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!