Comment on news stories

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis listens to a customer following her office's refusal to issue marriage licenses at the Rowan County Courthouse in Morehead, Ky., Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015. Although her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied, Davis still refuses to issue marriage licenses. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley) Many of us have been following the sad story of Kim Davis, the registrar in Kentucky who has refused to issue marriage licenses for gay couples on the grounds that this would upset her Christian convictions against same-sex marriage. At the time of writing she is still in prison for contempt of court. The court had ordered her to allow her deputies to distribute is licenses on her behalf but she refused. The case once again raises the issue of what is the Christian position on same-sex marriage. It is clear that a large swathe of Christian opinion has decided that this issue is a make or break one. And yet as we all know from reading the story that Kim herself is not particularly well integrated into other Christian values. She has been divorced three times and this action would appear, from even a cursory reading of the Gospels to be far more obviously against the moral teaching of Jesus. We have to repeat the fact that Jesus seems to have had nothing to say on the gay issue.

The episode in Kentucky would be not worthy of comment on this blog but for the fact that it illustrates once again the apparent obsession of many Christians in relation to this issue of same sex marriage. Once again all Christians are perceived to belong to a homophobic tribe when non-Christians read these kinds of story. Readers of this blog will realise that this is a falsehood as there are many opinions on this issue among Christians. But every time any Christians make a stand and declare that a movement towards the gay community is a betrayal of deeply held convictions, the case for linking Christianity and institutional homophobia becomes more a reality. It is a bit like water dripping on a rock so that the rock is gradually worn down and changes shape. After a further 20 years one is afraid that any Christians who are friendly to the cause of the gay marriage will be driven out as heretics by their own community. It is of particularly concern that a chasm is appearing between young people in society who are almost universally tolerant on this issue and an institution, the Church, which in parts seems incapable of movement in this matter.

chethamThe other story that caught my eye this week was the sad case of sexual abuse at Chethams School in Manchester. Over the weekend I have been at a conference in Lincoln and I was discussing with a professional musician this latest story of abuse. She knew some of the networks of young musicians who had been affected by these events. She also mentioned that there is much more in the way of abuse stories from the music world which will come out in the future. It was while talking to her that I began to see cultic aspects in the story. One of the newspaper accounts referred to the convicted abusive teacher as being like a Svengali – figure. This fictional reference suggests the use of hypnosis as the prelude to an abusive relationship. As far as I am concerned I see clearer links with the seduction techniques of a cult guru. My preferred language is that of the narcissistically-inclined power abuser, the one who draws into their net a vulnerable and impressionable student. The music world, as we all know, thrives on a culture of large egos and dramatic personalities. There is nothing wrong with such behaviour in itself but large egos can so easily degenerate into a narcissistic behaviour which is often exploitative and abusive.

The point of my commentary on this sad story is that the narcissistic/cult pattern occurs not just in cults themselves, but is found across many institutions, including the church and the world of celebrity and music. For someone to become a celebrity in some sphere, is to introduce them to the temptation of taking on narcissistic behaviour. As my readers will know, this will involve self-inflation, grandiose ideas about themselves and a propensity to humiliate, abuse and belittle those who look up to them. In short, a celebrity culture of whatever kind is a dangerous place to be caught up in. Any institution like a church, a firm or a school for gifted children will often attract narcissistic individuals. All these places should be on the lookout to make sure that such people do not embed themselves in positions of power which can be used abusively against those who look up to them. In the case of Chethams School it is easy to see how some teachers placed themselves in a position which was guru like. Where this happened the pupils were in a place of extreme danger. It may even be that the young charges of these teachers accepted abuse as something normal in the process of learning a musical instrument to a very high level. If this surmise is correct, then there needs to be some root and branch reformation of such institutions with a demand that the culture should be changed radically that it does not ever accept the culture responsible for this kind of behaviour. This blog has been calling for a long time for a change in attitude that makes it impossible for religious institutions to tolerate this kind of attitude among its leaders.

The two stories from the news I have commented on today are very different. In one I have drawn attention to the way that Christianity is becoming increasingly defined as having a negative attitude to gays, effectively making the church a homophobic institution. Such a definition is having the effect of undermining its reputation and status in society so that people will increasingly turn away from it. The second story has drawn attention to a form of behaviour which has had incredibly destructive consequences in the music world and in particular has caused massive damage to the reputation of Chethams School. This culture out of which this criminal behaviour emerges is one sadly that I have identified as being far too common in church circles. Although this blog post may seem to be focussing on a negative side of Church life, I would claim that an awareness of what is going on and the ability to interpret it accurately, is a help in anticipating and neutralising to some extent the damage to an institution. Understanding at depth what is going on may help in a small way to stop similar things happening in the future, whether in a specialist music college or in the church. Many of us still respect and love the church in spite of its failures and frequent blindness.

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.

9 thoughts on “Comment on news stories

  1. In cases of abuse, there are more people than the victim and the abuser involved. There is the bystander, for one (or several). (S)he should be supporting the victim, and trying to get the abuser to stop. This applies equally to bullying, sexual exploitation, physical abuse and child abuse. but of course, exactly how one reacts does vary. Often the bystander does nothing. Look at the Jimmy Savile case. In many cases there is also the institution or the Boss. In the church we would call it institutional sin, and it is the leaders of the institution who have to deal with it. It is their responsibility, even where the abuse was not in their purlieu. In a small office, it may be the office manager. Again, it is their responsibility to do something. What we observe at Chetham is that this did not happen. Same old, same old.
    As far as the church’s being seen as homophobic is concerned, that is certainly true on some blog streams, but it is not true in many, if not most, churches. Where I am, some of the church leaders are fairly visibly gay. One foot in the closet, so to speak. Everyone knows, but no-one says anything. I think a split is much more likely. Where the homophobic ones, like our American registrar, will have their own far out church. Sad, but better than our all being tarred with the same brush.

  2. English Athena is right. There are many Christian churches which understand the ‘gay issue’ and are overtly inclusive. The evangelical network Accepting Evangelicals is one such from the evangelical perspective. Within the C of E the high church wing has always had a significant number of gay people in both clergy and laity, though frequently not ‘out’ in the open. Yes, there are openly what I would call homophobic groups, perhaps Anglican Mainstream might be one of them, but we need to remember that these people have sincerely held beliefs and think they are true to a universal understanding of Scripture. I would really appreciate a group of theologians having an open blog on Biblical scholarship on this issue. Perhaps then it might be possible to accept that we are all Biblical Christians, but that our understanding of Biblical texts has legitimate differences. Of one thing I am convinced, that we must try to bridge the gaps between any number of polarities, by loving people regardless of the views they hold. My reading of the gospels suggests to me that Jesus was inclusive in his views and that he loved the outcasts and sinners. We are all called to be like Jesus.

    Kim Davis and those like her are in my prayers. As are the targets and perpetrators of the abuse at Chetams.

    1. Lovely post, thank you. I wouldn’t say someone was homophobic if they held certain beliefs but were pleasant and agreeable to the gays of their acquaintance. They may be a bit unreconstructed. Mind you, I’m plagued by people who won’t have girls in a choir, but are not apparently actually prejudiced against women. A certain amount of muddled thinking!

  3. I think I ought to emphasise that I am not saying that the church is becoming more homophobic but that the impression that the general public get from reading the Press is that that is the new reality. The Evangelical Alliance which claims to represent most evangelicals in this country, is firmly against the inclusivist position. I for one would be happier with the position that said that some Christians do not agree with acceptance of homosexual marriage. The situation is that when Christians speak against acceptance of a liberal attitude in this area, they speak, as I said above, with the conviction that this is a make or break issue. This is in other words a red line over which they will not cross and over which they will not tolerate any Christians crossing. Since Vicking Beeching ‘came out’, she has received a deplorable amount of hate mail. Any Christian in her position seems to bring out an enormous amount of bitterness and hatred from ‘orthodox’ Christians. To repeat the issue is not about the majority one way or another, it is about the way the issue is covered in the press and thus the way the general public will see it. At the moment the homophobic ‘rent-a-mob’ crowd are far louder than the others.

  4. I think this issue is one that you actually cannot fully understand from your viewpoint in the UK. Kim Davis is not a homophobe because she chooses to stand on the rights we have here to practice our religion without anyone, anywhere, forcing us to do or not do something we feel is part of practicing our beliefs. This issue is more about that right than about any gay marriage. But of course, that is what the media will grab a hold of and make a spectacle of. She is an elected official who swore to fulfill the duties of her office. When she took that oath, there was a law against gay marriage in the state of Kentucky. The courts are trying to force her to do something that is against her convictions that was not included in the job when she took it. I do not believe it gives Christianity a bad name as I have heard some some. I think when Christians are afraid or unwilling to stand up for what they beleive and cave in to a godless society does much more harm to the cause of Christ. Jesus was not weak willed and meek and mild. He didn’t roll over because what he said made people uncomfortable. Why should we?

    Also, I think to bring Mrs Davis’ past into the issue is so wrong. Shame on you. Our past sin does not define us. What we may have done before coming to salvation should not disqualify us for standing in truth in the present.

    You have a lot of good things to say, Stephen. I think you should stick to incidents in your own country so you will have a full understanding of the cultural subtleties involved.


  5. In my blog piece I did not accuse Mrs Davis of being a homophobe. I accused the Church of appearing to be a homophobic institution. This will be the impression given to outsiders when people like Kim Davis to say to the Press that this is a red line position –i.e. it is a defining point of their Christian belief. We keep hearing this over and over again on both sides of the Atlantic. I accept that there are many points of view on this topic, and I will defend the right of every individual to have a view on this topic as on many others which may not be the same as mine. What I object to is the implication that not to agree with a particular conservative position is a betrayal of the Gospel. I merely alluded to the three divorces as indicating that someone somewhere has decided that homosexuality is the red line issue and not divorce. Divorce and your attitude to it used to be the defining indication of your attitude to whether you were a ‘true’ Christian. Kim Davis would have been excommunicate 50 years ago in many churches but now the invisible people who decide on behalf of millions of conservative Christians about what is ‘Christian’ have decreed that divorce is no big deal. It is rooting out gays that is the moral issue of the day. What will it be in 50 years time?

    Many of the issues in the States do affect us in this country and I shall continue to comment on them when appropriate. The most horrific example of Christian destructive abuse in the UK, Peniel Brentwood, was supported by American institutions. Michael Reid could not have done half the terrible things he did without the support of dodgy American universities and other places giving him titles and honours. The Oral Roberts University among other places has a case to answer. The culture wars are different here but they are still being fought and this blog will continue to alert people to what is going on when appropriate.

  6. It was one of your commenters that called Mrs Davis a homophobe.
    Divorce is a big deal. It destroys children and lived and God hates it. However, if you hear her story, she has only been saved a few years and these divorced were prior to that.
    Yes, some people on the outside of the church will see it as homophobic, unloving and intolerant. It is not our job to defend the reputation of God. It is our job to walk in His truth and in His love. Nothing is accomplished when either of these things are compromised. So we walk in love and we walk in truth and we let the Lord have His way. There will be those who call us unloving, but how can it be unloving to point someone to the truth that will save their life? I do not support gay marriage but that is my own personal belief, but that does not mean I am not accepting of someone who identified as gay. I have friends and family members who are gay. They know where I stand and they know that I love them. But loving them does not mean that I could say it was okay for them to marry. How is that love? If you were going to drink poison because you thought it was fine, I might not be able to stop you, but would it be love to hand it to you and say drink away??? How is it not love to say “this behavior is wrong”??
    Mike Reid did not need any US institutions to help him in his reign of terror. They only came along the last 10 years or so before he was ousted. He did a lot of damage to a lot of people long before that. ORU is anything but dodgy. Reid exaggerated their support of him and as soon as he was exposed they immediately cut ties with him.

    I wish you only the best but it seems our views on most things are so far apart we will never agree. So I take my leave.

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