Monthly Archives: December 2015

What is hatred?

hatredI have been reflecting on the way that hatred is something that is encouraged in both political and religious life. In particular hatred is used by leaders to bind people together in targeting a despised group, and this is particularly true in a situation of war. To fight a war, the enemy has to be categorised as being despicable, unworthy of any sympathy and thus to be destroyed. It would probably be true to say that hatred is normally much more a group phenomenon. It is always easier to feel hatred when you know that other people are feeling the same way. Many of our newspapers are good at rousing passionate hatred against particular groups, whether asylum seekers, gays, social security scroungers or politicians who fiddle their expenses. Much political life centres round the arousing of enmities between social classes and nations. One fears that the vote about the European community will be decided, not on the rights and wrongs of the case, but on what people feel about the situation. Does a feeling about foreign nationals boil over into a form of hatred? If the feeling is that strong, it is likely to play a part in the way we vote.

One of the political tricks used by Peniel/Trinity Brentwood was the encouragement of an ‘us-them’ culture in their church. Members of the congregation are encouraged to feel that their church was superior, not only to other local churches, but to all the churches in the land. Once this sense of superiority has been nurtured in the congregation, it is a small step to make to start despising, even hating, other groups of people. Michael Reid was particularly good at this. He was skilled in convincing parents in the church to send their children to the church school by telling them that at local schools, children were taught by the devil. This was obviously a reference to the fact that issues of equality, tolerance and respect were taught in the schools. The Calvinist doctrines around the saved and the unsaved encouraged a binary way of thinking, and the practising of hate is going to be part of the way that a group of people are going to be controlled. We are one because we all hate the same things. Hitler welded the German people together by giving them a common object to hate and sometimes it is hard to see a great difference in the way that Christians behave.

It is a good idea when we find ourselves feeling irrational hostility to an individual or a group of individuals to examine ourselves and ask what is going on. Hatred of any kind is more likely to be saying something about us. Something about the behaviour, belief system or appearance of another person has evoked negative feelings in us and these need to be brought out into the open. We may feel hatred for another person or group because they make us feel inadequate in some way. Hatred may emerge when we are jealous of the achievements of another person. This kind of jealousy says something about our failure to discover contentment in what we are and what we do. We may be harbouring unrealistic ambitions and in this way making ourselves thoroughly unhappy. The same is true when we find ourselves agreeing with the newspaper about immigrants, workshy people or another despised group in society. I know some people have a deeply irrational reaction to the existence of gay people. One has to speculate what is going on internally that makes them so passionate about this issue when most of us are content to live and let live. Strong irrational feelings about anything often come from a part of the personality which has little to do with our Christian identity or our rational thinking side.

Hatred is a powerful but an irrational emotion. We owe it to ourselves and to our Christian integrity to be prepared to search within ourselves to find out where this powerful feeling comes from and what it is truly expressing. We will find, to our shame, that most hatred is unworthy and evil. It also involves a massive expenditure of energy which we would do better to avoid. One of the key ideas of Christianity is that of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not just about passing over the offences of others, it is also about forgiving ourselves for such things as hatred and passionate irrational dislike of others. Using our minds, our Christian consciences and our insight, we can learn a new way of dealing with the foibles and differences that are found in other people. We must learn particularly be on our guard against joining in a mob hatred towards groups of others, particularly when this hatred is being encouraged by a Christian leader. Sadly at this moment in the church there are quite large constituencies of Christians who are being caught up in a kind of mob hatred for other Christians who are not like them. The meeting of the Anglican primates in January in London is going to be an interesting affair. The question that has to be asked of the leaders of the church, particularly those from Africa, is whether institutional hatred should be allowed to dominate the discussions. The leaders may not realise it, but it seems clear that Christian groups in America and Australia are trying to manipulate and encourage hatred as they play a complicated power game within the Anglican communion. Such hatred must be challenged and not allowed to win. We will see whether the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Anglican leaders are able to stand up to this attempt at manipulation which we would claim is grounded in a passionate irrational hatred.

In combatting hatred whether the group kind or that built on individual dislike, we have two very simple antidotes from our Christian tradition. The first, a paraphrase from the Lord’s Prayer, say simply ‘forgive as you are forgiven’. The second command also summarises much Christian teaching which is ‘love, as you are loved’. If every Christian could really internalise these commands, our world might be a better place. Hatred is in fact like a poison that wants to corrupt and damage everything in its path. We must meet that poison to neutralise it with the tools that we have been given. Hatred is never the Christian option. It must be resisted and shown to be entirely contrary to the spirit of Jesus and the path that he teaches us to follow.

The power to terrify

terrifyAt the church we attended on Christmas morning, my three-year-old granddaughter was handed a ‘busy bag’ as we went into the building. Among the jigsaws and colouring books in the bag, there was a small book with the title God loves. The book had a picture on each page of all the people that God loved. It mentioned a random collection of people that a child might encounter- God loves the postman, God loves the taxi driver God loves the lollipop lady. I did not see the final page but no doubt the book reassured the child reader that he or she was included in this orbit of God’s love.

A simple but profound message was being communicated to a young person. What a contrast with some of the things that were said to members of Peniel/Trinity over the years. Inspired by a perverted Calvinistic theology, Michael Reid declared that anyone who disagreed with him, or was out of his favour, was destined for the fires of hell. One of the most vivid memories that adults who had been young people in the church remembered, was the sound of adults and children pleading with God for our salvation during a service. It seems to have been a regular event that an entire congregation was worked up into a frenzy of supplication and tears, with everyone begging God to save them from the destruction of hell. When someone chose to leave the church, the rest of the congregation were told that they had chosen the path of the devil. The same thing was said about the local schools. Michael Reid declared regularly that if church children were sent to anywhere but Peniel Academy, they were being given to the devil to be educated. But those parents who then accepted places at the Peniel Academy were inadvertently being drawn into a cruel trap. Time and time again the representors to the Langlois commission recalled how they themselves found themselves controlled through their children. If any parents displeased Michael Reid or one of the leaders, their children were picked on at school by the teachers. A few favoured families and children appeared to have received special treatment from the teaching staff because their parents were rich and thus making far greater contributions to the church and school in financial terms. The less well-off who struggled to pay the school fees faced the threat of public humiliation as well as cruel treatment meted out to their offspring.

Why, we might wonder, did the parents of those children who were bullied and humiliated not simply withdraw out of the orbit of the church and school and simply walk away? The answer seems to be twofold but no doubt the parents would come up with further explanations. The first thing was that parents were so conditioned by the culture of Peniel that they really believed that their offspring were spiritually endangered if they went to local schools. The church had been teaching that outside the ‘safety’ of Michael Reid’s message, all was darkness and the dangers of hell. The devil was a shorthand for everything that Reid disapproved of, including education, socialising with non-church members and indeed having any opinions not sanctioned by the leadership. People who attended the church had their thinking, the self-determination and the intellectual independence destroyed by a slavish dependence of the words and whims of an ignorant, self-opinionated bully. Everything they thought about God, salvation and the spiritual path had to be in accordance with the narrow thinking orbit of the leader. Over the years through a combination of terror, dark charisma and sheer power of personality they had become accustomed to think that access to God depended on obedience to the dictates of one Michael Reid.

The second equally powerful chain that bound them to the church was the way that family members were often the same as fellow members of the congregation. Thus social and emotional needs were met by socialising with the congregation and family who were the same people. Years of encouraging, some would say compelling, the young to marry other members of the congregation meant that it was normally impossible ever to think of family and church as separate entities. This arrangement worked after a fashion as long as no one broke ranks and tried to leave. Then the full horror of ostracism kicked in. Husbands were encouraged, even forced to break away from their wives who rebelled against the system on behalf of their children. Michael Reid had a ready stock of biblical quotations to reinforce the closing of ranks to exclude anyone who showed any disagreement with the leaders. Such shutting off contact with wives, husbands, parents and other family members was a powerful reason to remain in the system and tow the line as much as possible. A total sense of powerlessness and fear pervades the witness statements of many of the 77 who spoke to John Langlois and his Commission. Loss of salvation and loss of family was a telling threat to persuade many of the members of Peniel to remain on board.

Few churches in this country ‘mature’ to the point where most of the other members in the congregation are also your family and relatives. But many churches are sufficiently in love with their power to terrify to be able to suggest that obedience to the leaders and what they teach is a salvation issue. There are also many Christians who have for example come to believe that any leniency over the ‘gay issue’ is tantamount to abandoning your place in heaven. There is something totally perverse in suggesting that a rebel on this issue is somehow in danger of being abandoned by God. It is intellectually and spiritually bankrupt to suggest such a thing. And yet leaders of entire dioceses, even provinces in the Anglican Communion seek to exclude those who do not agree with the proposition that gay sex is an evil and has to be punished in the same way as murder or genocide.

Perhaps we have now arrived at having one pertinent question to ask of churches which we suspect are guilty of abusing their power. The question is simply this. Does this church use fear as a weapon of control? Does the leader ever threaten the followers with fear of losing salvation or facing the social and emotional emptiness of being expelled from the group? If the answer is yes, then this church is likely to be a place of danger and should be avoided at all costs. If the wider church cannot receive and understand the spiritual and emotional needs of ex-members of these congregations, then it too is failing in the task of responding to the simple statement that ‘God so loved the world’. That message is enough for us to be getting on with as we try to grapple the deeper significance of penetrating the good news that Jesus came to bring.

Responding to harmful faith

god-hates-fagsAs my regular readers will know, I refer quite often to the fact that mainstream religion pays very little attention to the harmful extremes that exist on its periphery. To take one example, you will not find any discussion within the Church of England about the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Every Vicar in a parish will have met ex-members of this group and perhaps has tried to help them. Even if they have read nothing about this heterodox body, they will know some of the consequences of leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the experience of shunning experienced by ex-members. The books that do exist and attempt to describe what takes place in the Kingdom Halls up and down the country, will normally be of an evangelical-type. In such books the argument with the JWs will be on matters of biblical interpretation. They will spend less time in examining the psychological and social issues that take place in what is a closed group. A variety of other fellowships also cause harm to their members by a misuse of Scripture. Examining their approach to the Bible will, however, only take you so far. More likely the ‘expert’ will want to look directly at members and ex-members and their psychological well-being or lack of it. This expert will have mastered one or other of the disciplines within psychology to get a handle on what might be going on in one of these closed groups. Attention may also be given to the leadership styles of the ministry, whether it is local or there exists some overseeing structure, perhaps based in another country.

I wonder how many people have attempted to answer the text quoting of a Jehovah’s Witness on the doorstep. The JW foot-soldiers who trudge the streets will have learned 30 or 40 texts from the Bible which ‘prove’ a particular narrow interpretation favoured by their body. The patient listener will be regaled with these texts and the Jehovah’s Witness follower will believe that his or her quotations have given him access to complete biblical truth. I suppose that the appropriate way to counteract these quotations might be to show other scriptural passages which say something quite different. But this would be completely futile. The sections of the Bible that counteract the Jehovah’s Witness position would be completely unknown, not only to be member standing on the doorstep, but also those who had trained them in their robot-like conversation style. The same thing would apply to books that are trying to undermine the Jehovah’s Witness reading of Scripture. We might for example want to challenge the various mistranslations that occur in the New World Scriptures. But what would be the point as the person who is speaking has learnt everything he or she knows inside a bubble of closed knowledge? Is there any point in sharing access to knowledge and information that exists beyond the bubble of the Jehovah’s Witness culture?

From time to time in this blog I have allowed myself to point out discrepancies, contradictions and difficulties within the scriptural text. The purpose of appointing these out is not to undermine the value of Scripture, but to show that simple text quoting is probably not going to solve completely any arguments about the deeper meaning of Christianity. Finding one text which presents a particular idea, does not sort out for all time a dispute or close down theological discussion on a particular topic. We need to look across many texts to discern a cumulative approach to human and spiritual issues. And even when we think we have found such a theological conclusion, the liberal seeker (infuriatingly for many) will realise that his conclusion remains somewhat tentative. It is capable of being refined and taken further. This tentative approach to Scripture and theology, may seem to many to be defeatist and undermining of the task of evangelism. Surely people crave the certainty of the text and they also want final answers. Perhaps they do claim to want certainty, but I would compare this desire to the way that, for many, political life is more comfortable when under an authoritarian dictator. Life may be more comfortable when other people make decisions but the same life will lack a sense of creativity and freedom that we associate with a full life.

Trying to respond to the excesses of authoritarian groups by arguing with their scriptural analyses, is, I believe, going to be a waste of time. I occasionally try to read books which argue for the Calvinist perspective on theology but find these incredibly hard work as I simply cannot share the enthusiasm of the author for certain carefully selected scriptural proof texts. When I come to examine a group, whether mainline Christian or on the fringes of the church, I look far more at the effect that the teaching is having on the members. Are they fearful or does their faith allow them to be generous and welcoming to outsiders? Does the church support and enhance family life or are the unbelieving parts of those families cast out and made to feel superfluous? One chief complaint against the Jehovah’s Witnesses is not their bizarre treatment of Scripture, but the appalling way that they treat those who decide to leave them. Shunning is a form of psychological murder and the effect on the victims may literally involve their death. I am unlikely to waste my time arguing Scripture with people who tolerate such atrocious activity and believe it is scripturally sanctioned. The same thing is true of a number of other groups which purport to be repositories of truth in the setting of a world which has, according to their beliefs, abandoned God. It is not profitable sitting down to discuss Scripture when a leadership has tolerated the breaking up of families or the expulsion of young people who question the church’s teaching. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’. The church which creates fear, alienation and psychological and spiritual harm must be resisted. Arguing with the heterodox scriptural ideas of a fringe fellowship which tolerates abuse, requires patience and application. I for one do not have this when a far greater threat is apparent.

I wish that I had a simple description for the kinds of church which have arrived at a place where teachings, apparently derived from Scripture, have become the cause of harm to their members. This accusation of course cannot by any means be levelled at every conservative congregation. There are many churches where Scripture is taught from a perspective that I would not agree with, but the overall spiritual and emotional health of the church membership is good. But equally there are others which teach similar things but where the leadership and the structures of authority have become toxic and potentially dangerous to their members. With the first group there are differences of interpretation with a more liberal perspective but theological and scriptural discussion is possible and appropriate. In the second group the only thing that stands out is the toxicity of the church life. I am not suggesting that the boundary between the two is easy to draw. But I am certain that we have to be aware of places of spiritual danger in Britain, and certainly in other parts of the world. After reading the Langlois Report, it would be correct to describe Trinity Church Brentwood as a toxic church, and this is certainly how most of its ex-members have come to see it. An invisible line has been crossed so that one goes from the territory of a healthy conservative theology to a place where a similar theology has become a ground of danger and harm. Arguing Scripture will not help the victims in such places; naming the abuses may perhaps help them. But, as we know, even when a 300 report page report is published describing in great detail abuses to Christian people, very few people sit up and take notice. This is why this blog has to continue its work.

A Christmas reflection

ChristmasAt this time of year, we all receive many Christmas cards. The one thing that all Christmas cards have in common is a picture on the front. It may be a nativity scene or some representation of people having a good time. In the past we used to receive many Christmas cards harking back to a lost time in the early 19th century which the card designer seemed to think represented quintessential Christmas cheer. For some reason Christmas was thought to involve stage coaches, street scenes and snow. But whatever the picture, the important thing is that each card gives us something to look at, something that in different ways evokes the Christmas event.

I have mentioned in previous blogs my concern and interest for the church in Eastern Europe – the Orthodox Church. In my early twenties I spent some 10 months in various Orthodox countries, mainly Greece, being exposed to a completely different way of being a Christian. One important thing that I learnt in those months all those years ago was the language of pictures. By this I do not mean that the Orthodox are only concerned with icons to the exclusion of everything else, but that the whole atmosphere of worship and theology seems to be highly visual. Seeing a picture or a ritual act rather than listening to words as we do in the West, is a vital component of their religious life. Attendance at worship for a typical member of an Orthodox church will involve the use of the eyes as much as, if not more than, the faculty of hearing. In many Orthodox countries the actual words of the liturgy are largely incomprehensible to the ordinary worshipper. The Russians use a version of old church Slavonic which is quite different from modern Russian. The Greeks also use for worship an archaic form of their language which was understood better in the days of the Byzantine Empire which came to an end in 1453. Obviously some parts are understood but also much of what is heard remains obscure to the congregation. In the Greek service books, the priest is instructed to say the words of the prayer of consecration in such a way that no one can hear it.

These comments about Orthodox worship lead me to my main point that Christians in the East do far more in the way of seeing that they do through listening to words and ideas. We could say in summary that they live in a visual culture rather than one which attempts to put everything into words. These comments about Orthodoxy provide me with an introduction to the thought that Christmas is for most of us a visual event. Its appeal and popularity are in part because the pictures that represent it are attractive to our imaginations. A preacher at Christmas might possibly talk about the meaning of the Incarnation, but he will also realise that Christmas exists far more as a visual event in people’s minds. There are many varieties of traditional scene that we can conjure up in our minds to remind us of the events of the birth of Jesus. The traditional Christmas cards reinforce these images. Some focus on the star shining in the East and showing the way to the stable for the wise men. Another picture which is frequently represented is the singing of the angels to the shepherds on the hills around Bethlehem. Yet another will dwell on the simplicity of the stable with the animals standing around. Some of us will have questions about whether these events actually happened in the way they are depicted on the cards, but equally something powerful is being communicated to us through them.

By emphasising what happens when we look at pictures of Christmas, we have moved away from thinking of Christmas as a doctrine or as a literal historical event, to seeing it as an evocative statement of how we understand God to participate in the world. In this we are beginning to think and visually evoke the Christian message like Orthodox believers. By this I do not mean that the Orthodox have ever been drawn to appreciate the western representations of the Christmas event. What I am indicating is that a strong emphasis on visual material at Christmas is similar to the Orthodox preference for meditation and contemplation in the presence of images. To look at a picture of a star in the sky being followed by three men on camels, will not illuminate us in any finer point of theology. What it might do is to help us to see that following an inner light may help us to discover new meaning and new understanding of what God wants us to be and to do. To pick up a point from my last post, the pictures and images of Christmas, whichever ones we choose, may well touch our hearts and help to create in us once more a new longing for the infinite, the ultimate and the true. We sing carols, we listen to readings and pray, not because we can learn some new information or obtain some new knowledge, but so that something inside us can once again be touched and drawn out of us. It may be that, in spite of the over-familiarity of the story, our hearts can be renewed to contemplate the reality of God afresh, one who identifies himself with our world.

Christmas is then, I would claim, a festival of pictures and inward seeing. This is a different kind of understanding and apprehension of reality to what we are used to. Perhaps in our world so obsessed with words and rational concepts, it is a way of understanding that most of us need to engage with far better. So this Christmas maybe we can learn, not only to listen to the stories, but to see deeper into the pictures and images of the season. By using our imaginations and our hearts, we may glimpse better the encounter of God with humanity that is at the heart of this festival. We will never fully understand the theology of the Incarnation, but perhaps we may be able to see something more of its meaning through the pictures that are given us this time. The light shines in the darkness. May we be able to come into this light and know something more of God’s radiance. It is that radiance that we encounter in Jesus as he guides us through our lives. As his light shines in the darkness, may we learn better to walk in that light.

Reflections on conversion

I was talking to Chris recently about the way in which people become Christians. We agreed that many conversions take place as a result of some crisis in a person’s life. It may be a bereavement or an experience of illness. Whatever the cause of the conversion, an individual has seen in the Christian faith a solution to the situation of uncertainty or vulnerability.

As I thought about this scenario for people becoming Christians, I recognise that in my ministry many adult confirmation candidates and new members arrived following some significant moment in their lives. It was not always a negative experience that brought them into the church. Sometimes it was a happy but life changing event like the birth of a child or a marriage. But whether conversion takes place as the result of a traumatic life changing event or one that brings great joy, there is still a strong emotional accompaniment to this moment of change we describe as conversion.

The fact that conversion to Christ may have a strong emotional element is of course quite a normal occurrence. But it does sometimes create a tendency for the rational and thinking side of the personality not to be totally and fully engaged in the process. If I become a Christian as a result of a healing experience, then I am always going to remember that original vulnerability and how it was transformed by an act of faith. In the same way, if I become a Christian in the context of being a new parent, I would always associate that particular life-changing experience for ever more with what I do in church. The real problem with this situation is that an individual may want to regress frequently to that point of transition, because that is where the Christian faith had been most real to him or her. The healed person will want always to speak about their healing and the parent will want to celebrate that participation in new life. The Christian faith in other words has become identified with a particular moment of emotional transition in their lives.

I’ve spoken in previous blog about the tendency of some Christians, even in positions of ministry, to speak endlessly about their moment of conversion. That was the one real moment of spiritual encounter to which they can lay claim to in their spiritual journey. Whether the individual becomes a Christian because of an emotional crisis or because they have been to a mission event to hear a compelling evangelist, there are going to be strong emotional aspects in the way they live out their Christian faith. I have already hinted at a possible problem with a tendency to look back to a particular moment in their personal Christian journey. The problem is, to summarise, that there is no necessary connection between an emotional appreciation of the Christian message and a one that embraces the possibility of newness. In other words, some people will always associate Christianity only with feelings and inner experience. Anything which involves them engaging the intellect or other parts of the personality will be unwelcome and possibly even threatening.

There are many Christians who are indeed threatened by any suggestion that they should look at the claims of faith with their minds and intellects. There may be for example enormous resistance to any discussion of Bible passages which might suggest that there is more than one interpretation. The Christian who is locked into an emotional appreciation of their faith, is of course well supported by many churches who encourage them, we would say, not to engage their thinking or reason. Congregations who can be manipulated through their feelings are of course much easier to manage than those who challenge and constantly question those who preach to them.

The Bible itself sees the human personality in a somewhat different way. There is no word that is translatable as emotion, but it has another word to describe the non-thinking part of the personality. That word is the ‘heart’. When we reflect on the meaning of this word in biblical terms, we get a sense that it means much more than anything implied by the emotions. It is in the first place the part of ourselves that reaches out towards other people. It is the source of our motivation, our longing and our passion. It would be good if there were an easy way to teach people to connect with this dimension of personality. The problem is that in many church settings there is a deliberate cultivation of shallow emotion. It is of course not easy to define where the boundary between what we call the heart and the feelings should be placed. I suspect that many Christians are in fact content to stick with the cultivation of easy emotion, such as that found in syrupy choruses and octane-charged preaching. The challenge on all of us is to love God with heart, mind, soul and strength. The best test for discovering whether we do rise from feeling to engaging the ‘heart’ is to ask the question whether feelings aroused in church settings in fact achieve anything concrete or whether they remain just sensations. An action which comes from the heart is likely to have some positive outcome, such as changing a person for the good or allowing him or her to impact the world around them.

Conversion to God and conversion to Christ will always involve the heart and the mind. It should never be allowed to remain at the level of a simple feeling which is of no significance to anyone except to the one who feels it. An engagement of the heart in this process will lead to action and change which is ongoing. An engagement of the mind will involve learning and constant new discovery. To summarise what I believe to be the process of conversion, there is a change of an individual, not to a static state of being ‘saved’, but being pitched headlong into a process of growth and transformation. This is a process which will never end. If we encounter God as an infinite being of compassion and love, then our discovery of him will continue from this life into the next..

New developments at Trinity Brentwood

TrinityI apologise if any of my readers have grown tired of the theme of Trinity Brentwood. I do in fact not regret any of the space which I have given to this topic since the outcome, the Langlois Report, has proved a rich source of material for any student of Christian abuse.

To recap on this notorious church in Essex, two reports about its past appeared on the same day, 1st November. These both offered insight and information about the abuses of the previous 30 years. The first one, by John Langlois and his commission, was the more substantial of the two. It was a report totalling 300 pages but was in the end an unofficial report, since his commission had been dismissed in mid-August by the church. The second report, although it was critical about the church’s past, was nevertheless reluctant to name names and go into detailed analysis of what had gone wrong. This latter report was written by two Pentecostal ministers who had been in and around the church over the previous few months. It has been suggested that one or other of them was interested in taking over as chief pastor. Also some background material on one of them, David Shearman, has been published online. This suggested that, at the very least, his pastoral skills were deficient. There was also an indication of some bizarre theology being shared by him at a UK gathering of Pentecostal ministers

On 7 December the leaders and trustees at Trinity published a seven-point plan to respond to the shorter less rigorous report put out by the ministers, David Shearman and Phil Hills. On the face of it, it appeared to be moving in the right direction. I have identified in summary five main points from the document which I list here.
1. The church wishes to seek out individuals who have been wronged in the past in order to make apology and seek reconciliation.
2. The church intends to bring in a consultant clinical psychiatrist who will work with two other independent individuals both to offer counselling or the financial assistance to seek it elsewhere.
3. There would be financial reparation for individuals who wanted it. This process would be administered by the group of three mention in the previous point.
4. Phil and David, the authors of the approved report, would help the church to identify key areas of biblical teaching which have been neglected. They would also help to recreate a culture of trust.
5. There would be a determination to establish a more effective structure for the leadership and governance and for this experts would be consulted.

This response would be a pretty good attempt at doing something about the church if we only had in front of us the Hills/Shearman report. But it becomes totally inadequate when it is placed alongside the more substantial and detailed report from John Langlois and his commission. Within an hour of reading the church’s response, I posted an anonymous critique of this action plan on Nigel Davies’ blog. My main points were three in number. I first of all questioned whether the church would get near its victims to speak to them without some public acknowledgement of the horrors that have been uncovered in the Langlois Report. His report had named names, and the individuals concerned have been accused of the most appalling breaches of human compassion, pastoral care and common decency. If the church does not openly acknowledge, or at least investigate, the accusations of appalling behaviour by named individuals, it cannot expect former members to want to come anywhere near the church to listen to apologies. I also questioned whether there was such a person as a consultant psychiatrist who had adequate understanding of the dynamics of a cultic church. Without a background or working knowledge of several disciplines, would this individual really be able to fathom the depth of suffering and pain caused by this terrifying institution? John Langlois had brought to his report not only his legal expertise but also his extensive experience of the evangelical world, including its wilder manifestations.

The second point I made was in response to the idea of reparation. I mentioned that what many of those who had given tens of thousands to the church over the years really wanted was a full forensic examination of the church’s finances over a long period. There were so many questions unanswered about where money had gone, the money sacrificially given by church members. Handing out what might be relatively small sums to damaged individuals did not seem the way forward. The time for an end to the financial secrecy in Peniel/Trinity had arrived.

The final point I made was to question whether tinkering with leadership and governance structures was adequate to address what the church needed. I suggested that, after reading the Langlois Report, most people would conclude that the church needed a completely new structure with the old systems completely purged.

One person did find my remarks rather sharp edged, but the majority of comments were also equally scathing towards this attempt by the church to put things right. The large elephant in the room will always be the Langlois Report which church officials are pretending does not exist. My readers might wonder why I have the confidence and temerity to speak about these matters when I live so far away. I would only say that this new longer Langlois report, with its vivid detail chronicling what people have suffered as members of this church, gives one a real sense that we are all eye-witnesses to the events taking place within this congregation. The individual testimonies from Peniel/Trinity read as though they are addressed, not only to the members of the commission, but to everyone who has the ears to hear. We are all, as it were, eavesdroppers in a situation of terrible suffering inside a church ruled by sociopaths.

In recent days I have been encouraged to think that the Langlois Report will achieve a wider circulation than just being available to a few people on the Internet. I have been in touch with an academic who is concerned about issues of bullying and abuse within institutions and she has been circulating this report among her colleagues. There is also an awareness, albeit small as yet, in the Church of England that if we are to tackle sexual abuse in the church, we must also be aware of other forms of power abuse that exist in institutions. I am certainly hoping to write something on the Langlois Report for the church press but it remains to be seen if they will accept it. Bullying, violence and power abuse of any kind are intolerable in any institution. They are in particular intolerable in and among a group of people who follow a master who eschewed power in favour of peace, love and mutual service.

Gossip and violence

gossipMany people think that gossip, particularly when carried out in the context of the church, is a harmless exercise. But when we think about what is really going on, it is not difficult to see that all too often we are witnessing an act of violence against an individual. For gossip to take place there needs to be three people at the very least. There is the person who is passing on the gossip, the person who receives it and the individual who is the topic of the ‘information’ being passed on. There are several reasons why gossip is potentially a great evil. In the first place there are no checks and balances to discover whether the information passed over is in fact true. The target of the gossip is absent and so cannot challenge the version of events that is being told. Because rumour and innuendo are not able to be countered, they soon pass into being thought to be fact and accurate information. Passage of time makes it more and more difficult for the gossip to be challenged. Particularly after much repetition people have come to accept it and individual reputations are in some cases destroyed by it.

Anyone who reads through the many pages of the Langlois report, will see how effectively gossip was used as a way of controlling and doing violence to former members of Peniel church. When an individual left the church or was pushed out, it seems they became fair game for gossip and slander. It seemed to be a deliberate policy on the part of the leadership to discredit and shame their critics and former members. I do not feel that the expression ‘violent abuse’ is an inappropriate one as a way of describing the deliberate use of false testimony against an individual person who cannot defend himself and put forward another perspective on stories being told.

Why do I make an issue about gossip, something that most of the see as being harmless? The reason is that when we begin to examine what is going on, we can realise that the sharing of gossip is one of many power games that are played by human beings against others. Sharing gossip can be a kind of ganging up against an individual, and the sharing the information about that person can, and frequently does, change the way we treat them. Knowing or thinking we know a piece of secret information about another person, which may be shameful or embarrassing, is hard to ignore the next time we meet them. When gossip is shared about us, we may be fortunate enough to find out from a friend the things that are being said about us. This may help us to get to the bottom of where the information came from, and maybe correct it with a true version. If we are unfortunate we will never know that such things are being said about us, and the only thing we will notice is that people are looking at us slightly oddly. Gossip can be a poisonous thing in a community.

There is an interesting passage in John’s Gospel (chap 6.41-43) where Jesus discovers that the Jews are gossiping about him. Because the gossipers knew his parents, this meant that they could treat him with contempt and disregard the things he was saying about his ministry. Their gossip was no doubt based on resentment towards a local boy who was making something of himself in the world beyond his home town. Being condescending towards Jesus is typical behaviour of people who feel jealous of the achievements of another. Gossip and slander were their tools their tools for trying to put Jesus in his place.

All of us have been the victims of gossip as well as the perpetrators of it. We need to ask the question when information about another person is shared with someone else, as to whether a complicated power game is being played. We do of course sometimes have to discuss the problems that arise from the behaviour of another individual, but we must always be careful that this is an act of love and concern. It can so easily degenerate into an attempt to boost our sense of importance by making someone else look small and shamed. We must always be on guard against allowing a speculation about another person becoming, in the process of telling and retelling, a hard fact. It is of course not just in in churches that harmful gossip takes place, but also in families and in any institution which draws people together.

My title for this blog was gossip and violence. I should explain that not only is there violence in treating another person with contempt by spreading lies and gossip about them, but there is violence sometimes in the way that an individual chooses to react to the sense of shame that has been placed on him or her. This idea of shame is not something that can be defined in a few words. But when a person has been gossiped about and that gossip has become a major part of their reputation within a community, they will normally experience a strong sense of shame and be unable to hold their heads high. Sometimes that shame is partly earned, but on other occasions the shame has been attached to them through the unwarranted use of gossip and slander. When any person senses that other people are treating him or her with contempt based on lies and innuendo, that person, as well as feeling shame, may also feel a great desire to react in a way that can involve violence. The destruction of a reputation in a community is no small matter and the shamed person may use almost anything to relieve that feeling of shame. This is a big subject which I cannot tackle further in this post. But I leave this post with the thought that some of the violence that we see in the world around us is attributable to a sense of shame, a feeling of being deeply misunderstood and having things said about one which are perceived to be totally untrue. In this situation despair and anger is sometimes turned into a bloody and violent rage.

Conservative believers and vulnerability

corbyn-snp-1400x788I have been reflecting recently about the vulnerability of individuals who think that there is only a single truth, whether in such things as politics or religion. I write this the day after the bitter debate in the House of Commons over the bombing of Syria. The idea that one day we may arrive at a place where we can know the ultimate truth in politics or other areas of life suggests that we are people who think in a binary way. People who have the ‘truth’ will see nothing wrong in attacking and harassing those who do not agree with them. The 70 or so Labour MPs who voted with the government, needed to be people of considerable courage to face up to the mob-like behaviour of the ‘Corbynistas’. These latter individuals do not easily tolerate ambiguity or paradox and it would be true to say that their personality type is one that is vulnerable to cults and authoritarian leaders. Cults or high demand groups can be understood to be places where ‘truth’ is found and there is also an emphasis on the banishment of all forms of ‘error’.

In thinking about the way that some people gravitate to places where truth and ultimate meaning is promised, I am reminded of the fact that certain individuals are conned and cheated out of their money. Someone makes them an offer, apparently too good to pass up, and then the salesman puts pressure on to make a decision instantly. It is obvious in the cool light of day that any sensible person should refuse to make a decision on the spot. They will know that it is possible to do research on the internet or speak to other people. In fact the internet has done more to help people discover the scams and frauds that are around us above anything else. But people, sadly, continue to be cheated by plausible con artists and scammers. The better protected among us are those who have the capacity, not always a very attractive one, to be cynical about claims as to how wonderful a particular service or consumer article is. Being cynical about what someone else is telling us, is a form of self-protection. But the cynicism at work here is based on our intellectual ability to see that there will nearly always be two or more sides to a question. In other words our cynicism is the polar opposite to those who have been conditioned to think exclusively in black and white terms. The ‘binary’ person will see the salesman and think what a nice man or woman they are. Because they are pleasant, their motivation for trying to sell us something can be assumed to be honourable. The cynical among us on the other hand, will immediately be asking the question – what is in it for them?

Many Christians carry in their minds the undergirding belief that anything written in the Bible is a direct revelation of God’s will. Such a belief is not based on the internal evidence of Scripture as most readers are completely confused when they try to read it without guidance. They nevertheless collude with this conservative teaching because they trust the church and its leaders where such an idea is taught. A conservative Christian will thus lean heavily on their teachers to make this idea of God speaking in every word of Scripture, work. While there is nothing wrong in looking to a teacher for guidance over issues we know we cannot understand, we can see that a conservative believer is starting from a place of utter dependence on another person. In other words the conservative believer does not even attempt to work out for himself the implications of his inherited belief system. To call such people vulnerable is not meant to be any kind of put-down. What it is saying is that a person who cannot or will not take responsibility for their understanding of the faith is in a situation of weakness. In short they are vulnerable to a Christian leader who may want to take advantage of them in some way. They are like the naive but trusting individual who takes every word on the salesman at face value. Such people are sometimes deeply betrayed.

As a liberal Christian who has also had the benefit of a theological education, I have learnt to be highly suspicious of any Christian leader who claims to have discovered the ultimate expression of the faith. Because I see strengths in a variety of Christian traditions, I find myself not totally able to identify with a single Christian denomination. This is sometimes lonely place to be. In many ways the Church appears to be favouring those Christian ‘tribes’ which follow a clearly identifiable and unambiguous path. I mentioned this tendency a few blogs back when I talked about the difficulty of a parish attracting a new vicar because the old Vicar had resisted all attempts at making his church a tribal expression of evangelicalism. In short to have a clear label with which to identify what one believes is the way that many ‘successful’ groups of Christians are going. The problem of Christians living within such tribal groups is that the individual finds their ability to grow spiritually and intellectually severely compromised. The ideal member of such a tribe will be a clone of whoever is in charge. This suppression of the individual spirit is not something I feel is a mark of the full humanity that Jesus came to bring.

Having a single and ultimate truth as well as fitting in with a single identity is not a path that I wish to follow. Truth is not something, as I have said many times before, that can be contained in certain written formulae. It has a habit of slipping through our fingers as we try to ‘possess’ it and then popping up in different and unexpected places. The main historical expressions of the Christian faith each make claims to have the final expression of the Christian message. I for one am deeply suspicious of any Christian community that claims a unique grasp of truth, whether it be Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant. Historically each of these groups has been very good at trying to claim a monopoly on Christian truth. It is also far too simplistic to say that the truth of Christianity is contained in the Bible. A claim like this should solve the problem of Christian identity but the sheer numbers of churches claiming to be ‘bible-based’ but disagreeing with each other, suggests that Scriptural ‘truth’ is never going to be easy to discern. As a preacher of Scripture in the past, I was always far more interested in helping people to read the Bible for themselves. Then they could face up to the fact that in some ways it is an inconsistent and quite confusing document. When we admit these difficulties, we begin to engage with it as it is. Slowly, slowly we begin to catch a glimpse of God as he reveals them in the pages of Scripture and history. That kind of faith does not satisfy a need for certainty but it allows us to be open to the journey, the pilgrimage of life under God as many have done before us.

Reducing a life to a comma

sermon mountThose of us who attend church regularly, will probably not have thought much about what is missing in the creed. A writer, Robin Meyers, has pointed out that the world’s greatest life is reduced to a comma. By this he means that the entire life of Christ between his birth and his trial is not mentioned in our creeds. Instead of any account of the important events in Jesus’ life, all we find is a single comma. It is as though there is a dramatic change in the understanding of what is important about Jesus between the time of the writing of the gospels and the writing of the Creeds. The gospels are deeply interested in the stories and the teaching of Jesus but when we get to the 4th century, the focus is on the birth, death and resurrection of Christ and the dogmas that flow from these events. The Christians who lived in the fourth century, were expected to concentrate their attention on the virgin birth, the sacrificial meaning of Christ’s death and the new hope brought about through his resurrection. A student of the fourth century will find that Christians did in fact spend a great deal of time debating these theological issues. It was in fact a matter of life and death when you stated what one believed. To be on the losing side in a dogma debate might involve losing one’s freedom or even one’s life. Heretics and schismatics did not have an easy time in the late Roman Empire. The fourth century was a period of Christian emperors who wanted to create theologically orthodox unanimity across the Roman Empire. Woe betide anyone who did not agree with the Emperor and those bishops who were on his side in the political/religious debates.

When we go back to the time of the New Testament, it is striking how little Jesus seems to be concerned with people having a correct set of beliefs. In spite of what we hear from many Christians today, people were not then judged as to whether they had a correct and orthodox opinion about Jesus’ nature and his relationship to God. To take one section of the synoptic Gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, we have a whole series of practical instructions about how to live. To begin with the Beatitudes, we find an invitation to live and act in a distinctive way. Jesus commends, among others, the gentle, those who struggle to see right to prevail, the merciful and the peacemakers. All of these are active attributes and there is the implication that those who practice these qualities will in some way change the world around them. The invitation to the disciples to be salt and light is a challenge to become agents of transformation. Many of the remaining sections of the sermon address the practical issues of keeping the law. They involve such things as almsgiving, fasting, money and attitudes to wealth. Jesus concludes the sermon by saying that his true follower is the one who does the will of his Father. Note that the word ‘believe’ does not appear; the emphasis is on practical doing and any idea that a disciple is defined in accordance with his or her beliefs is completely absent.

If I had to choose between the understanding of discipleship, or what it means to a Christian, from the time of the Emperor Constantine and the understanding of Jesus, I know which one I would take. Correct systems of belief were obviously very important for an emperor who wanted to have theological unity and harmony throughout his domain. But this dramatic shift from doing the will of the Father to the emphasis on believing correct ideas, is one which, I would claim, has impoverished Christianity a great deal. If we read the Sermon on the Mount without any knowledge of what was to come later, in terms of an emphasis on precise doctrinal formulations, we would have quite different picture of what Christianity is about. The words that would define the Christian way in the light of Jesus’ Sermon would be change, newness, transformation and trust. All these words are a long way from the narrow, somewhat intellectual approach to the Christian faith, which involves assent to ‘correct’ propositions. This has been the method of so many theological schools of teaching through the ages.

In my own teaching about the life and teaching of Christ when I was active as a parish priest, I tried to begin with a single word. It is the Greek imperative ‘metavoiete’. This word does not have an exact translation but it has the meaning of having one’s mind or attitude changed. Jesus thus says in Mark chapter 1 ‘metavoieite’, open yourselves up, receive the good news or gospel. Here we have an invitation, not to believe something, but simply to be open to receive something new. The word, often translated as repent, is not referring to anything intellectual. It is Jesus asking his disciples to open their imaginations, their wills and their love to a reality that has come close to them. One would wish that the church was better able to evoke this kind of opening up process. Teaching people to pray in the sense of teaching to be spiritually receptive, might well help them to understand how to become a person who is open to the reality of God. This kind of receptivity is a key to becoming a Christian who is allowing his or her life to be changed from within.

The church of the creeds cannot of course be ignored. But this church of doctrine and belief is a somewhat arid place if it is the only place we inhabit. But some people want to be in this arid territory all the time because it is the only place they feel safe. Earnest Christians have told them that the path to salvation, eternal life in heaven, depends on them being ready to say and believe the right words associated with orthodox Christian doctrine. Being in this place of safety by knowing all the correct Christian doctrine may have one serious draw-back. It may have the effect that a Christian is never able to follow Christ in the emphases which he gives in the Sermon on the Mount. There is no desire or expectation of being transformed or changed. Growth and transfiguration are not words that are used by such a ‘believing’ Christian. By ignoring the actual words and injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount, this ‘arid’ Christian helps to further the idea among other Christians and beyond, that the life of Jesus is indeed to be contained and reduced to a comma within the creed.

In my reading of the Langlois report, I became aware very much of the part that fear played in the lives of many of the Peniel members. Proper belief and behaviour was expected of everyone, but this outward belief was only obtained through the exercise of fear and coercive control. What a long way from such fear is the manner through which Jesus dealt with his followers? Coercion and threats were never part of his agenda. He simply wanted to invite people to a new way, a way of transformation so that they could live life and know it in all its fullness.