From following the Trinity Brentwood blog run by Nigel Davies, it appears that Trinity School, formerly Peniel Academy, is closing, at least the senior section of the school. No reasons for this closure have been given but the school has seemingly been operating below the level of viability for some time. It is also suggested that the large building, Brizes Park, where the school is housed, may have to be sold to pay for all the legal claims arising from the abuses of Reid’s era that are continuing to haunt the church.
The actual reasons for the senior school’s closure in one sense are unimportant. What is more interesting is to reflect on why a cultic church like Peniel (now Trinity Church) should ever have gone to the trouble of founding a school in the first place. In fact, the reasons for founding a church school by Michael Reid seem to be clear. The creation of a church which would function as a ‘totalistic’ community required that the leader controlled the inflow of information and influence from outside. If you are going to create a new community bound together by a ‘bible-based’ vision, you have then to stop other views getting into the group. Parents and children had to be repeatedly assured and convinced that the leader, here Reid, was the reliable interpreter and mediator of gospel truth. He could thus be trusted in every area of life because he spoke for God himself. The task of convincing everyone that a leader, such as Reid, is a spokesman for God is made much easier if all information available to the membership is carefully filtered. There has to be one message, one narrative, that is accepted across the board.
The Langlois report documents some of the ways in which the information control was kept in place. As far as schooling for the children was concerned, the parents who wanted to join, found that sending their children to Peniel Academy was virtually a compulsory part of their membership. The fees that had to be paid were additional to the tithe of the family’s pre-tax income. Consequently, the financial investment in the church by these families was massive. It seems that the more that was spent, the more the parents found themselves locked into the orbit of cultic control. ‘Encouragement’ of church children to join the Academy was helped by Reid declaring that the local Brentwood schools were infested by satanic influences. It was thus not just a matter of offering a good education in small classes but protecting the souls of church children from hell!
Once in the school it appears, according to the Langlois report, that the children were used by Reid to control the parents. If a parent displeased Reid for any reason the child at the school was to be given a hard time of it by the teachers. A few children, those favoured because their parents were rich and major benefactors of the church, escaped these techniques of harassment. It does seem that the happiness or unhappiness of the children at the school depended on the view of Reid towards the parents. Either way, the school was a major part of the way that Reid was able to wield such enormous power over the church. Also by putting pressure on many of the parents to offer voluntary labour at the school and in the church grounds, he was able to ensure that quite a large proportion of the congregation spent most of their waking hours in and around the church. Many of these parents reported that they were permanently exhausted by all the hours put in at the church and this lack of time meant that family life, time simply being with their children, suffered severely.
My time in Dallas also brought me face to face with this aspect of cult life, the way that family life was undermined even destroyed by the demands of leaders. The demand for total loyalty and obedience on the part of the membership meant that, not only were adults submitting to the demands of leaders on matters of belief, but they were also allowing leaders to dictate to them how to bring up their children. The acronym which is used to describe the children who grow up under the control of a cult is SGA or second generation adults. These are the adults who were born into a group or whose education and upbringing was largely in the hands of a religious/political cult. The individual SGAs I spoke to in Dallas were those who were in recovery but it was apparent that it had been a tough journey. Some had escaped while still in their teens while others had only got out of their respective groups in early adulthood. In the first place they were entering a world which had numerous cultural norms and their lives in the group had not prepared them to cope. I asked one woman SGA which was the issue that she was still working on with her therapist. Her answer was ‘boundaries’. I did not have the opportunity to question what she meant by this exactly but I surmised that she was referring to the fact that her cult had always minimised the importance of privacy and personal space. The group leaders, in their desire for total control of their members, demand that any desire for privacy be broken down through public acts of ‘confession’. In the case of Peniel, there was also the control being exercised by public acts of humiliation from the pulpit directed at individuals. Also being taught from an early age that it is essential to be totally open about your feelings, the young person or child allows the unscrupulous leader to exercise a lot of power over him/her. Such power binds the follower to the group and makes it difficult to discover a proper identity which is distinct from the identities of others. One of the key concepts in cultic studies is the idea of the ‘cult identity’. This is the notion that a ‘successful’ member of an extreme group acquires an identity which is in some way created by the cult. Recovery consists in burrowing back into the personality to discover the true self that has been buried by cultic membership. This can be a long journey.
To return to the affair of Trinity School. It seems to be true that recently the school has not been operating in anything like the same way that it did in Reid’s day. Nevertheless, from the evidence given to John Langlois during his enquiry, the school used to be very much in the business of creating Peniel clones. Many of these alummi of Peniel Academy will be suffering the same psychological scars as the SGAs I met in Dallas. One importance difference will be that in the UK there are virtually no therapists who specialise in the task of helping people to shed a ‘cult identity’ in favour of a normal one. The trauma in these young adults of having had their thinking and feeling dominated by an ugly combination of fear and even terror will have left its mark. To say that there are probably some victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in and around Brentwood is probably an understatement. While the closing of the school is a closing of a stable door long after the horse (Reid) has departed, it had to be done even if the education of some innocent pupils is being regrettably disrupted. It remains to be seen how this part of the Trinity saga is eventually resolved. You can be sure that this blog editor will be watching the situation carefully, even though from afar.