Monthly Archives: February 2016

Hiatus in Blog

keep-calm-and-stop-abuseMy regular readers may have wondered why there have been fewer blog posts in recent weeks. The answer to this is that my wife and I are in the process of moving house. Anyone who goes through this experience will know that one becomes used to living with boxes and piles of unsorted papers. This is not conducive to thinking fresh thoughts on the issues around abuse. A second more immediate reason is that I have recently spent three days in bed with a temperature. I had forgotten how thoroughly a temperature depletes one’s thinking processes. I realise that writing this blog does not just consist of physically sitting at a computer, but it also involves a less conscious stage of shuffling around in the back of my mind ideas connected with our theme. A fever, of however short duration, stops both these processes dead. So I have been unable to write or work out what might be the themes for future blog posts.

In my last blog post I gave a longer summary of a letter I had written to the Church Times. Much to my surprise, the paper allowed the entire letter to appear in print. It will be interesting to see if anyone objects to my suggestion that evangelicals are fragmented and thus unable to provide an obvious model for the future of the church. The article to which my Church Times letter was a reaction, was also republished on the blog site Thinking Anglicans. In one of the comments to the online version a theologian from New Zealand commented that in his understanding only 25 to 35% of people were susceptible to evangelical styles of Christianity. He made the further more telling point that 65 to 75% of people were not just resistant to the blandishments of this evangelical approach but were in fact alienated by it. I have no idea the basis for his figures but it is an interesting hypothesis. Am I the only one who finds some aspects of conversion type rhetoric objectionable at a deep visceral level?

Other news items have appeared which have brought the topic of abuse into the public view. The first is the Oscar award for the film Spotlight. This is the story of the work of the reporters on the Boston Globe who uncovered the scale of the cover-up by the Catholic church of rampant clerical sexual abuse. Even if this film is only seen by a minority it will have the effect of helping people to realise that sexual abuse is still something that has to be dealt with. Bishops and others who possessed the powers of oversight lamentably failed the victims by their obsession to protect the institution at all costs. The second, this time fictional, event is the storyline on the British radio soap opera, the Archers and concerns a couple Helen and Rob. The script describes in agonising detail the way the wife is humiliated and made to feel worthless in the marriage. It is a fictional account of what the law wants to prevent since we had the passing into law of the legislation about coercion and control within a domestic situation. No doubt the scriptwriters felt it right to make us all familiar with what this kind of brutal humiliation of another person in the home looks like. Abuse, as we are never tired of saying, does not necessarily involve violence or sexual degradation.

This past week has also seen the announcement of an enquiry into the way that the affair of Peter Ball was dealt with back in the early 90s. It is hard not to conclude that someone in the Church of England put the reputation of the institution way ahead of the needs of victims. Meanwhile in the States we can see the way that a mistrust of institutions gives rise to the popularity of a maverick politician like Donald Trump. His lack of experience in the political arena paradoxically makes him enormously popular, especially to those who already feel disenfranchised by the status quo. This is a serious and potentially disastrous development in the political life of America. But it is a reminder to all who have responsibilities within all institutions to balance properly the needs of those who are not served well by these same institutions. Cover-ups, bullying and abuse of all kinds will eventually be unmasked, as we have seen in the Langlois Report. People’s memories last a long time and churches must always assume that things like secrecy and confidentiality agreements will not last for ever. We will be following with interest the Australian Commission on sexual abuse perpetrated against the young over several decades. This will be illustrating once again the diverse and sometimes tortuous methods taken by churches, schools and other institutions to suppress the horrors of this kind of behaviour. It was ironic to hear the Australian Cardinal George Pell speak from his sanctuary in Rome about the failures of his hierarchy to protect children on the same day as the Oscar awards. It has seemingly taken the church twenty years to start to catch up with public opinion and awareness. It seems once more that public exposure and shaming is the one thing that is able to move the church on in facing up to the Augean stables of abuse issues. So many nasty things from the past are hidden there and need to be cleaned out..

I will be adding to the blog as and when I find the time, but it will be less frequent until the trauma of moving house is completed. We hope to be in our new home by Easter and the blog posts will hopefully continue with better regularity.

Understanding Evangelicals

time_evangelicalsSome months ago I wrote about the way that the evangelical movement in Britain and America was divided into numerous ‘tribes’. Those of us who are not evangelical are always being encouraged to think that the vast range of expressions within this movement is broadly a single entity. I strongly questioned whether one can ever have a consistent description of a movement which is so deeply divided in a variety of ways.

Last Friday in the Church Times, a British newspaper on broadly Anglican topics, there was an article attempting to make non-evangelicals think positively about evangelicalism within the Anglican Church. The article by Ian Paul was claiming that a significant minority of bishops in England could now be seen to be evangelical. The same thing could also be said for the majority of Anglicans offering themselves for ordination. This situation was, the author claimed, a positive movement and it would eventually bear fruit in a healthier more dynamic Anglican church in this country.

I found myself immediately provoked into writing a letter to the newspaper questioning various assumptions that were contained in the article. In particular I queried the claim that we could all regard the evangelicals in the Anglican Church in this country as somehow united. I said that I felt that there were deep differences, even divisions, which made this assumption of doubtful value. In particular I pointed out the fact that many evangelicals were advocates of charismatic worship and ministry, while others regarded this as an aberration from the true gospel.

I then went on to describe three distinct expressions of the evangelical culture, as I encounter it, which do not link at all to theology or history. The distinctions that I observe have to do with the way self-styled evangelicals react to those who are not among their number. In the first group which I describe as open or inclusive, there are large numbers of sincere Christian men and women who, while grounded in distinctive evangelical experience and belief, are nevertheless broadly accepting of Christians who are not like themselves. Many of these Christian people are open to new moral insights on such things as gay marriage or the position of women in the church. Others in this inclusive group will take a more conservative view but they are united by a reluctance to condemn other Christians who do not agree with them.

A second group of evangelical Christians can be distinguished by the fact that they hold a belief system, whether about the Bible or the central issues of faith, which cannot be in any way compromised. They thus reject other Christians who do not take their line on scriptural interpretation, the keynote doctrines of substitutionary atonement or the place of heaven and hell. They are the exclusivist group and we have often met them in this blog. Their faith and their fervor are a strong part of their identity but they feel that part of this faith requires them to reject other Christians who hold opinions that do not accord with their own.

A third group also exists and in many ways these are the most difficult for a non-evangelical to deal with. These are the evangelical Christians who say different things about what they believe depending on the people they happen to be with. As an example of this I was thinking of a well-known theologian who knows how to speak to an academic audience on biblical matters. This same theologian will speak in a quite different way when confronted by a conservative group which has only ever heard reactionary and simplistic Biblical teaching. When you have seen such a person at work in these two different settings, you wonder which are the true beliefs that he holds. Is he a conservative at heart who wants to be heard by other scholars in his field? Alternatively is he a scholar who knows that there is a financial and political advantage in being regarded as an advocate for a reactionary conservative position? In the world of conservative networks it is very important to be considered as ‘sound’ and thus receive invitations right across the world to address wealthy congregations. Such a reputation might easily be damaged if the preacher allowed some residual academic doubts to appear anywhere within his preaching. Conservative theology and conservative congregations do not tolerate the agonising and questions of an academically trained mind.

Writing the previous paragraph, it is obvious that I have in mind one particular distinguished theological writer but I am not going to share his name with my blog. I write about him to illustrate a wider point. This is that I believe it is impossible for anyone who has had a half decent theological education not to recognize that there are problems and nuances in the way that the Bible has to be interpreted. The conservative preacher of the Scriptures has to present the Bible as having a single correct interpretation. But we know that this is a falsehood. I say this not because I am arguing for some sophisticated liberal interpretation of Scripture but because no two conservative ministers will ever be able to avoid arguing about what is correct. If the truth of the Gospel is so plain and clear, why has no one yet discovered it? The answer to the problem that truth is never plain and obvious. It needs patience, discernment and time to tease out what we should know and understand of God’s message to the world. That will never be an easy task. Even when we think we have found it, we still need the guidance of the Spirit to help us work out its implications for us and our situation today.

I will not know until Friday whether my letter to the Church Times is to be published. I suspect that it may be a bit too long for their letters page but we will see. Meanwhile it has encouraged me to have a personal rant about this issue of ‘who are the evangelicals?’ To me they are found in many forms; we should not pretend any more that they are a single united group. Such a claim may help to increase their power and status but it is, I believe, based on a fantasy.

Coercion and Control

-Domestic-Abuse-Coercive-cropFrom time to time I get the impression that politicians and Parliament are more sensitive to the public mood than are our church leaders. For one example we have the way that society as a whole is tolerant to the idea of same-sex marriage and this has gone through all the processes to become the law of the land. This has happened in spite of the opposition of church leaders. A more recent example of our government capturing the public mood is in the legislation connected with domestic abuse. All of us are appalled at the way that in many homes there is violence perpetrated, mainly against women. Up till recently the only violence that the law acted against was physical violence. If a man beat his wife, and these injuries could be observed, then the man could be punished with the full weight of the law. This was not hitherto the case for other forms of violence and abuse. There are of course numerous ways in which abuse in the home is experienced by individuals that do not involve actual physical harm. Under this new piece of legislation which will be widely welcomed, it is now recognised that there are these other forms of coercive and controlling behaviour and some of these are now deemed criminal. The law came into force on 29 December 2015.

The Internet has produced numerous commentaries on this new piece of legislation. The ones that are particularly interesting are the commentaries coming from specialist lawyers. They are no doubt interested in obtaining new clients who have been victims of this kind of abusive behaviour from husbands and male partners. One suspects that offences under the new law will be difficult to prove. Whether or not there will be many prosecutions as the result of this new law, its existence is of great importance. It takes the law further into areas which has hitherto avoided, namely the domain of emotional and psychological harm. It is an area that may eventually stretch further than the domestic scene to include churches and other religious groups. For the law even to speak about non-violent abuse does take us a little further in raising public awareness of what abuse, defined in this broader way, actually looks like.

Some of the examples given by the legal commentaries on this new legislation to describe controlling behaviour within a domestic situation sound like descriptions of Peniel church as recorded by the Langlois report. One example of controlling behaviour that the law wants to criminalise is the deliberate isolation of an individual from families and friends. This is a powerful mechanism of control that is also used by cults and churches the world over. The family outside the church is seen as a potentially destabilising influence on the individual and this competes with the controlling teaching of the church leader. The Langlois report is full of examples of marriages and families being ripped apart by the requirement that the member of Peniel must only associate with fellow members. It is good to see that any attempt to stop people freely associating with others, particularly relatives, is now considered in a domestic situation to be an aspect of possible criminal behaviour.

A second area which the legal commentaries give as examples of coercive and controlling behaviour in a family environment is the ‘enforcing of rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim’. It is a sad reflection on the way the Bible is used in some churches that we realise that some preaching by tyrannical leaders has precisely this end in view. I mentioned in a past blog that, on my only visit to Peniel Church, the whole sermon preached by Michael Reid was an exercise in humiliation. Perhaps the preaching did not in fact dehumanise the congregation but it certainly wanted to ensure that no one in the congregation would dare stand up and challenge him, the preacher. John Langlois in his report identified the way that if anyone did stand up to Michael Reid, his stock response was:’ look at my Ministry, who is God blessing more?’ The dehumanising behaviour at Peniel was even more evident in the way that Bible school students were treated. Before these young American women even arrived, it was given out that all of them were in Britain to sort out behavioural issues. Ordinary members of the congregation were not encouraged even to speak to them. Fortunately, as Kathryn will no doubt testify, they at least had each other to buttress them against these attempts to degrade and humiliate them.

The Christian faith, particularly in its extreme Calvinist expression, is very good at ‘putting people down and making them feel completely worthless’. The latter part of the previous sentence I have used is an almost word for word quote from one of commentaries on the new legislation. Here we have a chilling parallel between what controlling men attempt to do in a domestic situation and what church leaders on occasion seek to achieve in a controlling church environment. I am sure it is true that society in the UK, if it knew about such behaviour, would want to outlaw the kind of extremist preaching that has as its aim to make people feel utterly worthless. We are, however, some way away from this point of awareness. But it would be good if a new recognition of the way that control is exercised in some families were extended to a new sensitivity to what is going on in some churches. I would want to encourage a fresh awareness in the population that non-physical coercion and control is totally unacceptable, not only in families but in any other setting where it might occur.

Looking back over past decades, we realise how long it has taken for society to recognize that the existence of sexual abuse is a problem both for society and for the churches. This new awareness that abuse is something that happens not only in a sexual or violent context is now just beginning to dawn on many people. Our legal system is paving the way in encouraging us to be more aware of this reality. This blog, although read by only a tiny number of people, wants to push for an understanding that safeguarding must help the church to rid itself generally from the kind of controlling and coercive behaviour that the Langlois report has identified in one particular congregation. We may hope that the report will be read by all church leaders concerned with abuse. The safeguarding rules that have been hammered out over the past few years must keep up with the spirit of this new legislation. Christian leaders everywhere must, for example, outlaw behaviour which demoralises, demeans and humiliates people in the name of holy Scripture. Is it too much to ask that the church is ahead of public opinion in these areas rather than, as at present, limping along behind? The new criminalising of coercive and controlling behaviour in a domestic setting should be a beacon to help the church clean-up its act. Can we not be seen to anticipate future legislation by insisting now that spiritual abuse, the use of demeaning and humiliating forms of control, be outlawed now? Do we have to wait for society to pass laws to indicate that the kind of behaviour identified by John Langlois at Peniel is in fact not just immoral but criminal? We need greater awareness in our churches of the reality of abuse. Let us hope that it arrives soon!

Coping with dishonesty and hypocrisy

honesty and truthWithin the Old Testament there is one theological debate which is never resolved. The particular discussion I am referring to is in the so-called Wisdom literature and concerns God’s protection of the individual who trusts him. The Wisdom literature is found in some of the Psalms, the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes and the Wisdom of Solomon. The important issue that is of great concern is whether or not God can be relied upon to look after the person who lives a righteous life. Many passages seem to indicate a confidence that when a person keeps the Law, no evil will befall him. A typical passage from the Psalms expressing this conviction is the one that says: ‘the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous and his ears are open unto their prayers’. Another passage which says something similar is the one that says: ‘I was young and now am old and yet saw I never the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their bread’. A confident trust that links goodness and the blessing of God on its practitioner is a strong theme in the various books of the Bible which together make up the Wisdom tradition. However this confidence and certainty in God’s blessing is radically questioned by the Book of Job. The modern commentators of this book suggest that the book should be read as a strong protest document against the calm confidence of those who want us to believe that personal goodness always results in God’s blessings for our life on this earth.

For myself I have no problem with the idea that the various authors of the Bible text sometimes disagreed with one another. The Wisdom literature thus never resolves the debate on this issue of whether a right-living person can avoid unexpected catastrophes. This question continues today. Is a Christian in some protected from suffering and distress? With Job we see how disasters and calamities affect one man who is held to be upright and good. It would be unrealistic to suggest that a Christian will experience life’s griefs and tragedies less than other people. Do we really think that wealth, success and health belong more to practising Christians than other people? No, the only difference that we might detect is that Christians are prepared to deal with their griefs and sorrows in a distinctive way.

A claim that Christians, people of faith, can somehow avoid disaster while at the same time enjoying material success and constant health is the promise that is the implied promise being made in some church environments. There are also churches that hold out a constant promise of miracles, which relate to financial, emotional or physical problems. ‘Come to our church’, the message goes, ‘and we will sort you out as long as you make a hefty donation to our finances!’ Having studied the Christian healing ministry over a number of years, I have no intention of suggesting that miracles never happen. They do, but seldom with the regularity that is often claimed for them. Inner transformations connected with forgiveness and a new relationship with the past do often occur for individuals in the context of church life. They are however not regular events by any means.

While discussing this issue, Chris reminded me of an episode in his past. When one of the church communities he belonged to proclaimed that miracles were taking place, he had to pretend that he had witnessed one of them. In fact no miracles were actually happening as far as he knew. I reflected with him whether his claim to have seen something constituted a lie in the normal meaning of the word. My own take on the situation was that Chris and others had been caught up in the enthusiasm of a church’s self-understanding. By ‘witnessing’ to a non-existent event Chris was simply caught up in a wish-fulfillment, a kind of group delusion created by the church’s own rhetoric. Because miracles ‘ought’ to happen there was a naïve belief that ‘witnessing’ and proclaiming such an event would somehow make them happen.

Claiming miracles when they do not happen does involves a form of dishonesty which is not dissimilar to claims that are made about a Christian’s relationship with Scripture. There are many people who feel obliged to collude with the belief that Scripture is accurate in every detail. If it seems to speak of historical events, then it must be understood in this way. Questioning this accuracy is thought to be like a ‘slippery slope’ towards atheism and loss of faith. Such a way of understanding Scripture does in fact create so many problems for the reader that he/she would probably be better off never opening up the text when alone. I could give numerous examples of the ways that a Bible passage, purporting to be history is impossible to understand as a statement of fact. To take one example, which will probably have caused problems for most of my readers, is the claim that the star followed by the wise men stopped over the place where the infant Jesus was to be found. Anybody who has spent any time in the open air when stars are shining must have wondered how any building could be marked out by a star. Logic, common sense and a healthy grasp of realism says that this passage cannot and should not be read in a literal way in order to understand its meaning. It is not a question of belief or disbelief in miracles, but simply the way language is used. Here it was never meant to be understood in a literal way even if the words appear to be a statement of fact.

This one trivial example of a passage which cannot meaningfully be read in a literal way, allows us to suggest that it is inappropriate to impose scientific-type truth on vast swathes of Scripture. If we try to do this, we find that we have an internal argument with a part of ourselves which may say that the literal meaning is often simply impossible. A dogmatic belief in the literal ‘truth’ of Scripture which we may be required to hold on to with our surface mind is thus in conflict with another part of our selves which is ruled by common sense and logic. The dogma of the group is in conflict with the thinking and conscience of the individual. I see in this clash something similar to what Chris was saying to me about miracles. At one level he was mouthing the narrative of the group while at the other level he knew that the group was indulging in an act of group deceit or hypocrisy.

One of the ways that conservative churches control their members is by insisting that each member adopts the approved group belief system. As I wrote about the issue of unity, I noted that this kind of unanimity can be false and indeed detrimental to the spiritual health of the members. By professing an identical belief to everyone else, a member of a conservative church may be indulging in a massive deceit. Human beings are all different and they will normally react differently to anything put before them. To pretend that it is a good thing in religious matters to be a clone, whether of a leader or a fellow member, undermines our true humanity and our uniqueness. I rejoice in the untidiness of the spiritual journey. There are massive differences to be found among us as well as many areas of convergence. Coming to a church with one’s uniqueness affirmed, allows one to converge into the experience of the whole in a healthy and positive way. We begin to glimpse a vision, once more, of journeying together with all our different histories and experiences intact. As I have suggested many times before, the image of the journey allows us to emphasise the importance of respect, humility and mutual support. As the hymn puts it: ‘we are pilgrims on a journey.’

Brentwood updates

TrinityOver the past few weeks followers of this blog will have noticed that I have gone very quiet over the events at Trinity Church Brentwood. The reason for this is, as I have just discovered, that Nigel Davies, the author of the Brentwood blog has been quite ill for around eight weeks. Thus the source of any information about the church simply dried up for this period of his illness. This silence was particularly galling after the flood of news in November. Nigel is now, thankfully, much better and more or less recovered from his pneumonia. Hopefully, the information on the church will begin to flow again.

Readers of this blog will remember that apart from the substantial report by John Langlois, there was a shorter one by two pentecostal ministers friendly to the church, Phil Hills and David Shearman. Having ‘sacked’ John Langlois and his commission back in August 2015, the church has tried to pretend that the 300 page document which John and his two commissioners produced in October does not exist. They were however forced to respond to the milder short report from David and Phil. In their response to this short report, the Trustees set out in December the way in which a special group was to be formed which would respond to the pastoral and other needs of abused ex- members of the church. This process is supposed to have now started. From recent comments on Nigel’s blog, there seems to be more than one opinion as to whether these attempts at reconciliation are indeed properly under way. Only time will tell whether such a reaching out by the church to apologise and to make amends for the past is being done with honesty and integrity or whether it is simply a political gesture to appease critics. The names of the group who are supposed to be doing this work have not yet been published.

Of far greater importance is the way in which the church responds or does not respond to the Langlois report. If the Trustees continue to try to pretend that it does not exist, then all their efforts to reach out to victims of past abuse may seem to be empty gestures. Whether the church likes it or not, the report will, I believe, gradually be read by everyone who has an ounce of independent thinking or curiosity. This particular elephant in the room is so large that it would seem almost impossible for anyone who takes a responsible role in the church now or in the future to be able to ignore it. Meanwhile it has been confirmed that Peter Linnecar has completely disappeared from the scene. This departure will have considerable ramifications for the dynamic of the church, particularly as a proportion of the congregation is related to him by blood or by marriage. It does not take a great deal of imagination to see that his absence may alter in unforeseen ways internal relationships within the church. In the short term it is reported that communication within the church is much improved after Peter’s departure. Peter had cultivated a certain mystique by being ‘too important’ for many individuals within the congregation. It is to be hoped that whoever follows him will want to be more pastorally ‘hands-on’. Most congregations prefer a warm accessible style of leadership and John Langlois pointed out in his report the long tradition in Peniel of the rich being cultivated and given privileges over the socially less powerful. Having had this particular cultural ‘style’ identified for them by the report, perhaps the Trustees will take note and try to avoid it in the future.

One particular issue which has emerged is the claim that the Langlois report contains a number of factual errors. These errors, whatever they are, are supposed to suggest that the whole report can be put to one side. This argument reminds me of conservative arguments about the Bible. You are not allowed to find a single error in Scripture for fear that if there is one thing wrong then the whole book is discredited. This argument is fallacious and an insult to common sense. Today I wrote a contribution to Nigel’s blog asking what these errors might be in John’s report. I pointed out that in the report, which I have read in detail, John repeatedly points out that all his conclusions were arrived at in the absence of any response from the leadership of Trinity Church. In other words he was taking testimony from those who had suffered in some way but he was not able to give another point of view or response from the Trinity leadership. The form of words that is used some 15 times in the report is as follows: ‘In the absence of responses from the present and former ministry/leaders/trustees of the church and subject to their responses to the members of the replacement commission we have come to the following conclusions’. It would seem that this statement with great humility builds into the report the possibility of error without in any way undermining its main thrust. John Langlois is clear that the sheer weight of testimony about abusive experiences suffered by so many at the church over many years, gives it plausibility and substance. I fail to see that any particular mistakes and errors that may have crept in are going to subvert the main thrust of the report.

Whether or not progress is made by the church in reaching out to former members who were victims of abusive behaviour, we can look forward to other developments which will take place on their own accord. To summarise, the first of these is the gradual extending of knowledge of the contents of the Langlois report to the congregation at large. This is bound to have an effect on the self-understanding of the congregation as it tries to help plot its path towards the future. The second radical change in the congregation comes as the result of the departure of the former pastor and his wife from the church. Significant changes are bound to take place within the congregation because of this. So much of the resistance to change and any reform seems to have been initiated from the top. When Nigel Davies was given a 30 minute audience with the Trustees in December 2014, Peter Linnecar personally prevented any of them asking any questions of Nigel. The strong authoritarian style which began with Michael Reid and continued with Peter L. was exercised not only over the congregation but also the Trustees. That is now gone and one can hopefully look for a different internal dynamic to emerge. If the church is to survive, and it is not clear at present whether this is a desirable aim, then it needs the Trustees to resist appointing a new pastor who will continue to exercise a similar authoritarian control. Unfortunately autocracy is frequently found in Pentecostal churches from where a new pastor might be chosen. The hope is that Trinity Brentwood will align itself to some denominational structure and, if this does happen, then there will be an oversight of the church by people who are not afraid to read and act on the Langlois report.

This bulletin on Trinity Brentwood is an indication that there is still much to unfold in the history of this church. It continues to be a focus of interest for this blog because so many of the issues around abuse, control and authoritarianism in churches occur in that congregation. I hope to keep returning to fill in my readers with whatever information I can glean from the other blog. I shall also not be afraid to add my own robust commentary to supplement this information.

Understanding Freedom

Freedom-Is-Being-YouFreedom is one of those words that everyone believes they understand. It also assumed that everyone is searching for freedom, particularly if they do not already possess it. Children, and particularly teenagers, are longing, we suppose, for the freedom of adulthood. People in a situation of slavery are also assumed to be striving for freedom above all else. The truth of the matter is in fact far more complicated. Many young adults far prefer to remain at home being fed and housed and generally looked after. Those released from slavery often find that the world of freedom is far more complex and anxiety-inducing than anything they knew before. Freedom brings about many choices and, if truth were told, people fear these choices. Some people will always prefer that life and all its complications be reduced to simply doing what other people tell them to do. The picture we have of every 18-year-old, desperately waiting to break free from family constraints, is only perhaps an idea of what we think should happen rather than the actual reality. Also the belief that every person in any kind of bondage wants to be released from their chains is also something which fits into the way that we would like them to be, rather than the way they in fact are.

From time to time I have reflected on the nature of addiction in our society. It takes many forms from cigarettes to alcohol, sex and drugs. Food is also a well-known comforter to help people cope with the choices and stresses of life. When one indulges in an addiction of choice, the addictive substance makes life seem far more under control. The highly stressed executive returning home from work may relax with alcohol. What he or she is doing is to escape from a world where they feel only partially in control. Alcohol gives them a predictable sense of well-being which helps them temporarily to blot out the choices, uncertainties and ambiguities of the working world. Most forms of addiction can also be understood to be a regression into the comfort and fantasy of being looked after and cared for by someone else. The addictive substance acts as a psychological crutch so that one can retreat from the unpredictable parts of life to something that is reliable and comforting – the child returning to the safety of a mother’s embrace.

One of the things that can be observed about the mass political movements of the 20th century is that, whether Communist or Fascist, they provided a way to relieve the stress of being a free individual, one with choices and decisions to make. The political movements, particularly as experienced in continental Europe between the wars, gave many people the experience of being in a large crowd. These crowds were all focused on a person or idea. While in the crowd the individual was relieved of having to think or feel for himself. It is no coincidence that Nazi Germany and Communist Russia appealed most especially to the young, young men in particular. This is the age group which goes through a period of anxiety as they move from the security of childhood to the time of decisions that being an adult normally involves. If there is someone or something to believe in which will resolve that anxiety, then it will be extremely popular. In short the mass ideologies of Germany and Russia in the 20 and 30s provided shortcuts to maturity for the mass of the population, albeit an utterly dysfunctional maturity. To be given a uniform by the Soviet or fascist state allowed the young man to feel adult without ever having to face up to the ambiguous and challenging freedom that such a stage would normally involve.

My reader may be wondering when I am going to reflect on the way that a fear of freedom is expressed in some aspects of Christianity. What I have to say here will not be popular with some, but I firmly believe that some presentations of Christianity have similarities to both the mass political movements of the 20th century and the current availability of many forms of addictive substance, legal or illegal. There is in fact a great deal in the New Testament about truth and freedom and the importance for the individual to take responsibility for his or her morality and choice of life. But the way the church presents itself sometimes leads us to conclude that the institution is colluding with people’s fear of freedom in the way that it peddles certainties and fixed answers that cannot be challenged. Many people see the church, not as providing a springboard for independent thinking and living, but as a place where people go to be submerged in a large group experience, not totally different from the mass political rallies of the 1930s. The music of these gatherings also helps to ‘soften’ people up to be part of a mass mind. Thinking and believing are here not the actions of individuals but this work is done on behalf of the whole by a small band of leaders. When people claim that they believe everything taught by a particular church or Christian leader, I see something profoundly regressive taking place. How is it ever possible in normal life to agree 100% with another person? And yet that is what is both claimed and believed to be possible in the context of a church. In a normal family one would expect that the 10-year-old child would begin to find areas of disagreement with his or her parents on various issues. By the age of 15 one would expect these divergences to be quite marked. Why is it that we expect everyone to agree with each other in the so-called church family? There is something quite unhealthy going on when this dynamic is at work.

Returning to our theme about the meaning of freedom, I am suggesting that this idea is far more difficult to live out and put into practice than would appear at first sight. Many people, including Christians, want to escape the demands of freedom and find a place and an ideology which makes them feel safe and included. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to belong, such ‘cosiness’ does need to be challenged from time to time. Any parent would want to tell their25-year-old offspring to find their own place rather than staying at home for ever. In the same way a church leader should want to encourage every member of his congregation to explore freedom rather than feel gratified that everyone wants to stay sitting at the foot of the pulpit in a dependent relationship. And yet the dynamic of many churches is one of creating and encouraging dependency, at the same time depriving people of the experience and challenge of finding a new freedom.

I cannot in this short piece explore fully what Christian freedom might actually look like. But I hope I have said enough to imply what the absence of this freedom appears to be. An absence of freedom in the Church can be seen in an over- dependency on particular experiences, words and individuals, This will be combined with a refusal to explore newness, paradox or the unexpected. To demand a freedom from freedom, as many Christians appear to do, is itself a kind of addiction. Somehow Christians have to own up how both in the past and in the present the church has colluded in this addiction. Living out a life of truth and freedom is hard work but this is the life in all its fullness to which Christ calls us.