Monthly Archives: August 2016

How not to evangelise

evangeliseAll of us have encountered the caricature of an Englishman abroad who believes that everyone should understand his language. All he has to do to communicate with foreigners is to shout a bit louder. Behind this satirical image is the revealing of a condescending attitude towards others sometimes displayed by our countrymen. Some English people apparently do take on their travels the assumption that everybody is or should be just like them, able to speak English as well as think within a similar cultural framework. In the first place we would note that such an attitude is based on a failure of understanding. Ignorance of this nature goes back to a failure ever to engage properly with history or geography. But such gaps in knowledge will be compounded and made worse by a lack of imagination. It is through a lack of imagination that we sometimes cannot appreciate that there are people in the world who do not think and speak as we do. Without this capacity to imagine that things elsewhere in the world are sometimes radically different from what we know, we can find the rest of the world to be a place of darkness or even threat.

The Englishman abroad caricature might well remind us of an ardent Christian evangelist trying to make converts. Just as the failure to communicate sometimes causes expatriates to shout a bit louder, so some evangelists engage in a more intensive repetition of their well-worn slogans when they are unsuccessfully seeking converts. Two particular things stood out as being absent in the hypothetical conversation between the imaginary Englishman and the uncomprehending foreigner, both of which are also missing in the street evangelist’s encounter with its hyped up rhetoric. The words are knowledge and imagination. A lack of knowledge of where a person is coming from will always make communication between people difficult. It may be a failure to speak the same language. It also may also include an ignorance of the culture, philosophy and religious background of the other person. It goes without saying that it is important to know something of where another person is coming from in any attempt to communicate with them. Expecting them always to understand our words and our point of view because we are shouting a bit louder, is demeaning and insulting.

The second word I brought forward as being always needed in any attempt at communication is the word imagination. The ability to use the imagination effectively is sadly something not always encouraged in the schooling process. It does however develop as a by-product of certain disciplines within the curriculum which are labelled under the title of creative arts. These are not always the ones most valued in a system that places science, maths and verifiable information at the top of the educational tree. While imagination is hard to teach, it is nevertheless naturally built into every growing child and parents and teachers can do much to encourage it. I am reminded of an advertisement on television for a make of packaged cheese. Two men dressed as knights in armour are portrayed on top of a hill discussing how they are feeling peckish. They are then seen eating the advertised cheese before setting off down the hill to do some heroic act. We then discover that these same two knights are in fact two small boys on bicycles. They had imagined themselves into the personae of two mediaeval men-of-war. Such a fantasy life is both healthy and normal. Indeed, it is part of the child’s growing up and learning about the world through imaginative play.

Why is imagination so important for all us? It is because it is the part of ourselves that enables us, among other things, to understand what another person might be feeling at any particular point. To put it another way, imagination enables us to enter the subjectivity of someone else’s experience. All of us know that the world is a better place when ordinary people have no difficulty in feeling what other people are experiencing, whether their joy, grief or pain. Imagination also crosses boundaries, not only involving feeling, but also of those of understanding. Our imagination can help us to see and at least partly understand what another person might be thinking. Even if this knowledge is not complete, at least we have enough information to grasp that there are differences between us. That differences of thinking and feeling exist between individuals is not something to be deplored. We need to learn to accept and respect it. Jonathan Sacks summed up this point in the title of his book, The Dignity of Difference.

Those of us who claim to be Christian realise, on reflection, that our faith is a complex combination of thinking, feeling and knowledge as well as experience. In a subtle way faith binds together all these elements of personal experience with a body of knowledge which we call the Christian Tradition. If someone tried to persuade me to express my Christian hope in a few sentences, I would probably try to refuse. My position would be that any verbal expression of the totality of the Christian faith as I understand it, would do violence to its integrity. The few words that I might eventually use to explain my faith would be words that never tried to enclose or define anything. They would always be words that pointed beyond themselves to hint at a deeper, wider and broader reality than I could possibly convey only through the use of words. It is because of this that I instinctively shudder at the sight of the street evangelist with his uncompromising message of repentance or destruction. His words are a kind of desecration of holiness and divine depth by what I see as a shallow use of words and slogans. The ‘turn or burn’ message of Christian popular evangelism is an example, for me, of how not to share divine realities. This is comparable to the way that the picture of the Englishman shouting ever louder and louder to the uncomprehending foreigner is an example of how not to communicate to people who do not speak your language. This blog post leaves unanswered the question of how we do communicate God to people with whom we do not share a common culture and language. That has to be a question that I leave for another day.

Dependency and the Christian faith

dependencyOne of the most wonderful things about watching children growing up is to see the way that they gradually assert their independence from their parents. When a baby is first born it seems that the personalities of mother and child are effectively fused together. But, as time goes by the individual personality of the baby becomes identifiable. As the child progresses through his young life, it is customary for us to celebrate the different moments that mark this gradual growth towards independence. As examples of this we have the appearance at a nativity play, the first day of school and the loss of baby teeth. Later on, the time of adolescence can be a stormy time for many young people but essentially the same processes are at work, the exploration of the boundaries of distinct separate personalities. Whatever the problems we recognise that some kind of rebellion is probably to be expected so that the development of an adult identity can actually happen.

This evolving and changing relationship between a child and her parents is not dissimilar to other relationships that exist in people’s lives. Psychologists have particular words to describe the way we relate to people above us or whom we admire. These targets of admiration, pop stars, Olympic heroes or political leaders are normally not known to us personally but we bond with them in our minds in an act of projection or identification. These two words hint at the way that that a celebrity-fan relationship is an attempt to create a kind of fusion, the kind seen originally as existing between the small child and his mother. This desire to fuse with another person, one whom we believe can give us some of their strength, wisdom or glamour, goes on to some extent throughout life. It is a kind of continuation of the way that we looked up to our parents to give us some of their strength and wisdom where we were small infants. In this way children are pulled in two directions. On the one hand they are desperate to become independent and gain control over their lives while at the same they are aware of their need for the strength that other people can give them. Dependence and independence thus coexist in every growing child. This need to be dependent on others who are stronger than she is does not disappear suddenly when a particular age is reached. It is not surprising that young adults will seek out parent substitutes, perhaps a guru figure, in the long transition between childhood and full maturity. He or she will thus want to admire teachers, youth leaders and even clergy, who will act in the place of their birth parents. With their help the task of growing up toward independence and maturity becomes slightly easier. However, at some point the young adult finally has to let go of all these props and negotiate adult life and its responsibilities alone.

Jesus himself seems to have been aware of the way that his disciples wanted to use him as a parent figure or as a guru. St John’s Gospel in particular picks up what we might describe as an adolescent dependency by the disciples on Jesus’s teaching and his words. This dependency caused them to have constant misunderstandings about his mission and purpose. Eventually Jesus utters those classic words ‘it is good for you that I go away’. Perhaps we can understand these words as the action of a parent/guru who wants to shock his followers out of an immature dependent relationship on him. Why is it good for the disciples if Jesus goes away? The answer I am suggesting here (I am aware of many other ways of interpreting these words) is that it would have been terribly easy for the followers of Jesus to remain in a permanent state of over-dependency on him. He needed to break up the old relationship in order to rebuild and renew it.

In our churches we often see a kind of passive dependency on others by those in the pews. In most cases the dependency is not directed at Christ but it is focused on those who stand up and speak for him in church pulpits. Such a dependent passive relationship is often encouraged by these same Christian leaders. They teach obedience, not to Christ but to themselves as anointed representatives of Christ. In insisting on obedience they are missing out another important area of Christian living – the ability to stand on two feet and discover what real Christian maturity in fact is all about.

Two reasons for some Christian leaders failing to teach independence and maturity occur to me. One is the fact that ministers recognise that many individuals in their congregations would indeed have some difficulty in accepting individual responsibility for their lives. They prefer to be told what to do and what to think. We can thus describe the care of a minister in this situation as an attempt to exercise care and kindness. Nevertheless, even if we want to interpret the minister’s behaviour in charitable ways, we can still see that the congregation is being let down in some way. Perpetual mothering of the immature is hardly in their best interests. Another dishonourable, indeed sinister, reason for keeping congregants in this state of dependency is in order to provide narcissistic supply for the leader. In other words, like a fond parent who does not let children grow up because he enjoys the experience of parenthood so much, a narcissistic leader holds on to his flock possessively, inappropriately and against their best interests. I have repeated over and over again the common pattern of cultic groups, and indeed many Christian congregations, of a collusive and ultimately destructive relationship between the leader and those who are led. Writing about it does not make it disappear, but at least the reader of this blog can be sensitised to it as a common pattern in religious and other groups.

Jesus said that ‘it is good that I go away’, because, I believe, he recognised that an immature and grasping dependency on him was not in the best interest of his disciples. They needed, as we do, to rise above always wanting other people to do our thinking for us. Nor should we always expect others to make our decisions for us following the precept that ‘minister knows best’. Of course we need to belong in some sense but this belonging should never involve surrendering our individuality, our intelligence or our ability to make decisions. There is not space here in this present blog to spell out in detail the nature of what I consider to be Christian maturity. I can just reiterate that Christian maturity will always involve an ability to undertake adult responsibility and make decisions for oneself. While we will have received much from the teaching and encouragement of Christians who have gone before us, we must never allow ourselves to become clones of those we admire.

Jesus left his disciples for a period to return to them in a different kind of relationship. While he was with them in the flesh they had been ready to hand over all their responsibility for thinking and understanding to him. The post-resurrection experience seems to have allowed them to mature and become their own people. New qualities of courage, insight and vision seem to flow out of this new more complete relationship with Christ. We could ascribe these new qualities as belonging to their new status of being apostles. Before they had been apprentices or disciples.

Immaturity, dependency and the wrong kind of obedience still today presents a challenge to the integrity of all branches of the Christian church. Far too many leaders and ministers seem to want to hold their people in a state of permanent dependency which does not allow them to become mature Christians. Equally a tendency to worship Christian celebrity leaders, a cultural phenomenon of our day, seems to infect many branches of the Christian church. The path of responsible maturity may indeed be quite hard to find. My instinct tells me that this is a place that God would want us to be. Because that place has not yet been clearly defined those who search for it may find themselves best by many problems and misunderstandings. But I believe that the place of maturity is a place of joy, transformation and true freedom.

Different visions of the Church

churchAmong the many churchy words and doctrines that we possess, there is one that will always provoke disagreement among Christians. The word is ecclesiology. It is not a word at that is used much in ordinary Christian conversation but it does describe an area of theology where Christians are often deeply divided. The word simply means the doctrine of the church, its nature, its purpose and its place in the world. This blog post is an attempt to show that although the word ecclesiology is not much used, the areas of doctrine which it covers are of great importance. We need to talk about them to understand one area of division in the church today.

The Anglican church in which I served as a full-time clergyman for some 40 years has a variety of perspectives on ecclesiology or the nature and purpose of the church. I myself represented and stood for a traditional understanding of Anglican ecclesiology. This traditional approach has always emphasised the relationship of the church congregation to the wider community of which it is part. The word ‘parish’ has always had two meanings. It means (in the Church of England context) the gathered Christian congregation. Simultaneously it refers to the wider community, which is made up of every single person who lives in the locality. The church, the parish church, has always accepted some responsibility for everyone. Parishioners had certain rights in relation to their local parish church. They could on request be married there, have their children baptised and in the end request the services of a clergyman to conduct their funeral. For most of my ministry this loose relationship between the local church and the wider community was an active reality. In trying to make it work I found that I got to know an enormous number of people. My first church in Croydon had 20,000 souls within its boundaries. This, back in the 70s, required the clergy to be very busy with weddings baptisms and funerals. Obviously the three members of staff could not know more than a tiny percentage of the people who lived in their parish, but we still felt under an obligation to serve everyone as best we could.

In the smaller parishes where I served as a Vicar, it was possible to build a relationship with a considerable percentage of the people who lived in the community. In Gloucestershire I had a single church benefice with around 1200 houses. It was physically possible to knock on every single door before Christmas, even though some houses were only visited every other year. Not everyone was at home when I called with a Christmas card, but the effort to go door-to-door in an attempt to see the faces of residents, represented a vision for parochial work that has now been effectively abandoned. The vision I had was that, as far as possible, every single person living in that community would regard the church as their church, even though they never came to the services. William Temple, the wartime Archbishop of Canterbury, once said that the church was the only institution that existed for the benefit of those who were not its members. That was very much my vision, even though for practical purposes, the church played a very small part in the lives of many people who lived within the physical boundaries of my parishes. The idea of the church, clergy and people, existing to serve the people of the wider community was still a vision that sustained many of us. The words of the communion service, ‘send us out into the world to live and work for your praise and glory’ were words of a church that firmly believed that it existed in order to go out and serve.

The older vision of the church as a community which gathers to be resourced for the work of service and love has, in many places, been superseded by another priority. Theologically speaking, the church has become a place where people come to be ‘saved’. The church is understood to be like an ark sailing across a tempestuous sea, trying to rescue individuals who are drowning. This particular vision is quite radically different from the first. The church is no longer seen in its corporate dimension but more as a collection of individuals who have made a choice to be saved. The emphasis inside the building is one of looking inwards, focusing on providing salvation and ensuring correct doctrine. The world outside is no longer a place that needs to be leavened like a loaf requiring yeast, but it is a place of darkness, corruption and danger. This particular emphasis in ecclesiology is often rooted in a vision of great pessimism for the future and which finds its inspiration from passages in the book of Revelation. The future coming of Christ to judge the world will involve great destruction and there is very little optimism for the world in this perspective. It is then better to focus on the salvation of individuals than to worry about trying to save the world. It is already hastening towards its own destruction.

I have presented two visions of ecclesiology which are at two ends of a continuum of belief. Most people will not hold consistently to either one of these extremes, but a majority will be found somewhere in the middle. Although I am trying not to caricature the ideas of conservative Christians over their understanding of the church, I am still suggesting that we all have to face that there are these two contrasting visions and emphases of what the church is for. Is it mainly for the salvation of its members or is it a place where people can come in order to serve the world better? Another way of stating the question is to ask whether Jesus died for Christians or for the whole world. When we quote the famous verse from St John’s Gospel, which contains the words: ‘For God so loved the world’, do we emphasise the first past of the verse which speaks of God loving the ‘kosmos’? The alternative is to read the verse with an emphasis on the second part: ‘Whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life’. In a way our ecclesiology will be defined by which part of the verse we want to emphasise. I personally will always wish to focus on working out the implications of God loving the world and what this might mean for the work of the Church and the Christians within it. Of course we need Christians to be people of conviction and passion, people who are confident of their salvation. But we also need a vision of the way that Christians are to be people who want to continue the work of loving the world as God in Christ does. This New Testament vision of what a disciple is, a continuing to love the world, is a vision for the Church itself. This speaks far more of the way that disciples are in the business of being light and salt to the world than being only concerned for their individual well-being in the place beyond the grave.

How to destroy the Church

churchquakeI have recently discovered a remarkable book published earlier this year by a young American academic, John Weaver. It is a history of a movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation. It is a very detailed account. One is in fact overwhelmed by the information and left fairly confused about the interrelationships of groups and people that are connected in various ways across this NAR network. To try and put the argument of the book into a few words, I would say that the author claims there is in America, and to some extent in the UK, a distinctive but loose confederation of NAR churches and ministers, hitherto below the radar of academic scrutiny. These NAR individuals, institutions and congregations have similar views about the nature and future of the church. The network can be identified by a common dedication to a charismatic style of teaching, preaching and worship. The word Apostolic in the title betrays another feature of this huge international network. All those who belong are united in an acceptance of being under the leadership of ‘Apostles’. These Apostles are charismatic leaders who are regarded as having a special ministry which gives them authority over dozens, even hundreds of congregations. The authority that such Apostles possess, transcends denominations and, it is claimed, comes from a divine call and the recognition by many Christians of their charismatic standing.

The Reformation part of the title for this neo-Pentecostal grouping, comes from the common understanding within the network that all Christians are called to be involved in a revolution. The task before them is to conquer nations and society for God. The rhetoric of NAR followers is one of battle, conflict and struggle. This war is to be waged against satanic and demonic forces that are arrayed against God’s people and his church. One particular feature of the movement is the idea of spiritual mapping. This strange idea, which I have encountered from time to time, suggests that particular places, even countries, have evil spirits which have control over them. The task of a Christian is to confront such spirits with the power of intercessory prayer. I once went to give a talk on spiritual deliverance to a Bible college in Gloucester and I was puzzled to meet a woman who was doing a year’s dissertation on the spirits that were oppressing the city of Gloucester. I was not able to get any detail about what precisely she was doing, but no doubt she was actively engaged in researching local history to see if there were any hotspots of evil activity in the city. Her task was to draw up a map of the city which would identify areas of particular concern. No doubt then she and others in the college would go down to those areas and pray the oppressive spirits out of existence.

While it is impossible to present any more of the detail in this remarkable book, I can share with my blog readers one particular section which fills me with a special horror. This was the section which reviewed the ideas of one C Peter Wagner, one of the Apostolic founders and gurus of the movement. He wrote an influential book in 2002 containing his ideas called Churchquake. In it he discusses what he thinks of ministerial training. Although Wagner had received himself a very thorough education in theology at the Fuller Seminary, he expresses the desire to simplify the training of the ministers and pastors of the church to having technical competence in the main principles of NAR. The job of ministry has become something very practical in nature. He is more concerned that students focus on the doing side of ministry rather than the theoretical study of scripture and theology. He wants power evangelism, exorcism and spiritual warfare to be taught in preference to the detailed study of scripture, history and theology. He is contemptuous of traditional theological training. Certainly from reading this approach he would not want any student to be allowed to have a mind or opinion of their own. In thinking about Wagner’s model, one is reminded of the warriors in a Lord of the Rings film, the Orcs. Spiritual warriors are needed. In one case for the cause of God but in the other to do the will of Lord Sauron. It is important in both cases that these warriors act together and never deviate from the prescribed text or opinion. Another way of describing this model is to see ministry and church life as a kind of franchise for a particular style of church life. Training would not be the same as study; rather it would be the practice of particular techniques connected with evangelical/charismatic rhetoric and technique.

John Weaver points out very fairly that it is completely unsatisfactory if a first generation in a religious movement deprive the second-generation of followers of the same formation and education that they received. The task of leadership, management of change and developing ideas is not best conducted by people who have only learnt one trick, like a chef who only has one dish on his menu. It goes without saying that if you spend decades following one particular rhetorical style and spiritual technique, it will eventually become stale and wearisome. I have often complained about the repetition that is involved in so-called gospel preaching. Not only will congregations become bored through hearing the same sermons over and over again, but the same thing will happen to the preacher. The provision of a good theological education for anyone who takes up the task of teaching and preaching in a congregation is important, not only for the congregation, but also for the minister concerned. If one has studied various traditions within Christianity, then it will not be necessary to present the faith only in one cultural form. Speaking personally, I have been very grateful for my own studies in the Orthodox tradition. Having experienced the Christian faith in a Greek speaking context has given me quite a different take on how to understand the Christian faith. I have, in consequence, become a far more visual person and I constantly use verbal pictures in my preaching. This also means that I am extremely critical of any verbal formula that verges on cliché.

John Weaver thus strongly criticises this emphasis on praxis rather than theory in ministerial training. He foresees how the church run in this way will never be able to change and develop. Christian ministers, who are at best clones of their teachers, will never be able to overtake and develop what they have received. If the second-generation of New Apostolic Reformation leaders cannot bring anything new into the tradition, then it follows that the third and subsequent generations will be even more impoverished. Lack of theology, lack of understanding of the skills of secular knowledge will create a ministry that is isolated by its own ignorance and inability to understand the wider culture. The Church is already involved in a crisis of communication with the public opinion when it speaks the language of reaction and yesterday’s morality. How much worse this would be if the church was seen to be openly endorsing the values of ignorance and obscurantism? The educated section of our population may not be the only group which is worth evangelising, but to invite contempt and ridicule from this section would be to expel the church into an intellectual and cultural dark age from which it might never recover.

This blog, survivingchurch, is passionate about the Christian faith being credible and able to commend itself to people of all backgrounds and educations. For the church to retreat into the shadows of obscurantism and ignorance by deliberately withholding a decent education from its ministers would be a path of destruction for the church. C Peter Wagner and his New Apostolic Reformation must be resisted for the sake of the long-term survival of our Church. The Church and its message must always be able to commend itself to people of all kinds, including those of culture, education and sophistication.

Investigating an abusive church

churches thatIn my last blog post I referred to the division that exists between so-called critical ‘cult watchers’ and people in academia who want to describe controversial religious groups with the neutral title of ‘New Religious Movements’. I have been reading further on this subject to discover how it happens that intelligent people who investigate a group or church can come to such different conclusions as to what they find. I suggested in my previous post that it was as the result of the nature of the particular academic discipline in which the researcher has been trained. Sociologists and social psychologists will see quite different things from psychotherapists and psychologists. That observation, I believe, remains true. But there are further reasons for differences among researchers and students of religious groups when they investigate an abusive organisation.

I want us to imagine the task of researching the true nature of a large organisation, whether a church or a firm. How do you find out what is really going on in such an institution? Do you go to the very top and question the managing director or the minister in charge and ask them to tell you the true story of the dynamics of that institution? Most people can see that the only thing that you would learn from this approach would be the perspective of the person in charge. This may or may not be an accurate one. The same thing would happen if you meet up with the officers or members of a governing board. Whoever you spoke to in that group, at whatever level, would be anxious to put on a good defence of the institution. It is likely that whatever was told to you as an outsider would, up to a point, be biased and not totally reliable information. Anyone who belongs to a church or another organisation will normally be defensive in their support of the image and reputation of the group. If they are being paid by the group, then their very livelihood depends on the need for people on the outside not uncovering any skeletons. If their membership is voluntary, they still have an emotional reason for belonging to the group. This has created a loyalty, a loyalty not necessarily compatible with totally objective and clear-sighted truth.

From what I have said, it will always be difficult and often impossible to find out the inner dynamics of an organisation by just speaking with its members and its leaders. Whatever discontent an individual may feel, he or she, while they are still part of the organisation, is never likely to open up to a stranger. The same thing applies in a family situation. As long as the family is physically together in the same place, it is difficult to see how any member will find it easy to express unhappiness even in a situation of violence and emotional abuse. It is only when a child or mother escapes out of the situation that the catalogue of horrors can normally begin to be uncovered. The task of extracting the truth from an abused mother or child still within a family setting is one of great complexity and requires considerable skill. Somehow the barriers created by loyalty and tribal identity have to be penetrated and overcome so that truth can be told.

The great debate among cult apologists and cult watchers, as we shall call them, is over the question as to whether the testimony of leavers can ever be trusted. I have already suggested that cult apologists are an unreliable group of witnesses to tell the truth about a high-demand group. There are many well-attested allegations that in some cases such scholars have taken money from the very people they study. But a further cause for concern is that one of the main contentions of ‘cult-apologists’ is that testimony from ex-members must be disregarded and ignored. It fails the test of academic objectivity. Common sense, on the other hand, suggests that the evidence of a mother who has fled to a refuge should always be taken into account when deciding on the guilt of a violent husband. The same principle would seem to apply when trying to evaluate a particular group or abusive church. Speaking merely to existing members would be unlikely to penetrate any possible collusion on the part of those who are still in the group. Of course there are many groups that operate without any guilty secrets or abuses of power in their current practice or history. But when there are serious complaints by former members it should be possible to evaluate these and to see whether there is a case to answer. At present we are in the middle of various investigations connected with the sexual abuse of children in churches, homes and other institutions. Some of these claims have been shown to be false. But even when one false claim is found this should not stop investigators believing that it is normally possible to evaluate witness statements and get to the truth. It takes the application of common sense together with a skill, not compromised by credulity on one hand, or weighed down by cynicism on the other. It must be possible to find individuals who have these skills. Not everyone can be said to have a vested interest in either finding abuse everywhere or always denying that it exists.

The refusal of the cult apologists to engage with ex-members, because their perspective will be biased, seems to fly in the face of common sense. Are we to refuse to speak to victims of sex abuse in case their evidence may be confused and muddled? It is a position which to me completely lacks integrity. This observation has made me far less likely to read those authors who approach the whole subject of cults and extreme religious groups in a way that wants to deny the reality of pain, emotional devastation and long-term post-traumatic stress. They do not speak to the victims so they do not acknowledge what they suffer. The Langlois report in this respect possesses enormous value because of the way that it presents clearly the evidence of ex-members. Church officials at Trinity Brentwood were given every opportunity to respond to all these allegations but they never availed themselves of that opportunity. If the present generation of cult apologists had been given the same opportunity to study Peniel/Trinity Church, we would probably have a laundered anodyne account of all the wonderful things that the church had done – i.e. an account of the way that the church and its leaders understand themselves. What we in fact have from John Langlois is a presentation of many normally excluded testimonies but which have all passed through a strict forensic process. As a lawyer John was able to see that the testimonies of those who had left were coherent, consistent and highly credible. His report, in other words, gives the lie to the position that it is not possible to listen to the evidence of survivors and ex-members of an abusive group or cult. It is, to repeat, impossible to see how any organisation can be studied only by listening to the official line of leaders and members. They obviously will always have a vested interest in presenting the best possible perspective on their particular group.

The Child Abuse Enquiry in the UK thankfully has not been given to academic sociologists and social psychologists trained in the academic cult apologist style. It has been given to lawyers and judges who will listen to anyone and everyone who has something to say. Then they will assess the truth on the balance of probability and it is the skill that lawyers have for ferreting out the truth. Although mistakes have been made, I for one will always have a degree of confidence in the legal processes to find truth. I certainly prefer their methods to the methods of academics who refuse, on spurious grounds of objectivity, to listen to every source of information from wherever it comes.

Finding a name for ICSA

icsaAlthough the Dallas conference ended a month ago, I am still finding myself interacting with members of the Conference through an on-line discussion group. The particular discussion I am linking up to is one that is trying to find a possible new name for the organisation known as ICSA. The discussion is relevant to this blog but to explain the background I need to go back a stage and explain a little of the politics of ‘cultic studies’.

The arrival of cults and high-demand groups in Britain and the USA is a relatively recent phenomenon. It could be claimed that most of the religious and political groups that we describe as cults only appeared at the beginning of the 70s. In some ways many of these so-called cults were an outgrowth of the hippie movement of the 1960s. The use of drugs in the 60s by these alternative groups in many places turned into a search for spirituality. The Beatles with their pilgrimage to India to experiment with meditation typified this new social movement which was sweeping through Western nations. Many people followed the Beatles in their search. It is not hard to see how there would have been leaders of small groups who would be ready to take advantage of impressionable and idealistic young people who were looking for enlightenment. The cultic movement is then a phenomenon based on idealism and desire for spirituality but which in many places descended into exploitation and excess.

The political issue that arose in the early days concerned the question as to how these groups were to be studied. One group within academia, mainly sociologists and religious studies experts, wanted to see the phenomenon of cults described in strictly neutral terms. These communities were to described as new religious movements. As such no judgements about the ethics and behaviour within the groups were to be made. They were to be described and accounted for in the language of neutral scientific investigation. Another group, consisting of concerned psychologists and therapists, started to discover that former members of these groups had been damaged with what we would now call ‘post-traumatic stress’. The word ‘cult’ was used as a convenient shorthand to describe these groups because they were seen to be creating actual psychological harm. Such harmful groups are also to be found among the Christian churches, the ones that are described here as charismatic and conservative. The ‘neutral’ sociologists meanwhile were able to suggest that the harm experienced by followers was not widespread. Anyway, it was claimed, these young people were adults and able to take care of themselves. Any attempt to assist the departure of an individual from a so-called cult would be to deny their legal and human rights. They had made an adult choice to be in the group in the first place.

This debate between academics has become quite a difficult problem. There is this constant tension between those who believe that there are many religious and political groups which cause actual harm and they are set against those who want to downplay the problem. A further issue is that there are accusations of foul play on the part of ‘cult-watchers’ who claim that the neutral academic sociologists sometimes take money from the groups they study. Money is said to be given by groups like the Moonies so that friendly academics will support them and speak of them favourably in legal cases and generally in the world of academia. These ‘friendly’ academics are also thought to carry weight with governments and other important agencies. In the UK, in spite of many stories in the press describing the baneful effects of cults, the neutral sounding experts on ‘new religious movements’ hold the high ground in academic university circles. Their work, not the work of the groups who work with families and victims of cults, are the ones who receive money from government funds. The resources available for those who want to help victims of extreme religious groups is, in this country, pitiful in the extreme.

The organisation whose conference I attended in Dallas this year has the acronym ICSA, which stands for International Cultic Studies Association. The attendees from Britain numbered only six. A larger number from the UK attend when the conferences are held in Europe as they are in alternate years. ICSA promotes study of cultic issues but it also gives a lot of time to providing a network of support to victims of all the different groups. Possibly two thirds of its energy is expended in this important work of victim support. Nothing exists in Britain on anything like this scale, even allowing for the enormous disparity of populations between our countries. But, in spite of the much greater awareness of the importance of helping victims of extreme religious groups, the same debates rage here about the academic validity of the word ‘cult’ or whether these groups should ever be called by this name. The very word offends those academics who prefer the neutral, less judgmental expression ‘new religious movements.’ ICSA, because much of its work is directed towards helping victims as well as studying the issues, is regarded by these academics as an ‘anti-cult’ movement. It is hard, I believe, to be anything else when you encounter the raw suffering of those who have been the mill of belonging to a high demand group. Nevertheless, the organisation wants to retain its place at the table of respected academic research. It already publishes serious material in this area which it hopes will influence public debate and political policy around the world. It sponsors two journals, one popular and the other peer-reviewed and academic in tone. The annual conferences attract participants from around the world and this year 100 pre-approved papers were presented at Dallas.

ICSA is looking for a new name so that it does not use the contentious word ‘cultic’ in its title. The online discussion, in which I have taken part, has come up with lots of ideas. Some want to continue to use the same acronym while others have tried to produce a title which better sums up what is going on in the organisation. It is interesting to note the words that have come up most often in the discussion. One is control, while coercion and abuse have also appeared. I wrote a contribution suggesting that control and abuse were two words that summed up the harm done by extreme religious groups (including the Christian ones!). I offered the thought that the word abuse described well the emotional suffering that many victims suffer, while control could be held to refer to the intellectual scrambling that takes place when people experience cultic ‘thought-reform’. Having pointed out the two directions from which people have their integrity assaulted by such groups, I realise once again how difficult it is to recover quickly when someone has been a member of a group with extreme ideas. When for example, people are held in an emotional thrall to a leader, and have their thinking process corrupted by an irrational doctrinal structure of belief, returning to normality will be a lengthy process. In this blog some of the comments made in response to my attempts to look calmly at the meanings of Scripture make me realise that there are many people who cannot or will not listen to a way of reading the Bible which is different from the one they were taught. According to the ‘orthodoxy’ taught by thousands of churches across the world, we are required to believe in a God who speaks directly through each word. If this were the case, then the protestant discovery of ‘sola Scriptura’ would have resulted in a single understanding of the way that message is to be received by all Christians everywhere. But as we all know, this is not the case. Every teacher of an infallible Scripture has his own take on what this doctrine in fact means. The more dedicated a preacher is to proclaiming the authority of God’s Word, the more that the same preacher seems to condemn everyone else who does not agree with his personal interpretation. How many times have I heard the message – God speaks infallibly in the words of Scripture and this church is the ONLY one where you hear what this really means? When this message is given and people collude with it, I see it as a clear example of conceit and intellectual abuse of the worst kind.

The debate within ICSA will continue and I will let my blog readers know if we reach a consensus over our name. Meanwhile I am proud to be part of an organisation that takes seriously the task of serious study of extreme religious and political groups, while caring passionately for the many victims that these groups create all around the world. I am coming to see clearly how profound can be the damage done to the innocent victims of narcissistic Christian leaders, not to mention all the other wacky dysfunctional religious and political groups that are so common in our modern world.