At 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.