From 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!