Following my commentary on the Langlois report, I received an email from ‘Amanda’ about her 37 years as a member of Peniel (she only escaped in 2009) I asked her if I could offer her some support by writing her an open letter so that the things I was saying to her might possibly be found of some help to others in a similar position. The letter is generalised but I hope I may get from her some particular points to address out of the sea of abusive practices that Langlois and his commission have identified. I shall try then to give the commission topic a rest, particularly as I seem to have stunned my regular commenters into silence by all this Peniel material!
Thank you for being in touch with me after the recent publication of the Langlois report about Trinity Church Brentwood. Like most people I have probably not read every word of the 300 page document but I have been struck by all the details of peoples’ suffering that have been recorded in this report. Also like John, I have been struck by the remarkable consistency of the witnesses who spoke to him and his commission. As he said, the facts speak for themselves and there is no justification for any suggestion that the report is some political attempt to destroy the church. The truth will always have its own power. Even if the report does not receive wide circulation, it will be one of the most powerful documents about the dynamic of a conservative cultic church in Britain ever to have been published.
Reading the report as an outsider means that I can have only a partial understanding of the pain and the suffering that have been caused by this appalling church regime. There are numerous issues to be to be noted in describing the dynamics of this congregation, but two in particular stand out on first reading. I want to address these two as well as recognise that they will probably have impacted on you personally. My writing to you about these two issues will perhaps bring some insight and encouragement to you and to the others who have endured similar things over 30 or more years.
John Langlois’ report spoke about a pervasive atmosphere of fear that existed in Peniel church in the time of Michael Reid. He was talking not only about the sheer fear-inducing bullying aspect of Reid’s personality but also the theological underpinning of this terrifying regime. Michael Reid had the power to control people through fear because he could tell them that they would go to hell unless they followed his precise instructions. This kind of tyrannical oppression in the context of a church is not uncommon but it remains obscene and unwarranted. The problem is that many churches have been sucked into a kind of Calvinist thinking which basically paints God as an angry irrational tyrant who needs to be appeased. This kind of theology needs to be identified and resisted. It is unhealthy, poisonous and the cause of a great deal of unhappiness. It is particularly unwholesome when used in the presence of children. They are easily affected by such a message which is calculated to induce terror on all who hear it. I was struck by the accounts of witnesses who spoke about services when people were encouraged to weep, groan and lament their sins when very young children were present.
The second horrific aspect of the Peniel regime was the effect that it had on some families. When one person in a family wanted to leave the congregation, the rest of the family were forced through bullying and coercive techniques to cut themselves off from the ‘erring’ member. This is a typical behaviour of cultic groups and it is done as a practical way of retaining control of members. Unless this utterly barbaric practice of ostracism is strictly enforced, the departing family member may act as an influence to compete with the cult leader. I note that John Langlois refused to get involved in discussing whether Peniel is a cult. He would have found that the current academic definitions of a cult would fit Peniel extremely well. Shunning behaviour is one of the typical characteristics of a cult as outlined by the International Cultic Studies Association. Again and again the representators to the Langlois Commission reported this shunning behaviour. The suffering caused by these enforced family break-ups is always going to be immense. I had already read the published account of Caroline Green (Sarah Jones) and the way that her husband was forced to divorce her. He then subsequently married another member of the church.
Amanda, you have been a victim of an environment that uses induced fear to control people alongside a readiness to break up families to achieve the same end. I first want to suggest that the God that was preached in such a church is not a God I and other mainstream Christians recognise. I accept that there is such a thing as sinful, selfish and brutish behaviour on the part of individuals. Some people go through life without ever learning the meaning of love, in the sense of giving to other people something of themselves. Their perspective on life is to grab as much as they can for themselves and for the feeding of their bodily appetites. The accounts of an afterlife in the New Testament as well as in other spiritual traditions do suggest the notion of judgement, but I would reject the heaven/hell dichotomy as being far too simplistic. Even the wickedest people on this earth who have been weighed down by their excessive self-indulgence may not lost be for ever. When Jesus spoke about ‘many mansions’ this could imply that there are variety of levels within the afterlife for us to occupy. The selfish and the wicked may find that they have to learn all the things they refused to learn in this life in another dimension beyond the grave. What they did not learn of joy, compassion and love has to be learnt elsewhere. The God I identify in Scripture is one that calls us to love. This is another way of saying that we all are all called to journey out of ourselves to reach a place where we can eventually enjoy the eternal bliss that is the prize for us beyond. Some in this life go some way along this journey through the practice of goodness and virtue while others make virtually no progress at all. The Christianity that constantly teaches the inevitability of eternal punishment for Christians who are not like us, is a form of faith that I have no time for. I want people to discover freedom from fear and also to know love and joy in this life which is an anticipation of the life beyond. There is a book which had the title ‘Love conquers all’. It was not popular in conservative Christian circles because it removed from controlling Christian leaders to power to say who was and who was not going to heaven. The reality that we see through Jesus is a God who accepts us with all our failings and this is a form of faith that I wish to commend to you and you ex-Peniel friends. ‘There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear.’
I cannot tell you how aggrieved I am to hear about the stories of family breakup that have been revealed in the Langlois report. The thought that a pastor should somehow engineer the breaking up of a family is something which should be declared as criminal. There are one or two Scriptural passages, unfortunately, that can be manipulated by an unscrupulous teacher to suggest that it is right to leave one’s family for a ‘higher’ cause. But there is in fact no higher cause being served when somebody is forced to leave husband or wife so that the control of a corrupt leader can be maintained and strengthened. The problem here, as throughout the history of Peniel, has been that obedience to Michael Reid and others, has been inflated and assumed to be the same as obedience to God. This is utter blasphemy.
You, Amanda, and all the others who are survivors of this wicked regime need to know that there is another kinder, more compassionate version of Christianity out there. Michael Reid appears to have relentlessly exploited the Bible and Christian theology for his own selfish and wicked ends. This activity makes him guilty of tremendous evil and one can believe that he will discover one day the full extent of the horrors that he has perpetrated on others. I hope you will regard me as a representative of this other compassionate face of the Christian faith. I am hoping that you and those you are in touch with will read this open letter and begin to believe that there is a way forward through the terrible experiences that you each have endured at Peniel. I want to leave you with two further verses which are constantly repeated in my mind and which for me sum up the Christian promise. The first is a passage from Revelation which says ‘Behold I make all things new’. The other passage is one from John, ‘I have come that they may have life, life in all its abundance’. In my future letters which I hope you will read, I will want to explain further about this newness and indeed about the fullness of life that Jesus wants us all to find. This will be something far better than the fear soaked faith of Peniel and Trinity. You are still living and breathing, you are still capable of learning, growing and being transformed by the power of God to change and to renew. I want to assist in a small way in that process.
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