From a Peniel survivor

peniel curchThis letter below is based on a real ex-member of Peniel’s communication but as editor of the blog, I have expanded and edited it with other material from the report. I have been particularly struck by the comments about the shunning of family relationships which was sometimes demanded of Peniel members as a price of their belonging. I am here including a Dropbox link to the full Langlois report.

Dear Stephen,
I am one of the survivors of Peniel and I am writing to you in response to the letter you sent to me as Amanda. You asked me privately if I could identify some of the themes out of the Langlois report which I could identify with personally. I have been thinking about this and my response to you is to focus on certain words beginning with the letter R. The first two Rs came about when I experienced a great sense of relief because of the resignation of Michael Reid back in 2008. This was at the beginning of a long drawn out process to get him off the church premises. Michael in fact only moved of his church property two or three years ago following a legal eviction. I thought with many others that the resignation of Michael was the beginning of a new dawn in the church. There was a time when things seemed indeed to be opening up but after a short period it became apparent that there would be little change. The old guard under Peter and Carolyn Linnecar had reasserted their power over the congregation. It was then, a year or so later, when things were still basically the same as they had been in the past, that I knew I had to leave. During that false dawn for the church and of course after I finally left, I allowed myself to be reconciled with members of the family who had become partly estranged from me over the many years of my Peniel membership. This estrangement was not, as in some cases, because of a formal ban on contact but because we were being told constantly to put family in second place. We were also expected to put in an enormous number of hours of voluntary labour working for the church, and this in any case left very little time for socialising outside the church group. Once I had left I could now give family some of the time that the church had always demanded that we give to them. Reconciling with people when you have been cut off from them for decades is not easy and in some cases it was impossible to repair these relationships. Shunning relationships because your church had demanded it, was an incredibly painful and costly sacrifice. It is not one that anyone should ever have to make. It seems extraordinary that Michael Reid should also have been able to convince so many that ordinary relationships with family who were not church members was something to be, if not forbidden, extremely limited.

In view of the immense hurt that was caused to my family through these broken relationships, I have to say that I was amazed to see how gracious they were when at last I emerged from the church prison that I had occupied for such a long time. There had been so many lost years which could not be clawed back. But there were nevertheless moments of sheer elation and joy in rediscovering relationships that had been for so long broken. I can even use the word euphoria to describe the freedom of being able to talk to people without fear once again. But all this new rediscovery of old intimacy was tempered by another R word, a deep sense of regret. What had been the point of it all? What or rather who had we sacrificed so much of our lives for? It was not God or His work. This regret is still very much part of how I feel when I look back but obviously there were happy times with God’s blessing.

Since 2009 when I finally left the church, I have begun to recover a normality. Reading the new report (another R word!) has however brought some of the pain back. The testimonies of other people who have been through so much have been very, very difficult to take in. I realise that I did not know at the time very much of what other people were going through. There was probably not a lot I could have done even if I had known what they were suffering. There remains a sense of guilt when I read of the specific ways that they were made to suffer through membership of what was then my church. You spoke in your open letter to me about the fear that was prevalent throughout the church. This had the effect of restraining communication within the congregation because everyone feared being reported to Michael Reid. This encouragement of fear in a congregation was in fact a very effective tool of control and it helped with the suppression of unwanted opinions and potential challenges to the church’s leadership. In this way the unhappiness and pain suffered by individual members, which has been revealed by the Langlois report, was not at the time known to other members of the church. People suffered alone or in the context of their families. Even there, in the family home, as we know now, division was sometimes being sown to assist Reid’s control over the congregation. All too often pain was shouldered by an individual alone.

It would help me if I thought that the Commission’s work could be shared in a much wider audience. The lessons that can be extracted from the report are of enormous importance and can help people identify when a church is toxic and the potential cause of great pain to individuals and families. Thank you for what you trying to do through your blog. There will be other themes from the report that you may find helpful to discuss, and I will continue to react to the material even though it is not easy for me. I realise, however, that facing up to my past pain is one way that I can help others. What I have discovered is that the time spent under the leadership of Michael Reid has caused me and many of those close a great deal of unnecessary suffering and pain. The lessons I have learnt may be used by others to avoid similar experiences of grief. Thank you for what you are doing to awaken other people to the dangers of abusive church practice.

With best wishes, Amanda

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.

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