Monthly Archives: May 2016

Ostracism – the path to purity?

ostracism2I used to know a clergyman who came from a background very different from my own. He had taken early retirement with some medical problem and had bought a house in my parish. His background was conservative charismatic and he was far happier taking services in independent churches than in our middle of the road Anglican parish. Talking to him it became apparent that the effort to take his former congregation into the world of loud music and demonstrative preaching had not been without a great deal of conflict. He had won through mainly by encouraging his opponents simply to leave the church. Eventually the only ones left behind were those people who agreed with his very forceful approach. The metaphor he used in describing this process of ‘culling’ people who were in opposition was fairly chilling. He said you cannot ‘coddle a cancer’. In other words, anybody who disagreed with his fiercely partisan theology was simply told to leave. He was using the metaphor of surgery, the use of a knife to cut out a diseased section of the body. From his point of view this was the solution to the problem. The end result was that his theological vision was successfully prevailing in that congregation. Whether it survived after his departure is another question.

The solution that my acquaintance found to his problem of opposition is one that is probably applied in many places across the country. A church leader decides on his own, or with a few others, to go in for a particular style of leadership and teaching. Those who disagree or oppose this are effectively pushed out by one means or another. There are two areas of strong concern at this scenario. First of all, we have the unhappiness that is caused by depriving individuals of membership of a church which they may have called home for decades. Then we have to ask whether we can call the apparent peace caused by a wholesale desertion on the part of long-standing members a true unity. Realistically the dynamic of such church is based on the fact that there is only one opinion tolerated. That is the opinion of the leader. Anyone holding different opinions is not welcome. It is not difficult to imagine the way that if that leader has grandiose or narcissistic ideas, then these will grow stronger and more insistent as time goes on. The man with a vision who starts a new ministry with a vision may gradually become a petty tyrant who is unable to tolerate any kind of discussion, let alone criticism to his ministry.

The situation at Peniel church in Brentwood can be interpreted in this way. The originally fairly benevolent oversight of Michael Reid gradually deteriorated into a despotic and self-indulgent form of leadership. His preaching became more and more angry and abusive and people who had been convinced that he was a man of God gradually fell away, particularly when some of his sexual misdeeds became known. Others have stuck it out to this day. They are so conditioned to see Michael, and Peter after him, as men of God that they interpreted their abusive treatment as in some way a test of their faith. Whether they stayed or left, few seemed to have been able to articulate the full horror of what they had been through. It seems that the capacity of Michael Reid in particular to terrify his followers clung on even after they had left the church. Those who remained kept hoping to see once again something of the power, the joyful fellowship and the hope that had attracted them to the church in the first place. Certainly they were never going to able to express any sort of challenge to the powers that be.

Trinity Church Brentwood, the successor to Peniel, is still able to present a united front to itself and to the world. It is able to do this because all those who could criticise the church and its leadership have simply disappeared off the scene. Those who remain have been able to justify in their own minds the thought that the leavers are people have let the side down or betrayed the vision that they had once had. They are identified as traitors to the cause. The people who remain seem to be unable to feel any sympathy for those who went through so much pain. They are the despised ‘other’. There is no appetite for reading the report written by John Langlois and there is certainly no readiness to examine their own personal roles in allowing such a brutal dictatorship to continue for so long. They do not appreciate the courage of the one voice crying in the wilderness, in the person of Nigel Davies and his blog, which alone has allowed the horrors of the past to be fully exposed to public scrutiny. Most of us on the outside of this church can see how opposition and argument within this or any other institution is potentially something positive. When a leader makes a decision on behalf of those under his care, then that decision should be able to stand up to the scrutiny of people who belong to those being led. Churches, just like political parties, must allow healthy debate if they are to carry the bulk of the members along with them. It is only when political parties and churches move to the extremes that they expect their members to follow the party line without any healthy debate and discussion of what is being proposed. To compare Peniel Church with a 30s fascist state is not as far-fetched as it may sound. I am particularly thinking of Mussolini’s Italy where lying propaganda, extravagant building projects and the bombast of small bullying men reigned supreme.

I have often pointed out how a belief in the inerrancy of Scripture does not in fact provide for a church any sort of true unity of vision. Everyone who preaches this doctrine will in practice have their own private interpretation as to how the doctrine works in practice. We will always have a multiplicity of interpretations about how, for example, the church should be organised. The authority of Scripture (the Bible says!) will be claimed for every style of church governance from the strictly authoritarian to the free flowing anti-hierarchical. To expect perfect unanimity within or between institutions is probably to ask for something that is almost impossible to achieve. When we do find a church where everybody appears to think and feel like, we will in all probability discover that there has been a history of exclusion, enforced by the techniques of ostracism and verbal violence. People who were not in accord with the fake unity have simply departed. I am reminded of the famous statement of the Roman writer Tacitus. ‘They make destruction and they call it peace’. How many churches think of themselves as being perfectly united around a leader? The reality of that so-called unity is a history of pain, suffering and even violence? This façade of perfect unity in a church has been achieved at a high cost in terms of unhappiness, sadness and even trauma. Much more healthy, in terms of human happiness, is a situation of messy consensus marked by debate, discussion and compromise. I know which one I prefer. Peniel church in Brentwood has for the moment a veneer of unity because everyone who attends has colluded with message that the past must be left behind. The only people who can see the terror and the pain of the institution are those who look at it from the outside. The church has thus chosen a fake purity and unity. They have achieved this state of uneasy peace through shunning and ostracism of those who do not buy into their myths of their self-proclaimed goodness.

A post Pentecost reflection

pentecostI had meant last weekend to write a reflection on the theme of Pentecost. Starting me off on a series of thoughts that relate to the theme of this blog, was a single vivid image that was used during the sermon at a local church. The preacher filled the church with balloons. These were inflated with helium and after the service some of them, including one belonging to my three-year-old granddaughter, sailed up to the roof of the building. The point of the balloons was a simple one. Before it is inflated a balloon is just a flabby useless thing. After it is inflated it becomes something quite different. The preacher wanted us to reflect on the way that the Holy Spirit can fill the life of individuals and allow them to become what they can be.

Why did this image strike me so powerfully in connection with our blog? It is because the church itself does not, in some situations, allow the individual to become what he/she is capable of being. It is a reasonable expectation that a normal church will not prevent an individual growing into a fuller humanity than what they had when they first arrived. This fullness of humanity we look for may be ascribed to the work of the Spirit within or we may want to put it down to an experience of fellowship together with a gradual growing in prayer, worship and spirituality. However we describe our moving towards a fuller life, I want to suggest that the balloon analogy also provides us with a vivid illustration of how some people in church not only fail to thrive but even go backwards. My imagination allowed me to suppose that even in churches, some balloons not only remain uninflated but the little bit of air already in them is sucked out. This is the sort of thing that seems to happen to those who fall out with a tyrannical or over-controlling church leader. Not only are they not allowed to discover life in all its fullness but the little bit of life that they had when they arrived seems to be sucked out of them after a number of years or even months in a church.

In the news recently we have read about a man who has been convicted under the new law which relates to coercion and control in a domestic situation. His behaviour was extreme. His wife had to produce car parking tickets to account for all her movements and her contact with friends was so controlled so that they never bothered to come and see how she was. In summary coercion and control was destroying for that woman any possibility of finding a full life. The husband was sucking out from his wife the small amount of air that was still left in the balloon. The same scenario was being described by some of those who gave evidence to the Langlois report into Peniel Church. Women in particular described how their husbands were on occasion forced to separate from them by the church and these women then became non-persons to the congregation through the use of ostracism and shunning.

I want us now to think of what might be possible if churches took seriously their responsibility to help people to find ‘life in all its fullness’. Let us sketch out an imaginary scenario which could possibly exist if this happened. What are the basic needs for a full life that people have? How might churches might possibly help them with these? The first basic need which every church can do something about is people’s need to belong. Every church can make sure that each and every individual from the smallest child to the old and sick have a sense that they are important to other people. Many churches which offer a good welcome to their members do not keep this up when members stop attending because of illness or infirmity. Also a church which is always talking about making new disciples runs the risk of not providing a particularly good service to those who have been coming for 40 or 50 years. They may have become a bit fixed in their ways, but older people need to feel valued just as much as the young.

A second area which will allow a person’s balloon to be inflated in a positive way is to give hope. Hope is one of those words which straddles the line between the spiritual and the material. It is the fundamental attitude that believes things are going to get better. Seeing an improvement is something that everyone longs for, whether for themselves or for their children. It is also an attitude that enables a dying person to look through and beyond their pain to commit themselves in trust to a loving God. A minister who comes to the bedside of a dying person will have this particular thing to offer, namely the hope that God will be with the sick person in the process of dying and beyond. If we can offer hope to people at the point of death, then how much more should we be offering this same hope to people in the middle of ordinary lives. Surely hope can always be sought and found amid the stresses and strains of coping with ordinary troubles. In whatever form hope is shared, the balloon of a person’s flourishing can be inflated with it.

A third area of experience which every member of the church needs to be offered is that of spiritual presence. What I am talking about here is the outcome of the practice of worship and prayer over the years of living a Christian life. Each and every member of a congregation should be somewhere along the path of knowing that there is a presence around them whatever else may happen in the hustle and bustle of daily life. Much of the time we find it hard to hold on to a sense of the presence of God but perhaps we can hope that it will be at least a background hum in a person’s life. They can then recover it when they need it to support and help them.

Belonging, hope and presence between them are perhaps able to inflate the lives of ordinary Christians in the best sense of the word. This kind of inflation will be more dependable than being part of some emotional trip when the Holy Spirit’s power is invoked at special church events. In an earlier blog post I mentioned the way that some so-called religious experiences are a bit like candy floss, a sweet taste but no nutritional value. The three inflating gifts that I have mentioned are part of what every church should be able to offer. They are able to act like solid nutrition for the Christian journey. If Christians are inflated with these three ingredients, then he/she should be able to live with a sense of the reality of God in his or her life. But just as important, if these three, belonging, hope and presence are alive and well, then the process of facing one’s own mortality can be met with courage and without fear. May each of us find in membership of a church something that inflates us like those Pentecost balloons. May it enable us to live life to the full. We also must be alert to helping and supporting those unfortunate individuals for whom church has done the opposite, the victims of power abuse and exploitation because of the inadequacies of so-called Christian leaders.

Using the Bible to control others

Thinking about the BibleA friend of mine, who is a clergyman, was telling me about a recent visit to hospital for an operation. While he was recovering on the ward, one of the nurses noticed that he had the title Reverend on his notes. She immediately shared with him the information that she was also a practising Christian. He listened as she explained about her membership of a local Pentecostal church in the area. She shared with him her great love of the Bible. She had discovered, as she put it, how many of the world’s problems were to be found in the pages of Scripture. The prophecies of the past were all being fulfilled in today’s terrible events. It soon became apparent that her reading of the Bible and her understanding of its relevance for today’s problems was almost entirely based on one single book, the book of Revelation.

I tell this anecdote is a way of illustrating the extraordinary way that Christianity as practised today in our world is divided into groups which seem to have very little possibility of communicating or understanding each other. How does one begin to talk to a Christian who only knows this one somewhat eccentric part of Scripture? In the nurse’s particular church there seems to have been little interest in the teaching of Jesus, the theology of St Paul or the story of the spread of the Christian church in Acts. Everything was apparently based on what we would consider the more lurid passages of the book of Revelation which speak of destruction and disasters. We do not of course know whether the a preaching focus on this particular book was a temporary thing or, as I suspect, part of a long-term obsession. The minister was out to present a version of Christianity which, like the book of Revelation was full of drama, violence and events that would help to make his preaching highly colourful We only have our speculations to go on but, to judge from some of the material I have encountered in books from the States, our surmises are not without foundation. In the first place an obsession with the book fits in with a version of Calvinism which is highly pessimistic about the state of the world. Thus the preaching would have revelled in all the talk of destruction, battles and the final defeat of God’s enemies at the end of time. Although the book does possess passages of great beauty, we cannot ignore the fact that there is also a great deal of violence in this particular book. If this particular Pentecostal minister was indeed using this book of Revelation as the main source for his Christian teaching, then I believe he could be accused of feeding his congregation on a diet of what is effectively religious pornography.

It is not for me to offer a ‘liberal’ commentary on the book of Revelation at this point, but I would ask my reader to consider what might be the consequences for their Christian faith if this were the only book of the Bible being studied or considered. I am going to speculate that the choice of this book would allow a preacher, not only to preach in a very dramatic and colourful way, but also to increase his power and control over his congregants. How might this work? In the first place I am suggesting that anyone who is drawn to be obsessive about Revelation is likely to become a victim to two parallel but conflicting emotions. Neither of these, I hasten to add, are especially healthy or good. The first emotion is one we have met many times before in this blog – the experience of abject fear. All the descriptions of what God is going to do to those who do not follow him are spelt out in vivid detail in the book. The costs of not being on God’s side are frankly terrifying. The member of a congregation who is preached at by someone listing all the awful punishments awaiting the disobedient is not going to realise that the same Bible also offers a gentler more compassionate God in other parts. No, the preacher thunders, all these punishments await you or anyone else who strays from the straight and narrow, from the salvation that this particular church is able to offer. If you betray this church, you betray God and will have to face the consequences. This is God’s infallible word. I opened Revelation at random and read in chapter 16: ‘ There followed flashes of lightening and peals of thunder and a violent earthquake like none before it in human history, so violent it was…. The cities of the world fell in ruin ….Huge hailstones, weighing perhaps a hundredweight, fell on men from the sky; and they cursed God for the plague of hail.’ A listener who accepts that every word in Scripture is the infallible word of God would hear such words with a frisson of terror.. This is only one random passage and there are plenty more which can be relied upon to terrify the susceptible listener or reader.

The stirring up of fear in a congregation eventually becomes counter-productive so that a preacher needs to offer hope and assurance. While these emotions are of course positive there is also a particular sensation which a preacher can easily arouse which will also to some extent assuage the Calvinist-inspired state of terror. I refer to the feeling which the German language describes as ‘Schadenfreude’. This is the delight in the punishment of others. This emotion is not a worthy one but the evoking a sense of smug complacency that God is going to bring about terrible destruction of those he does not approve of is a powerful potential weapon for a preacher. It is hard not to feel that the writer of Revelation himself was feeling such emotions when you read the descriptions of all that the seven angels in chapter 16 do to activate the outpouring of God’s wrath. Such unfortunate individuals are covered with malignant sores, some burnt alive and others allowed to die of thirst. The temptation to encourage the members of a congregation to join in such a triumphant sense of God’s triumphant vindication of his power over those who oppose must be little short of irresistible.

My reader may begin to understand how a focus on the book of Revelation in one particular church in the Midlands could be thoroughly unhealthy. By creating in the hearer a combination of fear with an equal dose of enjoyment at a future punishment for the people who are identified as an ‘enemy’, the preacher has created a toxic environment. In encouraging such a pathological atmosphere he is assisted by a plethora of books that have been written in the past thirty years by such people as Hal Lindsey and Tim Lahaye which peddle some highly questionable ideas about the End Times. Fortunately I have never had to listen to such a sermon which links the justice and goodness of God with terrible, eternal suffering for those who do not accept him. But there is enough in the literature to suggest the are many Christians who have allowed the eternal punishment for those who do not agree with you, to become an obsessional preoccupation.

Reading the book of Revelation in isolation from the rest of Scripture is at the very least likely to create severe distortion of the Christian message. At its worst it can create a cruel, abusive environment which evokes fear in the hearer and encourages him/her to exult in the punishment of the perceived enemies of God. Over the centuries the book has caused problems for Christian commentators with the result that it is now often ignored. When main-stream Christians are ignorant about the book, less orthodox Christians on the fringes are left to use it in a variety of illegitimate ways. It is worth recording that the destructive Adventist group led by David Koresh was riveted by his speculations about Revelation. The complete ignorance of the book on the part of the negotiators with Koresh was part of the reason for the breakdown of communication and the subsequent tragic death of 80+ victims at Waco. We need to read the book again but must not allow doctrines of verbal infallibility to cloud our judgement of its relevance to our situation today..

The power of religion over love

power of religion
The events in Syria over the past few weeks remind us of the terrible destructive power of ideologies. A civil war is clearly far worse than a conventional war in the way that it creates hatreds and divisions which last for decades even after the fighting has stopped. Soldiers in a war between nations have been taught to hate an enemy who is largely unknown and mostly unseen. In a civil war ordinary people have been taught to hate people who have been hitherto been neighbours, even friends. They may have lived alongside them for years and now they have to think of them as a terrible enemy. That enmity is then worked upon by leaders so that violence towards even women and children is perpetrated in its name.

It is said that in order to kill another person one has to overcome various deeply held taboos within the personality. It is by no means easy apparently and we would like to think that these taboos make the kind of behaviour of the type that we see in Syria extremely unlikely in our own country. Is it possible to imagine people killing each other in this country for the simple reason that they are different either in their religious outlook or their political point of view? This is not a question we often ask ourselves but the events of civil war in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and now in Syria force us to contemplate this ghastly possibility. The people of Bosnia as well as the ordinary citizens of Syria were not human time-bombs waiting to explode when they were given permission to kill members of another group. And yet large numbers of people have been forced to take part in the terrible atrocities in both countries. If President Assad’s soldiers have been guilty of dropping barrel bombs on their own side, then one has to ask what is going on in their minds. Those soldiers who have complied with the orders to do terrible things to people of the own country have evidently bought into the narrative that their victims of their ghastly actions are beneath any human consideration on account of their different political or religious affiliation. In short the inbuilt humanity of the individual soldier has been overwhelmed by a political and religious imperative.

When we consider this terrifying fact, we are being told that in some situations religion and politics are more powerful than ordinary human kindness and compassion. Ideology and religious belief can in some circumstances overwhelm human love. This fact, while it may or may not be true of us individually, should terrify us. It should make us aware of the way that religion and politics can be corrupted to serve base ends in the hands of unscrupulous leaders. While we would like to think that there is nothing which could override our own basic moral attitude towards life and its preservation at all costs, the evidence suggests that it could potentially be otherwise. Political and religious leaders do seem to have the power to corrupt the moral sensitivity of their followers in alarming ways. Even though we are not members of President Assad’s army being urged to kill fellow citizens, we should still recognise the mechanisms of indoctrination that make these actions possible.

The destruction of human sensitivity by political and religious leaders is a crime which need to be named and deplored. We have seen in this blog other lesser crimes being committed by religious groups which are a denial of human compassion, notably ostracism and shunning. Although following a leader’s command to shut out an ex-member of a religious group does not constitute actual murder, there is nevertheless a wish that the shunned person should somehow disappear. Shutting someone out is not far from a desire to see them dead. In a recent correspondence with someone, I have learned of an individual who committed suicide as a direct result of being shunned from their Christian fellowship. One has to ask the question whether this result was one that the shunners were secretly hoping for. When followers are told by a leader, religious or political, to have nothing to do with someone because they have committed some infringement, these leaders are consciously undermining the normal tendency in human beings to care for and to nurture others. When parents or children are deliberately ignored and given the silent treatment because the group leader tells you to do so, a form of soul murder is taking place. The command is obeyed because the followers need to belong to the group. This need is so powerful that it can be manipulated so that the group ideology takes precedence over the human call to love. There is a kind of blasphemy at work whenever Christians who want to follow Jesus’s command to love others are persuaded to shut out others in the name of purity or some higher purpose. We may find it hard to love everyone but there is nothing in Jesus’s words which gives any encouragement to the idea that we should try to destroy someone by deliberately cutting them out of our lives or the life of the group. When a political or religious leader tells us to do this, we should know that it is time to escape from this group. Needless to say, many people in such a situation find it impossible to move away from the group, because they have become hopelessly entangled emotionally, socially and financially within it. The group has, in other words, made them its slave. When this is the situation, their freedom to choose has been destroyed. We are right in this situation to call that group cultic.

This blog post has been an attempt to help us recognise how religions and political ideologies are sometimes guilty of destroying the humanity and capacity to love which exists within each one of us. That is indeed a terrifying indictment of their power and influence in our world. This blog has not addressed the way that this process happens within a political context. Rather it has taken a brief look at the way that some religious authority takes away the ability of an ordinary Christian disciple to flourish and to grow. Where we see Christian flourishing being destroyed by a demand for authoritarian obedience, we need to protest and protest loudly. There is no room within New Testament Christianity for such enslavement and tyranny; it is a denial of our humanity and thus all that Christ preached and stood for.

Tribalism in church and politics

tribesRecent news stories in the UK have brought to our attention the issue of tribalism in politics. By ‘tribalism’ I am referring to the age old tendency for one group to define itself by its hostility and differentiation from another group. Defining a ‘them’ does wonders for creating a sense of solidarity among the members of the ‘in’ crowd. In the current UK political example we are seeing a revival of anti-Israeli, even anti-semitic, sentiments among the hard-left sections of the Labour party. That it should have raised its head now is of no surprise as these hard left groups have been welcomed back into the party since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. I do not propose to do a political or historical analysis of this situation, but merely to point out that there will always be groups in politics who attract members because they all share identical hatreds for the same people.

The majority of my readers will not belong to extreme political groups where defining, naming and vilifying another group is the raison d’etre of existence. But all of us will have at some point been on a march or taken part in a demonstration where we are expressing hostility to a group or another government. I can remember taking part in a demonstration outside the Spanish embassy in London at the end of the 60s. I cannot remember what the cause was but it was memorable for me as I had a chance encounter with Bishop Trevor Huddleston, the well-known anti-apartheid campaigner. I also tasted some political activity as a supporter of Amnesty International, a cause which I support to this day. The exposure to any kind of political activity will have the result that we will recognise something of the pull that tribal politics, being against something, will have for people, especially the young. When you protest about something you despise or deplore, you have a strong sense of self-definition. You become one of the ‘good’ people who loathes fascism, tyranny or whatever is the evil movement of the moment.

Political activism is of course not just taking place within political parties. One can be politically active in any organisation and this of course includes churches. In some sense this blog is a political act. It is a small protest in the face of an institution which finds it difficult to recognise that power abuse is a problem. Protest in the old fashioned meaning of the word does not suggest that there Is necessarily an evil ‘other’. The protest is about trying to get an institution to face up to a largely ignored problem. As long there are victims of the abuse of power within the church, then someone should be thinking about the issue. When an institution appears to be blind to what is going on within its borders, then protest is a legitimate and necessary course of action.

To say that this blog is speaking out against power abuse in the church in a general sense is not of course the complete truth. As my readers will know, there is a strand of Christian practice which I identify as having a particular problem with handling power successfully. By no means is it the only one but the strand, which for shorthand I describe as conservative Charismatic, seems often to place the spiritual and emotional needs of its people in second place to the amassing of power, financial and emotional for the gratification of its leaders. Thus I spend time analysing the power dynamics of these kinds of church using both theoretical and actual examples. Reports, like the Langlois report into the affairs of Peniel church in Brentwood, allow the theoretical side of the blog to be tested against the harsh reality of what takes place ‘in the pews’ on some occasions.

The writing of such analyses about the behaviour of other people is not without its dangers. As with any politician seeking to name the evils of opponents, it is all too easy to create a ‘them’ in my imagination. I hope that I am aware of this danger and it is here that my readers have an important part to play. It is for them to spot signs if I am ever in danger of lapsing into caricature and demonising others in through an attack of intellectual laziness. If I want to interpret what I see going on among many of the political thinkers that are being scrutinised by the media at present, I identify a strong attack of mental sloth. Thinking through a fresh political stance (or theological one for that matter) takes effort. It is easier to sloganise than to think through a new position for the present. The rewards of also having a band of ‘comrades’ to join you in proclaiming these old hackneyed slogans is not without its rewards..

Being ‘political’ whether in politics or the church requires constant vigilance. The vigilance being required is never to lapse into cheap jibes, exaggeration and caricature of those one does not agree with. There are some apparent rewards that come with joining with others in belittling one’s opponents. To be joined with others in ‘hating’ an out-group gives one a sense of importance and power. These feelings are however fairly superficial and short lived. A boost to self-esteem that comes as the result of being part of a large ‘successful’ group will be normally be followed by a descent back into the ordinary experience of being alone. The importance one feels from being part of a tribe that makes its name by being against others is seen to be an empty sterile place in the long-term.

Recent comments by Justin Welby about his discovery that his mother’s husband was not in fact his biological father are helpful in this context. On learning that he was not genetically a Welby, he remarked that he obtained his identity from his God-given identity in Jesus Christ. Whatever we understand to be the meaning of these words, we have a witness to a Christian reality that puts our tribalisms, based on blood or nationhood, firmly in their place.

Slander: Hillsborough & Brentwood compared

HillsboroAfter a full two years the Hillsborough inquest is finally over. For the sake of my non-UK readers, I should mention that Hillsborough was a terrible sports disaster when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Sheffield in 1989. There are many aspects of this legal process which attract our interest but I find myself drawn to pointing out the way that the integrity of the ordinary Liverpool supporters has been upheld. For 27 years this integrity was tainted by what we now know to be unsupported rumours and slander. It was always being suggested that the cause of the catastrophe was partly to be attributed to the unruly behaviour of the Liverpool fans. The police were thus using their considerable social power to maintain that this was an accident which they could not have prevented. It now appears that appalling, even criminal, decisions were made by some of the police that day leading to the terrible events.

My own life and the Hillsborough disaster intersected one another through the fact that one victim, Derek Godwin, was a young man who lived in my then parish. I spent a lot of time trying to care for the family, conducting the funeral and generally hearing all about the events of that terrible day. I must confess that none of the claims against the police were being articulated by Derek’s parents. Because his character was such a gentle one, no one ever suggested that he was involved in provoking or aggravating the disaster. His parents, while devastated by the tragedy, were not holding any grudges against other people.

I want to return to the part of the Hillsborough story which highlights the power of truth and justice against the power of institutions wielding considerable social power. The event demonstrated clearly how those in charge, the police and their supporters, thought that they could control the story and write the official history of the event. Something similar seems to be being attempted at Trinity Church Brentwood. A devastating report, criticising the appalling behaviour of leaders trustees and other hangers on over 30 or more years, has been set out in the report by John Langlois. The church, using what power still remains to it, is trying to airbrush the report out of existence. Its method is to spread rumours about the integrity of the author and thus discredit the whole report. This reminds us strongly of the behaviour of the police in their attempts to suggest that hooliganism was at the root of the Hillsborough disaster. In the case of Peniel/Trinity, the latest rumour and innuendo being made against John Langlois was not expressed until several months after his dismissal by the trustees. The original dissolving of the Commission in July 2015 was on the grounds that his report contained bias which made it of no value. Now the current rumour is that he had incorporated some material from another report into his own. No details of precisely what this means are available. John has also not been afforded the right to reply against either accusation. It is strange also that the reasons for his dismissal and the complete ignoring of his report has subtly changed over the months. At least at Hillsborough, the police defence of themselves against accusations of gross incompetence and criminal behaviour was apparently consistent. Even now with the wide publicity given to the inquest results, there are still police who deny the results in favour of the old versions of events.

We do not know whether there will be any further independent report on the behaviour of leaders at Peniel/Trinity church. One thing seems to be true at present, is that there is no agreed version of how to move forward on the part of those in authority at the church. It seems that behind the scenes there is a civil war going on between those who know they must face up to the past and those who want to suppress it at all costs. The fact that Nigel Davies has not given up his protests outside the church is giving the leadership an enormous headache. I have no idea how much his blog is being read by the rank-and-file members of the church, but I would imagine that many, who are not totally locked into the church’s controlled thinking, might be tempted to read an independent voice. I, for my part, remain a fairly active contributor to Nigel’s blog. This story, as it unfolds, is an ongoing saga which constantly lends itself to interpretation and comment.

What do I think will happen at Peniel/Trinity? If the rumours of deep division within the leadership are true, then the church will, in all probability fall apart in the next couple of years. One thing that would hasten its demise is a credible lawsuit brought about by one or more ex-members. Such a law-suit would no doubt draw on the devastating Langlois report. This, I feel, must have some weight among those who are legally trained. The obsession of many of those who wish to suppress all discussion of the past would appear to be to enable the preservation of the church’s assets. The property holdings amassed by the church under its former leaders are considerable. In themselves these assets give to some in the church a sense of a dominance and importance among the local Christian communities. Such a sense of importance is now arguably no longer deserved. Eventually the mismatch between the church’s financial wealth and its corrupt history will finally be seen as a gross obscenity. For the church ever to regain any integrity in the eyes of the outside world, it would be better for it to shed all or most of the physical plant which was acquired in the dark years of spiritual tyranny and abuse.

The Hillsborough inquest, to repeat myself, is a victory of truth and justice over massive institutional power. We must applaud this outcome. It is a victory that comes alongside our increasing awareness of the way that many institutions, including our churches, seek to use their power to suppress, humiliate or exploit the weak in our society. Each and every victory by the weak helps victims in other institutions to rediscover their dignity and their power. Institutions have their place in societies, but it must always be possible to challenge and question the power that they exert in each society.