voice delivery, hand movements etc. so that their preaching style would be as polished as possible.

A further part of the ‘training’ of the evangelist might be a crash course in bible quotes. I rather irreverently suggested in my other blog contribution that the quotes learned would be mainly to do with ‘sin, sex and salvation.’ Whatever the quotes being used, they would be to prop up a particular theological emphasis favoured by the congregation concerned. It might be Calvinist, Neo-Calvinist or Pentecostal or some other flavour. Needless to say, from the perspective of the writer of this blog, quarrying the bible for texts to support a particular favoured belief system, is not a valid way to use the bible. The bible should always be allowed to speak for itself, not press-ganged into supporting a particular theology. But I have to leave that point to one side for the moment. The point of this short consideration of the training of many independent evangelists, including the two we want to discuss, is that any proper in-depth theological training is absent. The result of having no theological training or proper study of the bible is that you will be trapped within a small container of one narrow theological vision. If the preacher/evangelist is thus unable to break out of his pre-existing theological horizons, then the same fate is going to be reserved for all those who listen to him and believe that he is a man of God. Narrowness, shallowness of vision, blinkered perspectives and outright ignorance will be will be visited on all those who find themselves attached to evangelists whose grasp of the Christian faith is superficial. To be deprived of even a glimpse of the broader perspectives of Christian teaching because of the inadequacies of the preacher is a form of Christian abuse.

The two evangelists I want to consider who, it is claimed, have had no theological training of any kind are Peter Ruck and Tony Anthony. Peter Ruck was converted to Christianity through the ministry of Michael Reid at Peniel. Michael Reid did nothing to encourage Peter in any kind of ministry and it was only after the former was expelled from leadership that Peter moved towards discovering what he might do in evangelising. According to a well-informed source on Nigel Davies’ blog, Peter had himself appointed as a Youth Leader in the church before deciding that he had a vocation to be an evangelist. Peter is, to all accounts, not a bad man but it would appear from a perusal of his web-site that he is extremely naïve and thus liable to do damage to others. He is also in danger of being taken in by other more obviously ‘dodgy’ types within the unaccountable world of independent evangelists. Peter Ruck has annually organised a big festival, The Way, that took place at Trinity last week. No report has appeared on how many people came to this event but the people who are invited to speak at this event also belong to the tribe of self-appointed and self-authorised evangelists. As individuals they may be moral and well-meaning. One cannot, however, have any confidence that they will indeed help people to discover God or a deeper understanding of the Bible.

One person who was not invited to The Way by Peter Ruck was the evangelist Tony Anthony, even though, until recently, the two worked closely together. Tony is still in the process of planning a come-back into the world of independent evangelists, after his disgrace when his book, Chasing The Dragon was found, on detailed examination, to be a tissue of fantasy and exaggeration. I wrote about this book in a previous blog post. Once again, like Peter, Tony has had no training of any kind and his preaching seems to be a constant telling and retelling of his (fantasy) story about his past. The well-informed source from Peniel/Trinity suggests that the other Peter, Peter Linnecar, Trinity’s leader, is also guilty of making every sermon a personal testimony. Peter Ruck was, apparently, completely taken in by Tony Anthony’s ministry and such a failure of discernment is always going to be a hazard in the world of the untrained and unaccountable.

I am reaching the end of the allotted number of words I allow myself, and I want to finish with this final question. People like Peter Ruck and Tony Anthony set up mini-evangelistic empires and receive invitations from equally naïve Christian pastors and their congregations who hear their testimonies without a scintilla of doubt. Who are the victims here? It is the long-suffering members of congregations who long to be fed with wholesome Christian teaching but instead listen to the superficially attractive messages of people who behind them have no training, no theological depth and no accountability. Such a situation is bad for them, bad for the inflated narcissism of the evangelists and bad for the reputation of the wider church. How can anyone find their way to a mature appreciation of the depths of the Christian faith, listening to the ramblings of the ill-educated and the ill-informed? It is a bit like entrusting the care of a hospital accident and emergency unit to a bunch of boy scouts who have passed their proficiency badge for first aid. No malign forces are necessarily at work here, but the victims of such teaching still end up damaged and abused just the same.

Charisma, control and divided families

CHARISMAOne of the themes that emerged out of the Stockholm conference was the way in which cults often divide families. This also seems to be a theme that pertains to many high-demand Christian groups, from the JWs to independent fellowships like Trinity Brentwood. Recently Nigel Davies, the blogmaster who writes about the latter church, has been describing the way that his own daughter was alienated from the family by the machinations of the Trinity leadership. While the details of this are not given us, there is enough information to see the kind of traps and techniques that were employed. I will be returning to Nigel’s daughter later but I want to set out first the processes that I believe are involved when cult leaders wreak devastation on families, by splitting them apart and creating divisions and alienation.

Every cult or high demand religious group has one thing in common, a charismatic leader. This adjective ‘charismatic’ is a little slippery in its meaning, but here it refers to the fact of an (normally male) attractiveness to others. The quality of being attractive to would-be followers will have elements, not only of physical magnetism, but also the ability to entrance and fascinate through words and teaching. The relationship that will exist between this charisma and those that are drawn to it will have some of the qualities of ‘being in love’. In most cases the relationship will not have a sexual component but other aspects of being in love will be present. These include a sense that the charisma is ‘the’ answer to current questions and uncertainties. The leader will be able to persuade the follower to trust in his words in the same that the lover is completely prepared to trust the object of his love. The word ‘fascinate’ plays an important part in this process. In a book written about 100 years ago, Rudolf Otto described what he called the Idea of the Holy. This set out the notion that to be attracted to a holy object, idea or person was a key component in religious experience. This object was said to be a ‘tremendous mystery that fascinates’. I have often pondered Otto’s ideas since first reading them. They seem to apply to the experiential forms of religion that have appeared in the past 50 years. Both mainstream forms of religion and the cultic manifestations seem to tap into the need of people to be drawn to forms of new experience. They do not understand these but they are fascinated and enthralled by them.

The relationship with a religious leader and a follower is itself something to be pondered about in every type of religious group. Even the boring old C of E is not always free from unhealthy dynamics in this area. In cultic groups the leader will often get close to the followers and work his ‘magic’ on the followers, typically young, directly. Sometimes he is kept deliberately remote so that the follower has to make do only with occasional glimpses of him. These manifestations will be rationed so that the followers are kept to a high pitch of longing for the leader’s attention. However the dynamic of the religious group operates, there is clearly a very important bond between leader and led that is developed and cultivated in the group. The power of charisma is not to be underestimated as an important dynamic in every kind of church. Attractive people will always find it easier to persuade others and indeed get their own way. A readiness to ‘convert’ may come out of an intense desire to please.

When we enter the murky world of more obviously malign cults and extreme Christian groups, we see more clearly how charisma often becomes toxic. The experience of having perhaps dozens of followers being in love with you will easily turn the head of many leaders. He may or may not translate the adoration of disciples into the sexual conquest of female (or male) members, but he is highly likely to exploit them in other ways. We have looked at the issue of inflated salaries and financial perks in the last post and we can pass that over for now. The real temptation for toxic charismatic leaders is to have the undivided attention and adoration of individuals who will be loyal to them alone, untrammelled by family or other attachments. The splitting apart of families in cultic groups often seems to come about as the desire of a leaders to have the complete loyalty of one individual. Other loyalties must be put aside so that the relationship may be ‘pure’ and uncontaminated. You can imagine a leader whispering to a favoured follower about leaving all, including families and possessions, for the sake of the kingdom. The sense of fascination and enthrallment with the leader will allow the favoured one so honoured to commit the blasphemy of abandoning wives, husbands and children to follow the suggested path of utter devotion to the leader. The acolyte will believe that that they are doing it for God but in reality they have be seduced by the attraction of charismatic power.

The word ‘seduction’ with its overtones of sex and irrationality is a good one to use in the context of cultic groups. The combination of religion, power and heady experience is hard to resist for many people. The follower will feel intoxicated with all the attention that is lavished on him or her by the leader. But such intoxication will last only so long as they remain in the leader’s favour. The motivation for pushing out the follower’s spouse and children, which was to gain the undivided loyalty of the follower, was based on something fairly fickle. Very quickly the once favoured individual can find themselves passed over in favour of someone else. The devastation can be tremendous. It is a bit like leaving a husband or wife for another lover, only to find that the new lover has no intention of remaining loyal. The jilted follower is also left devastated in a similar quandary. They have been betrayed by a cult leader who has used his power abusively and without a trace of real concern for the well-being of the follower.

The fragments of Nigel Davis’ story in connection with Trinity Brentwood seem to fit in with this pattern. When Nigel left the church in 1997, the leaders appealed to the loyalty of his daughter to remain part of the church. This ‘seduction’ lasted only long enough to alienate her from the family and so, when she too left the church, she fell into the arms, not of her family, but of people who cared nothing for her well-being. Bereft of family support she has tragically acquired a drug problem which now threatens her life.

This blog post has tried to uncover the dynamic of the way that some religious and cultic groups use the ‘seduction’ of charisma firstly to attract and hold members, and then often discard them as the whim of the leader so decides. The effect on the well-being of people treated in this way and on their alienated families is nothing short of ruinous. Family relationships are extremely difficult to repair in these circumstances. That individuals in charge of these groups can behave with evident cruelty towards their followers is seemingly a mystery. But we have to leave an explanation as to how leaders possess such capacity for indifference towards their followers as a subject for another blog post.

Profit or Prophet

prosperity-gospel-motivation1I make no claim at originality in the title that I have included above as it has been lifted straight from a comment on the Brentwood blog. Behind the witticism there is a serious point being made about the nature of a cultic church. Indeed the question as to whether a minister or pastor is more interested in the financial aspects of his ministry (profit) than in the vocational aspect of his work (prophet) is something that could be asked of a wide range of Church leaders. In my own Anglican tradition there is probably little scope for inflating salaries for the clergy, but over my ministry I have noticed that some clergy were able to negotiate far more generous expenses than others. Financial struggle is, however, the normal lot of most clergy in the mainstream churches. Although the traditional picture of a clergyman in threadbare clothes, which Anthony Trollope described, may not exist anymore, there are some who really find it hard to make ends meet.

We have several times in the course of this blog talked about the ‘Health and Wealth’ teaching which is dominant among quite a number of churches, not least the so-called ‘black’ churches. There the idea of a threadbare minister would be considered, not a sign of humility and self-sacrifice for the work of God, but a sign of failure. The emphasis is on receiving the blessings of God and that includes driving the right kind of car and living with the right standard of living. The teaching that God wants to bless his people by providing all them with adequate wealth for a particular life-style will start with the minister but will spread beyond there to include many in the congregation. If this teaching has gained acceptance among the congregation, it will often have a pernicious effect in the way that the congregation will treat those who cannot aspire to a particular standard of living. Once the idea becomes entrenched that God is ‘blessing’ the wealthy and comfortably off, it is but a small step to despising those who do not have these trappings. Poverty will then become something that is blameworthy. In practice the poor will not hang around in a congregation where they are despised and looked down upon. The rest of the congregation will then settle down to be a group of people who aspire to the same set of values and similar comfortable standards of living. That in fact seems to be the pattern at Trinity Brentwood. The ‘problem’ of accommodating the poor will be one that has somehow vanished of its own accord.

The issue of congregations dealing with wide variations of wealth and class is not just one for so-called ‘Health and Wealth’ congregations. It actually affects many congregations without often being discussed openly. Wealth or the lack of it exists alongside another great taboo within churches which is the issue of class. Many Anglican churches do not have to deal with disparities of wealth or class because in the parish system people are gathered from particular areas which are similar socio-economically. Poor people tend to live in poorer areas while better-off people live in more expensive areas. Many urban parishes are thus socially and financially monochrome. It is only in the rural areas that rich and poor come together for worship, though sometimes one feels the system here works in a somewhat feudal way.

To return to our main theme of pastors and ministers who enrich themselves at the expense of their congregations. This behaviour, as evidenced by the leaders of Holy Trinity, Brentwood, is something that is an obscenity on more than one level. In the first place it is sending out a message that to be poor is somehow to be outside the blessings of God. This is a grotesque teaching which is worse than the idea of our Victorian forebears that poverty was morally blameworthy.

The second aspect of a wealthy leadership in certain churches is that it can create a barrier between the minister and those he serves. The idea of a servant ministry is very hard to sustain if you, the leader, drive a car that is bigger than that of your congregation and sustain a wealthy life-style. In the reports about Trinity, Brentwood, it is stated that the chief pastor has his own private entrance to the church so that he is not ‘contaminated’ from mixing with the ordinary members of the congregation. It is a small step from receiving a huge salary to believing that you are worthy of that salary. If you add to this to some of the teaching from the Health and Wealth gospel, you convince yourself that the money you receive and spend is a sign of God’s favour. The more you amass in the form of wealth, the more you believe that you are specially chosen and blessed by God. This at the very least is a form of fantasy religion.

Thinking of my own experience as an Anglican priest for 40 years, I can see that there was always a problem of having to live in a larger house than the average home in the parish. That is one thing, but any excess of wealth would have compounded the problem of being able to be alongside every parishioner, rich or poor. It would have been both embarrassing and counter-productive ever, in any way, to flaunt wealth or social position. Living in a tied house, even if it was larger than many others, was in many ways an advantage as it fell outside the norms of social climbing that obsess so many in society. Arriving at the age of retirement still solvent and with two children safely married and independent, we are indeed fortunate. The path of ministry has not been for us, nor ever should be, a path to wealth. Any suggestion to the contrary seems to be a kind of blasphemy. God does not, as the Health and Wealth preachers promise, provide riches to those who serve him.

Toxic love

TOXIC_LOVE_IMAGEIs love always benign? The answer to this simple question is no. People who declare that they love other individuals do not necessarily have the best interests of the other at heart. Love can sometimes be selfish so that the needs of the lover can take precedence over the one who is the object of affection. Also one person may love another because that is the only way that the lover can feel alive. They may fear the loss of the other because they know their self-esteem and their physical well-being would decline if the beloved departed from their life. This kind of love we describe as clingy and manipulative. It is hardly a gateway to fulfilment for either party. The grasping love of one party may also be a kind of self-medication, attempting to resolve one or other of a number of mental health issues, possibly depression or chronic loneliness. Clearly the recipient of such love, if they choose to hang around, is not receiving a life-enhancing affirmation of love from another person.

Selfish love can be described as toxic as it can lead to the recipient of such love being diminished or harmed. But there are distinctive forms of toxic love which emerge out of certain Christian settings. We have already seen something of this in our discussions on ostracism. A J. Witness mother refuses to speak to a daughter who wishes to leave the group. This mother will convince herself that she is acting out of love. She will know at one level that the reason for treating her daughter and her family as though they were dead is because the Church insists on it. But she will persuade herself that the harsh treatment is really an expression of love because, through it, she will be putting pressure on that daughter to return to the way of salvation, as interpreted by the Witnesses. The act of ‘disfellowshipping’ or shunning will be an extraordinary example of love that is no love.

Similar treatment will be meted by some Christians toward a member of the family who comes out as gay. So convinced are some Christians that the gay person is on the way to certain hell that they use every form of disapproval they can muster, including the silent treatment, verbal abuse or general harassment. All this done in the name of a kind of ‘tough love’. The idea is that such love will make the ‘sinner’ see the error of their ways. Perhaps they are following Paul’s instructions in I Corinthians over the expulsion of an immoral brother, in order to hand him over to Satan. It is hardly likely that such ‘love’ will be experienced as other than as toxic, and the recipient is going find it extremely hard ever to be reconciled to the dispenser of such ‘Christian’ love.

Sometimes the form of demonstrating love is not active, but consists of failing to offer any help or support for the one who has fallen into a difficult situation. They are allowed to ‘stew in their own juice’. Because they are the victims of their misfortune, they are allowed to suffer the consequences without any practical help or compassion being offered. Somehow, once again, such passive-aggressive behaviour on the part of Christians will be interpreted by some as love. Love here means leaving someone to flounder. The hope is that by abandoning them to their situation they may come to their senses. They are reaping the consequences of their behaviour and cannot expect any kind of help.

Another form of toxic love is found among those who preach hell-fire and brimstone teaching. I do not put myself in the line of those who preach this way, but from my memory of such sermons in the past, it was always hard to detect any trace of love in what was being said. And yet the preacher of such sermons has, I believe, genuinely convinced himself that his preaching is an act of compassion, reaching out to the damned and the unsaved. His ‘love’ is being declared because he believes he is reaching out from a place of blessing into another world of depravity and filth. His preaching may yet, he hopes, rescue a few from their ultimate punishment. From the perspective of the person who is the intended object of such rantings, the preaching comes over as an action of arrogant and bigoted hate. How dare the preacher make so many assumptions about the inner attitudes of the ‘unsaved’? How dare the preacher make assumptions about the attitude of Jesus himself towards the ‘unsaved’? If Jesus means anything at all to the non-saved, he stands for a love that enables one to grow as human beings. Jesus calls us all, not to some formulaic confession of faith, but to glimpsing and growing into a life of richness, beauty and creativity under God.

One thing we know about human love, as it touches us and our families, is that it enables growth. It is under a regime of the right kind of love that children grow up and flourish in happiness and joy. The same sort of love sustains us all throughout life. Christians believe that we grow and change and flourish under the beneficent care that God shines upon us. That divine love, one that sustains us even when we are down and encourages us to stand straight when life is hard, is a source of nourishment for our whole being, body and soul. At one level the Christian faith seen from this perspective is incredibly simple. Love one another in the same way that you are loved by God. Pondering the words of Jesus ‘just as I have loved you’, should successfully steer us away from any version of toxic love that is taught under the banner of the Christian faith.

The challenge of change

changeThere is within Christian belief an assumption, rarely brought to the surface, that believes that God does not and cannot change. This assumed changelessness of God allows Christians to expect that their world of belief also never needs to change. This understanding is expressed in the well-known hymn that God is one who ‘changes not’. He is compared with the ‘change and decay’ that is ‘in all around I see’. The hymn articulates an attitude towards God, both felt and believed in, together with a desire to reach out for and grasp on to realities which will never alter. This is felt to be particularly important for those who find the world unsettling because of the way that it is constantly changing and disturbing the people who want certainty and stability in their lives.

A longing for stability in the face of change is not peculiar to our age and culture. One of the distinctive beliefs of the Greeks of the early Christian period was the notion that God was a being above time and space. He was incapable of change. The understanding of perfection could not allow any idea of alteration in God. There was an instinctive understanding that change of any kind was a change away from perfection, a change for the worse. We might not want to argue with this understanding of the nature of the divine, but the effect on the spirituality that flowed from it was not always so helpful. In brief the mystical way was understood to be a journey from ‘change and decay’ to contemplate the eternal beauty and stability of God. Once again we can see that such a notion of prayer, which raises an individual to a place of transcendence, will have its supporters. There is however a problem when this is presented as the ideal for every Christian. Any quick reference back to the New Testament shows us that while prayer, worship and silence were important to Jesus, there was also the life of action and engagement to be undertaken. Surely for the vast majority of Christians a life of involvement with the world and a life of contemplation have to be kept in balance?

The longing to be in a safe place that never changes is not just an echo of classic spirituality. It is also recognisable as a longing with Freudian overtones. It has not gone unnoticed that the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ seems to demand a return to the safe place similar to the one which was occupied by a child in the womb. ‘Let me hide myself in thee’ seems to pander to some fairly primal longings for safety. Whatever the truth or otherwise of this observation, we still seem to be in the arena of a Christianity which is being sold as a package that offers a diet of security to its followers. It is clear that the safety and security that many want is not in accord with the teaching of Jesus. His challenge to human kind is double-edged. While he invites us to come to him where he will give us ‘rest’, he is also the one who challenges us to take up our cross to follow him. The Christian life is thus a balance between contemplation and action and every reliable expression of the tradition over the centuries seems to recognise this.

The next thing we need to notice about ‘change’ is that it is a sign of life. Our understanding of biology and evolution allows us to see that change is the way that creation moves forward. Unless we are among the minority of Christians who reject evolution, it is clear to all of us that adaptation and change is what makes creation possible. There is a constant process in the way that life reaches out to embrace new complexity in the way that it is expressed. Human beings stand on the shoulders of 14 billion years of constant change and evolution. The detail of this evolution is of course beyond us here but change is an essential and inbuilt part of the process. We can summarise this process as saying that without change there is no life.

It would be then a truism to say that to embrace life is to embrace change. This is true as much for the following of the Christian path as it is true for life in general. An observation of the children in our families is where we see the process of embracing change and newness most clearly at work. They are allowed to make new discoveries every day, learn to use new words and we rejoice in this process. The Christian path cannot be immune to this same process of change. Obviously there is going to be the possibility of such a thing as negative change, change for the worse. But the danger of this should not blind us to the likelihood that we will be expected to be constantly learning, constantly growing and changing in our Christian pilgrimage. Above all we must not allow ourselves to be caught up in a church life which feeds off the fear of change. We should never give in to the doom mediators, the ones who sell ‘safe’ Christianity. That version will present a safe unchanging God, one whose will has been revealed for all time in a book. While it is true to say that the book, the Bible, is always going to be read in Christian circles and be appealed to as a guiding norm for the practice of the faith, it is not true to say that its meaning is unchanging. The bible is read and understood differently in each place it is taught. It will also reveal different messages at different moments in history. And it is not only the understanding of the bible that changes. The ‘book of life’ around us is constantly changing. Constant new insights are being discovered by the society around us. While some need to be challenged, others can welcomed as showing the creative change that a society in a state of evolution will throw up. Sometimes a society which reads the book of life correctly is able to develop love and compassion for persecuted minorities in a way that puts strict Christians to shame. Society, at least in part, has welcomed the end of racism and the cruelty meted out to gays and women ahead of many in the church. Sometimes we find ourselves holding hands with non-Christians who uphold the cause of justice and truth against the bigotry that is shown by some members of our own community. The blockage, at one level, is a fear of change. Christians of a conservative temperament have been persuaded by their leaders that changelessness is a feature of God and the teachings promoted by their group can also never change. That, as we have seen, can lead to cruelty and abusive behaviour.

Change, in short, is not a feature of a decaying church. It can be a feature of life and growth in the same way that the apparently dead twig on a tree gives way to an abundance of growth and beauty. While, of course, there are dangers implicit in the process of welcoming change, we still have to recognise that we need to embrace it in some form or other at every stage of our life. When we recognise the advent of some change as being correct, we need to be able to welcome it with enthusiasm and hope. Change is built into the fabric of the universe and we need to expect it especially in the events that we interpret as the action of God towards us.

STOP PRESS A video of my talk in Stockholm has been published on youtube. This is the reference

Making maps of understanding

map-yorkI have been thinking about the issue of new learning. Sometimes we have to find different ways of acquiring knowledge, particularly in the situation when we are trying to move on from the corrupting effects to the intellect caused by a high-demand group, Christian or otherwise. The word re-education has suggestions of mind-control, Communist indoctrination and forcible de-programming. We cannot possibly want to imply that such processes are part of the discussion. Then I listened to my six year old grandson talking about finding his way around the village where he lives and seeing something very important about the process of learning in his remark. I realised that as little as a year ago my grandson probably thought about the places he knew, school, shops and swimming bath, as places mysteriously just there when he visited them. Now at the age of six he was able to see them as connected. He was beginning to create for himself an internal book of maps which demonstrated to him that the places he knew were joined together and that to reach them he had to travel down certain roads. He was developing the sense that every place in his world was reached by travelling along particular routes which the grown-ups in his life understood.

Maps are a very good description of the way human beings learn. Whether literal or metaphorical maps, they are the means to see how knowledge of all kinds in interconnected. New knowledge only becomes useful when it is linked to what we already know. One of the things that I did not have when I began to study the Bible as a 19 year old undergraduate was an internal map of how the Bible fitted together. Among other things I had no overall understanding of the time-frame in which all the historical events recorded there took place. For me then, as for many Christians today, the Bible contains a series of disconnected blobs of story and narrative which have no particular way of connecting with one another. Without a decent working map of the whole Bible it is almost impossible to learn what the whole thing is about. By the time my final exams arrived, I had acquired an understanding of the way that links could be made right across Scripture. I remember writing an essay for my final exams on the way that the city of Jerusalem captured the imagination of the writers of both Old and New Testaments. I was proud of this essay as it justified my method of revision which was to be sensitive all the connections that I had found in each book of the Bible. What Paul thought about the Passover, for example, was relevant to what the early accounts in Exodus had recorded. The words of the prophets could not just be understood in the way that Matthew understood them. They had an integrity of their own. Each of the prophets had to be studied in their original historical and cultural context. Matthew’s understandings were of course important but they were not the last word. The map of understanding the prophets had to include both perspectives and understand the connections that bind them together.

In recent years as my interests have changed to embrace new areas of study, I have found it important, for example, in my studying of social psychology to create new internal maps in order to master a little of their content. For my recent paper in Stockholm, I found that it was important for me to grasp that a particular article was one that many writers on ostracism looked to for their authority. It was like finding a landmark on a map, a place from which to find one’s direction. It is like this whenever one studies a new subject. The first thing one has to acquire is a working outline map of the subject so that the detail has a framework in which to be inserted. Without that framework the new information floats around as disconnected material. One cannot use information that is not able to be connected to other information.

Why have I written this long introduction about internal maps in a blog on Christian abuse? It is because this understanding of the learning process will help us to distinguish between learning and indoctrination. According to this model, indoctrination is going to be the imposition of a map or reality on an individual. It is a map that insists that all the connections are fixed and determined. The conservative teachings about the Bible do not, for example, readily allow the prophets to be studied in the context of the religions of the Near East. Rather the study of the prophets is infiltrated by the dogmatic insistence that each and every one had an interest in the future, and that future was the coming of Christ. For me the relationship between the classical prophets and the coming of Jesus has to be expressed in a highly nuanced way. It just will not do to declare that the prophets looked forward to the coming of Jesus without any qualification. That kind of statement from the pulpit does not do the cause of understanding or learning any favours at all. If people are forced into the acceptance of ‘maps’ that insist on numerous conservative ‘landmarks’, their ability to learn and grow of the Bible is severely compromised.

Everyone learning a new subject needs, as I did, to acquire a ‘map’ in which to place all the information that they acquire of that discipline. The original map may be a simple one, having only a few landmarks marked at the beginning. Each person will do their own learning and filling in the detail as they go through life. What this blog is suggesting is that some maps are profoundly misleading and with them the process of learning can never flourish. To take one example from above, how can an ordinary Christian develop a keen appreciation of the Old Testament prophets, if their ‘maps’ have allowed them only to be understood as witnesses to Jesus? For myself, I am, constantly noticing new things about the prophets. Last Sunday we heard the passage from Amos about God showing the prophet a plumb line. It occurred to me how much of religious tradition has depended on its teachers having visions with a strong visual content. Could Amos be seen as a shaman, a seer of visions? Such a question is allowed in my map of Old Testament reflection, as my mind is sensitive to seeing connections wherever they happen. Another ‘map’, imposed by a conservative of the bible would not allow me even to contemplate such a thought!

Maps and seeing connections in the enormous world of knowledge is the way we make sense of reality. Without the maps that we make for ourselves and which reliable teachers give us, we cannot navigate across this ocean of knowledge. The important issue that each of us have to determine is whether our maps are reliable. Do these maps enable learning, the intelligent organisation of information, or do they impede it? Are our maps a reliable guide to reality, or do the maps we have in our heads actually obstruct what we know.

Investigating Trinity Brentwood

Brentwood gazette0n the day when the official enquiry into child sexual abuse begins in Britain under the chairmanship of Justice Lowell Goddard, we hear that as many as one in twenty children in Britain may have been the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of family, teachers, clergy or other adults. To judge from my own memory of the sexual abuse committed by adults among my contemporaries in the 50s, it was probably one in ten that went through this ordeal. That unpleasant memory has to be set to one side for now. What we are noting now is that the child abuse enquiry is meeting at the same time as the Commission into the past wrongs at Trinity Church Brentwood. Although the first is not due to report its findings for another seven years and the Trinity Commission is reporting in the autumn, they do share certain things in common. Both are both taking place in a totally new climate. What happened in the past is now seen to be totally and completely unacceptable. The child abuse enquiry will reveal how men who committed appalling acts against children were quietly shuffled out of jobs to take up other posts elsewhere. They were again free to abuse. Such cruelty, abuse and exploitation were somehow kept under wraps, not least because the victims were often not believed. The voice of the weak, especially the abused women and children, was given no credence. Today in 2015, thank God, the voice of those abused is being heard.

After my book, Ungodly Fear, came out in 2000, I received a number of letters, mainly from women, who echoed the stories of abuse recounted in my book. I answered them all as best I could even though the help I could suggest was very limited. At that time there seemed to be no awareness of Christian abuse in the church by those in authority. Although the book did not touch on the abuse of children, there were a number of letters resonating with my recounted story of a woman who was raped by a minister in the course of Christian counselling. That woman has now sadly died of cancer and her perpetrator was never charged. The letters that came to me recalling similar incidents, also revealed a complete failure of oversight and an unwillingness to do anything to bring the perpetrators to account. A combination of indifference and incredulity seemed to meet those women who sought help. In short, nobody wanted to know.

The situation in 2015 is a little better. The Jimmy Savile affair has opened up people to the possibility that people who perform public service like clergy, teachers as well as entertainers can abuse their positions to cause harm to those weaker than themselves. We live in a world where the stories, such as told in my book, are met with greater credence. People who tell stories of abuse long ago are now believed. For many this enables them to start a path to healing. The first thing to help them is to be heard and to be believed.

I make this lengthy introduction to the ongoing saga at Trinity Church, Brentwood because the people who suffered appalling mistreatment in the past at this church are finally being believed. The process which has started through the calling of a Commission to investigate past wrongs, may produce a document which will change the way things are done in churches for ever. Dozens of people have sent in their experiences of mistreatment at the church and school over the past 30+ years and to the Commission. John Langlois, the chairman, and his team are speaking to most of them over the summer and they hope to publish a report in the autumn. From past performance John should do a thorough job and a revealing account of the tortured history of this unhappy institution will be revealed. It will not be a perfect report as, no doubt, important aspects will not make the final report. The allegations of criminality in connection with the tortuous financial arrangements of the church will not be investigated by the Commission. No doubt, if the national press get hold of the story of the church, there may be pressure on the Charity Commissioners to compel them to open their books. The sort of things that are being investigated are the climate of fear and humiliation at the school and the experience of individuals who found themselves objects of power games perpetrated by leaders, especially Michael Reid, the disgraced Pastor who left in 2008. Sexual harassment, from lewd jokes to actual seduction, were also part of the culture of the church. The alleged criminal act that has sparked off the setting up of the Commission was the claim by one Kathryn, who wrote for this blog under the pseudonym of Sally, that she was raped by a senior church member. The context of the rape was, according to her claim, within a regime of relentless humiliation of her and all the other Bible school students when they came to Peniel in the 80s from the States to study at the church. Her readiness to stand up and be counted after this long period is a testimony to a great deal of courage and the resilience of the human spirit. It is also opportune that her story has now been able to be heard and acted upon. We can thank the climate of today which, as I have said, is far more open to making a response when accusations of such terrible crimes are made.

My hopes for the Commission report is that it will be read widely, particularly by churches that belong to the Evangelical Alliance. The Evangelical Alliance has given a sort of accreditation to a large number of conservative Christian organisations and groups over the years as long as they sign up to a statement of faith. It has never, as far as I know, expelled a church for immoral or corrupt behaviour. The only recent expulsions have been for not toeing the conservative line on the gay issue. The Commission report may well persuade the EA to insist that all Alliance members sign up to accountability measures which will protect women and children in particular. In short the Evangelical Alliance may come to demand ethical standards from its members alongside statements of doctrinal conformity. My own research in the 90s into the life of congregations normally affiliated to the EA suggested that moral standards among independent pastors were sometimes extremely low.

A hard-hitting report, such as we hope the report on Trinity Church Brentwood will be, may well open the mind of the wider public to the need to insist on high standards of accountability as well as morality in churches just like other public bodies. Safeguarding measures to protect all vulnerable people, and that means almost everyone, will come to be a priority in every congregation. The work of this blog, the constant addressing of abusive practice in church and Christian settings, would then theoretically be redundant. But perhaps that will not happen for a number of years yet. But we can hope and work for further movement towards that end.

Recovering from abusive churches – some thoughts

michael reidMy time at the Stockholm conference brought me into contact with a number of people who had been members of high-demand groups, Christian and otherwise. Some were 20 or more years into the process of recovery while others had only recently left a group. For me it was easier to interpret the narrative of those who had been part of Christian groups because the language they spoke in was a familiar one. But whatever kind of cultic group was being spoken about, the dynamics of toxic belonging seem to have many similarities. I want to think further about some of the difficult experiences suffered by those who join and leave what are known popularly as ‘cults’. I want to begin to consider how this baneful influence on people’s lives may be gradually overcome. Because this blog is dedicated to the victims and survivors of Christian abusive settings, my comments can be read as a commentary on some extreme groups within the Christian orbit. In practice, the full toxic effects of the wrong kind of charisma are generally muted in many Christian groups that we would identify as cultic. It is, however, still worth painting a picture with its darkest colours so that readers can identify cultic aspects as they pop up in many ‘normal’ religious settings.

A typical cultic group will have at its head a strong charismatic leader. By charismatic I am referring to the quality of personality that attracts others to a belief, a hope or a vision. The charismatic leader will have the ability to persuade followers to follow him (normally a male) in pursuing a vision for the future. The relationship, particularly at the beginning will often be intense so that the acolyte or follower feels a sensation similar to that of being in love. The follower will have a sense that the leader knows the path to salvation or true knowledge. He alone understands the Bible or the sacred texts of the religion. With him is safety, a sense of being at the centre of the universe where final truth is being taught and revealed.

The expression of being ‘in love’ might seem a little strong for some but it does convey the intense attraction and fascination of charisma. Charisma is particularly captivating to those who are in the first stage of adulthood where self-identity is still in a state of flux. The group encourages the adoption of what the psychologists call a ‘cult-identity’. This is a kind of faux-personality which makes the follower feel incredibly important but it only ‘works’ as long as the follower stays close to the words or the physical presence of the leader. The follower has become so entranced by the leader that he/she wants to be like him in every way. The dynamic of this ‘followship’ is that the disciple’s personality in some real sense becomes a kind of an extension of that of the leader. Somehow the personality of the follower has become enmeshed with that of the leader.

This kind of leadership/disciple dynamic can be extremely dangerous. There may be for a time a deep contentment for the follower while he/she enjoys the attention of the ‘wise’ charismatic leader. But this bliss is, in practice, short-lived. The leader, because he is human, will tire of the adoration of one group of followers and want to move on to exploit another group. The state of enmeshment, while it lasts, is enjoyable and deeply satisfying for the disciple. In the case of female followers of a male guru or leader, there may be a sexual acting out. But however the relationship is expressed, it is of such intensity that a breakdown in it will cause the follower to experience intense emotional trauma. It is the recovery from a deep emotional involvement with a religious/political charismatic leader that is a major part of the cult recovery process. In some ways it can be compared with a divorce or breakdown in an intimate relationship but in certain ways it is more difficult. The follower has surrendered not only their affection to another person in an act of love, but they have surrendered many other areas of their life to the leader, their idealism, their self-esteem and their hopes for their entire future. To have all that taken from them in a moment is indeed traumatic and indeed emotionally shattering. Without the right kind of support it can lead to a nervous breakdown or even suicide.

The emotional impact of leaving a cultic group, Christian or otherwise, is devastating but there is another facet of leaving, apart from the feeling side. In every group there are always two sides to an individual’s attachment to a group. The one side which we have already looked at is the emotional aspect. The second side is the intellectual or cognitive side of membership. To belong to the groups, which we would describe as cultic, it is necessary to have taken on board distinctive sets of ideas, beliefs and intellectual content that belong to those particular groups. For a member of a Christian cultic group, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or one of any number of fundamentalist churches, the cognitive side will involve some strong beliefs in the inerrancy of Scripture. Each independent church will have its own idiosyncratic way of understanding the Bible, and different leaders will require subtly different intellectual responses to the Bible from their members. Some will have, for example, a deep suspicion of women in leadership while others will always be quoting the Bible to undergird the authority of the leaders. A claim to believe in the authority of the Bible seldom produces harmony and agreement between churches with all the leaders. There are, as we have noted before, as many interpretations as there are interpreters. Historically the proclamation of ‘Sola Scriptura’ has not proved a good basis for finding unity between different Christian bodies.

Real problems exist for people who wish to leave a church or cultic Christian group. They have to cut free both emotionally and cognitively. In some cases an individual can recover fairly on the emotional front while intellectually they are still in thrall to the group. This means that they still think in the binary way, the black and way of thinking that we have discussed in earlier blogs, even though they may have made good progress in freeing themselves emotionally. Another group of people may find it easier to let go of the intellectual baggage imposed on them by the cultic group, while still being in thrall to the aftermath of emotional trauma. In talking to any survivors of cultic groups, one seldom finds that the emotional and cognitive aspects of former membership have been completely dealt with. The emotional side may need lengthy psychotherapy while the cognitive side will require a period of readjustment and possibly a readiness to enter a period of re-education. Neither process is quick or easy. It is likely that there will be a two speed process. I mentioned the incidence of tears at the conference and I detected that below the surface of many stories there were real pockets of grief and pain yet to be completely worked through.

I shall come back to this topic of recovering from abusive religious organisations. In many ways I have here merely scratched on the surface of the problem but my time in Stockholm brought me once more to consider how much has to be done in helping people move forward after being in thrall to an abusive church group or Christian leadership. Clearly there is always a lot to be done, but precious few resources in this country to help people in this process.

Taking stock

Thinking about the BibleA recent comment on this blog suggested that my approach to the issue of Christian abusive practice was ‘patronising and superior’. I have tried very hard to work out what in my writing was found to be this way. I have come to the conclusion that what may upset some people is the fact that although I try to support people who have been part of extremist groups, Christian or otherwise, I am not a party to or supporter of any of the teaching they may have absorbed. I cannot, for example, get excited about many of the details in Scripture, the accepting of which some teachers insist to be important and necessary for salvation. When, on the other hand, teachings are promoted which touch on people’s human rights, as with Christian homophobia or Christian misogyny, then I do get involved and want to debate them. When I hear debates about the details about Jonah’s fish (or was it a whale?) or the vegetation of the Garden of Eden, I find myself going into a trance-state. These types of discussion about the detail of the text of Scripture presuppose an understanding of the nature of the Bible which I find utterly fruitless and futile. Many of the issues that conservatives, past and present, believe to be important about the ‘truth’ of the Bible are not for me.

In saying that I am not going to engage with trivial details within Scripture because some Christian people believe them to be important, does not mean that I do not take Scripture seriously. Since first going to Sunday School in 1950 I have never had suggested to me that Adam and Eve were real people or that Jonah was anything but a good story. At the age of five, story and history were the same thing anyway. No one in my childhood ever tried to make me a literalist and for that I am profoundly grateful. I did not meet people who insisted on reading every single bible story as history until I got to university to study theology. They were not among my fellow theological students. After a few late-night battles over coffee I retreated from such discussions baffled and indeed puzzled that the Bible could be made even more complicated by notions of inerrancy and infallibility. Of course there was history in Scripture but equally there was myth, legend and events half-remembered through the mists of time. It was enough for me to spend two solid years learning Hebrew, New Testament Greek and wading through countless commentaries on the books of Scripture to come to something resembling a conclusion about how I was going to teach and preach Scripture over forty years of professional life as a clergyman. I was never going to pretend that ‘critical scholarship’ had reached certain conclusions about the real meaning of the Bible. I was not going to teach certainties about Christian doctrine. Rather I was going to invite members of my congregation to come on a journey of discovery to learn about Jesus, his teaching and all that he reveals to us about God. In short my ministry was going to be an invitation to faith in a man who reveals to us God and in some sense is God. That journey would always have elements of incompletion about it. There would never be tidiness. For me the Bible was and is a thoroughly untidy book, full of ambiguities and even contradictions. If I thought that the God was teaching his will clearly from beginning to end, that would be my wishful thinking and not anything I could find in the actual text.

In presenting the position of a liberally but reasonably well-trained clergyman of the 1960s I am representing a large number of clergy who had a similar education to my own. The vast majority of clergy trained at that time would have imbibed similar ideas to my own. Apart from the five years of theological study that most of us in our twenties at that time were required to do, I spent a further three years of other theological study, mainly to do with private research into Eastern Christianity. The point I want to make strongly is that even if people do not agree with what I think about the issue of Biblical interpretation, at least they should be able to recognise that my position of uncertainty over some aspects of the Bible is still a position of Christian integrity. I respect those who hold positions different from my own but I will powerfully object when their understanding of the Bible causes harm and degradation to minority groups. For example I will protest if a literal reading of the words of Paul leads a Christianity into causing women harm or injustice. The purpose of this blog is to challenge Christian teaching when it causes harm to individuals. So often, as I demonstrated in my book written fifteen years ago, the claim of biblical infallibility by a Christian leader spills over into a teaching of human infallibility. In short the teacher of an infallible book becomes an infallible person. The infallible leader is at the heart of the Christian abuse which this blog is concerned about.

To repeat the blog is concerned about Christian abuse, particularly when it occurs in conservative Christian settings. The fact that I come from a theological position quite separate from many of those I critique, should not make my approach invalid. It is not the theologies themselves that are under attack but only when they lead to harmful and abusive practice. From time to time the expression ‘the bible says’ is the prelude to bad or harmful practice, and to that extent the particular teaching must be challenged. The full weight of Biblical commentary and the insights of detailed scholarship must be used to challenge such bad or harmful teaching.

Everyone is born somewhere. Every Christian has been taught the faith in a particular setting or environment. I make no apology for mine and I stand up for a position in the liberal end of Anglicanism. I see things from that background but I hope my reading, my education and my extensive travel in the Christian world allows me to have many other perspectives. I hope that my readers, even when they do not agree with what I say will allow me to be what I am and allow me to continue my task of challenging the abuse of Christians by Christians wherever and whenever it takes place.

politics and religion

tsipras-wahlen-eu-540x304All of us have been watching the Greek crisis over the past few days. I have been giving it more attention than some as I have a special interest, having lived in the country for ten months in the 60s and witnessed some of the tumultuous times of the Greek dictatorship. I have always known that Greek politics is a bit like a cult in the sense that some Greeks indulge in the extremes of irrationalism when presented with an attractive idea. The current Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, has, because of his youth and practiced rhetoric, been able to persuade a large slice of the population to support him. They will be voting in a so-called referendum on the highly detailed issues of the European offer to the Greek government. If they vote ‘no’ to the offer it is likely that the country will leave the euro and descend into social and economic chaos lasting two years or more. The complexity of the arguments has been reduced to a simple yes or no. The people in fact will be voting as to whether they trust their young charismatic leader or not, rather than trying to engage with the complex arguments of the economic proposals. To be fair it takes some education and economic understanding to master what these economic proposals are, but that is why people elect governments to make responsible decisions on their behalf. The referendum is thus not about economics and the euro but about trust in their leader.

In thinking about the Greek situation, I see a number of parallels with the leadership of conservative churches. A typical worshipper, faced with a highly complex and difficult book, the Bible, decides that they want to allow someone else to read it for them and decide what it means. That relieves them of having to think for themselves about it. The important issue then becomes their ability, or not, to trust the leader. If he is perceived as totally trustworthy, then the problem of understanding Scripture and making decisions about it is solved. The whole dynamic of the group depends on this total trust between leader and led being sustained. One word that was being used at the conference last week was the word guru. It is a word that implies an abundance of trust in an individual in religious leadership. The disciple in effect hands over to the guru the decision making part of the personality in the belief that he is ‘enlightened’ and that that enlightenment will also shared with the follower. The attenders at the conference who had followed gurus were generally disillusioned people, because they discovered over a period that the guru was human like the rest of us, subject to vanity and power games, not to mention addiction to wealth. The act of having large numbers of people adulating you will give a religious leader the idea that he actually is wise, does understand the spiritual needs of his followers, does have special insights into the Scriptures. Whatever problems may arise for the follower in the guru-disciple relationship, there are also going to be problems for the leader himself. These will often not be visible at the beginning of the relationship but greed, lust and other human foibles will gradually become more and more apparent over a period of time.

At the Greek general elections in January it seems that what was being voted on was the wisdom and appeal of the Prime minister himself. People have wanted to trust him on the basis of his rhetoric and charisma. He is, by contrast, being judged by those outside Greece on his economic competence which does, from a distance, appear extremely shaky. I have to conclude that whatever domestic support he enjoys, is in fact based on the fantasy of what people would like to be true rather than what is true. The guru figure, the one trusted for his pleasing words will always be one that appeals to large numbers of people. This thrall of the guru figure is always going to be somewhat cult-like, whether it happens the context of religion or politics. There is nothing unusual about people wanting to hand over decision making. It makes life less complicated after all.

The consequence of the arrival of a charismatic figure on the scene in either politics or religion is that overall less serious thinking is being done by followers. This does ultimately bring people into the irrationality of propaganda and anti-intellectual behaviour. This is not blame-worthy behaviour but the sad result of the cultic aspects of both religion and politics the world over. It just happens but it is the task of newspapers and perhaps bloggers to protest when it occurs. Once the patterns of this sort of behaviour are discerned, then at least some people can be rescued from the result of the exuberance of charisma. At its best charisma in leaders moves people to feel and even do great things. At its worst it binds them to irrationality with a heady dose of fantasy and unrealistic promises.

Greece heads off into the unknown as I write these words. The country has been blinded by the promises of its cult-like politicians. The dynamics of trust in their political leaders have not served the country well. As I write these words I am reminded of words from Psalm 146: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man, for there is no health in them”. Many will, rightfully, conclude that we are better off putting our trust directly in God. The problem is how to do this in practice, while not being misled or even deceived by one of his representatives!