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.

5 comments

  1. Anonymous

    This is a very accurate analysis of what has happened at Trinity. For years, each leader would say ‘if you don’t like it, leave’ as a way of getting support for their leadership. Open rebellion would inevitably lead to ostracism and loss of family and friendships. It was an evil place led by controlling and deceitful people, who have not shown any understanding of the seriousness and ungodliness of their actions. Those who continue to to support them and their historic leadership are still blinded by false loyalty and a callous disregard for the welfare of others, even close family members.
    It was an evil personality cult – using some real encounters with a gracious Saviour and mixing them with the maniacal aspirations of a mentally unbalanced leadership to capture people in a false religion, and some still remain there, enjoying the calm and the unity that comes from the silencing of any dissenting voices.
    Their new oversight speak to them as if they are the ones who have been hurt and they need to be healed. While there is an element of truth in that, they will not examine the facts of the history of the group and come to true repentance. Instead, they just blindly and stupidly look for a new wave of God’s blessing.
    The sooner they fall into a ditch the better. At least they might actually wake up.

  2. Stephen Parsons

    Thank you Anon for your contribution. Although my interest in church abuse goes back long before my awareness of Peniel, this church has provided me with a lot of material for testing out my speculations about how and why such things happen. The Langlois report which has used up over a half ream of paper sits in my study and, as you see, it provides material for my thinking. Obviously Peniel/Trinity are part of a larger scene but my attempts to comment and interpret what has gone on there are an attempt to understand the wider issue of church abuse, here and in the States. I like to think that the comments and interpretations of an outsider help to give a fresh perspective on what is going on at Trinity and at other abusive churches Stay with us, particularly at the end of June, when I shall be reporting on the blog from Houston Texas from the International Cultic Studies Association conference. The Americans do seem have a much better grasp of these issues that we do in the UK.

    Please encourage other ex-members of Peniel/Trinity to visit this blog as I have them very much in my mind when I write posts. The Langlois report in all its gory detail has seared itself into my consciousness!

  3. Davdi Pennant

    Interesting post Stephen. As you say, driving off the ones who don’t fit can be observed throughout our world, not just in churches. In Jesus’ case, “he who is not with us is against us” is balanced elsewhere by “He who is not against us is on our side.”
    If I think of the churches that have gained a national reputation for excellence during my lifetime, in most cases, this only happened when the minister had been there fifteen years. I like to think that in the first ten years of his posting, church members decided whether they liked his approach, and chose to stay or move elsewhere accordingly, and others came in when they knew what the ministry was like. I hope folk weren’t driven off. I suspect the movement to have been voluntary in such churches, because I can’t imagine God blessing a shove-out-the-dead-wood church! It’s a horrible notion.
    As a result of church leaders staying in post too long, licences have tended to take the place of incumbencies. I can see why, but personally I am against short tenure by ministers, as I feel it programmes in mediocrity, because there is not sufficient time for a consensus to emerge and for all the people plus minister to learn to pull together and make a positive impact on the area.
    I once heard of a diocese where the bishop would only grant a four year licence, extendable to six years sometimes, but never longer. My reaction was to wonder whether the bishop himself was subject to this length of stay. If not, then it struck me as abusive. I am sure the policy was unwise.
    Thanks for sparking off all this thought.

  4. Chris Pitts

    When people are convinced that they are serving some great purpose they will do some dangerous things.
    For as long as you follow the leader, or leaders, you are part of the family, however, if you start to think for yourself, ask questions, particularly the question, ‘Why?’ then you’re in real trouble.

    As I have tried to emphasize before, it is the post conversion experience that is so full of danger. Denominational Christianity or the chaos of so-called free fellowships, are uncompromising in their desire to, ‘receive in,’ the new convert!

    It s precisely at this point that all is risked on human nature.

    These power games with their tools of ostracism and fear of Hell will always shackle the lower working class. As I write this tonight, I am weighed down in the miserable knowledge that most of them will never be able to think their way out. There are times (Believe me), when I could wish I were not a Butterfly that escaped the wheel of illiteracy, but I am and, from their ranks I have come, and I see little hope of progress. God help them.

  5. Chris Pitts

    Thank you Anonymous,

    The psychology behind this mind control is very gradually creeping its way into the arena of public debate. Stephen Parsons is almost completely responsible for this and needs to be thanked.

    This type of fellowship, (Church?), has at it heart a deep corrosiveness. Victims never really get over this personality destruction, having one trusted and given over all of themselves to the Supreme Being ‘God,’ little if anything remains?
    I count myself lucky to have come through this with only M – D, many fight suicide compulsion, (Some don’t fight).

    The mass betrayal of Christ in these fellowships is self-evident. The saddest aspect of this is that the struggling soul in this present society, is ‘passed by on the other side’ by big super churches, only interested in themselves!

    England has been a fractured society for a long time, what a dirty rotten shame that so many people inside these fellowships are taught to lie (Like Me!)
    So much work to be done.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>