Monthly Archives: June 2016

Notes from Dallas

I am writing this from the conference of the International Cultic Studies Association in Dallas in Texas. The physical effort of flying from Britain is not a small thing to undertake. The biggest challenge that I face is the one made to my sleeping patterns. It is quite hard to adjust to a six hour time difference in a relatively short space of time. I did build in a two day acclimatisation period in the city which was spent visiting a series of magnificent (air-conditioned) museums and galleries. I am in spite of my constant sleepiness glad to be here at this conference. It is a grand opportunity to engage with the topic of abusive religious practice with a large number of people from all over the world. The fact that I have been to the conference three times before, in Europe and in the States, also means that many of the participants are known to me and I am no longer a stranger in the assembly.

Yesterday was an introductory preconference day. There was a long session when individuals shared their research interests in the topic. It is quite clear that there are seemingly dozens of ways of studying cults and extreme religion religious groups. It would of course be impossible to master all of these topics and this fact means that the academics within the various disciplines find it hard sometimes to communicate with one another. How does the sociologist with an interest in cults speak to the expert on psychological ideas? This will be a theme to which I will return no doubt.

I want to share in this blog some of the thoughts of a speaker from America who has been instrumental in creating a network of safe churches. The word ‘safe’ does not appear in the title of the churches but it is constantly emphasised as a way of encouraging people to attend, particularly after they have had a bruising period as a member of another abusive and exploitative church. I found myself reflecting on all the ways that churches can become unsafe. These are places where not only are individuals abused in various ways, but they are also places where the process of learning about the Christian faith is far from straightforward. A church is ‘unsafe’ when for example the individual member is discouraged from asking any questions. Questions are considered to be threatening by the leaders. Thus a culture of passive obedience to the minister’s words is encouraged. Abuse in this context is not only something that comes about from a direct experience of such things as anger and bullying, but is also the maintaining of a structure which holds the congregation in a state of immature dependency. The speaker seemed to recognise these and many other scenarios as being part of kind of church that he wanted to avoid by creating a proper alternative.

The safe church is a place where the members can find a relaxed atmosphere. It is also a place where leaders do not cling on to their power; rather it is shared in some kind of rota system. Another feature of a safe church is the constant exploration of forgiveness. Many of the members, coming out of abusive churches, are having to work out the deeper meaning of forgiveness and how it applies to them as individuals. It is recognised that forgiveness is never a quick fix but it takes time and often requires help. A recognition of the importance of working through the process of forgiveness is something that is recognised clearly by those in leadership. A safe church will also be a place which allows as much space as people need for their own growth and recovery. There will also be relaxed expectations about membership. It is recognised that some people will move in and out of membership and there is no attempt to tie people down to a formal belonging when they are not ready. So many churches need to boost the numbers of their membership to impress denominational leaders and, of course, getting people to commit financially.

In conversations with participants, I discovered that the UK is up to speed in one particular area. The new law about coercion and control which came into operation last December is something that various people believe to be of great potential consequence in the matter of dealing with abusive churches. One particular paper to be given today is exploring the link between domestic abuse which does not use physical violence and the coercion used in many churches. It may be only a matter of time before the new legislation is used successfully in a cult/religious group context. Just as the expression ‘safe church’ is one that suggests all kinds of possibilities and priorities in a church’s life, so the two words, coercion and control, suggest that the law is beginning to grapple with the concerns of this blog.

Today I am giving my historical paper on the way a particular heretical group in the fourth century, the Donatists, became cultic in their outlook. I had meant to give a summary of my talk in this blog earlier, but other topics pushed it to one side. The conference begins in earnest today and no doubt by this time tomorrow I will have possibly more to report. I look forward at this point to all that I will hear today but I also am longing for the restoration of regular sleeping patterns. This will probably not happen until after I returned to England to my own bed next week! Such is the price to be paid for crossing the Atlantic to attend a four-day conference!

Referendum reflections

euLike many people I was disappointed at the result of the UK referendum. I had wanted the UK to remain part of a Europe which over the decades was part of a world I felt I belonged to. The arguments against staying in the EU became increasingly, to my mind, shrill. The most absurd one was the claim that £100 million a week would be released for the National Health Service, once we stopped paying anything into the EU budget. Spending public money is a political decision taken after a great deal of careful thought. No one today has the right to make promises of behalf of politicians of the future how the national budget is to be allocated.

I am anxious not to allow this blog to become a political rant. But there are issues that I see as pertinent to our blog’s concerns in what happened on the 23rd June. Many commentators have noted that the vote to leave the EU had to do with, in part, a protest vote on the part of people who have been left behind by the forces of globalism – the unemployed, the disabled and those who fall outside the orbit of what many would describe as ‘successful’ lives in the eyes of others. Chris is often reminding us of this so-called ‘underclass’. One description of this group would be to refer to the fact that many in this category feel they have no real stake in the world of property ownership and accumulated wealth. This is counted of great importance to the capitalist value system of the West. Because this section of the population contributes less to the pot of material wealth that makes our capitalist system work, they are often side-lined or ignored by politicians. Traditionally the least wealthy and exploited sections of society have been supporters of the UK Labour party. This link has often been taken for granted by Labour politicians. They like their Tory opponents have also been sucked into the need to grapple with the existence of the wealth creating capitalist system and making it work successfully. Thus large numbers of people in our country have been left outside the political system and their voices have had little possibility of being heard by those in power.

The Referendum question was whether we as a nation want to stay in or leave the European community. The question was heard in a whole variety of different ways by different groups of people. Some judged the question on entirely rational grounds as an argument about whether the nation would prosper more within Europe or not. Others including the group I have described above saw the vote as an opportunity to express their displeasure at a system supported by politicians of every type and which seemed to have little to offer to them. For many people low wages, poverty of housing and ill-health caused by stress have been a constant reality. This struggle against poverty is unrelenting and draining. At the same time the sight of politicians and celebrities effortlessly, or so it seems, increasing their wealth and ability to spend enormous sums creates a deep visceral anger in those who have little or nothing.

In the Britain of my youth there was a real feeling that, although some people were rich, most people, middle and working class, were part of the same society. Nobody earned vast sums of money and GPs, to take one example, were paid modestly. The years after the end of the Second War were a time when it could be said that we were all in it together. It may not have been completely true but there was a far greater sense of social solidarity rooted in the common memory of together getting through the hardships of war. The real change seems to have taken place after around 1970. That was when the wages of an elite group, from bankers to industrial chiefs, started to take off. This is the thesis of a book that I read a year ago which suggested that an unequal society creates enormous unhappiness and stress to everyone. Once the pay of a few becomes disproportionate to what the bulk of working people earn, there is a reaction. The people at the bottom of the pile finding it difficult to articulate their sense of social exclusion in words, nevertheless have strong feelings of rage, resentment and bitterness towards anyone or anything they can blame for their struggling state. The 1% group, those who earn vast sums of money and have done well out of a massive increase of wealth are clearly in favour of a system which the European experiment favours. These are going to be the first targets of resentment on the part of the less well-off. Another target of dislike will be any immigrants who, correctly or not, are perceived as taking British jobs and pushing down wages. These two perceptions on the part of large numbers of our citizens will, if we had really thought about it, have made Brexit a highly likely outcome. The poor and the disadvantaged have for some time turned into the disenfranchised because their voice is no longer heard by politicians. This unheard sector of our population had wanted desperately to be listened to and heard by society as a whole and the only way they felt their feelings of anger at the system could be heard was to vote against the EU. No one was able to explain to them that their lives had in any way been improved because of it over the past twenty or thirty years.

Chris my blog partner has a lot to say on the topic of the Church also failing to listen to the poor in our society. The few churches that do appear to appeal to the disenfranchised are churches that offer, as I would put it, candy floss religion which does little to improve the lot of the poor or that of their communities. What is needed of course is a new political deal that seeks to improve housing, health and education. The church, if it were properly listening to the poorest, would be saying that to government on behalf of these communities. Instead of this the Church of England is fighting internal battles over the status of ‘gay marriage’. At this point we find ourselves talking about the complete opposite of what we normally address, the abuse of power in the church; we are talking about the empowerment of people with the help of churches who want to better the lives of those in their communities. We have spoken a lot about abuses of power in the Church, institutional and individual, and the ways that are needed to counter that abuse. But as I reflect on the aftermath of the Referendum of 2016, I see an even more reliable way to counter the misuse of power in the church. It is for the church to prioritise the idea of service and empowerment and put it at the heart of ministry. It is important to talk about power abuse to show that we understand it as a problem but then we need to go on to say how ministers of all the churches above all be taught to empower others. This, I believe, is the heart of ministry. If this empowerment, political, spiritual, social and personal, started to be a reality as well as a priority in churches up and down the land and people could see it, then power abuse would indeed wither on the vine. Jesus spoke about being among his followers as one who serves. May this be a reality for all in positions of leadership in the church. To misquote John’s epistle. There is no room for abuse in true service and empowerment. Perfect service and empowerment casts out abuse.

Lawyers and Insurance Companies

EIOOne point to come out of Joe’s moving letter to the House of Bishops is the issue of the way that an insurance company had the power to dictate how victims of abuse are treated. It is quite clear from Bishop Sarah’s presentation to the House of Bishops that there has been, until now, a policy of defensive blanking towards victims of abuse the moment legal proceedings are initiated. To put it another way, when an individual seeks to obtain legal redress from the church, the shutters come down and the victim is effectively shunned by the very people s/he had once looked to as protectors and sources of strength. The victim now becomes abused twice – the first time by an abuser and now by the grotesque shunning by leaders of the institution.

In fairness to the bishops of the Church of England, there seems to have been no personal and individual policy agenda at work. The pastoral shunning of victims was a policy apparently enforced on behalf of the insurance companies and their lawyers. All the bishops of the Church of England seem to have accepted it as agreed practice. The procedure was laid down, no doubt, as a way of protecting the insurance companies from making expensive payouts. These payouts may in fact eventually cost the Church of England millions of pounds as the horrors of the past are slowly brought to light. The survivors so affected have in many cases had their lives severely damaged. Every parish in the land may suffer as a result as they have to begin to make new payments to protect themselves from future claims of this kind. This will no doubt have some impact on the work of the church at every level as money is diverted from other projects to pay for the extra premiums.

The Elliott Review has recommended that the situation of the past, when insurance companies and their lawyers dictated the response of church leaders towards survivors, must come to an end. The previous approach, the blanking of survivors like Joe, was bankrupt both morally and practically. We await to see how a new pastorally sensitive policy emerges from the old, arguably inhuman, practice of the bishops. The fact that Joe himself is now linked to our blog will, no doubt, result in further information on this process being provided here in the future.

Alongside the Elliott review is currently another abuse episode within the church, the response to which also does little credit to the Church of England or to its House of Bishops. A woman, now in her 70s, claims to have been abused by the eminent former Bishop of Chichester, George Bell. This claim is quite different from the one investigated by the Elliott Review in that there are good grounds for questioning the detailed facts of the claim. I have recently been directed to a website which has been set up by a group of eminent churchmen who are concerned to protect the reputation of Bishop Bell. They believe that the recent payout of £35,000 to the woman together with an apology from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Chichester was done with unseemly haste. I have looked at the evidence put on the website. This suggests that while the woman indeed suffered abuse at the hands of a churchman, there is possibly or probably a case of mistaken identity. The enquiry that led to the apology and payout also failed to consult a number of potential witnesses. A key person who is familiar with Bishop Bell’s papers held in Lambeth Palace Library and the author of a recently published biography, Andrew Chandler, was not approached. Also not spoken to is a surviving domestic chaplain who lived at the Palace at Chichester during the time of the alleged abuse. The apology seems to be based on a police statement that the Bishop would have been questioned, if he was still alive, about these allegations. Since he died some 58 years ago this is of course not possible, but the failure to speak to the few people who can remember the personnel and the geography of Chichester at that time, seems to be a lamentable failure. I was also struck by the fact that the Bishop of Chichester went public with the apology without having consulted with the Dean of the Cathedral. Common sense would have suggested that the Dean would have been a key person to have on board if such an apology was going to be made.

The reader of this blog will have to satisfy themselves whether or not the evidence against George Bell is based on firm evidence or not. I would however suggest that way the church has responded with such alacrity to the allegation of abuse seems to be evidence of a moral panic rather than a careful thoughtful response to a serious allegation. The admission of abuse by the Bishop of Chichester on behalf of a distinguished predecessor, while leaving so many questions unanswered and unresolved, would appear to have come about for reasons quite distinct from a new culture of openness on the part of the Church. Cynically I suspect we again see the hand of the Church’s insurers at work. It is obviously simpler to admit to a case of historic abuse and deal with the whole issue with a modest payout rather than go through an expensive process of enquiry. The House of Bishops, wrongly I believe, may have thought that an admission of guilt in this case would show the Church in a good light. What has been shown, in contrast, is that the Church and its House of Bishops may be having policy and decisions made for them by a group of anonymous individuals within the insurance fraternity. These policy decisions once again have little interest in historical truth or the pastoral care of abused individuals. Whatever the final truth about these allegations connected to Bishop George Bell, it is clear that a thorough process of uncovering the truth of these allegation has not been put into place.

Bishop Mullally will be insisting that allegations of abuse against members of the Church are responded to in the future with proper process as well as compassion and care for the victims. It would seem also that the House needs to be held accountable when cases of past abuse are admitted a little too quickly in a situation where the interests of insurance companies can be protected by, say a non-disclosure agreement. It remains to be seen whether the House of Bishops can claw back moral authority from their lawyers and the colluding insurance companies. No doubt if the Church and the bishops who lead it start to do the right thing in facing up to the appalling legacy of abuse cases within the institution, there will be a massive financial penalty to face in the future. But it is clear that moral integrity and pastoral sensitivity are hallmarks of a Church which is seeking to live by the example of Jesus. The blanking and ostracism of victims like Joe must never be allowed to happen again. Morality must always trump expediency.

Joe’s letter to the House of Bishops of the Church of England

bishops of C of EThe background to this powerful letter to the House of Bishops from ‘Joe’ is as follows. Joe was sexually abused by a senior churchman and emotionally abused by another nearly 40 years ago. His experience of trying to bring these episodes to the attention of bishops in the Church of England was constantly frustrated and he was met with massive obstacles. Eventually a report was commissioned into Joe’s case by the Diocese of London, and the Elliott Review was duly produced in March this year. A meeting of the House of Bishops last month (May 23-24 2016) was addressed by Bishop Sarah Mullally, Bishop of Crediton. She had been entrusted with the task of implementing the Review and making sure that all the Bishops understood its implications for future practice. The House, according to reports, has agreed to a number of sweeping changes in the implementation of safeguarding practice by every diocese. Two particular issues came out of Bishop Mullally’s presentation. (See the blog post written on the 5th June) The first was that safeguarding procedures must be made standard right across the church. There can be no room for a local bishop to deviate from following best safeguarding practice. The second principle was to ensure that pastoral care for survivors must take priority over the demands of the church’s own insurance company. This company, Ecclesiastical Insurance (EIG), seems to encourage bishops and other church officials to clam up when faced with crucial questions in historic abuse cases.

Joe’s letter must be read against the background of knowing that at least some of his expectations have been met. Initially Joe had been told the Bishops were planning to delay changes, hence this passionate letter. We await to see whether the Church of England can indeed move to make the changes demanded by the Elliot report. Quite apart from what happens in the future we have in this letter a powerful emotional plea which gives us a strong sense of the frustration and powerlessness of the survivor when facing a brick wall of official intransigence over many years. Joe’s persistence has, we would claim, significantly cracked open the logjam of colluding official power structures that today exist in the Church of England. The Goddard report, when it finally appears in five years time, may well deliver another blow to a system of power and patronage which so often protects the powerful against the weak.

We are very grateful to Joe for letting survivingchurch publish this letter. It is of historic interest as well as being a testimony of the strength of a survivor when facing almost impossible odds. The partial victory of David over a Goliath of official inertia, indifference and protection of privilege is to be celebrated and applauded.

Letter to Church of England Bishops

I call on the House of Bishops to repent at your meeting in York at the end of this week. Others in the survivor community are saying the same. Repentance implies action and not just words – it is about turning around 180 degrees and starting again. The crisis this senior layer has brought upon itself has finally woken the church up to need for real change. If the bishops hope to delay changes as we are told you might, the situation will be acutely embarrassing. It is a worrying indication of a culture in denial and paralysis that no bishop has commented on the Elliott Report since it came out in mid March -100% silence. Perhaps your strategists have given instruction to ignore it and ride the storm out. I think their advice present in much of your hidden structure of response to survivors has been spectacularly bad. It has led you away from the values of your own gospel and narrative.

I am urging Bishop Paul Butler, Bishop Tim Thornton and Archbishop Justin Welby to lead a call for repentance across the whole House of Bishops. All these bishops have involvement in my case. Denial of disclosures to senior figures (“no recollection”) and blanking of crucial questions by the bishop I reported to were main features of the church’s response in the findings of that report. Along with reckless compliance to the demands of Ecclesiastical, your own insurer. And silence from Lambeth Palace to more than a dozen cries for help. Similar experiences of many other survivors from what MACSAS* tell me – indicate many other bishops know the same powerful criticisms apply to them. This cuts across the board.

The House of Bishops needs to show clearly that you are finally able beyond the eleventh hour to work rapidly for profound change in your culture and structure – arising from honest acceptance of the mess you have made. Survivors will know the weight is lifted when we see the church willing to buckle beneath the weight of the questions and all the impact – that we carry on the church’s behalf. When we see the church being honest and transparent in its answers to questions – then we’ll know the weight is shifting to where it belongs. The senior layer needs to dig its way out of the hole you have dug yourselves into. Cover-ups, denials, obscuring of issues, intentional inertia, fog, smoke and mirrors, blanking of questions, unchallenged power of bishops, legal games, incestuous dependence on your own insurer to limit liability, unethical closing down of cases and withdrawal of support on the instructions of EIG, bewilderingly adversarial settlements – all of which I and many others have experienced – all this must come to an end in real repentance. So that survivors, those of us currently on the way through a process and many others yet to come forward, are responded to safely and sanely. You can no longer operate a mirage in which Responding Well can be torn in two to suit the interests of your own insurer – especially when the aims and actions of EIG run so malevolently counter to your own stated guidelines. This mirage is rotten, can only do further harm, and must now stop. You need to disentangle your response to this problem from your own insurer – it has led you into deep complicity and does enormous damage to both survivors and yourselves.

But you know what to do. You have been told many times through regular visits of survivors to Lambeth Palace and repeated challenges to your Head of Safeguarding. Challenges to so many of you in fact – from survivors and others, both in person and through growing number of articles in the press. You cannot wait for more waves of crisis to hit you before finally doing the right thing. If you continue to rely on the tenacity of survivors to do all the painful work of trying to transform your structure – the Goddard Inquiry will be over and the church you lead will look powerfully diminished. Senior leaders and bishops need to show tenacity yourselves and act quickly now to transform the situation for everyone. This starts with repentance and real action arising from a commitment to change. If you can make this collective decision at this critical House of Bishops assembly – you are likely to move forward through the Goddard Inquiry and everything yet to emerge with greater grace and much less pain. And better prospect of healing for everyone, including yourselves. The church can hold its head high knowing it is doing the right thing. If you make the wrong decisions – well, it seems obvious to survivors that there is no grass left to kick changes into. The crisis will be acute and can only deepen. The Elliott Report into my case could be repeated across so many survivor experiences – as similar issues have appeared again and again elsewhere. I don’t how more embarrassing you need a Report to be .. so it astonishes me and other survivors I am in contact with – to hear that the House of Bishops might try and delay changes. I urge you not to. I urge you to repent.

‘Joe’ of the Elliott Report

*MACSAS is an acronym for the Ministers and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors

Australian perspectives on church abuse Part 3

Anglican-Church-of-AustraliaReading this third and final contribution from Christine, I feel truly that I am glimpsing the future. Looking at this piece from a UK perspective, there are several things that I would point out to the reader that would be very welcome if they existed in this country. First of all, I am looking at a process for dealing with power and sexual abuse which is open and transparent. Secondly we read below of psychologists offering their services and helping everyone involved to understand the dynamics of bullying and abuse. Thirdly we have a system that recognizes that all of us are ‘vulnerable’ adults in the sense we are susceptible to being bullied and abused.

In the blog post that will be posted on Tuesday, we will hear something written by ‘Joe’, the teenager who was sexually abused 40 years ago and has been seeking support from the church ever since. None of the things we find being implemented in Australia were much in evidence in the Church of England before the Elliot Report was published in March of this year. The forthright intervention of Bishop Sarah may, we hope, change things. We would certainly that Christine’s Australian material would be of assistance to Sarah in her work.

In summary Christine’s contributions have given us a perspective on the topic of church abuse that is an enormous encouragement to those of us who are concerned about this topic and who do not live in Australia. It allows us to believe that someone somewhere is thinking clearly and rationally about the issue of abuse in churches without defensiveness and self-interest confusing the situation. The two enemies of clear thinking and action that I identify as operating in the UK are an instinctive defensive protectionism towards the institution and the demands of insurance companies. Instead of compassionate outreach towards victims and survivors, we meet defensiveness, blocking and ‘forgetfulness’. All of these responses are as abusive as any actual abusive act connected with sex or bullying. Knowing that systems are in place on the other side of the world to help survivors will help us to demand that such things are put in place in the UK (and the States)

Parish Level – ‘ground-upwards’

In Parts 1 and 2 I outlined briefly some events that led to the removal of a priest who had been accused of bullying. The overwhelming intervention by laity and priests together has to stand as a major victory. At that time, 2009 and shortly after, laws were enacted that endorsed a person’s right to live and work without the fear of harassment and bullying. Organisationally, this is ‘top down’ dynamics at work, where higher up the chain, interventions are put in place that help and enable those at ground level.

Part 3 now outlines what can happen at ground level that can influence the upper echelons of church organisations. As Laws and Protocols are now in place, what has been happening?

Interpretation of Laws has varied across Australia but a search of the different Diocesan sites reveals similar responses. Interestingly, in one of the states, one of the grass roots moves came from psychologists who offered to help the victims of church sexual abuse. I have not verified this but it seems that the Diocese accepted this help which has become integrated into a Committee that investigates complaints. This, to my mind, is vital. While an intelligent Director of Professional Standards can go a long way to understanding the psychological attributes of a bully, the professional psychologist is in the best position to make a diagnosis and do a risk assessment.

What of victims’ responses to the aforementioned changes? A key factor in the sexual abuse cases that has affected satisfaction is whether the best interests of the victims were prioritised. Other factors for victims include:

• their understanding of the process for responding to reports of abuse
• their expectations of what can be achieved through the response
• the nature, timeliness and consistency of the response
• their treatment by the person who handled the response (such as whether they were believed and offered support) and that person’s position of authority in the institution. p171

While these points are made in the context of child sexual abuse there is no reason to think that they would not apply in the adult abuse context too. One complainant used the Faithfulness in Service Handbook as the template for their complaint.

In one Diocese an adult abuse victim has praised the system, saying:

1. On first contact the Australian Anglican Diocese responded within a day, with the Director of Professional Standards taking the lead.
2. A telephone conversation confirmed that they were believed and would be taken seriously.
3. The Director of Professional Standards sent the victim two attachments , Faithfulness in Service and Policy Guidelines No.55 Complaints and Grievance Policy .
4. This
1. Set a preamble about how we relate to one another in a Godly way.
2. Provided a process for the effective management and resolution of concerns, disagreements, complaints or grievances that arise
3. Advised how to make a complaint about the conduct or the decision-making process
4. Outlined the process and timeframes
5. Assured victims of a timely response.
6. Stated that the “process is based on the principles of natural justice including the rights of the complainant to:

i. Be heard,
ii. Have the complaint treated seriously and investigated and considered by unbiased parties,
iii. Be informed of the process for managing the complaint, and
iv. Be informed of the outcome and the reasons for that outcome.
The respondent has the right to:
i. Be informed of the details of the complaint,
ii. Be informed of the process for managing the complaint,
iii. Have the complaint investigated and considered by unbiased parties,
iv. Be able to respond fully to the complaint,
v. Have the response considered seriously, and
vi. Be informed of the outcome and the reasons for that outcome.
5. The Director of Professional Standards informed the victim that the bishop had been informed of a previous communication (as agreed) and asked permission of the victim to forward further information.
6. Offered counselling.
7. Arranged meeting. Mediation had been considered but it was felt that events had overtaken everyone to the point that mediation was probably out of the question.
8. The meeting was professionally-run and allowed time for the different aspects of the complaint to be aired.
9. This was followed up with information as to how the case was to be resolved.

This was a highly professional response where the victim felt themselves to be part of the ongoing process; not a person to whom things were being done, and things that were out of their control.

I have searched some UK Diocesan sites for similar protocols to the Australian one that I mentioned. At first glance the UK ones seem to be less robust than those of the Australian counterparts. In one Diocese, seemingly, the term ‘vulnerable adults’ is used because it comes straight out of Government handbooks. Whereas what I am observing is not in that category. Research demonstrates that we are all vulnerable where it comes to targeting by bullies. Indeed, it may be the more talented and useful members of the congregation that are targeted. In a study into workplace bullying:

WBI research findings from our year 2000 study and conversations with thousands of targets have confirmed that targets appear to be the veteran and most skilled person in the workgroup.
Targets are independent. They refuse to be subservient. Bullies seek to enslave targets. When targets take steps to preserve their dignity, their right to be treated with respect, bullies escalate their campaigns of hatred and intimidation to wrest control of the target’s work from the target.
Targets are more technically skilled than their bullies. They are the “go-to” veteran workers to whom new employees turn for guidance. Insecure bosses and co-workers can’t stand to share credit for the recognition of talent. Bully bosses steal credit from skilled targets.
Targets are better liked, they have more social skills, and quite likely possess greater emotional intelligence. They have empathy (even for their bullies). Colleagues, customers, and management (with exception to the bullies and their sponsors) appreciate the warmth that the targets bring to the workplace.
Targets are ethical and honest. Some targets are whistleblowers who expose fraudulent practices. Every whistleblower is bullied. Targets are not schemers or slimy con artists. They tend to be guileless. The most easily exploited targets are people with personalities founded on a prosocial orientation — a desire to help, heal, teach, develop, nurture others.
Targets are non-confrontive. They do not respond to aggression with aggression. (They are thus morally superior.) But the price paid for apparent submissiveness is that the bully can act with impunity (as long as the employer also does nothing).

We are keen to get church authorities to demonstrate understanding of ‘vulnerability’ as applying to almost everyone. Stereotyping of victims must cease. Anyone who says, as we are bound to say, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God is vulnerable in a meaningful sense.

I hope that this ‘ground-upwards’ outline of church responses to bullying has not only cheered those who have been subjected to such abuse, but also given them hope; I also ask that such information is disseminated to churches so that their understanding of this subject is broadened and that Protocols like Policy Guidelines No.55 Complaints and Grievance Policy are put to use globally.

Australian perspectives on church abuse part 2

royal-commission-into-child-abuse-newChristine continues with the second part of her presentation of the issues around church abuse from the Australian perspective. We see how the Australian system has not been slow to set out definitions covering abuse in a church context. Interestingly it would appear from Christine’s account that the Anglican Diocese of Worcester in England is also ahead of the game in its definitions of abuse. The statements contain important insights into their understanding of what abuse is. In particular they avoid the confining of abuse to only people who are ‘vulnerable.’ Hopefully we this mark the beginning of a retreat from this somewhat patronising approach to abuse and declares what the author of this blog has known for a long time that the abuse of power in the church can catch up almost anyone in its grip.

Historical Formalities

Anglicans in Australia were amongst the first in Australian history to establish a national institution when they created a General Synod in 1872. The synod had representatives from every diocese and in 1962 was established on a formal constitutional basis as a clearly autonomous part of the Anglican Communion.

One of the functions of the General Synod is to “make Canons, Rules and Resolutions relating to the order and good government of this Church including Canons in respect of ritual, ceremonial and discipline…”. Here, “The Episcopal Standards Commission is responsible for the investigation of complaints against bishops who are subject to the jurisdiction of the Special Tribunal.” It was by then “investigating 13 complaints by clergy and lay people that Bishop Hough bullied them”.

Laity were irritated by what they saw as “the commission’s glacial pace” and lack of comment. When leading layman Euan Thompson wrote in March complaining that justice delayed was justice denied, commission director Christopher Thomas replied that justice hurried was also justice denied.” This impasse was to be broken. The Australians, under a member of the Ballarat Cathedral Council formed a lay lobby group called BLAB (Ballarat Laity Against Bullying) to show the commission that lay people were serious and to put a petition to the Ballarat synod later [that] month calling on Bishop Hough to resign.

In 2010 the Bishop took sickness leave. He departed his post in the same year. Thus the messy business of removing a contentious priest was brought to and end. A new era now emerged for potential complainants. This was due in part to the Professional Standards Act 2010 (Ballarat Diocese) when it came into Law. Thus formal Laws came into being to replace what should have been a spiritual given that we love one another. Did we really need another Moses to write another set of Laws? Apparently so, but this time laity were in the forefront of the battle.

A year earlier, in 2009, The Protocol Under the Professional Standards Act was passed. This gave Dioceses an instrument in law that covered many of the issues that were required if a just system were to be put in place. (I believe that this has covered all of the Dioceses in Australia including Catholic.) Its purpose:

The Office of Professional Standards is established by the Archbishop to provide support to people who make complaints about abuse and other misconduct by Anglican clergy, church officers, church employees and volunteers in the Diocese of Melbourne and other subscribing dioceses in the Anglican Province of Victoria. The Director of Professional Standards is as independent as possible from the Church but is paid by the Church.

It includes a section on Clearance for Ministry and Faithfulness in Service, which is a national code for the Anglican Church in Australia. Its purpose is:

“intended to identify the personal behaviour and practices of pastoral ministry that will enable clergy and church workers to serve faithfully those among whom they minister. If the behaviour and practices it outlines are followed, our communities will be safer places for everyone, where integrity is honoured, accountability is practised and forgiveness encourages healing and does not conceal misconduct.”

The Professional Standards Act defined certain terms:

“abuse” to mean “bullying, emotional abuse, harassment, physical abuse, neglect sexual abuse or spiritual abuse”

“bullying” means “the repeated seeking out or targeting of a person to cause them distress and humiliation or to exploit them and includes exclusion from a peer group, intimidation and extortion;”

These definitions are important because they give complainants the language that carries weight in law. Within an organisation it is not enough to use the term, ‘abuse’ to mean one narrow thing, that is ‘sexual abuse’; the term covers other forms of abuse that may be more pervasive in some settings.

Faithfulness in Service expands the basic definitions seen here in detail.

Formal Responses to Abuse
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and related inquiries is another Australian ‘first’ and a triumph of leadership. The establishment of it “was announced by then Prime Minister Gillard on 12 November 2012. Historically, the Commonwealth has not played a significant role in the handling of sexual abuse issues, as this is the responsibility of state and territory governments. It was, however, deemed appropriate to obtain a national perspective on this matter.”

The Chair of the Royal Commission, Justice McClellan, “observed at an early stage that the Royal Commission would stand ready ‘to challenge authority and the actions of those in power”. This will, I imagine, have many readers breathing a sigh of relief.

The Interim Reports can be seen here:

Interim Report Volume 1

Interim Report Volume 2

These Interim Reports deal specifically with child sexual abuse. However, that does not mean that general subjects such as bullying and harassment have been neglected. A brief search of different dioceses reveal ‘How to Make a Complaint’ pages such as the Melbourne Diocese, which includes sexual, physical, spiritual or emotional abuse by clergy or Church officers.

Concluding Remarks
Part 1 and Part 2 of this essay have related historical reasons why a formal ‘top-down’ legal arrangement came into being and the role that priests and laity had in promoting better governance in churches. For brevity’s sake I have refrained from comment frequently. This makes for rather a dry reading, however, with the help of ‘Surviving Church’ let us make this an interactive document with which we, as priests and laity, can formulate a way forward in our own areas.

In Part 3 I shall relate how this is working from the ‘ground-up’ perspective where bullying, and abuse in all its forms, is currently being addressed.

Postscript: I am in touch with Worcester Diocese in the UK where an informative page: Preventing Bullying and Harassment offers, among other things, ‘Actions you can take yourself’. ]

Australian perspectives on church abuse. Part 1

austrALIA MAPI have much pleasure in providing through this blog a contribution on the topic of church abuse from the other side of the world. In Britain and the States, it seems that abuse in churches is only taken seriously when it crosses the line into criminality. Surviving Church blog stands for a far more inclusive approach to the issue of abuse, claiming that the word must be used for any misuse of power in a Christian context. This Guest Blog is an introduction to the way that Australian churches have begun to tackle this issue, indicating that both society and the church leadership are decades ahead of churches elsewhere in the world in this area. This may be a kind of beacon for churches who want to be ahead of societal attitudes in respect of power abuse. We need to show that bullying, humiliation and any kind of coercive control are unacceptable in a church context, just as they are being legally outlawed in a domestic context in the UK.

‘Currently’, Christine Standing our guest writer tells us, ‘the Australian Churches – both the Anglican Communion and Catholic Church – are leading the way out of a dark time in Church history where abuse is still ignored and child sexual abuse is in the process of being addressed – slowly. This is Part 1 of my letter to the UK Anglican Church from the Antipodes. I trust it brings hope. Part 2 will address the Historical Formalities that have been set in place, and Part 3, the outworking of these changes at Parish level.’

Leadership and Consequences
by Christine Standing

Leadership has consequences. Choose your leader wisely “for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” (Romans 13.4) The mystic in me says, Amen to that for patience under suffering can work miracles. Yet we see that slavery in Egypt had its limits: “The LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh, and tell him, Thus saith the LORD God of the Hebrews, Let my people go, that they may serve me. (my emphasis)” (Exodus 9:1) It is ironic that while Moses’ was on leave of absence up on Mount Sinai, his brother Aaron took over leadership with its hallmark of idolatry. This was not the ‘serving me’ that God had in mind for His people’s freedom. It strikes me that how, or whether, we are serving God becomes a test of our leaders by priests and laity alike.

Do church leaders help us to serve God; or do they take us into idolatry? Do they model Jesus Christ; or do they insist that we worship their own image and likeness?

In 2009, headlines in the Australian newspaper, Sydney Morning Herald emerged: “Prickly, obnoxious bishop must go, say alienated priests” Anglican clergy in Ballarat made a move that was a first in the church’s Australian history. They accused Bishop Michael Hough of bullying and harassment that had damaged relations beyond repair. The clergy said that at least half the diocesan priests had made formal complaints. Abusive emails Bishop Hough had sent to various clergy marked ‘strictly personal and confidential’ were described as “long, denigrating and abusive … “When he gets upset with a priest, he sends a long, denigrating and abusive email marked ‘strictly personal and confidential’. It was when we got together we found a whole series of people had been treated that way.”” It is not only the overt actions that do harm, the sense of isolation can be destructive too and how can clergy serve their congregations well if they are in the grip of such harm?

Bishop Hough is described as, “gracious and charming in public but vindictive and vitriolic in private”; a peculiar cross between Australia’s two best-known bishops, Sydney’s Catholic cardinal George Pell and Anglican archbishop Peter Jensen; he could be “incredibly pastoral but if people rub him the wrong way there can be a different response”.

The pictures emerges of a polarised personality. On the one hand, “a great teacher, a visionary, but he needs people around him who can manage people” but on the other hand he was also a “difficult, obnoxious, prickly person who has poor people skills and an abrasive manner. He upsets people. Bishops are usually urbane, empathetic people” not Jekyll and Hyde.

For his part, Bishop Hough when asked if he were a bully, responded with humour: “That’s like, ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ I’m not an orthodox bishop in terms of style. I get out and about the people. I’m not a bully, I’m not about harassment, but I expect clergy to get out there. You can’t spend all day writing a sermon.” Bishop Hough asserted that the priests were “a small group of malcontents unable to adapt to the changing church.” Asked if he might resign or be removed, he said: “Not a chance. I’d have to do a lot worse than what they are accusing me of. Traditionally, it’s the big ones, adultery, theft, heresy” and possibly in an appeal to Romans 13 stated: “I think God put me here and the people of God in the diocese want me here.”

Humour can be a psychological defence. A sparky person can distract from the main theme, and speaking generally, can gloss over the serious matter of abuse. This is avoidance. Keep the person on track!

The story so far is polarised. We have hurt and disaffected priests and laity on the one hand, and on the other a Bishop confident in his God-given role; confident that the status quo historically left him without blame or consequence; and minimising those he had hurt. The Age stated, ”at least two Anglican dioceses in Australia, growing numbers of clergy and laity are in open revolt against their local Bishop” and the “Bishop of The Murray in South Australia, Ross Davies…has been under siege from his clergy, and laity, for at least two years.” All of this was “much to the embarrassment of the church’s increasingly inadequate national leadership.” Aaron seems to have been left in charge of the Church and the resultant lack of moral courage.

Here, we are a far cry from the release offered by the words “Let my people go, that they may serve me.” It is as if leadership had descended from the mountain only to find that under the bishop’s leadership, golden calf, idolatry, and all are in full sway.

What to do?
The Anglican Church at this time was at a loss to know what to do. A anonymous priest noted: ”if these circumstances were happening in the private sector, the CEO would have been stood down. Unfortunately, it’s beyond mediation.” Here, we see private sector thinking brought in to move the church forward.

The task was given to primate and chancellor, Melbourne QC Michael Shand, who was said to be “trying desperately to find a way forward.” Finally, it was referred to the newly-formed national Episcopal Standards Commission at Ballarat’s synod council where it was “estimated the investigation by Sydney lawyer Geoff Kelly will cost about $400,000. Depending on his findings, the commission will set up a tribunal with power to depose the bishop — also unprecedented in Australian history — which could cost another $350,000. Mr Shand told the synod this would be paid by the national office.” The Catholic CathNews took an interest. Added to which the church now faced “weeks of highly unfavourable media coverage and months more of increasingly dysfunctional behaviour within an important diocese.” Golden calves are expensive.

When asked if he would resign to save the investigation costs, Bishop Hough said: “I’m not sure why I would go. Whatever garbage went on at the synod, our business is preaching the gospel and building the church, and I’m an integral part of it. There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on….I don’t have time to muck around with this. I’m too busy on God’s business”. On December 21, 2010 headlines read: “Departing bishop takes hammer to bitter chalice”. During a service, he literally took a hammer to his chalice and smashed it in what some interpreted as a bitter act of defiance.

Ballarat finance committee chairman Vernon Robson said the conflict had been divisive and had created uncertainty, and that “in the interest of all the parties,” the investigation should proceed with the church making “the necessary resources available.” Here, we see that money talks. Financial considerations and bad publicity for the Anglican Church in Australia became the impetus for what followed.

I have taken time to explain what led to the formal changes because I believe that many priests and laity who have been subjected to abuse will be able to relate to elements in this story. It has been a story of intractable difficulties which were, finally resolved and have had the endorsement of Law. Future targets of abuse will be able to avail themselves of the ground that has been gained here.

“Let my people go, that they may serve me” was not to be an informal in-house arrangement. The formal steps that were taken is outlined in Part 2.

Uncovering the roots of narcissism

narcissism quoteIn a recent blog post I spoke about narcissism and power abuse and I made a passing remark that this was sometimes caused by the person guilty of bullying having had themselves the experience of being bullied in the past. I was exploring the way that a metaphor of hunger seemed to fit these cases. It seemed apparent, as I was writing, that a hungry person, in the sense of suffering from emotional deprivation because of bullying from others, may well choose to misuse power as a way of compensating for this deprivation. Someone pointed out that the simple equation that a narcissist is a bully who has themselves been bullied is probably not accurate. Going back over the literature on the subject, which I examined at some depth ten years or so ago, I find that the origins of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are indeed far more complicated. One thing that is true is that the narcissist is a person who at a deep level is searching for self-esteem. The longing or search is linked to having been failed at a very early stage in his life. The classic teaching on the causes of narcissism suggest that the small child who later is diagnosed as an adult suffering from NPD has been deprived by his (it is normally a he) mother. The mother had failed to give her child sufficient or appropriate experience of self-esteem. In rearing small children there is a delicate balance to be observed between not supressing the natural grandiosity of the infant and at the same time not allowing it to become over-inflated. Heinz Kohut, the Austrian American psychoanalyst who pioneered a lot of the research into narcissistic behaviour, in particular noted how a mother was in danger of allowing a child to feel that they are at the centre of the universe. When this ‘baby worship’ comes to an end, as it is bound to, there is a danger of the child not being able to handle his sudden traumatic change of status. The child or young person who has been too long the apple of his mother’s eye now has developed an insatiable appetite always to be a centre of attention. Kohut speaks of the almost psychic sensitivity of the young person as he scans the world around him to find new ways to regain the adulation that he used to get from his over attentive mother. The child then becomes the adult who knows exactly how to manipulate others so that they give him the ‘worship’ that he used to receive from his mother. In Kohut’s writing there is also an explanation of how a mother can get things right. She has to allow the infant to balance his powerful self-affirmation with the needs of other people around him. This is done in a process called ‘optimal frustration’. In short from an early age the wants and needs of the child have to be curtailed so he can live in some sort of harmony with the rest of society, while retaining appropriate self-esteem.

Many people live with an insatiable hunger for the acceptance that they did not receive as tiny children. Alternatively, they may be conscious of having received a great deal of affirmation from their mothers which accustomed them to being right at the centre of the universe. Either way such people are candidates for NPD and this disorder is something we see at work in many walks of life. Unlike other personality disorders, NPD does not necessarily result in the individual being regarded as in need of treatment. Many ‘sufferers’ perform and function successfully in many careers or roles. A narcissist may do extremely well running a business, as long as his subordinates adjust themselves to his style of management. Within that kind of company there will be glamour and even success but at the same time there will probably be enormous amounts of stress and unhappiness. Such individuals are even described a charismatic as they often have clear vision of what needs to be done. A company may apparently thrive under a high functioning narcissist but his ruthlessness and failure of sensitivity towards those who have to work under him will normally cause unhappiness all around. The pursuit of his emotional needs will be at the top of the narcissist’s agenda, even though this is not spelt out.

Not all narcissists are high achievers. Many of them in fact are prone to depressive illness as the opportunity for feeding their self-esteem deficit is not available. It is probably only the minority who can manipulate their lives and the people around them so that they can relieve their deep symptoms of need for self-esteem. The problem for the depressive narcissists is that they too have an insatiable appetite for their frustrated self-esteem needs to be met but it exhausts and grinds down those who try to help them. The hunger that they have is deeply ingrained, but no amount of support ever seems to be enough. Married partners and friends are in the end often completely defeated by this neediness.

In this blog we have a particular concern for the damage that people with NPD can do in the church. I have already suggested that many narcissists in positions of responsibility may start their ministries with only a mild form of the disorder. It is the role as a Christian leader that sometimes magnifies something that is a mild tendency or potential into the full-blown personality disorder. I would suggest that many of the individuals guilty of bullying and misusing their power in a church may be what is known technically as ‘situational narcissists’. This is another of saying that the role has drawn out of them something which might never have been apparent but for the particular setting of Christian ministry. The opportunity to throw their weight around appeals to something deep inside them and awakens a hunger for power which might not have manifested itself in another walk of life. We could also describe such people as opportunist narcissists. This last expression is my own invention as there is nothing on this topic in the text-books. Opportunist narcissists may indeed be the most common expression of the personality disorder.

Some of the sufferers of NPD including those who are ‘situational’ or ‘opportunist’ can be seen among the highly flamboyant leaders of successful charismatic ministries. Here, as I have pointed out before, the interaction between preacher and audience is highly addictive for both sides. I think I have explored this dynamic sufficient times in previous posts. What I have not mentioned before are the sufferers from the more depressive kind of narcissism. No one to my knowledge has done any research on the incidence of this depressive kind of narcissism among clergy and religious leaders. There are no rewards for the victims of this form of NPD. I believe that among the clergy there are many whose morale has been severely depleted over the years by the demands of the job. They are aware of a deep hunger inside them which they may have believed would somehow be met by offering themselves for full-time ministry. When they were in fact unable to feed their inner hunger through becoming involved in the problems and issues of other needy people, their ministry began to descend into a spiral of depression and despair. To suggest in this way that a failing ministry can be accounted for with an explanation of narcissism, is of course controversial. But failure of morale in many places within the church is an issue and should be taken far more seriously. To summarise the church has to find ways of responding to NPD which comes at it from two directions – from the high octane, high energy style of the exploitative charismatic leader alongside the depressed and the demoralised among the clergy who also hunger for the self-esteem that was denied them in early life.

Church of England moves on abuse

Sarah-Mullally-1080x675Tucked away on page 4 of the Church Times this week was a story of great interest to the concerns of this blog. The House of Bishops which met last week have approved sweeping changes in the way that sexual abuse reports are dealt with in the Church of England. This follows a report, called the Elliot report, which was responding to an individual victim called ‘Joe’. He was sexually abused by a senior churchman, Chancellor Garth Moore. Joe’s particular complaint against the church was that he felt that no one wanted to listen to him, especially the senior members of the hierarchy. Charged with responding to this Elliott report, Bishop Sarah Mullaly, Bishop of Crediton, recommended to the bishops that procedures in responding to victims should be comprehensively revised. The church’s safeguarding procedures are described as ‘fundamentally flawed’. Among her recommendations was one which prevents insurance companies blocking the provision of pastoral support for victims. Joe also commented on the fact that since the publication of the Elliott report in March there has been complete silence on the part of the bishops. It seems now that through the promptings of Bishop Sarah, the same bishops have now pledged their support for all the reforms suggested by the Elliott report.

The implications of this story are profound. In the first place it is likely that the bishops will have to agree on procedures which apply right across England. No individual bishop can be allowed to hide behind his or her locally defined understanding of the needs of his/her diocese. In other words, no bishop, for example, will be allowed to protect an individual when credible accusations of abuse are made. We have seen how one particular diocese in England, Chichester, harboured (protected?) a disproportionate number of clergy who had aroused suspicions in the area of sexual abuse. Bishops in the future will no longer be able to exercise discretion in this area. They will all be committed to following guidelines set down by a centrally appointed safeguarding committee.

A second development which dovetails into this news from the House of Bishops is that all the safeguarding officers in the Church of England were recently addressed on the subject of spiritual abuse. These officers have traditionally been charged with the protection of children and vulnerable adults within each diocese. It is likely that these Diocesan officers will be alert, along with their Bishops, to a potential future wave of accusations asserting abuse which do not involve sex. All the bishops from the Archbishop downwards must be aware that accusations of this kind which are not properly investigated could give rise to expensive legal cases in the future. The church has already had to face up to expensive pay-outs for victims of sexual abuse. Church leaders must realise that any abuse, and this blog is full of examples, is potentially a very expensive matter for the institution as a whole. Leaders, bishops, safeguarding officers and clergy, need to have a proper understanding of the way that abuse is not just about sex but it is more fundamentally about power and emotional exploitation.

The survivor, Joe, who was the subject of the Elliott Report was also abused by a Franciscan friar who later became a bishop, one Michael Fisher. It is interesting that the abuse there is described as ‘emotional’ rather than to do with sex. This single word would suggest that both the Report and the bishops who had it analysed and unpacked for them by Bishop Sarah are finally beginning to get it. From these two directions we now have the stage reached where emotional exploitation and spiritual abuse are entering the vocabulary and thinking of all the bishops of the Church of England. This is progress indeed! What would I, as editor of this blog, like to see happening next?

The first thing that it is important for everyone to understand is that power abuse exists on a continuum. Whether it is acted out through a boss shouting at an employee or a deviant exploiting a vulnerable child, power abuse is endemic in almost every part of our society. It is acted out in firms, families and institutions of all kinds. For centuries it has been tolerated, even condoned as part of the way that things are. Women in particular have got used to the idea that the can be humiliated, belittled or, on occasion, sexually abused by people who believe that they have power over them. The first thing that needs to be challenged is the all too ready tolerance of destructive power games that exists in so many places. In particular, power games need to be exposed and challenged in church settings. We need to be reminded constantly of Jesus’s words: ‘In the world rulers lord it over their subjects… but it shall not be so among you. Whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all.’

The second part of a hypothetical educational process for bishops and others who wish to understand how power abuse should be challenged, is to learn to recognise the personality profiles of those who are most likely to engage in this kind of behaviour. I said something about this in my previous blog post and I would refer the reader back to that. Fundamentally the principle of power abuse can be summed up in a few sentences. The person who exercises inappropriate power over another person is likely to be someone who in the course of their lives have had their personality undermined by bullying. Exercising gratuitous power is a way of trying to recover what has been lost. Such narcissistic behaviour is an attempt to make up for the deficit in the individual’s self-esteem.

The third part of a fantasised address to senior churchman about power abuse, would be to point out how the institution itself seems to encourage narcissistic behaviour. Thus even those who began ministry with a sincere desire to serve rather than dominate may fall into the trap of behaving in a way that seeks to put others down. The language of promotion, preferment and hierarchy in the Church of England is all calculated to encourage narcissistic tendencies in susceptible individuals. To counter this there should be a strong emphasis on every clergyman having a mentor, one of whose primary tasks is to check self-inflation. Out of such tendencies to want importance, there comes the desire to misuse the power that has been given them.

I have every hope that Bishop Sarah Mullaly will prove to be a key person to understand these dynamics in the church and among the clergy. I have always believed that a tendency for narcissism is less often found in women. Thus she may find it easier to identify these power-seeking tendencies among her fellow clergy, especially the male variety. Bishop Sarah’s name came up in one of the comments on this blog recently and I am hoping that she may be directed to the existence of this blog. There is certainly plenty I would have to say to her in encouraging her in this vital task of educating the bishops of the Church of England in a fresh understanding of power abuse in the church. If these tendencies are unchecked or unchallenged, they could destroy or extensively damage the institution. Other churches will be helped with their own issues on power abuse if the Church of England were to set an example and get its act together to understand what is going on. I certainly hope so.

New metaphor – corrupt Church leaders

celebrity worshipThose readers who have been following this blog for a long time, will know that there is one particular word which I come back to over and over again. The word, a somewhat technical one, sums up for me much of the issue about bad religious leadership. The word is narcissism and its adjective narcissistic. It is possible to become very technical in describing exactly what the word means within the psychoanalytical literature. Freud use the word but others have refined its use in a somewhat different direction. For the sake of this post I will define narcissism as the self inflation that an individual obtains by being at the centre of adoration and admiration. It is a word associated with show business and anybody who takes centre stage within an organisation, including the church. One particular author in Australia, Len Oakes, wrote a fascinating thesis on the way that charismatic leadership in the church and narcissism have a great deal in common. He was able to identify narcissistic behaviour in the leadership of some charismatic churches in his own country.

The other day I came across a Twitter statement on the topic of narcissism. The writer, one Boz Tchividjian, shared this thought. ‘Narcissistic leaders feed off those who crave their attention and affirmation only to spit them out when the feasting is finished.’ I thought that this use of a feeding metaphor was very powerful. Like many metaphors it draws on an experience common to all. In this particular case it is a metaphor which transcends all cultures. Boz has also captured the way that the narcissistic relationship works in two directions. In return for the satiation of his appetite for being placed at the centre of people’s adoration, the leader is offering to his followers attention and affirmation. It is a relationship that is for a time mutually affirming. We have all seen this dynamic at work, particularly in the world of many Christian charismatic superstars who preach to vast audiences. The famous preacher is one who like celebrities in other cultures has a kind of magic which the followers believe will somehow rub off onto them when they get close to the object of their adoration. People behave like this around royalty, rock stars and other kinds of celebrity. The smallest act of attention by the leader or adored person is treasured and remembered for ever. We can try to convince ourselves that the idol or revered leader who may look in our direction has been concerned about us personally, even if only for a fraction of a second. What we fail to realise is that it is the combined adoration by hundreds or even thousands of fans that gives to the superstar his narcissistic gratification. The contribution of any particular individual in this process is of little or no importance. It is the crowd as a whole which gives him what he wants.

Narcissistic behaviour on the part of popstars, certain church leaders or other celebrities, has also a still darker side. In recent years we have become familiar with the phenomenon of groupie sex between impressionable women and their adored stars. The dynamic of this kind of exploitative relationship is not hard to understand. The magic of being in the presence of the one who has been adored from a distance allows the young impressionable woman to surrender to anything that is suggested by the adored quasi-divine celebrity. Such relationships are a clear example of a gross imbalance of power and by definition they are abusive and exploitative. The celebrity may feel that he has an entitlement to such ‘perks’, but this is part of the narcissistic trait which has begun to become ingrained because of this constant exposure to fame and adulation. What I want is what I get. The popstar, the celebrity or the charismatic leader is well on the way to becoming like a pampered child who cannot deal with anybody opposing his wishes. Such behaviour can also be the prelude to various forms of addiction, drugs and alcohol or pornography. Instant relationships which focus on sexual gratification and which bypass the need for courtesy, consideration and respect, may provide something in the short term. In the long term the narcissistic exploitative individual has become a victim of his own addictions and life will probably end up full of tragedy and despair.

Narcissistic behaviour in the church will not usually have the more spectacular examples of the extremes that we sometimes see in pop culture. Nevertheless, to return to our metaphor, some church leaders are guilty of feeding off their parishioners in a variety of similar ways to that of celebrities. A need to be at the centre of attention is not by itself immoral but it will be bad for both the leader and the led if a narcissistic culture exists within a particular congregation. To put it simply and bluntly it is bad for a church leader to exploit his flock by using them as cheer leaders and ‘worshippers’, just as it is bad for members of the congregation to hold up their leader in an exaggerated form of veneration. The purpose of belonging to a church, the worship of God and discovering his will for your life, is hardly going to be enhanced by this kind of dynamic.

What is the solution to this kind of unhealthy dynamic when it occurs in the church? The first thing is for us to be aware when it is happening. At present the kind of energy exercised by a charismatic leader is applauded and regarded as being an example of church life and growth. Nobody wants to challenge ‘success’ when there are signs of vigorous activity in the church. Full churches and the presence of young people are held to be signs of life blessing on a ministry. The suggestion, as we make on this blog, that all may not be well in this kind of culture is never going to be a popular one. The church sees these ministries as attracting both young people and copious amounts of money. Both of these are in short supply in many parts of the church. At present there is no solution to the problems of narcissistic behaviour in the church, simply because only a very few people have woken up to its existence and its potential to cause havoc in the lives of individuals. Has anyone else observed the dynamic of ‘feeding’ on the part of leaders and subsequent ‘spitting out? I certainly have and this metaphor brings fully alive a real problem in our churches which we need to address and talk about.