Over 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.