Notes from Dallas

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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!

About Stephen Parsons

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

27 thoughts on “Notes from Dallas

  1. Sunlight on the pineal gland, Stephen. Get outside without a hat, or sit in a sunny window. And do the same when you get back, if you can! I’d have lost my hat! He won’t be PM by Christmas, and I’m so relieved.

  2. I have nine proposals for amending the Draft Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline Measure (GS 1952) and Draft Amending Canon No.34 (GS 1953):
    (a) I propose that the Measure and/or Canon should including emotional abuse, bullying and harassment as well as sexual and physical abuse. A sexual or physical abuser frequently also uses other forms of abuse; in these cases all the abuse needs to be recognised and dealt with by the Church. At other times, there is emotional abuse, bullying, harassment or some other form of abuse when there is no sexual or physical abuse; these cases of abuse also need to be recognised and dealt with by the Church and therefore should be included in the Measure and/or Canon. In everything I write below, the word ‘abuse’ is used to include all forms of abuse including sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, bullying and harassment.”

    Also:

    (d)I further propose that the Measure and/or Canon should and children, not just ‘vulnerable’ adults. Abuse of anybody is abuse. It causes harm and is wrong, and it needs to be recognised and dealt with by the Church. In everything I write below, the word ‘abuse’ is used to include abuse to anybody including all children, all young people and all adults, whether or not they are regarded as ‘vulnerable’.
    Rev Hugh Lee. 14 Aug 2014 https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2084704/lee.pdf

    I must find out what happened to these Proposals.

    1. YAY ! Maybe I should have done this sooner. I have been searching the Anglican Church website and found this: “Some adults, who do not see themselves as ‘vulnerable’ under our working definition, may still find themselves exploited, bullied or abused. The safeguarding of adults when harm occurs is the responsibility of everyone. Awareness of the ways people can suffer harm encourages church members to be vigilant both within and outside the church community.”

      Further,

      “At some time everyone will be vulnerable to a wide range of pressures, concerns or dangers. No one is ‘invulnerable’; some people may consider themselves to be strong but, when circumstances change, strengths can quickly disappear. Some people by reason of their physical or social circumstances have higher levels of vulnerability than others. It is the Christian duty of everyone to recognize and support those who are identified as being more vulnerable. In supporting a vulnerable person we must do so with compassion and in a way that maintains dignity. Vulnerability is not an absolute; an individual cannot be labelled as ‘vulnerable’ in the same way as a child is regarded as such. Childhood is absolute: someone who is not yet eighteen years of age is, in the eyes of the law,2 a child; this is not the case with vulnerability.”

      Some of the factors that increase vulnerability follow.

      https://www.churchofengland.org/media/37405/promotingasafechurch.pdf

      1. yes, it was finding this that encouraged me those years ago. However my impression is that this kind of nuance doesn’t seep into the average person’s consciousness from national guidelines much. Labels have a powerful life of their own. But it’s a start.

          1. you put me to shame… It shows me how thoroughly disempowered I am at times. However I am now working towards regaining my ministry and licence as a Reader. I’m trying to gain strength from what has hurt me, by renewing my trust in God, rather than let it break me.

            1. I sincerely hope that doesn’t put you to shame. We are part of the Body and you have taken a beating; we are at different stages and you will rise again. You have a ministry; we all have a ministry. I truly believe that hurts can be turned into strengths. How else will you be enabled to help others through their similar pain?

              1. Can’t say no to that! It just gets complicated at times in practice. I’ve been immensely encouraged this week after I just happened on the story of the widow’s mite in an open bible in a church I was visiting. I took that powerfully as a direct leading to me to offer what I have with dignity, and not let ego worry how small, worthless or pointless it is – or how vulnerable I am. I can’t tell you how much this means. Strange that, unlike with the parable of the talents, this story seems so rarely to be interpreted metaphorically. Instead it is now the fashion I think to see the widow as a pathetic and forgettable example of exploitation and proletarian false consciousness.

  3. I think it would be helpful to have explicit recognition that anyone who is in a relationship where another person has authority over them is in a structurally vulnerable position. This goes to a large part of the heart of the matter. Children are always vulnerable because adults always have authority over them.

    1. “Structurally vulnerable”. Good. My Bishop didn’t believe me when I pointed out that bullying is usually from the more powerful to the less so!

    2. I think that this is a major – “large part of the heart of the matter” but is not the only part. A recognised part also is ‘upwards bullying’: ‘Here’s the presentation to the Australian Parliament‘s inquiry into workplace bullying. Hat’s off to Australia for leading the world on this issue. This was submitted by: Dr Sara Branch – Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance; Dr Jane Murray – Bond University Faculty of Business; and Dr Sheryl Ramsay – Griffith University Griffith Business School. Read the portion excerpted below deals only with upward bullying.” https://bullyinworkplace.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/http-__wopared-aph-gov-au_house_committee_ee_bullying_subs_sub89-1.pdf

      1. For sure, leaders can become isolated and vulnerable to targeting as scapegoats. Hence my reference to congregations bullying clergy. We see it all the time in politics. Here I think the absolutely essential reading is Rene Girard and other interpreters of mimetic theory regarding the particular form of bullying that is the many-against-the-one scapegoating. This is what Jesus suffered and exposed on the cross, so that we could see the previously invisible sin of it and learn to build community not by violence but by the solidarity with the victim that is built symbolically in the meal together of Holy Communion. A good exposition of this in relation to atonement theology is Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice https://www.amazon.co.uk/Saved-Sacrifice-Theology-S-Mark-Heim/dp/0802832156/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1467454433&sr=8-3&keywords=s+mark+heim.

        1. Oh, I know upward bullying occurs, absolutely. It’s just that if you only recognise the bullying that targets clergy, and not the kind where clergy are the bullies, everyone else has a problem!
          Thanks for the hard work, Christine. But like Haiku, I know from experience that things which are “generally known” are usually unknown in practice, and therefore not acted upon.

          1. It’s just that any definition has to cover all the eventualities. Branch et al have covered that too. So has the Church of England: “At some time everyone will be vulnerable to a wide range of pressures, concerns or dangers. No one is ‘invulnerable’; some people may consider themselves to be strong but, when circumstances change, strengths can quickly disappear. Some people by reason of their physical or social circumstances have higher levels of vulnerability than others.”

            Therefore, this is NOT the place in the safety system where things go wrong; the place in the safety system where things go wrong is in implementation.

            I have been trying to ascertain where in the system things go wrong. The first difference I see between the UK and Australia is that How to Complain is prioritised on the website in Australia. This shortcuts the conversation with a Bishop that somehow is “therefore not acted upon.” Could you comment on this aspect?

            1. From the perspective of the “target”, (although this word may sound a little as if all bullying is totally deliberate, and totally targeted at a specific individual, and it isn’t) it goes wrong at first contact. Nearly always. So, after considerable unpleasantness, I go to talk to the Archdeacon. I have been asked by the Readers in the parish to do something about the fact that the new(ish) incumbent has stopped including them in meetings. I take the opportunity to elaborate on my own problems as well. He puts his serious face on. (I know the guy quite well) He replies with the immortal words “So much unhappiness” in one of those voices which indicates he has forgotten to take his sincerity pill that morning. And there the matter rests. No-one ever hears anything else.
              The Suffragan Bishop comes for a visitation. He never sees me, only everyone else. Later he suggests coming to see me, as there’s obviously a problem. He thinks I should move parish. Now I can’t just up and go, you need all sorts of things done for you. But nothing happens. Another new incumbent fails to fill in the forms I need. I speak to the Warden, and write to the Rural Dean. Neither reply. See how it goes?
              Where I am now, the clergy won’t even offer me tea and a chat. They’re not responsible for 20 years of bullying, but they are responsible for a further two years of neglect. They don’t want to know what happened. I need someone to address that, and to offer me just normal pastoral care. I’ve been told I need counselling. I wasn’t vastly amused. It sounded to me as if people were trying to duck their pastoral responsibilities. And make out that there was something wrong with me! But I went. It normally costs money, but the delightful retired cleric who does these things said I didn’t have to pay. She believed me. “The church has done this to you, the church must put it right!” Yeah, sister! She also said I didn’t need counselling!
              The new Bishop still thinks I do (No expertise in this area, but hey, he’s the Bishop, so he knows best) And does not believe in the institutional church. “That’s nonsense, there’s no such thing”. Well I didn’t invent the concept.
              See how it goes? It never gets beyond the telling people stuff stage, and nice normal clergy fail at the even the basic “Sit down love, and I’ll put the kettle on” stage.
              So, in my opinion, no-one from the Bishop to parish clergy has the faintest idea how to deal with someone who comes to talk to them about bullying. It may be on their web-sites, but they don’t read it.

  4. How frustrating, to say the least.

    Yes. the word ‘target’ covers conscious as well as unconscious motivations, or people who are simply out of their depth and clumsy. As I read on, I did wonder whether there might be a background attitude on the part of the new(ish) incumbent? (Equal opportunities come to mind.) Certainly, where someone i.e. the incumbent has stopped including people in meetings where they would be reasonably expected to be can be considered bullying and therefore worthy of complaint. Shunning is at the more subtle end of the scale so to bring a case you would need a record of prior dates, meetings, etc to compare to later dates where you were excluded and maybe others in your peer group who were either in or out of that group.

    “Another new incumbent fails to fill in the forms I need.” (from a systems perspective are these forms online and readily accessible ?) From what I’ve seen I would think that they are.

    “ I speak to the Warden, and write to the Rural Dean. Neither reply. See how it goes?” (How rude) Again, a record of dates when you requested the forms and repeats of those requests would provide strong proof of deliberate shunning where it is needed to carry forward a strong complaint. I keep wondering how many times you reminded him, not that you should have to but because it strengthens your case on paper.

    Is there collusion between these men? Rhetorical question but it does make you wonder.

    I have been trying to ascertain where in the system things go wrong. At first glance, and despite all your verbal efforts, it is the written communications – or lack thereof that are most telling.

    Counselling. It is a particular bugbear of mine where counselling is misused. Counselling can be advised for spurious reasons including insurance and so having “No expertise in this area” would fit that reasoning. I suspect, from the context, that this was not offered out of care but rather to cover the back. It ticks the right boxes. That fits the later advice that you didn’t need counselling. It’s good that your counsellor believed you.

    In my training, we were encouraged to empower counselees with practical knowledge about how to help themselves.

    The corporate culture: “that no-one from the Bishop to parish clergy has the faintest idea how to deal with someone who comes to talk to them about bullying. It may be on their web-sites, but they don’t read it” But they should:

    6. A guidance note was drafted and circulated to all diocesan bishops and registrars, containing advice about what to include in letters sent by bishops to complainants and respondents under section 11 of the Clergy Discipline Measure when dismissing a complaint and under section 13 when taking no further action. https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2532994/gs_misc_1143_-_cdc_annual_report_2015.pdf

    Catch-22:
    10. The matter of vexatious complainants was raised with the Commission and whether a procedure should be introduced to prevent vexatious complainants from making complaints. The Commission agreed that it would be disproportionate to amend the Measure and the Clergy Discipline Rules, and that the appropriate course in such cases was for the bishop to dismiss vexatious complaints at preliminary scrutiny stage in accordance with existing provisions of the Measure. https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2532994/gs_misc_1143_-_cdc_annual_report_2015.pdf

    My question is, how do you know whether a bishop had dismissed complaints at preliminary scrutiny stage? Do they formally send a letter by way of response? Is there a paper trail? Or is it simply forgotten?

    In a transparent system, it is spelled out how to appeal this. That is where Harassment Advisors could help especially where Bishops had to attend. I think in Australia, the fact of not reading the website is not a defence. Clergy are expected to know what comes under their remit. And the catch-22 is avoided because through the website you do not go straight to a Bishop but to a Professional Standards Advisor’s office. They are the people who sift the complaints.

    Another hurdle: As I said previously, the Australian site navigation prioritises ‘Feel Safe’ and ‘Report Abuse’ at the top of the first page.

    In contrast, the Anglican Church website does not prioritise ‘Abuse’ or ‘Complaint’. Instead, you have to key in a word search that takes you to a page. Whether this is relevant or not depends on your word search. I entered, ‘How to make a complaint’ and what I saw made me faint at heart:

    1-10 of about 81 results Your search took 0.28 seconds.

    FORM 1c (Rule 8)
    State how you are entitled to make the complaint – fill in the gaps where appropriate … The matters about which you may complain are set out in section 8 of the Clergy Discipline …
    Authors: Sion Hughes-Carew Date: 30/01/2014 Size: 20KB
    https://www.churchofengland.org/media/1917458/form 1c.docx

    FORM 1a (Rule 4)
    State how you are entitled to make the complaint – fill in the gaps where appropriate … The matters about which you may complain are set out in section 8 of the Clergy Discipline …
    Authors: Sion Hughes-Carew Date: 30/01/2014 Size: 21KB
    https://www.churchofengland.org/media/1917432/form 1a.docx

    FORM 1b (Rule 82)
    State how you are entitled to make the complaint – fill in the gaps where appropriate … The matters about which you may complain are set out in section 8 of the Clergy Discipline …
    Authors: Sion Hughes-Carew Date: 30/01/2014 Size: 21KB
    https://www.churchofengland.org/media/1917445/form 1b.docx

    FORM 1d (Rule 92)
    State how you are entitled to make the complaint – fill in the gaps where appropriate … The matters about which you may complain are set out in section 8 of the Clergy Discipline …
    Authors: Sion Hughes-Carew Date: 30/01/2014 Size: 21KB

    https://search.churchofengland.org/results.aspx?k=how%20to%20complain

    Not for the first time I am wondering whether Stephen’s site doesn’t need a ‘How to….’ page. Or does the church need a specialist version of Citizens Advice? What strikes me about these interventions is the lack of emotional intelligence. You have someone who is wounded so what do you do? Make them jump through hoops? Invite them for a cup of tea and offer a listening ear? What would Jesus do?

    I’m sorry. In reviewing what I’ve said it makes it sound easy; I know that it isn’t. I know how paralysing inner pain can be. The sense of injustice is palpable.

  5. OK. The forms concerned were for the incumbent to fill in. So nothing I could do. I eventually came to the conclusion that the people who did not reply spoke to the incumbent instead! She of course said she was dealing with it! They never asked me if she was. The exclusions turned out to be because one of the clergy did not believe in involving Readers! So the incumbent just left them out. The exclusion of me was because she forgot! Like almost every time. She wasn’t the only cleric I ran into over the years who really couldn’t remember things, to a ridiculous degree. I had a conversation with one guy about something I was supposed to be doing four times. He told me different things each time, and it was perfectly clear that he had forgotten what we talked about last time. But as I said, the blockage is when you speak to them. It just ends there.

  6. So, in other words, there is no safety system. Love is meant to cover all manner of sin and so where love is missing we need laws and rules – for the hardness of our hearts.

    I can see now why it was Stephen used the term ‘non-criminal issues’ at one point. Looking at GENERAL SYNOD DRAFT SAFEGUARDING AND CLERGY DISCIPLINE MEASURE AND DRAFT AMENDING CANON NO. 34 REPORT OF THE REVISION COMMITTEE, I suspect that some potential changes that we would like to see may be rejected because they are not issues of criminality. This is decided by a barrister. What you have been describing are wrongs, unfair and in a sense unjust but they are not possibly considered Unjust in the eyes of the law.

    The processes that I’ve described elsewhere on this site allow for early interventions and mediation if possible, without any sense that it is adversarial. If I am correct, (and I may not be) this is a glaring deficit in the ‘safety system’ let alone how we relate to one another as Christians as described in Matthew 18:15-17

    1. Yes, I think you’re probably right in essence. It’s getting to be fashionable to employ ex-police officers as the Diocesan Safeguarding Officer. Fine, that means the law will be observed. Situations where clergy debate among themselves whether they really need to have this or that person checked would not arise. But what about the pastoral element? How will a victim feel approaching someone for help whose whole ethos and emphasis is on keeping the law? Not pastoral support, and not things that are unpleasant, certainly against guidelines, but not actually illegal? And what would be the response of such an officer? “Sorry, it’s not illegal, so there’s nothing I can do”?

      1. Thanks. This may be something that I return to; to my mind, the church should have a higher standard than that of the law, not lower. I think this voices best what I was getting at: “How will a victim feel approaching someone for help whose whole ethos and emphasis is on keeping the law? Not pastoral support, and not things that are unpleasant, certainly against guidelines, but not actually illegal? And what would be the response of such an officer? “Sorry, it’s not illegal, so there’s nothing I can do”?”

        I guess when the church comes in line with domestic violence laws this may change the picture. Does everyone have time to wait? Isn’t justice delayed justice denied?

  7. Oh, and off the current point slightly, the difficult Bishop I did not get on with has gone up about 100 points in my estimation. Someone died (I’m not going to be specific), and the Bishop was there, and even took the funeral. Quite a change from another Bishop I wot of, where an NSM died, and he didn’t even go to the funeral.

  8. Yes, I’ve come across a priest who said they wouldn’t do a pastoral visit to someone’s home even if they were dying. What are we to make of that and of your Bishop? What do non-Christians make of it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.