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.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

8 thoughts on “Charisma, control and divided families

  1. Of course, those of us who have been to Peniel know about a group of young adults (some of them not so young now), known as “Michael Reid’s children”. They latched on the Michael Reid’s every word, they breathed Michael Reid. Even their biological parents have relinquished their influence over them in favour of Michael Reid’s influence. They are the ones who went through Peniel Academy and they now send their own children to Trinity School. Everyone else from a similar age group seems to have left and have withdrawn their children from Trinity School. (New children from Tilbury have since joined the school.)

    Michael Reid’s children are still holding on to the dream created by Michael Reid. Wake up, the bubble has already burst and is irreparable.

    Apparently, this group of Michael Reid’s children don’t like Peter Linnecar very much, especially now that Michael Reid and Peter Linnecar have fallen out with each other. Unlike Michael Reid, Peter Linnecar is not charismatic. Quite the opposite.

  2. Thanks for the comments. I mentioned ‘physical magnetism’. This does not mean that the individual is attractive in any objective sense but that there is a kind of animal attachment going on which draws in people, very much as Anon 2 describes. Your witness to Peniel is very helpful by the way. I totally agree that PL is lacking any charisma and he himself has not got what it takes to found a church. I have met him only the once! But there seems to be enough of the old ‘magic’ and fantasy around to hold the church together, not to mention the way everyone was intermeshed by MR to marry each other and create an interdependent mass. PL presumably learnt a few tricks of rhetoric and presentation from Michael. He would have been a very poor pupil if he did not learn from Michael how to persuade and influence people, at least a little. Charisma is partly innate and partly taught. I would imagine from reading Nigel’s blog that he has a little of the technique. I shall be writing on the topic of training and theological education in a future blog. You Trinity followers probably recognise my footprint in the other blog when I mentioned Elmer Gantry. He has been mentioned here in this blog more than once!

  3. Michael Reid’s children are grateful to Michael Reid because they could never have achieved what they have achieved had their education etc been left to their biological parents. Many from a relatively poor background and many from a working class background – could never have dreamt of a private school education (some of them were in very ordinary states schools before joining), could never have dreamt of the careers and jobs they are now holding.

    That is why they idolise the church and school. Where would they be without their idols and I don’t blame them. However, the problem that I have with them is their arrogance. They have forgotten that many sacrificed in various ways and facilitated their success and achievements. Their parents as well as the parents of non-Michael Reid’s children (who may not have done so well and some have suffered loss) all contributed towards their success and achievements, one way or another. Their arrogance shows their ungratefulness. They assume that they got where they got to all by themselves. They have forgotten their roots.

  4. I have a huge issue with their arrogance and attitude and for this and other reasons, I and some others are campaigning for the closure of the church and school. We may not achieve it, but at least we tried.

  5. Since experiencing my post evangelical trauma, I have been foolish enough to expect answers to what I believe to be reasonable questions?

    Charismatic leaders have induced a kind of hypnotic certainty in their followers. There is a tendency to assume that if a big event or meeting is taking place, then God must be behind it?
    For over 15 years I have been asking these questions and quite frankly I am pig sick of being ignored!

    If modern evangelicals are so passionate about ‘Saving souls’ then do they ever think about how they appear to the non-believing world?

    I think that even a casual glance at that non believing society in this country will plainly show, that they regard flamboyant noisy fellowships as being —- ‘Nutters”?
    And so the needy and the seeker go into the wastelands to the chorus of ‘Shine Jesus Shine” ringing in their ears.

    This question ought to be put to the Archbishop of Canterbury and all the (So Called) Religious Leaders?

    Am I so far off the mark with this or am I expecting a fantasy to jump over pigs flying on a Peter Pan landscape?



    1. I’ve been thinking about how the CofE, particularly, puts off strangers. I was sure that it wasn’t just the apparently nutty end of evangelicalism that put people off. And I think I’ve noticed a high Anglo-catholic strand. It’s the people who assume that everyone is an Anglican. The other day I was at a big event where the evensong was done by a huge choir, and music lovers from all around the country attend. The Apostles Creed, and the “Grace”, (The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit etc) were not in the service sheet. On the assumption that “everyone knows them”. I’ve also been to services where the usual responses to prayers (Celebrant says “Lord in your mercy”, and the reply is “hear our prayer”) or to the reading (“This is the word of the Lord”, “Thanks be to God”), were not printed in the service sheet, either. Well, you might as well put a notice on the door reading, “Don’t come in if you’re not familiar with our services”. People feel they are being excluded in just the same way as they are excluded by the arm waving and so on. I’m not sure if I can make a difference at this end, but keep plugging away, Chris.

  6. A senior Anglican priest of a generation before mine had, as his motto for pastoral work, the phrase “Distance lends enchantment”. I used to argue with him about it.Christian ministry has to be fully involved and incarnational to be authentic to the Gospel.

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