Monthly Archives: August 2015

End Game at Trinity Brentwood?

TRINTIY-BRENTWOODSince my last post on the situation at Trinity Church Brentwood, the situation appears to have entered the end game. The latest news is that Peter Linnecar, the leading pastor and his wife Carolyn have gone on ‘extended leave’. We are left to guess whether this means in fact the prelude to his dismissal by the trustees. According to the comments on the Nigel Davies’ blog concerned with the church, it does seem possible that the Linnecars will never return to Trinity.

Some of the comments on the other blog suggest that any gradual fading away of the leadership would be a disappointing result for the church and its many victims, given the many issues that still remain to be faced and addressed. Nigel’s last post in fact listed 25 reasons for Peter Linnecar to resign. Today I tried in a blog comment to suggest that whatever happens to PL, we could still look forward to a positive outcome if John Langlois makes his report sufficiently punchy. Such a report will be something of great significance and a potential reference point for evaluating churches of this kind all over the country. If he successfully identifies the causes as to how such a tyrannical regime at Peniel church came to be, then his report will provide material to be studied by independent churches for a long time to come. I suggested in my anonymous comment how John Langlois’ report might go. In the next two paragraphs I am reproducing what I said on the Brentford blog. I have in fact no expectations that the report will say anything of the sort, but free comment enables me to speculate and make some serious points even if my writing is tongue in cheek.

These are my words from my ‘spoof’ version of the report that is going to be issued by the Peniel/Trinity Commission.

This is what happens when you allow a single charismatic individual to take charge of a group and transfer the infallibility that some hold to be true of Scripture to himself. Once you allow an individual to exercise this kind of unchallengeable power, you will have all the problems of extreme tyranny in a church setting. There will be exploitation – sexually and emotionally – of members. There will be rampant financial corruption. Truth will be supressed and lies told whenever it suits the powers that be. Secrets and the withholding of information will also be part of the currency of such a church. In short everyone should avoid a church where these kinds of values are expressed. You are always in extreme danger in this kind of set-up.

To ministers of neighbouring congregations, BADEF (Brentwood and District Evangelical Fellowship), Evangelical Alliance and any individuals who accepted the generous hospitality of the church (£500 and dinner at the golf club) for a single address. Your loyalty and indirect connivance in the evil perpetrated by the leaders of this congregation for over three decades is a matter of shame. You knew what was going on but you chose to keep silent for fear of rocking the boat and your own financial and other advantage. A lot of evil flourished at Peniel/Trinity while ‘good’ men did nothing. The corruption at Brentwood has corrupted you.

I wrote these two paragraphs as a way of summarising what I believe to have happened over a long period of time at the church not least through the connivance of its outside supporters. I can write in this way because, as I have said before, I’ve never been the victim of a cultic church. I believe I am better able to see with clarity the issues which may be hidden from those closer to the situation. It is for example not hard for someone right outside the situation to understand a little of the way that an extremely wealthy congregation can corrupt its neighbours by offers of hospitality and the loan of facilities. Most churches struggle financially and a wealthy church with many resources can have a mesmerising effect on struggling congregations nearby. But this is not the only example of the corrupting effect of this church which has become clear over the months and years that I have been following this story. Individuals with connections even within the Anglican Establishment, have allowed themselves to be seduced by first class hotels and ‘love offerings’ in return for preaching a single sermon. Michael Reid and Peter Linnecar after him were effectively buying influence for the church whenever they could. The guests never seemed to look below the surface to ask questions about the nature of this congregation. They were, in effect, flattered and bribed into a shameful collusion with this congregation and its leaders.

As I said above, I am very much hoping that the report, which John Langlois will produce some time in the next two months, will have some trenchant words, not only for leaders and former leaders but also for those who supported this dangerous cultic church by simply allowing themselves to be blind and deaf to evidence of wrongs. Part of the problem is that until recently we simply have not had adequate tools of analysis to be able to spot when things are very wrong or on the way to being wrong in churches. The Church of England was badly caught out in 1995 by the events at the Nine O’clock Service in Sheffield. No one understood then the dynamics of charisma and power abuse that can so easily take root in Christian congregations. I can still remember the struggle I had personally when writing my book twenty years ago to make sense of the alarming things going on in some churches at that time. I might have felt discomfort at the kind of things going on at a church like Peniel, but I would not have been able to identify, as I can now, the dynamics underlying the dreadful dysfunction of the place. If my analyses now are anyway correct, then they may help to raise consciousness in others and further their ability to understand what is going on.

We await to see the final outcome of the present developments at Peniel and the report on which a great deal depends. Let us hope that it fulfils at least a few of my hopes for it.

Christian language

speaking-christian Marcus Borg, a well-respected Christian writer from the States who recently died, has stated that there is a deep problem with Christian language. In the first place Christians use words and concepts which have very little meaning for those who are not part of their community. There is a further problem that Christians themselves are using words in quite different ways from their meaning over past centuries. The people who first coined Christian language would simply not understand the way the same words are sometimes being understood today. Christian language, in spite of the problems surrounding its use and meaning, is of course grounded in Scripture. It also uses words that are familiar through the texts used in worship, hymns and familiar songs. In many ways our experience of God is shaped by the words that we use to talk about him, the language that we have been handed down from the past and which enables us to share and communicate with other Christians.

The first problem that Marcus Borg has identified is that the overall culture no longer understands the Christian and biblical language that is used inside our churches. We can no longer assume, as we once did, that children have a familiarity with the stories in the Bible. There is enormous scope for a distorted understanding of what Christianity is about from the outside. One student that Borg questioned made the following statement: ‘I don’t know much about the Bible, but I think there’s a story in it about a guy in a fish.’ With such ignorance about Scripture widely prevalent both here and across the Western world, exposure to Christian language is likely to produce massive misunderstandings in those who have never hitherto met it. The problem of ignorance is not confined to children in school. Even among those who attend church, surveys have shown that many struggle to name the four Gospels. In my blog I have often complained about the encouragement of passivity in conservative congregations. People listen but often without any curiosity which would challenge or question what they are being told. This is of course not just true in conservative congregations. Passive listening leading to distortions of understanding is commonplace among Christians of every tradition. There is, of course, something very unhealthy in a teaching method which allows one person to stand up in front addressing a group who neither wishes to question nor is encouraged ever to do so.

Borg goes further and spells out reasons for the distortions in the way that the Christian language is understood both within and beyond the community. The first reason for Christian language to be so difficult to share, is that most Christians have a very restricted idea of the overall framework of the faith. He claims that if most Christians were asked to characterise the faith in one sentence, it would be done in what he calls the heaven-and-hell framework. In other words Christianity is thought to be primarily about making it possible for people to have their sins forgiven and giving them access to heaven. There are four central elements to this belief system. The first is the existence of the afterlife. The second is the major part in Christian doctrine played by the ideas of sin and forgiveness. The third is a statement about Jesus’s death being to forgive our sins. Finally Christianity is about believing all this to make a place in heaven a reality. Borg makes the comment that the heaven-hell Christianity is one deeply rooted in a concern about personal sin.

All the big words in Christianity relate, according to Borg, to this heaven-hell framework. Salvation, mercy, repentance, righteousness and Redeemer all belong to this understanding of Christianity. He recognises that for many people such a framework works, in the sense that good lives are lived and the fruit of gentleness, decency and compassion can be observed. But the framework is for Borg and many others a stumbling block and an obstacle to taking Christianity seriously in our time. He claims that it is hard for outsiders to be attracted to the language of Christianity when it is presented in this way, let alone to internalise its meaning and concepts.

The second issue which impoverishes Christian language for Borg is that of literalism. I do not propose to say much about this as my readers will know from previous blogs the tendency for many Christians to believe that words in Scripture must be taken in a literal way. This, as we never tire of saying, strips all poetic, metaphorical and suggestive meaning from the words we use in the context of Scripture. The book which Borg has written is called Speaking Christian. It is his attempt to recover the rich, dense language of Scripture and allow it to speak for itself without the straitjacket of a modern conservative interpretation. Without literalism, without the heaven hell framework, Scripture takes on a totally new life.

Borg sets himself an ambitious project which is to redeem Christian language from its heaven-hell framework and its obsession that literal truth is the only truth. He maintains that Christian language is far richer and broader than is commonly supposed. Historically many Christian people from the past did not work within these particular frameworks and he mentions Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila and even Martin Luther. In short Christian language needs to be rediscovered and reinterpreted afresh.

Borg in his final chapter illustrates well how different Christianity looks when it is liberated from the old straitjackets. He writes about the Lord’s Prayer and shows that there is nothing in it to do with whether or not we go to heaven. There is nothing about material success or possessions. There is nothing about belief in or an understanding of Jesus as the Son of God. What the Lord’s Prayer does contain is an understanding of the way the world could be transformed under the rule of God. It shows how Jesus had a passion for a transformed world where the needs of poor, the abused and the disenfranchised would take priority. It is not unreasonable to suggest that God is passionate about the same things as Jesus. In summary God wants a world of justice, peace and reconciliation, a world where people work together to overcome barriers of race, class and nationality. In summary Borg defines Christianity as ‘loving God and loving what God loves’. That sort of Christianity is indeed a challenging one but it would seem to be far more in tune with Scripture than many of the messages we hear from Christian teachers today.

Depersonalising others -an interpretation

depersonalisationA week or two ago I wrote about a link between certain forms of marriage and cultic experience. I have since thought further about dysfunctional relationships. I noted the existence of narcissism in the situation of a dominating husband with a subservient wife and to see this allows us to have insight into the way that dominating control in many other relationships works. Over the period that I have been writing about abuse issues and the church, it has become increasingly clear to me that a desire to control is sadly far too common in almost any type of human relationship. To summarise what I have to say here, the use of control or abusive dominance in a human relationship involves treating a person as a thing or an object rather than as a fellow human being.

Over the past week, I have pulled down from my bookshelves a book which I have owned for two years but not yet read. It has the off-putting title Traumatic Narcissism by Daniel Shaw. This is not a title which will cause it to fly off the shelves, but the book was recommended to me at the Cultic Studies conference two years ago. I want to share with my readers a few of the helpful insights which this book contains, in spite of the author’s using, what is sometimes, rather technical language.

I have in the past used the word ‘narcissistic’ to describe the particular way of relating that a cult or dominant leader uses to exploit and abuse his followers. Such behaviour, involving abusive power and control is part and parcel of the larger-than-life grandiose style that we meet in many religious or cultic leaders. Narcissism involves both dominance over others alongside a sometimes almost pathetic need to receive the attention and approval of the followers. These followers will have their own distinctive set of needs and it is these needs that have brought them into a subservient relationship with the cult leader. The book I referred to above by Daniel Shaw helps by describing this exploitative relationship very clearly. I want to go on, cutting through the psychoanalytical jargon, to indicate how he understands the way a narcissistic individual, including a cultic leader, uses his power to harm those who have the misfortune to come into his sphere of influence.

A book which influenced me a long time ago was one by Martin Buber with an intriguing title, I and Thou. This book explained how there are two ways of relating to another person. One is to treat them as an object (I-it), the other as a person (I-thou). In our relationship with God, we are to see him always as a person, never as a thing. The same thing goes for our relationships with other people. There is always a need for us to respect their personhood, their subjectivity. Daniel Shaw is also talking about this same process when he uses the word intersubjectivity. This word simply refers to the importance in all relationships to respect another person’s experience and their right to have feelings and opinions of their own. The ‘traumatizing narcissist’, on the other hand, is an individual who will not or cannot respect the inner subjective life of the other person. All he or she is interested in is the way that the other person can fulfil the needs of the narcissist, such as found in the typical cult leader. It is also clear to see how sexual violence and power exploitation of any kind will be the outworking of the narcissistic behaviour of an individual who is concerned solely for his or her needs. This narcissist will, in psychoanalytical thought, normally be regarded as a victim, of parental neglect. He or she will have suffered from a failure by carers to respect their growing identity and personality.

A few years ago these ideas were novel, even revolutionary to my thinking. It never occurred to me that one could describe and account for power abuse using such models provided by psychoanalytical research. The insight that people who abuse their power are also people who have profound needs inflicted on them by inadequate or needy parents, is profoundly helpful. Out of this reading I have been provided with a possible interpretation of many abusive scenarios, whether in a church-based context down to a dysfunctional relationship between two people.

The ability to understand and interpret what may be going on in a situation of abuse does not in itself solve any problems. The power hungry narcissist will still exploit his victims, whether they be congregants, pupils in a school or members of the family. But there is the hope that every time the insights, such as those provided by Daniel Shaw, are shared, an environment of understanding is created where fewer people are able to get away with this kind of dehumanising and exploitative behaviour. In summary the problem I have been describing is that of treating people as objects. Everyone knows that, when this happens, and it can happen in many, many situations, there is likely to be the potential for profound trauma. The concern of this blog is to highlight the needs of those who suffer as the result of abuse carried on in the context of Christian belief and practice. When a psychoanalyst like Daniel Shaw writes so cogently on the topic of cultic exploitation, I feel that I need to study his writings and bring some of the conclusions to the attention of my readers. I may well have cause to return to this remarkable book as I have only begun to share the numerous insights of his study. It is a book that has already taken its place among classics of ‘cult studies’. Sadly too few people in the UK read this literature, and it may be a decade before Shaw’s ideas penetrate the thinking of professional therapists, few of whom seem to understand the ‘cult’ dynamic that exists in a whole variety of settings. I shall continue to read and to share with my followers what wisdom I can extract from literature that comes my way. Meanwhile I want to finish with a thought. How wonderful it would be if we could be protected from the depredations of narcissists because people had learnt to spot them long before they had the opportunity to create havoc and harm around them. As a society and members of religious communities, we need to be far more vigilant and alert than we are.

In praise of doubt

After some rapid writing trying to keep up with the evolving events at Brentwood, I thought I would post something fairly short this time. I will not mention Brentwood, except to say that the situation continues to develop. We can expect much more drama before anything is finally resolved.

Over the past couple of days I have been rewriting the welcome page at the front of the blog. It has brought me into touch once again with the aims and objectives of what I’m trying to do. I believe that in order to help individuals who’ve been part of ultraconservative groups, I need from time to time to be able to provide them with a different theological perspective. So one part of the purpose of this blog is to address some of the intellectual confusion that has been sown in their minds by years of exposure to what I would call bad theology. I also see that it is not enough simply to criticise poor theological reasoning. It is also necessary to set out an alternative way of doing theology. It is here that my vulnerability to some of my readers becomes clear. I am by conviction and education and unashamed theological liberal. Not everyone who has been part of a conservative group will be ready to take on board some of my ideas. They will think that I am going too fast and too far. Nevertheless it is the nature of liberals, whether in politics, science or religion, always to question and scrutinise evidence that is put before them. Truth is something which is not the same as certainty. In other words, a liberal may take a stand on an aspect of belief without claiming that he or she is absolutely certain about it in the sense that nothing more remains to be said. There will always be a certain hesitancy in their position and this allows them also to be tolerant both to possible change in the future and also in relation to another position which may be quite contrary to the one they hold. They may want to discuss it but they will never want to rubbish it as though it threatened the position they identify with at present.

In writing this short reflection, I want to think about the word doubt. Doubt is one of those words which brings terror to conservative Christians. It seems to imply that a doubter is on a slippery slope to a denial of the Christian faith. For the liberal, doubt is, by contrast, the means whereby a doctrine can be thought about and examined, as well as discussed. The liberal, much to the horror of many conservative Christians, reserves the right to put to one side doctrines may appear to have little meaning or relevance. He is aware of the tradition within science that every hypothesis has to be questioned, if scientific discovery is to be furthered. Doubt is at the heart of new knowledge and new understanding. There is a theologian called John Hull who recently died. He taught theology at Birmingham University and I invited him to lead a day at my parish in Gloucestershire. I remember his comments about difficult areas of belief. He said that if we come across something that does not make a lot of sense to us, we should not worry about it, but, metaphorically speaking, we should place it on top of the wardrobe. In saying this, he was trying to help people to see that it is much more important to discover what we do believe rather than worrying about what we think we ought to believe.

The liberal Christian does believe many things and certainly they respect the words of Scripture. But, having said this, they refuse to be tied to a pre-existing idea about what Scripture is saying. They try to read it as though it is fresh each time they come to it. In this way they want to read for what it actually says rather than what others have told them it says. Too often conservative Christians learn about doctrine first and then are shown how it can be read out of the text of Scripture. A typical example will be the meaning of the word gospel or good news. It is quite clear that conservative doctrine will opt every time for the Pauline meaning of this word rather than the meaning that is given to it by Jesus. The liberal Christian will want to affirm both meanings of the word gospel, but there will be no suggestion that one has to be referred over the other. There are of course many other examples of New Testament words being far richer in their interpretation than is captured by a single dogmatic translation.

‘In praise of doubt’ is a kind of summing up of one part of what this blog post seek to do. It wants to introduce the reader to the idea that there is a freedom in seeing the Christian faith afresh and the text of the Bible with new eyes. Doubt allows one to begin at the beginning of seeking to understand, without being weighed down with any heavy dogmatic presuppositions. I hope that my reader, who may be struggling with the aftermath of a heavy religious indoctrination, may find this approach refreshing and new. Even if it represents a way of thinking that is totally novel, I hope that it will help him or her to make progress in a rediscovery of the Christian faith which, as I have often said, is always new.

Updates at Brentwood 18th August

I have decided to leave my previous blog post, even though almost the whole thing is now so out of date that it probably should be deleted. On this post, I shall try to keep to the facts that are known about the Commission on Trinity Church Brentwood and its dissolution. These are the known facts as of Tuesday 18th August.

On Friday 14th the Trustees wrote to John Langlois, the chair of the Commission telling him that the body was being dissolved. The reasons that were given involved an alleged lack of partiality on his part, and the chairman suggested that the Commission could no longer command the confidence of the church and others.

John wrote two replies. One was to the Trustees of the church, asking for clarification of this ‘partiality’ that was being complained about. He suggested to the Chairman of the Trustees that he had complete confidence in three of the four fellow commissioners and that he suspected that the fourth, the Rev Terry Mortimer, had been leaking information about the commission and also making complaints about the work of the group to outsiders. John also revealed that Terry had written to him in July, suggesting that the Commission should be dissolved and that he (Terry) was going to seek to have it stopped.

The second longer missive was sent to all the individuals who had approached the Commission to give evidence and make statements of ill-treatment at the hands of the Peniel/Trinity. This contained further information. The most striking piece of information was that John wished to continue the work of the Commission and that he proposed to continue with the three remaining members of the Commission. He paid special tribute to Julia McGahon, the Trinity member who was on the Commission and expressed his firm conviction that she and the other two members had not let anything leak out of their proceedings. He made it very clear that the end of interference by Trinity would greatly assist his work for the future. They would now be truly independent.

The long account put by Trinity itself suggested that they were ready to continue with the work of the Commission with two new people, appointed by themselves, Phil Hills and David Shearman, in charge. These two are firmly within the charismatic network, and are no doubt acceptable to the Trustees of Trinity. Whether they have the forensic abilities of a lawyer, like John Langlois, is highly questionable. Some victims have already expressed their dismay at the way these two were parachuted into the scene without any consultation. It is also not clear whether the Evangelical Alliance has had any say in this drastic change of plan.

The plot becomes muddied by suggestions that John Langlois has failed in his professional impartiality in some way. The first suggestion is that he has, in an email, been less than complimentary about Julia McGahon, a Commission member and that also he was critical of the work of Nigel Davies, the author of the other blog. As of this evening Tuesday 18th, no statement has been made by him over this or the other suggestions of bias. On the face of it, these allegations of unprofessional behaviour are implausible, and I, for one, want to stick by the belief that John Langlois is a man of professional and personal integrity. It would still help if he were to make a statement answering these and the other suggestions of slippage from professional standards.

On Tuesday afternoon in an email to Nigel Davies, it was revealed that Julia McGahon had resigned from the Commission. This will create problems for the viability of the Commission in the future as there are now only three members out of the original five left. We await to see what John will do in reaction to this piece of news. It is not hard to see that Mrs McGahon must have felt incredibly pressured by her position as a member of a church which is the subject of so much airing of ‘dirty-washing’ from the past. She will have been under considerable pressure to speak of what she has heard by other members of the congregation.

The next part of the saga will take place when we hear, as we surely will, of the reaction of the Evangelical Alliance. To remind readers, they were brought in when the allegations of rape were first make back in April 2015. John Langlois is one of their top heavy-weights in terms of legal experience and the ability to understand the issues around evangelical institutions. He himself is a third-generation member of a Pentecostal congregation. He will expect, with good cause, to have his reputation defended by the organisation that recommended him to the Trustees of Trinity Brentwood in the first place. There is still much more to happen in this saga. I regale my readers with all the detail because the potential for this Commission is of great importance for the cause that this blog holds dear – the issue of justice and fairness for any who have been harmed by the activity of churches and their leaders towards their vulnerable membership. Broken families, traumatic stress and deep depression are the legacy of this destructive ministry in an Essex town. The dynamics of this church, as I do not tire of saying, are visited on some congregations up and down the land. This blog continues to name this kind of abuse and by seeking to interpret what is happening, make it harder for perpetrators to operate.

Betrayal at Trinity Brentwood

TrinityInformation that has come in recently means that my speculations of yesterday are already out of date. Please read to the end, including the two Stop Press additions. For the time being what is true is that the Commission appointed by Trinity is dead, but John Langlois and three of his commissioners seem determined to carry on and finish the task. Good luck to them in their determination. There are still areas of truth to be revealed but one has learnt to be suspicious of anything coming out of Trinity about what is ‘true’. I will endeavour to keep my readers up to date with information as it becomes available.

News has come in today (Sunday) from Nigel Davies’ blog that the Commission of Enquiry at Holy Trinity Brentwood has been dissolved. This mean that there will be no report, no action or recommendations about the steps the church should take concerning the allegations of abuse from the past. Obviously there will be further information in the coming days and weeks to offer an explanation as to why this action has been taken, but at this point we can offer some speculation as to what might be going on.

At the beginning of the enquiry the under the terms of the Commission, it was stated that the group of five people would not investigate matters of criminality. The Commission would only hear material from individuals who had been hurt by the church. Given the fact that the incident that provoked the setting up of the Commission was an allegation of rape, a highly criminal act, it was a curious condition with which to restrict the Commission’s work. My speculation is that the Commission has been hearing so many allegations of criminal activity that they realise that it will be impossible to write a report without at least referring to these allegations. Some of the stories of abuse are connected with children and it is hard to see that, in the case of an abused child, it is possible to talk about the non-criminal part of the abuse and ignore the criminal bit. Then there are the financial issues. It is hard to believe that the Commission is not aware of all the property swaps and financial shenanigans that have taken place over the years which have involved huge sums of money, not to mention outright lying and fraud. How on earth do you write a report that ignores criminal allegations?

Having said this I am still deeply disappointed in this outcome, whatever the reason. John Langlois, as an experienced lawyer, must have known that separating criminal from non-criminal activity might be an impossible task in practice. He only had to read Nigel’s blog to get the flavour of the kind of things that have gone on over the years to realise that some soft-centred reconciliation act was probably never going to work. Too much of blatant evil has happened for some easy-going act of mediation to be able to sort the problems out. On Nigel’s blog tonight, there is the suggestion that the Church itself has pulled the plug on the Commission as it does not like the way the evidence is going, in pointing at wrongdoing by the church.

The end of the Commission is a tragedy for the church and its victims. It is a tragedy for the church because the possibility of moving forward healthily, with its dark past somehow dealt with, has been removed. A process of reconciliation with victims and the wider church is also no longer possible. The Evangelical Alliance, which encouraged the setting up of this Commission as maybe a way of resolving a running sore to its reputation, will still have this ‘Peniel Problem’ to deal with. They had much to gain if the Commission had found a way forward on this particular issue. It would be interesting to know what has been going on behind the scenes. The EA stand to lose out from this particular outcome. Acting as a body which offers some loose accreditation to churches, the EA is always going to find that associating with notorious set-ups like Brentwood will undermine their reputation and any good work they try to achieve. I, for one, have absolutely no confidence in their ability to discriminate between good and bad, the holy and the infamous among their constituent members.

The biggest area of betrayal is of the victims who have been cajoled to come out of their places of pain to give evidence to the Commission. They were encouraged to believe that they were finally being heard. They believed that justice in some measure was being offered to them. Whether or not it was to involve financial compensation is neither here nor there. They just wanted to be believed. My hearts weeps for the state of those who have had for years to nurse the pain of the abuse they suffered at Peniel from the monstrous leaders of that church, only to have their hope dashed by this dissolution of this Commission. Even those who had not opted to give evidence were watching from the side-lines in the hope that their cause was being represented by others. Now their hope too is extinguished.

The last hope is that justice will prevail in another way. Kathryn Bowden, the incredibly brave Bible School student who stood up and made her allegation of rape while under the ‘care’ of the church will indeed be angry. I hope she will pursue justice for herself and all the other victims of the church. If she does do something via the law or the police, she will be representing all those individuals who have had their voices squashed by this incredibly sad decision. She will have all the support that we can muster. The task that the Commission set out to accomplish still really matters to many people. The pain of the historic abuse at this particular church must be heard somehow and made a matter of public acknowledgement.

Anger and the tears of dashed hopes will be the feelings experienced by many individuals in Essex today. Let us hope that something can be rescued from this shambles of the dissolving of the Commission. Whatever it will be, we want it to be something will promote the cause of truth and justice for the abused victims of a Christian Church. What happens at Trinity, Brentwood is important for the victims of Christian abuse everywhere.

The situation has shifted dramatically in the past few hours as it has been revealed that John Langlois has been sacked by the Trustees. It appears that one of the Trustees, Terry Mortimer, accused him to the Trustees of partiality. Terry did not discuss this with the other commissioners. John has published a robust account of the correspondence that he had with the Trustees and it seems that Terry Mortimer is himself accused of leaking information outside the Commission. The situation is confused and no doubt will develop over the next day or so. My impression of John Langlois himself has shifted back to being an extremely positive one. I have therefore removed my expression of doubt in his impartiality that was in my earlier version. Perhaps I was picking up deliberate misinformation from those who had their own reasons to undermine this report.


A closer perusal of the email sent by John Langlois to the individuals who have met the Commission indicates that he is far from accepting that the Commission is dead. His ‘sacking’ by the Trustees of the church and the dissolution of the Commission is actually seen as allowing him more freedom in his work. He was appointed on the recommendation of the Evangelical Alliance and it is hard to see that they will back up Trinity in summarily dismissing him from his work. His tone in the email is such that one can see a steely determination to carry on, whatever anyone says, including the EA. He has enormous prestige in the evangelical world, and it is hard to see anyone ‘messing’ with him. Questions are still lurking about his own agenda, but my confidence in his integrity is such that I am, for the moment, treating these questions as deliberate disinformation put out by Trinity, seeking to undermine his case. This saga is set to run and run and the successful outcome will be nothing but good for the cause of victims of abuse at the hands of churches everywhere. The Commission set up by Trinity is dead. Long live the the Commission mark 2!

A ‘cultic’ marriage

ForcedMarriageToday I was told a very sad story about a family that has been blown apart through the behaviour of one of its members. Some 37 years ago a young woman married a man whom her family did not particularly like. They came to accept the situation however as she was 21. The girl, we shall call her Joanna, had just finished a course at a local college but immediately after her marriage to Ben, she had to stop any attempt to find work as her husband wanted her to keep house and raise children. Three children arrived in quick succession to the delight of the girl’s parents who lived not far away. Over a period of five years, however, they found access to the grandchildren increasingly difficult and by the time the eldest child was five all contact had ceased. Joanna was in total submission to Ben and would not stand up to him on any point. On the few family occasions when she was present, (he never appeared) she sat in a corner with her head lowered and saying very little. Even these few appearances at family events petered out to nothing and the grandmother, telling me this from her hospital bed, says she has not seen either her daughter or her grandchildren for over twenty years. They still all live within five miles of each other.

There is another daughter in the family, Eileen, who has also lost contact with her sister and her nephew and nieces. The cruellest blow for the wider family came when one of the grown-up children of Joanna’s family was on local television for some achievement and announced to the world that she, a woman in her thirties, had no grandparents. Somehow her family had created for her the myth that the grandparents and aunt to her and her siblings did not exist. They had been airbrushed out of existence. This scenario reminded me instantly of a cult, the creation of a reality which has been falsified and is destructive to those who live within it.

You can imagine that, hearing the story, I wanted to understand a little how this incredibly sad narrative had come to pass. In the limited time available to me I discovered that Joanna had been severely bullied while a teenager at school and that her self-esteem had suffered as a result. Her situation was not improved by opting to live at home while a student rather than learning to mix with a number of fellow students her own age. A failure to develop socially during the crucial student years had made her vulnerable to being attracted to the idea of an early marriage as a way of achieving adulthood in a single act, without going through the process of mixing with and learning about other young adults. This combination of circumstances – self-esteem problems and failure to break away from parents at the right time- is also a typical scenario in the background of those who get drawn into extreme groups, both religious and political. It is also, incidentally, the area of study that I wish to speak about at next year’s Cultic Studies conference. No doubt my readers will be hearing more on this subject as my reading on identity issues starts to intensify.

Having in my own mind formulated the idea that my elderly patient was describing what was, to all intents and purposes, a cult, I tentatively questioned her about Ben’s background. I suggested that this intense possessiveness of the patient’s daughter over 37 years was possibly the mark of a personality disorder. I offered the thought that what she was describing was something similar to the intense devotion to a cult leader which simultaneously destroys all links to the outside world. Her daughter had cut off the wider family from her children, not out of wickedness but out of the need to hold on to a relationship which, although toxic, had helped her to hold things together all those years ago when trying to make the transition from being a fragile adolescent and passing into the uncertain world of adulthood.

Scraps of information about Ben’s past further illuminated my interpretation. As readers of this blog will know, I always look for evidence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in those who lead cults or extreme groups. Narcissists are those who thrive on the total devotion of their followers, having had some issues in childhood, particularly in relation to their mothers, that leave them with what the literature calls a ‘narcissistic deficit’. Translated into English, the expression suggests that boys in particular, who are over-worshipped by their mothers, will expect to have a life-time of such worship from others. They develop the skills necessary to draw victims into their net who will provide the right degree of ‘worship’. In Ben’s case he was looking, not for cult followers, but for one individual to serve his narcissistic needs. Joanna’s mother told me enough to suggest that the theoretical reconstruction might be correct in this instance. Ben’s mother had indeed over-mothered him and then abandoned him by dying when he was 12 years old.

I was not able to share all my theorising with Joanna’s mother but the subsequent reflection about the story she told has driven me to want to share both the story and my interpretation with my readers. It has, to be frank, up till now never occurred to me that some marriages may take on the character of cults, especially as they are totally lacking any identifiable ideology or belief system. This interpretation that Joanna, in entering this marriage, effectively became a member of a two person cult, does however seem to fit the facts. I cannot of course list all the marks of a cult and apply them each to the fragmentary story that I heard, but I hope my readers can see that my interpretation is at least a plausible one.

For me, writing this account and offering an interpretation, has helped to bring to my awareness how the dynamics of cults, extreme religious groups as well as narcissistic behaviour are never far away from every-day situations. Whether my attempts to offer the beginnings of new understanding to Joanna’s sick mother were helpful, remains to be seen. I did quote to her the old saying that to understand all is to forgive all. Whether I completely agree with that slogan, I don’t know, but it does contain sufficient truth to be worth using in these situations. A recognition that Joanna and Ben are both victims does not lessen the destructive results of their behaviour, both to their families and children, but it maybe does help a grandmother at the end of a long life begin to find a little peace in the situation. Let us hope so. Meanwhile I have been allowed to learn something from this sad, sad situation which may, perhaps, be used to help others understand.

Ministering to the Dying

B8BTE8 Daughter visiting elderly mother patient in hospital bed Cheltenham UK. Image shot 02/2009. Exact date unknown. My blog posts have hinted at the fact that I am not, at the moment, as geared into the issues around Christian abuse as normal. This is because each day I am spending two or three hours at the local hospital doing what is described as ‘continuity care’ for the full-time chaplain during her holiday absence. Most of the patients I see are successfully responding to treatment while others are facing the end of their lives. It is this minority that demand patience and time. Some of these patients are unable to talk about the probable outcome of their illness while others are remarkably articulate on the subject of death. It is not easy talking to someone about their death as it would be all too easy to say something that causes distress. You are speaking to a person who is, until that moment, for you a total stranger. You are not only talking to them but you are trying to raise an area of conversation that is more personal and sensitive than anything else one can imagine.

This topic of what I, as a Christian minister, have to say to the dying does in fact touch on our overall theme. This is because I am trying to minister, not just to the practising Christians among the patients, but also to people who have no outward Christian faith. It is this latter group who present the greater challenge. The temptation for some Christians is tell the patient the ‘Gospel’ and then encourage them to accept Jesus into their heart and say the ‘sinner’s prayer’. The opposite temptation is simply to avoid saying anything of significance at all because all that they believe is wrapped up in words that they, the patients, would not understand. That does seem to be true of much Christian discourse. Words like salvation and gospel pour out of the mouth of the minister, even in the informal setting of a hospital bedside, and they probably confuse as well as alienate the listener. To leave a very sick patient with the idea, that because they are not individuals of faith, they are going to a place of eternal torment would be something highly harmful and distressing. Thankfully none of the accredited chaplaincy volunteers in our hospital would be allowed to speak in this way. But there are many Christians in Britain and elsewhere who belong to the ‘turn or burn’ group. Even if a Christian of this ilk did manage to curb his/her tongue over describing the fate of the unconverted, it is hard to see that they would have much of use to say. Because they would be, for reasons of tact and propriety, restrained in what they wanted to say, they would probably end up saying very little.

The challenge, and it is not an easy one, is to say something of value to a patient who may be close to death which uses no special language or any Christian jargon. It is this task which I have been thinking about and trying to put into practice over the months that I have been helping in the hospital. The first barrier that has to be crossed is to be allowed by the patient to talk about death in the first place. That requires a great deal of sensitivity and care. But once you have been allowed to enter into this space you have to declare what you believe is at the end of life. When I begin to speak on this topic, I might first of all mention, when it seems appropriate, the Near Death Experience (NDE) literature and ask if they have heard of it. I make the point that those who have been through such an experience seem nearly always to return with a heightened sense of wonder at what they have learnt. The experience has enthralled and overwhelmed them in its brightness and glory. There is a sense of having attended the ultimate homecoming, the greatest welcome that they could imagine. I then focus on one component of that experience, the encounter with beauty. The word beauty has many manifestations, whether through a transforming relationship, a memorable aesthetic experience or being raptured by nature’s wonders. Most people have something in their lives that they can identify with beauty and I encourage them to recall it in their imaginations. I then typically will point out that we encounter beauty by an opening up of ourselves. There is an act of longing and a reaching out involved to whatever we identify as beautiful. Beauty is always outside us. I suggest that the place that NDEs point to and the church’s tradition of heaven are roughly the same thing. Heaven, whatever else it is, is a place that totally absorbs our minds, our imaginations and our spirits. If we have ever been enthralled in an act of absorbing something beautiful, we should imagine that heaven is like that, only a million times more powerful. In that situation, time would cease to matter because the object of all our longing and our joy would be ours in a single eternal moment.

No doubt to the disapproval of many conventional Christians, I sum up the Christian faith as being the reaching out by us in faith, expectation and love to a God who also reaches out towards us. That is how I understand the words of Jesus in Mark chapter 1 when he declares that the ‘Kingdom of God is near’. ‘Turn around and receive the Good News’. In my conversations with people at the end of their lives I suggest that God is very close and we have to reach out to receive what he wants to give us, something that is hard to put into words. If appropriate I read part of Psalm 139 which declares that there is nowhere outside God’s presence.

These notes on making the Christian good news relevant to people in extremis who have no background in the Christian faith is sharing very personal material but it is relevant to the theme of our blog. This is because it is far from the Christianity that is coercive and controlling that we have had frequent cause to complain about. If such a message, summarised as ‘turn or burn’ is cruel and insensitive to ordinary people who struggle with normal life issues, it is a horrendous message to even hint at for the end of earthly existence. As a ‘liberal’ I believe that the Christian faith has good news contained within even for people who never come to church, never pray the ‘sinner’s prayer’ and never make any public declaration of faith. The more time I spend with the dying, the more I find that I want to proclaim the truth of John 14 that in my Father’s house are ‘many rooms’. Many rooms implies all kinds of conditions of people are catered by the divine economy and who are we to question how this works in practice? Perhaps I am technically a universalist, but that seems closer to the words and spirit of Jesus than anything I read in some types of Christian literature which is all about threat and control. The Jesus I follow is one that says to me, and especially to those close to death, the words ‘Come unto me all that are burdened and I will give you rest.’

Charisma and Irrationality

kids companyToday (Thursday 6th) the papers are full of the sad demise of the charity, Kids Company. It might seem a strange thing for this blog even to mention it, but I detect in this story a fascinating and instructive juxtaposition of issues which we have often looked at in this blog. I have no means of knowing whether the story will show that a massive injustice has been done to the founder and director Camilla Batmanghelidjh. That will, no doubt, emerge in the coming days and weeks. What the paper (The Times) is also reporting this morning is the dynamic of the relationship that appears to have existed between David Cameron and Camilla B. Whatever else can be said about the founder of the charity, she appears to have had considerable ability to charm and cajole prominent people, from film stars to our leading politicians. The newspaper speaks of this as a ‘charisma’ which ‘enthralled’ and ‘mesmerised’ the Prime Minister so that he was ready to bypass his rationality and overrule the civil service accountants who are paid to guard the nation’s funds. They were concerned that financial discipline was not being exercised in the way the charity was being run.

Few people in this country are unaware of Ms Batmanghelidjh and her extravagant and colourful outfits. The ability to wear such clothing is indicative of a very confident personality. It is not hard to see how such an overwhelming outfit on an individual is suggestive of a powerful persuasive character. Describing her as ‘charismatic’ is one way of pointing to the fact that she seems to have had the power to fascinate and attract those she spoke to, among them the rich and famous. This celebrity status, no doubt, enabled her to have little difficulty in raising the considerable sums of money needed for her charity. But the problem for anyone achieving this kind of status and influence is that they may well start to believe that the fascination that they exert over other people is an infallible indication that they really are in some way special. Elsewhere we have called this inflated awareness of one’s importance, ‘Acquired Narcissistic Syndrome’. If Camilla B. indeed is revelling in this kind of charismatic/narcissistic power, she has something in common with the power exercised by celebrity preachers, especially those who adorn our religious broadcasting channels. This celebrity-type culture and its rampant narcissism is nevertheless frequently bad news for many people. It would not be particularly surprising if Ms Batmanghelidjh, the recipient of so-much attention and praise, has succumbed to some of the temptations that befall those in the category of celebrity. Her original undoubted gifts for caring for children might well have started to take second place to the enjoyment and the glamour of mixing with and influencing important people.

Charisma, as we have often described on this blog, is an important part of the dynamic of many churches. At its best, it gives a sense of life and vitality to worship and spiritual growth. But we have noted that charisma also has a dark side which can lead its practitioners into a malign exercise of power over followers. In describing these darker aspects of charisma in a religious setting, we have seen in other posts how followers are fascinated and enthralled by the signs of power that the charismatic leader is able to engender. There is a kind of mutual enhancement process. The followers are raised up by being close to the ‘man of God’ who reveals a vision of power and spiritual and economic plenty. The leader feeds off this adulation so he too is able to feel a psychological boost. To move from talking about charisma to describing what is, effectively, addictive behaviour, is not as far-fetched as it might seem. The music, the emotional intensity and the larger than life personality of the charismatic leader are all extremely stimulating to those followers present. When these things are absent then there is sense of let-down, a craving for the sensations that were part of a charismatic ‘high’. The wrong kind of charisma has, in short, created spiritual junkies both in the leader and his followers. The leader very easily becomes addicted to the high of being at the centre of an adoring fascinated crowd. He comes alive in this situation and when this emotional stimulus is not there, life seems flat and without flavour. When he finally leaves the scene, the ex-charismatic leader may well feel like an alcoholic who has lost the one thing that gave his life meaning.

One possible interpretation of the story of the Kids Company is that it has over the years acquired aspects of a religious cult, creating unhealthy dynamics for all those involved. If this is indeed the case, we must not allow ourselves to judge Camilla Batmanghelidjh too harshly. We may recognise that the people who lavished money and attention on the director were themselves needing to do this in the way that charismatic worshippers need to give and be close to their adored idols. The Prime Minister and Gordon Brown before him needed to feel that they were actively promoting the cause of helping deprived children and, by ‘worshipping’ Camilla, they allowed them to achieve something of this desired end. By using the terms ‘enthralled’ and ‘mesmerised’ to describe David Cameron’s relationship with Camilla, the reporter in today’s Times has well captured the quasi-religious dimension of the story. Camilla herself would need to be superhumanly earthed not to feel flattered and immensely exalted by having so much attention over such a long period of time. Somehow the whole unhappy episode is a sober reminder of what can go wrong when these quasi-religious dynamics are allowed to take root in politics and in the world of charity work. It goes without saying that they are already potentially dangerous in the context of religious organisations.

My analysing today’s story about the Kids Company in terms of the dynamics of charisma may seem impossibly far-fetched to some of my readers. But for me, this deconstruction of the story helps to make it more understandable as well as more human. If these insights about charisma that I have outlined were more widely understood, then perhaps the problems of this kind of episode might not be allowed to develop to such a sorry conclusion. My own take on the story would be to say that if you leave a charismatic personality (not in itself a bad thing) in a situation where he or she is not properly accountable, then you have the recipe for potential disaster. The problem will be compounded when the situation is not addressed for a number of years. When an individual in any walk of life, not least the church, is identified as possessing the gifts of charisma, then there should always be checks and balances to stop that individual becoming too powerful and controlling, no doubt ‘enthralling’ and ‘mesmerising’ many along the way. Charismatic power can be channelled into good ends, but that can only be done by people who have faced up to and understand its potentially dark and destructive side.

Change and decay

dementia-landingA short time ago I wrote a piece about the importance of recognising change in a positive sense as part of the human lot. What I did not discuss was the second part of the quotation from the hymn, Abide with Me, where it speaks not only of change but also of decay. This August, as last year, I am on chaplaincy cover at the local hospital. This means that I am talking to quite a few people sometimes at the very end of their lives. The hope is that some spiritual insight and counsel may ease their passing. That is the theory of a chaplain’s work. The actual practice is to listen to an elderly person, often in a state of sadness and confusion, and hope that the mere act of listening may help them feel connected a little, as they prepare to make the final journey from this life to the beyond.

The prevalence of actual dementia in so many of the elderly population is a fact of our time. Various initiatives are proposed, both social and pharmacological, but the sad fact is that quite a proportion of our elderly people die in a state of wondering who they are and barely recognising their relatives. This morning I spent time with one old lady who was convinced that her relatives had abandoned her and that they wanted her to die so that they could get their hands on her money. I had no means of knowing whether any of it was true or whether it was a fantasy created by her confused state. Either way it was a sad place for her to be. The same relatives will find themselves rejected when they get back from holiday and she will die, quite possibly, with a feeling of being completely abandoned.

The examples of mental and physical decay in the very old are familiar to all of us. It raises quite profound theological questions about our identity. Is our soul somehow contained in the sad confused state that many of us are destined to arrive at, or is there is a ‘core’ personality that exists beneath or above what we may become? Also when we use the language of ‘conversion’ to describe the Christian individual, is that state of being ‘saved’ something that can never be eradicated, whatever happens to that person in later life? It is not clear what the answer is to these questions, but it is important to ask them as we wrestle with the profound questions of human suffering as well as human identity. My own personal answer to the dilemma is to imagine that each of us do have a core personality which draws on aspects of what we are now and have been at every stage. Our ‘tree’ may have many layers or tree rings within but it is one tree with all the years of growth and change contained within it. The tree when it is fully grown still has those years of growth inside the trunk, even if only one layer of bark is visible to the human eye. I always think of God in looking at us, seeing, not only the people we have become but the totality of the all the stages of our journey on the way to the present moment. One gets the sense that the psalmist thought like this when he declared in Psalm 22.10: ‘upon thee was I cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me, thou hast been my God.’ God knows us from the beginning and that knowledge is one that carries us through to the end.

The seeming tragedy of old-age decay may not be the total evil that it appears at first sight. If we can retain an optimistic perspective, then we have good news for the elderly. God sees beyond and behind the outward decay to love and affirm the person right across the span of life. The practical issue is that the church is not good at sharing this message. In proclaiming ‘mission’ as being at the centre of its task, it very easily allows the extreme elderly to drop out of sight in favour of the young and virile who may yet become Christians. It goes without saying that the abandoning of a group of people, because of age or confusion, is an example of abuse through neglect. Old people need to be honoured and respected by both church and society. Somehow we have to find ways of expressing our respect and not regarding them as a nuisance because they no longer make a tangible contribution to their community. Above all, as Christians, we need to learn to see them as I believe God sees them, people with lives and loves behind and within them. We need to see them like trees containing the numerous rings of life and experience. That way the church could make an enormous contribution to the well-being of society. It could be said to be a place where people, all people, are honoured and valued from birth to death. This is what God does. He sees us and affirms us as wholes, as complete people.

My opportunity for visiting these very elderly people is confined to the periods when I am on duty at the local hospital covering for the chaplain’s holidays. For the rest of the time they are to me, as for most people, an invisible segment of society. It would of course be possible to pretend that because we seldom encounter the very old, that we can ignore the problem and hope it will somehow disappear. But even we were to think like this, there is one overriding reason to restrain us in such an approach. That is the fact that all of us need to think now about the way we will fare in a similar situation. For Christians we have to ask whether the church will support us in extreme old age. Will I be heard, have psalms read to me and be generally affirmed by members of the church or will I be abandoned as having nothing at that point to contribute to the Christian community? Perhaps that is a question that all my readers should ponder. If we do ask the question for ourselves, perhaps we can make a small difference now in ensuring that, in a very small way, the church moves out of its comfort zone to visit, support and minister to the elderly, the confused and the sick. They are, after all, again in the words of the Psalmist, ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. By seeing that we are able to give them back some of the honour and dignity that age and infirmity has seemingly taken from them.