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.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

22 thoughts on “A post Pentecost reflection

  1. Totally agree. We had a really inspiring sermon from a visiting speaker yesterday. On much the same issue. We need to show God’s love. And of course, that is what is missing when control takes over. It’s an extreme form of conditional love. “I’ll only love you if you pass your exams”. Only in this case, I’ll love you if you always cook the meals I like, or only go where I tell you, or only read the version of the Bible I recommend. Power to your elbow, Stephen.

  2. I’ve just had the life sucked out of me. Yet, I am heartened by the responses of the authorities around me. It seems that I have not been alone in experiencing this type of abuse and the Diocese has responded well. Nevertheless, I am still a mess.

    When I first arrived at this church I enquired whether lay involvement was part of the deal. I was told in words, “Yes” yet in action, “No”. So I agree, wholeheartedly, “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.” Instead, I was forced to witness ‘in group’ and ‘out group’ dynamics. Hope slowly died as I realised what I was seeing. What a waste of time.

    Presence. Do we need church for the experience of presence? I am struggling with that now. The abuser is being dealt with and I am left looking around at the devastation left behind. Now it’s time to pick up the pieces.

    1. If it’s being dealt with, that’s wonderful. My experience is that it isn’t, which is very depressing. I feel that the church has wasted 20 years of my life. That’s a heck of a long time.

  3. Thank you Christine for your contribution. I have to admit that my pieces come out of my head and they are seldom the result of much cogitation. On reflection I agree that ‘presence’ does not have to come from church. The point I was trying to make is that belonging, hope and presence are three things that every church could try to offer their members. The non-trendy churches, such as those I support, get accused of having nothing to offer in the face of music-drenched places to which the young are attracted. The gimmicky side of things does not, I believe, have lasting power. If the things I mentioned were presented properly and well they could make the ordinary church ‘cool’ again.

    I am sorry you are recovering from abuse but at least something is being done about it. My heart bleeds for countless victims who have no advocate to stick up for them and have to suffer alone and in silence. The other day I received an anonymous message from the States from someone who had been helped by the blog. He was glad to see to see that someone somewhere was expressing the things he had suffered. This helps to keep the blog alive. I keep thinking that I am running out of ideas but then a new idea pops into my head!

    1. EnglishAthena, Thank you. I feel badly enough about two years wasted let alone twenty. My prayer at this time, for me and for you, is that God will draw good out of evil. For me, ‘meaning’ is uppermost. What meaning can I draw out of these circumstances? Some writers focus on the victim and ask what it is that causes us to ‘allow’ victimisation. Frankly, I think that has to be a last resort consideration. I am writing about that question and may find publishers to put it out there! My prayer is that what suffering i have been through (precious little compared to Jesus on His cross) brings fruit. If good fruit comes of this I can count my suffering as nothing.

      in the meantime, let’s keep talking and praying.

    2. Ha ! I love your writing Stephen! Don’t change your approach.

      So often our utterances are not ‘either /or’ and while i do gain from the presence of ‘the body of Christ here on earth’, and here in this blog, there are times that i need to know God’s presence with me too. My experience of ostracism isolated me; I needed to know that God hadn’t ‘forsaken’ me too!

      Re: “My heart bleeds for countless victims who have no advocate to stick up for them and have to suffer alone and in silence.” Yes. I am writing about soul death currrently and have taken up the scripture, ‘Matthew 5:21… which has something to say on this subject:

      “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

      Here is an account so frightening that I think many of us ignore it, assuming that it must be hyperbole. How can it be that anger and insulting behaviour can be spoken of in the next breath after ‘murder’? Yet I am going to demonstrate// outline // the effects of special types of anger and insult that are in the same category as murder according to this scripture.

      Currently, the draft is rather angry! Once I have reined it in I’ll put it in my blog.

      We follow a creative God; I doubt whether you will run out of ideas, especially as you have a heart for those who suffer.

  4. Thanks for all your comments, thanks for your post Stephen which really reaches me. My church that gave me so much in terms of belonging, hope and presence for twenty-five years has deflated me so much in the last year. It’s hard for me to know how to deal with all the debris from what has gone on, but I don’t really feel up to describing the situation here. Suffice it to say that behaviour by clergy has been very damaging.

    1. I’ve been wondering. I’m so sorry. It’s awful when those you thought you could trust suddenly change. You’ve been on my prayer list for a while. Have a hug!

  5. Haiku, I am glad that my metaphors reach you. I am also glad that you can identify with the ideal of a church that offers in an unspectacular way the gifts that I mentioned. In writing the last blog, I suppose that I am influenced by having to reflect what I have to offer the sick people in the hospital where I am working two days a week at present. This will shortly come to an end as a new chaplain’s appointment has been made and I am only filling in. I found myself, in a strange way, encouraged by being able to articulate these three things. I and many others are so used to being shouted down for not being ‘with it’, that it was an encouragement to find that there are real life-giving values just by doing the ordinary Christian things in a non-action-packed church, not one which has a massive youth programme, loud preaching and music strident enough to frighten the horses. The church I attend now is fairly low key but I have every hope (for the first time in five years since retirement) that we will settle in really well. There are some clergy who are not on power trips, thank the Lord!

  6. Hi haikusinenomine, sorry to hear that you’re hurting from your experience of church. It is indeed hard to know how to deal with the fallout for all of us who are in this situation. All I can say right now is that, to my mind, it is important not to become ‘a victim’. While you have been victimised you must aim to become a survivor and thriver. There isn’t a clear roadmap for such an undertaking but this website is a good start!

    I respect your reluctance to refrain from describing the situation. If it’s early days you may not even be able to find the words. My rhetorical questions are, ‘Do you have a suitable person to talk with?’; if not, ‘Do you have a means by which you can ventilate your feelings?’ and by that I mean, creative writing, poetry, painting or some such means of self-expression? The reason I ask is because we need to find meaning in our experiences. Bullying attacks us on different fronts and gets us at different vulnerabilities. Through gaining meaning we can begin to rise above them.

    There is hope; God has not forsaken you; you will be able to get through this so that you can survive and thrive. Stay in touch. Christine.

  7. The amateur’s take on victim psychology is usually that it is the victim’s fault. Also, many clergy seem to have been on a course that tells them that the victim shouldn’t talk about it. And of course, you do need to talk about mental injuries. Haiku, whenever you’re ready. It’s a bit like being raped, it has to be up to you. Be good to yourself. Bullying can change the whole course of your life. All the best.

    1. Totally agree EnglishAthena. I hope many clergy have not been on courses that say the victim – a better word is “target” should not talk about it! That is re-victimisation. While the word “victim” invites us to look at the person who has been bullied, the word “target” takes the attention back to whoever is doing it and then to how many targets this person has pursued. That opens up a whole new vista.

      1. I agree that target seems a good word. The problem with “victim” is the way it seems to imply the person is destroyed beyond recovery, or somehow at any rate projects a kind of inevitable passivity and lack of agency in the person, which can seem to detract from who they are. The scorn with which people talk about a “loser” can also coagulate perhaps unconsciously around a “victim”. But we should also remember that Jesus is our supreme Victim, and his passion turned to resurrection.

        1. Yes, we do have to remember that Jesus is our supreme Victim – and scapegoat – and that He turned His ‘loser’ status into a Glorious Status, Son of God, who calls us friends.

          I am somewhat ambivalent about the interchangeable words, ‘victim’ and ‘target’ because when in the English language we speak of the person, not as target but as that person, they have been victimised. The term ‘target’ is best used when the bully has acted, ie targeted a person. They are not totally interchangeable. Wherever possible I prefer the word, ‘target’ – pretty much for the reasons you outline.

          Much of my work has been done with victims of PTSD (natural disasters do not target human beings!) and where the word is used in conjunction with other words, “survivors and thrivers”, because there is life after these events. These victims of natural disasters are not destroyed beyond recovery; nor are those women who were targeted by angry relatives and had acid thrown at their faces, or Malala who was shot in the face by the Taliban. These are great examples of life after ‘victimhood’, where the individual has turned their disadvantage into an heroic act of passion and resurrection!

          In lighter moments I realise that the best revenge (!) is my survival and my growth into something else, something better. We all have our own unique ways of achieving that and still can become the person God wants us to be – no matter how late in the day it seems. (And I am no Spring chicken.)

          Sod victimhood, that is not what Jesus showed us.

  8. Thank you all for your supportive and kind responses. Yes, I do have trustworthy people I can talk to. Who have supported me through the last months, and in the case of the lovely employment lawyer, made a practical difference to my job situation – I kept my job more or less, but there is some fear it may turn out rather a pyrrhic victory. It no longer means the same to me at all and I’ve had to accept a difficult compromise. At the same time,my reader’s licence was suddenly taken away after ten years of well-received ministry, and though I am offered the potential to start again, I can’t find it in myself at the moment to have any part of it, or put myself in the position where the same could happen again. What was done was totally against everything in the past, uninformed and demeaning and I don’t want a part of it. Last summer I was ill for a short while and on an acute ward – in the past the then suffragan’s response to a similar experience was to send me a get well card – this meant so much – last autumn (after I was better!) my licence was removed. I have been very badly treated, ostracised for months, victimised and discriminated against, placed in an untenable position in my local community where everyone thinks I was mentally ill and off sick during the six months when I was actually locked out of my job, despite an official occupational health review demanded by my boss (the vicar) that said I was fit for work. I have been through every emotion but basically I’m demoralised and don’t know how to move on. It is bad enough being ill sometimes, but it’s the rejection that’s so hard to cope with, the betrayal and damage to relationships that’s soul-destroying.

    There was a feature spread about mental illness in the Church Times the week before last which was depressingly awful, stigmatising and uninformed. So it was very pleasing to see last week four long letters printed explaining very clearly and in detail all that was wrong with it. One, from a lovely man who has ministered to me as a hospital chaplain in the past, included a very good description of anxiety and depression, and this is how I often feel:
    “Having anxiety and depression is like being scared and tired at the same time. It’s fear of failure but no urge to be productive. It’s wanting friends but hating socialising. It’s wanting to be alone but not wanting to be lonely. It’s caring about everything at once, then feeling paralysingly numb.”

    The awful thing is that just knowing I’ve been mistreated isn’t enough to stop me from being damaged by it, any more than knowing my leg had been cut off would stop me from limping. I have overcome attacks and obstacles in the past but this feels a hard one. Maybe I’m growing old and losing elasticity and hope; I don’t have energy, I’m less fit in many ways… I also need to come to terms with my mortality.

  9. Being punished for being ill is common I think. Something like it has happened to me. In your case, it sounds a bit like someone was setting you up so you were in a vulnerable position and could easily be shifted. That may be no more than that this single individual doesn’t like you. Clergy stick together. Even if loads of people are on your side, they probably will never say so. Human nature, not a failure by you to “win” their support. The church operates as an organism to protect itself. Easing you out has become a matter of saving face. None of this is your fault. But it may be time for you to take a break. Perspectives change. Moving house doesn’t fix it. The blighters talk to each other! They drag up all the false accusations of the past at the same time as telling you not to dwell on it. But if you’re out of the way in some measure you can get things back in their box. I haven’t written to the Bishop of Crediton yet, but I still might. That may be a thought for you, too. It’s a protection issue. I’m glad you still have the spiritual energy. To me, that shows God is still very present in your life. You are conscious that the fields are white. It’s very frustrating. Did you see the report in the Church Times that the church makes very few converts over all? Small wonder. It is evil and corrupt beyond measure. I’ll carry on with the prayers. You be good to yourself, never mind your “duty” just now.

  10. Evidently, there is a lot more going on here than I could comment on. One principle that I would put into effect, do go to the Bishop. I’ve heard tell that “the Bishop will do nothing” or whoever might be the responsible person. Such advice may not be the case, test it. Websites associated with church hierarchy usually have a ‘how to complain’ section. If so, use it.

    A document called, Policy Guidelines (in the Anglican church, or something to that effect in others) should be available to you. Here, its purpose is to help you to put your complaint in a form that will allow it to be addressed fairly and on its merits. You will be able to see what is expected ahead of time and that you will be received in a fair and transparent way.

    In an Anglican Parish there is a duty of care towards you. Here, you might enquire ‘is there a counselling service available?’ This process should be separate from the complaint process and, of course, be totally confidential.

    I do not believe that churches are “evil and corrupt beyond measure”. If I thought that, what would be the purpose of sharing on Surviving Church? Yes, there is wrongdoing and corruption but there are good people too.

  11. Thanks EA and Christine. What I’ve been through is not on the same level as child or sexual abuse – although the stigma around mental illness still rots lives. I met the Bishop of Crediton recently – I think she listens.

    1. How do you compare one pain with another? It’s all pain and it all destroys the fulness of what God wants us to be.

      I’m glad to hear that you met with a Bishop who listens. Maybe times are changing.

  12. I see that the Bishop of Crediton has been pressing the Church of England as a whole to have some consistent policy on the question of abuse, rather than leave it to the separate dioceses. She would also appear to be a good person to impress on the notion that abuse is far bigger than just sexual abuse, however ghastly that may be. All abuse is an abuse of human (normally, but not always, male) power whether it is expressed in sexual misconduct or plain bullying. Behind the abuse by the clergy and ministers is an attempt to gain power to prop up some personal inadequacy. They need the ‘buzz’ of feeling in control. This tendency among some to abuse their power needs to be identified by those responsible for selecting candidates for ordination. That ultimately is the bishops in a C of E context. The Bishop of Crediton has a big job on her hands to persuade the other bishops of the importance of this issue. That is assuming that she, with the help of haiku, ‘gets it’.

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