Monthly Archives: September 2016

Exeter Cathedral – issues of power

exeter-cathRecently in the Church Times there was a report about a Visitation by the Bishop of Exeter to his Cathedral. The full text of this Visitation report, as is common these days, was released on to the Internet. This meant that anyone, like myself, who is interested in issues of power in an ecclesiastical setting could study the detail of what was written about the various problems at Exeter. Also we have the directions given out to the various parties by the Bishop, Robert Atwell. This Visitation, although addressing the situation of one particular institution raises a number of important points in the way the Church finds it hard to deal with power and its management. Also it is an insight into some of the issues that have arisen at cathedrals since the passing of the Cathedrals Measure in 1999. This set out for all English cathedrals a common pattern of governance and management in respect of their affairs.

Before 1999 English cathedrals were individually governed by constitutions and statutes which, in many cases, were formulated in the Middle Ages, or if not then, in the aftermath of the Reformation. The Measure of 1999 was an attempt to bring these institutions into the modern age, especially in respect of their oversight, leadership and accountability. Among the main changes that were introduced for all cathedrals was the setting up of Councils to which Chapters would be accountable and which the diocesan bishop had the right to attend (though not to vote). At the same time the appointment of an administrator or Chapter Clerk became a legal requirement along with the creation of a statutory committee to oversee its finance. The Dean and residentiary canons and lay Chapter members remain legally responsible for the strategic direction and day to day implementation of the Cathedral’s mission, including teaching, preaching, worship, music, finance, the care and development of the fabric, retail operations, visitor ministry and outreach. This obviously entails maintaining good relationships with a small (sometimes not so small) army of paid staff as well as the many volunteers who make the day-to-day running of the institution possible. Together the Chapter, Council and College of Canons constitute the cathedral’s legal entity.

The role of the Bishop of the diocese with his or her Cathedral has always been distinctive, especially where the cathedral is a medieval foundation (rather than a parish church that became a cathedral in modern times through the creation of new dioceses in the 19th and 20th centuries). Although every Cathedral will have a designated seat or cathedra for its diocesan bishop (the legal definition of a cathedral in the Measure is that it is “the seat of the Bishop and a centre of worship and mission”, his official liturgical presence in the building is carefully set out in the statutes which will require invitation by, or consent of, the Chapter. This is because the Bishop does not hold “ordinary” jurisdiction in a medieval cathedral in the same way as he or she does in a parish church. The Chapter thus operates in a way that is legally independent of the bishop’s direct jurisdiction, though when relationships are good, which they mostly are, the Bishop and Dean, and Bishop and Chapter, will maintain close contact to ensure that the strategic direction of the Cathedral is aligned to that of the Diocese. Indeed the Dean is the Bishop’s “senior priest”, colleague and critical friend, a relationship that is taken with great seriousness by the vast majority of bishops and their deans. This independence is, however, qualified by the fact that the bishop is in every case the legal “Visitor” of the Cathedral with the right of Visitation. What this means in practice is that when a major problem arises, the bishop can choose Visitors to enter the cathedral and inquire about the problems on his behalf. On the basis of these enquiries, the bishop will issue what is known as a Charge. This is not dissimilar to a judge publishing a judgement after a complicated court hearing.

Without at this point focusing on the problems that are currently being encountered in Exeter, we can note that our English cathedrals operate with an extremely complicated and possibly unwieldy structure of governance in place. In practice each cathedral has three centres of power. By statute, the Chapter is charged with the leadership and governance of the Cathedral and the direction of its mission. But again by statute, the Council legally holds the oversight and accountability of the Chapter. Then informally, a good deal of power and influence may be held by the lay administrator, especially in respect of lay staff. Over all three of these stands a fourth focus of power in the form of the diocesan bishop as Visitor. If things go wrong in this delicate quadrangle, resolution can be extremely difficult to achieve. Even when things are going well, one can imagine that it is demanding for all the parties concerned, especially the Dean who stands at the intersection of all these foci of authority and power. If trust is at a low ebb, it does not take very much to disturb the delicate mechanisms of checks and balances. The exercise of power in any institution is always a tricky balancing act and the slightest hint of egotism or narcissistic behaviour by any of the parties will easily throw the whole institution into dysfunction or collapse.

The situation at Exeter as revealed by the Visitation and the Bishop’s Charge suggests that there has been a breakdown in two particular directions. In the first place the Dean, Jonathan Draper, has become distanced from some of his senior staff. The details of this estrangement are not revealed but the problem is sufficiently serious for lay-people to detect a difficult atmosphere during the conduct of worship on Sunday mornings. There is also a suggestion that the Dean no longer has the confidence of many of the other staff working at the cathedral. There seems to be poor communication and the impression is given that the Dean is neither concerned for the detail of the running of the cathedral nor working collaboratively. It is recognised by the report that the Dean is a man of considerable ability; he preaches well and has a vision for the future. Such gifts however are somewhat neutralised by a failure to foster a culture where everyone is able to work together successfully with high morale.

The Bishop of Exeter’s Charge to Exeter Cathedral is an important document as it lays out, even if indirectly, how gifted a Dean has to be on a human level, to manage the expectations placed on him in the years following the implementation of the Cathedrals Measure. No longer is the Dean able to exercise autonomous control (in the so-called “Old Foundations” like Exeter, Salisbury, York and St Paul’s this was never the case to begin with). He or she has to operate within the parameters set by the other legal stakeholders: the Chapter itself (the Measure of 1999 abolished the time-honoured phrase “Dean and Chapter”), the Cathedral Council and the Bishop-as-Visitor. Finding a person who is a good team player, who is able to negotiate considerable the tensions of human fragility as well as articulate and put into practice a vision for the institution and building and its public role in a diocese and in wider society will never be easy. To make life even more complicated, I sensed between the lines of the Charge that at Exeter there existed a failure of trust between the Bishop and the Dean. Although the Dean is directed by the Bishop to put in place various structures to resolve issues, his actual name is never mentioned. This absence of a name suggested that the Bishop had objectified all the problems at his Cathedral. There was no hint that he, the Bishop, might at an early stage have built strong informal relationships with the clergy at the Cathedral that could have neutralised some of the tensions. No doubt the Episcopal Visitors did a good job and identified all the issues at Exeter. They included Baroness Butler Sloss, whose wisdom was put to good effect in the Archbishop’s Visitation to the Diocese of Chichester.

The Exeter Cathedral Charge by its Bishop is, to conclude, a fascinating document. It uncovers various layers of unhealthy power dynamics within that institution which, no doubt, will be studied by other cathedrals. But a variety of uncomfortable questions are thrown up by the reading it. The Bishop, in what sounds like a very old fashioned language of authority, ‘directs’ the various stakeholders of the cathedral to do certain things to resolve managerial, financial and leadership issues. The use of this word ‘direct’ sounds peculiarly inappropriate in the 21st century. Can problems of poor communication and broken relationships be solved by an episcopal direction to work with facilitators and similar means? There is something almost feudal about being told to sort out problems in this way. All I know is that if someone set over me directed me to behave in a particular way or to put in place a particular structure, I would feel suffocated and put upon in this relationship. Surely there are better ways for a bishop to speak to members of his Cathedral Chapter. Are we perhaps seeing in the document a mediaeval use of power trying to assert itself in the 21st century? From where I am sitting this simply does not seem to work. The document is thus perhaps a testimony to the way that the church still does not grasp how power actually works in its institutional life. Such a failing, as I try to remind my readers constantly in this blog, is very serious. If we did have better insights in the way power functions in a church, whether at congregational or cathedral level, then we would have a better chance of stopping it becoming festering and abusive. When power is not well managed, institutions wither and even die. The next months and years at Exeter Cathedral are very likely to be troubled and unhappy. One wonders whether the content and style of this Visitation and Charge have done anything substantial to lessen this likely outcome.
I am grateful to Michael Sadgrove for helping me with some of the technical aspects of this blog post

Michaelmas – some reflections

angelsThe feast of St Michael and all Angels in the Anglican calendar falls on Thursday 29th September this year. My local parish decided to celebrate it a bit early last Sunday and the visiting retired bishop, who came for a confirmation, found himself preaching about angels. I do not intend to repeat the points that he made in his sermon but it set me off on some reflections of my own. The obvious question with which the bishop began, was to ask: what are angels for? The answer that was given was that they exist to worship God. For this reason, pictures of angels can be found in many churches, whether as carvings among roof timbers, in the stained glass or painted on the walls. This was what I found in the church I mentioned a few blogs ago in Uppsala in Sweden. People who attended church, especially in the past, would have found it helpful to be reminded of the activity of these spiritual beings as they worship God into all eternity.

Our imagination is supremely challenged when we contemplate this idea of eternity. To do anything for ever sounds to be extremely boring. We would of course be making a category mistake in placing eternity alongside our experience of space-time. If space-time were indeed the only reality, then of course endless activity of any kind would seem boring and pointless. But eternity is not of course to be seen as an endless extension of what we call time. It is rather to be thought of as an endless present or an eternal now. Even in saying this, it is hard for us to imagine that any single activity could be so enthralling, so absorbing of mind and spirit that we had no desire to do anything else. Having thought about this topic for some time, I find I do not have a problem in recognising that the worship of God, the arrival at the place of ultimate beauty, fulfilment and the end of all longing, could happen in a single eternal moment. That possibility is something profoundly to be longed for. In our everyday experience we see in contrast, not perfection, but a process of change and decay affecting our everyday human experiences. Life gives way to death, peace is overtaken by conflict and states of happiness and contentment often collapse into despair. Experiencing life in this way means that we find it hard to imagine the ultimate perfection we associate with God. Nevertheless, our lives do sometimes give us some hints of transcendent perfection. In practice, however, we find it difficult to hold on to these special moments. These glimpses of heaven and eternity, whether they be in our encounter with beauty or in some other form of transcendent moment, can seldom be sustained beyond a few fleeting moments. It is to the mystics that we must look if we want to see in a language form something of the ineffability of an encounter with the divine.

The language which is used in Scripture to describe the dimension of existence we call heaven, describes it as populated by angels and a redeemed humanity. The book of Revelation in particular suggests that this ‘place’ is the true destination for all of us. Together with the angels we are called to share in this activity of contemplating and worshipping God for ever. For minds conditioned by living within space-time, it is hard to imagine this as a state of ultimate bliss. The fact that it is difficult to imagine does not make such an insight impossible or improbable. In the Anglican tradition we hear said each time we attend a eucharist, ‘therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven’. This is a reminder that each eucharist service has at its heart an anticipation of the state of divine eternity. In this way the church as a whole has never lost its awareness that each service enters into a moment where the living and departed are joined with angelic beings in the ultimate act, the act of worshipping God.

Many people are frankly puzzled by any talk of a life on the other side of the grave. Part of the problem is that they cannot imagine anything other than an existence which is tied into the limitations of time and space. It does require quite a bit of imagination to see that there could be a mode of existence which is not beholden to the limitations of the world that we live in. When I speak to people about the possibility of eternity, particularly among the dying, I remind them of different experiences in their lives which have spoken to them of something which can never be destroyed. A life well lived, a relationship enjoyed, – these things never completely disappear. Many things of profound importance continue to exist, even in the form of a distant echo within the vastness of human experience. Those of us who enjoyed loving attention from our parents benefit from the love that they received from their parents and so on back through the generations. The love shown by a great great-grandparent to a child two hundred years ago in this sense still lives on in us. Most people can see something in their lives which speaks to them of beauty and eternity and thus they can, if they allow themselves to, ponder what might be indestructible and even divine in their lives. The two words, love and beauty, both hint at the dimension of life within the experience of most people which can never be destroyed. I often want to quote the verse in Philippians which speaks about all that is ‘true, noble, just, pure and lovable and gracious’. Paul’s audience is encouraged to fill their thoughts with these things. Our comment would be to say that each of these qualities is pointing to something of eternal significance; thus they are harbingers of heaven itself.

In this blog I have been suggesting that an understanding of angels will require us to use the gifts of imagination and insight. It is not a question of believing or not believing in angels. It is a question of opening ourselves up to the dimension where angels are believed to exist, the dimension of ultimate beauty and eternity. We cannot argue or talk our way into such a place, we can only live our lives in such a way that they are receptive to such things. I am reminded of the hymn, ‘Teach me my God and King’. The hymn speaks of a man looking at a glass and seeing through it and beyond it to glimpse something of heaven. My interpretation of these words would be to suggest that the author wants us to be the kind of Christian that uses our sensitivity, our imagination and openness to glimpse God in the ordinary events of life. That will not be a question of belief or any kind of intellectual process. It will be a readiness to wake up each morning with the curiosity and the openness of child and be ready to see God in all things. Perhaps this quality of openness to spiritual realities that are all around us is the real message of the feast of St Michael and All Angels.

Red Letter Christians

red-letterIn a recent perusal of the internet, I have come across an organisation called Red Letter Christians. This group, headed up by the noted American evangelical Tony Campolo, wants its followers to focus on the sections of the Bible that are printed in red letters – the words ascribed to Jesus. By chance I have such a Bible which is printed in this way and it is the one known as the Scofield Bible. This is a version of the Authorised Version published for Christians focussed on End Times. Scofield’s notes in the margins help the reader to follow the text within the framework of what is known as Dispensationalist ideas. Users of this version would be among the most conservative of Protestant readers and many would follow the ideas of the late Tim Lahaye, whose life and work we considered a few days ago. Red Letter Christians, by contrast, are among the more radical and socially engaged, right on the edge of the evangelical family. Indeed, Tony Campolo himself has recently asked not to be counted as an evangelical. This is because he is aware of all the negative associations that he believes are attached to the word by those who are outside these circles. We might note, by way of comment, that the word ‘Christian’ has also become contaminated by similar negative associations.

What kind of Christianity do we find when we focus on just the words of Jesus? To answer this question, we need first to mention the things that we do not find mentioned in Jesus’ discourses. We do not find copious condemnations of ‘unsound’ people who do not believe what ‘orthodox’ people do. We do not find an obsession with sex as long as partners entering into a commitment are faithful. We also do not find a preoccupation with building barriers and boundaries which would exclude people who are not like us from intruding into our lives. This last point is perhaps an indication that Jesus would have had very little time for the styles of political life that have developed in our time.

What are the values that we discover when we look at Christianity through the eyes of Red Letter Christians? According to the website, (which is of course freely open to everyone), the first mark of taking the words of Jesus seriously is for us to regard all people as being made in the image and likeness of God. Any kind of racism or one of the phobias directed against other people are completely ruled out when we consider the words of Jesus as in some way authoritative. A second point is that the perspective of Jesus concerning the Bible and indeed the world itself is normative for Christians. Jesus appears to have read the Bible in a distinct but nuanced way. From my perspective, this approach does not allow the followers of Jesus to cherry-pick particular passages from the Old Testament in an effort to find the model for a perfect society. The law may say one thing according to Jesus, but this does not stop new things emerging out of the old. A readiness by Jesus to add to and qualify the revelations of the past gives us permission today to escape from the tyranny of inerrancy doctrines. We are encouraged to read, study and listen to Scripture. Jesus allows us to discuss and critique passages of Scripture and decide whether or not particular passages are relevant to us today. Of course we cannot claim to get it right every time or know with precision what Jesus might think on each passage. But at least we seem to have his permission to engage in a discussion, even if more than one possible solution may emerge. Such differences are, I believe, healthy and will always be part of the life of a Christian mind. The fact that some Christians find the lack of a single answer intolerable is no reason for the rest of us to close down healthy discussion.

Many of the words of Jesus are commands to act and behave in a particular way. The command: ‘Go and do likewise’ at end of the Good Samaritan parable is not just telling us to do something; there is the expectation that we will learn through doing it. Love is not just a word on a page, it is an attitude and disposition which, when we practise it, we are learning how to live in a Christian way. When we learn to love in Jesus’s way, we are also learning about power and its use and misuse in society. Love through service, as we noticed in a recent blog, is a type of love that is able to avoid any abuse of power. The words of Jesus also teach us to have a radical understanding of how power in fact operates in society. Jesus’s words are often radical and counter-cultural on this topic.

Another particular concern of Jesus was to bring to our attention the needs of the poor, the sick and those in any kind of trouble. Helping such people in whatever way we can will also help us to learn how important it is to love without any expectation of reward. Any looking for some kind of payback when we help others is, if we think about it, a subtle power game. Too often we do things for others as a way of making ourselves look good or to gain some other advantage. A genuine concern for the ‘poor’ will bring nothing for us; rather the person we are helping will, we hope, feel supported and sustained. Jesus, in other words, is concerned that our world should be a place where people love one another with a love which genuinely seeks nothing but the welfare of the one who is the target of concern.

The Red Letter Christian through his or her study of the mind of Jesus will be an individual well attuned to the way that many assumptions within our society need to be challenged. In short there is a political dimension to this movement which might mean that some of our comfortable certainties about society need to be examined afresh. Working for the good of others, particularly the poor, is not easy in a society which wants to protect the privileges of the better off. Not unnaturally radical Christians have tended to side with a more left wing approach to political questions. But whatever our politics, the Red Letter Christian will probably never want to remain in a defined political party. Subversive counter-cultural thinking, such as we find in the sayings of Jesus, will always be on the move. As soon as a group of Christians think they have found a political stance worth following, it will probably be time to move on. The words of Jesus will never be contained in a single political point of view.

One final remark about the attitudes of Red Letter Christians would be to note that any follower would want to challenge every kind of human boundary. A Christian listening to the words of Jesus would want to reach over boundaries of class, faith and every kind of cultural or racial difference. We have already suggested that the Red Letter Christian would never reach a point of equilibrium. The attitudes and the understanding of the world among such people will probably never stand still. This last comment is probably my own reading of what such an organisation might do. No doubt Red Letter Christians are probably compelled for practical and organisational reasons to be a little less maverick and more flexible than I have suggested. I have, nevertheless, given my reader a commentary and my hopes for this new movement for some Bible loving Christians in the States. Perhaps it will catch on in this country as there. Whatever form it may take in the future, it will provide something refreshing and potentially transformative for us all.

Spiritual Addiction

addictionFor some of my readers the idea that an individual might become addicted to certain religious practices would seem a strange one. But, from my past experiences of high octane worship and Christian music, the word addiction does not seem to be too strong a description of what appears to be going on in some settings. Chris has often indicated how the music band has become the dominant feature of many churches and their worship. Let us consider what certain kinds of music might be doing to an individual in church. In the first place, the kind of music I am thinking of will have a strong rhythmic beat. This is capable of (perhaps intentionally) sending someone into a light state of trance. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a trance state but there is something wrong with a situation that it is only when such music is playing that God can be experienced. The experience of touching the holy has become bound up with the particular alteration of consciousness that is induced by this kind of music. If this is the only setting when a person can feel what he or she believes to be God, it raises a number of disturbing questions. Are we sure that it is God that is being encountered or is the worshipper being artificially being drawn into an artificial emotional high which provides this intense experience? Is this emotional high leading the participant anywhere or are they just revelling in an intense experience which is similar to a drug-induced ‘hit’? Is their searching for God something spiritual or are they clamouring for the experience of altered consciousness for its own sake? Is their continuing attendance at that church an attempt to repeat again and again the same experiences, like an addict returning to his or her drug of choice?

These questions above may not be very comfortable for readers who believe that they have found God in the context of ‘Christian’ music. But we have to note further things about the popularity of rhythmic music in the context of a Church service. It is right to point out that however much rhythmic music is enjoyed by its fans, it is seldom possible to do much in the way of thinking or engaging in rational thought while it is going on. When young people attend raves, which provide a level of noise which most of us would find impossible to put up with, we mostly tolerate this because we accept that they may need to engage in forms of mental escape once in a while. Less acceptable is the way that for some of those at these events the taking of drugs of various kinds has become common. Pills such as Ecstasy are supposed to make the whole rave experience far more intense and thus rewarding. What all those who attend such events appear to be looking for is the opportunity to be so caught up in noise and movement that they do not have to think about anything at all.

When loud Christian music is introduced into normal worship, there are bound to be some practical as well as cultural issues. For members of the congregation at a traditional church serve, the rational processing of information would seem to be fairly important. Not only do we listen to what is being preached from the pulpit but we are also required to think about and pray for the needs of others, engaging with, for example, the issues of poverty and starvation. Any exposure to loud rhythmic music at any point in the service will make these acts of intelligent listening and altruistic concern fairly difficult. What the music does in fact achieve fairly predictably is, as we have said, an opportunity to escape – escape from problems, stress and even self-awareness. This kind of mental escape is uncomfortably close to the effect of other common mind-numbing addictive activities, the taking of drugs, alcohol or other forms of compulsive behaviour. In short we are claiming that the particular culture of much Christian music seems to resemble other addictive substances and activities that are well known in our society.

Getting into addictive forms of behaviour is one thing but the successful escape from any of its manifestations is, as we all know, extremely difficult. There is not just the physical or emotional component of the addictive substance to be dealt with. We also have to come to terms with the areas of emptiness or stress that the addict is facing in his or her life. This has given rise to the addiction in the first place. A middle aged housewife has a drink problem which is a response to a failing marriage or a sense of bereavement through the fact that her children have left home. She will need to find solutions to the pressing problems that exist in her life quite separately from giving up the physical dependency on alcohol. A young man addicted to pornography and thus unable to relate to women in a healthy way will have to seek help for his social inadequacy or lack of self-esteem which may be driving this dependency.

Addictive behaviour is found affecting a large number of people in our society, perhaps even a majority. Any behaviour or experience that is compulsively engaged in is in some sense an addiction. The only way to find out whether we or others have an addictive issue is to remove the offending habit or object to see whether we crave it in its absence. A good test to establish whether a church is using music improperly by encouraging artificial spiritual ‘highs’ in the congregation is to conduct worship without it for a week or two. If the church is able to retain the same numbers without its usual recourse to loud rhythmic Christian bands, then they can claim that they are not leading their members into an addictive dependence to noise and sensation. But we all know that this scenario would not in fact happen. The style of music, the predictable high that it produces for the members, is a key component of its attractiveness to its congregation. We can observe that when a church has wedded itself so completely one style of worship, one that excludes stillness and rational thinking, that this church has begun to create for its people a dangerous form of spiritual addiction.

I am aware that there are many different cultural settings where people claim to find the presence of God most easily. I have discussed before on this blog the question of traditional church music and its capacity to evoke a sense of spiritual presence among those who appreciate. I believe that such music and the music of Taizé do not have the same effect on the listener as the primal and loud strains of many Christian bands. But the close relationships between the sound of a worship band and that at a rave are just too striking to go without comment. In both settings individuals are encouraged to go out of normal consciousness and enjoy a state of mindless trance. For me this process of leaving behind ordinary thinking does not allow it to be close to anything that Jesus encouraged in us. If a church is subtly encouraging its members to enter primal irrational states of awareness, then I question whether it is in any way bringing us closer to God. A particular church may achieve great popularity in bringing together large numbers of people. It does not thus become automatically a model for the rest of us. If I am right and loud Christian music is creating a dependency, even an addiction, in those who listen to it, then it is hardly surprising that it will be popular. As we said earlier, addiction will always attract because it allows a person temporarily to escape from their problems and the areas of barrenness in their lives. The ability of a church to attract followers does not make that church something that all must follow. The task of bringing people closer to God is just too important to be left to those with the loud and most addictive styles of music.

A picture tells a story

uppsalaMy wife and I have recently returned from Sweden after a few days holiday. While in the country we spent a day in Uppsala, an old mediaeval city which boasts a fine cathedral. Next to this very impressive cathedral, the mother church of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, is another smaller church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity. We both found this older simpler building more impressive than its larger neighbour. On some walls were 14th century wall paintings, many of them depicting angels. There was also one particular painting over the west door which I puzzled about. I was not able to establish whether this painting, one depicting the story of the Good Samaritan, was part of the original scheme or not. But whether 14th or 19th century in origin, the placing of this scene over the West Door tells us something about the attitudes of the church that commissioned it.

I should remind my readers of the way that many mediaeval churches in Britain possessing a complete cycle of paintings would normally have a picture of the Last Judgement placed over the West Door. This would be viewed every time the worshippers left the church. A typical representation of the scene would show the contrast between the saved and the damned. The former would be seen ascending to heaven assisted by angels while the latter would be seen to be going headlong into a place of fire and torment. The message to the departing worshippers from such a painting was clear. Some are destined for heaven while many, even the majority, are doomed, because of their sin, to everlasting torment. In short the worshipper was encouraged, every time he left church, to feel a frisson of fear.

I have said more than once before on this blog that any version of the Christian faith which engenders fear in its followers is failing to reflect much of what Jesus seems to have been trying to communicate. While we could focus on the story of Dives and Lazarus as indicating a belief in a terrifying come-uppance for the wealthy and those lacking in compassion, there is comparatively little else to show that Jesus spoke a great deal on the subject. We certainly have no evidence that Jesus, even when apparently talking about punishment, was ever trying to terrify his followers into behaving in a particular way. Far more typical of the message of Jesus is the invitation to follow him and serve others. This is well articulated in the fictional account of a Samaritan caring for a stranger. The only fear to be found in the story was that of the Scribe and Pharisee who passed by on the other side. The account in Matthew of a judgement scene when sheep are separated from goats is also about a failure of compassion, not doing what love required. The tasks of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting those in prison are seen to be the priority for Jesus’ followers. ‘Entering the joy of the Lord’ is seen as the reward for this love and service of others. Such actions are more highly valued than simply avoiding sin. Following Jesus in this way was far more important than obeying numerous laws which mostly contained the word ‘not’ as part of their formulation.

The practice of Christianity which focusses on a keeping of rules and avoiding anything deemed to be impure is often described as legalistic. This legalism is what many conservative Christian groups seem to demand of their followers. The present unhealthy obsession with same-sex marriage as being contrary to the Gospel is an example of the way that rules are deemed to be more important than love and service. The practice of love and service will of course require honesty and integrity in our dealing with others but that does not require us to condemn a group who seek to find integrity in the context of a same sex relationship. Jesus called us into expressing our lives in a joyful abandonment to the generosity, forgiveness and care of God. It is hard to see how anyone can fulfil this law of love while permanently in a fearful state or a dread of being condemned to eternal punishment. The Christian who is responding to God’s love and forgiveness will need to spend little time worrying about rules and regulations. If he has truly tuned himself into the law of love as proclaimed by Jesus, then he will have little time for the controlling kind of faith as inculcated by Christians who thrive on and peddle a message of fear.

The painting of the Good Samaritan over the west door at Holy Trinity Uppsala had the words ‘go and do likewise’ below it. Whether 14th century or from modern times, this painting tunes in with a compassionate non-legalistic kind of faith that this blog articulates. A Christian, having completed a time of worship and praise, would then be going out into daily life. There was no sense in the painting of any threat of punishment. Rather the worshipper was being encouraged to go out and seek opportunities for generous love. The implication was that acting in this way would resonate with the compassionate reality of God that had been met with through the act of worship.

When I was active in parishes trying to teach people about the Christian faith, I would always be reluctant to use negative words to describe what is required of us as Christians. I did not, for example, start any teaching on behaviour with an exposition of the Ten Commandments, though they would, of course, have to be mentioned at some point. Negativity, forbidding things, is also what dominates one school of thought about the rearing of children. It is thought that the young mind can only learn good behaviour when it is taught within an atmosphere of control and fear. More humane methods centre around providing examples of good and generous behaviour. The summary of Christian ethics that I follow is simply ‘love as you are loved and forgive as you are forgiven’. These injunctions could be applied both to the bringing up of children and the formation of disciples within the Christian tradition. Although we know that evil exists and has to be confronted with robust energy, it is still important that the society or individual defending itself against violence uses the minimum force in return. Sometimes it would seem that Christians, motivated by the violent imagery of some parts of the Bible, have completely lost a sense of how to be gentle in their dealing with evil and power abuse. The rhetoric of the Christian Right appears to be far too familiar with the language of destroying and wiping out enemies whether these enemies are those of God or the particular nation to which the Christian happens to belong.

To return to the small mediaeval church in Uppsala. On a wall where we might have expected to see a violent representation of the fate of the damned, my wife and I saw a gentle reminder of the words of Jesus that we must serve the stranger in whatever way we can. Perhaps we can add to those words others spoken by Jesus to the apostles when they went fishing in Mark 6. ‘It is I, do not be afraid.’ Encouragement to serve, to have confidence in the goodness and compassion of God provides a far more healthy and acceptable message to share with people. This is far better than the implicit message given to so many that the Christian is defined only by his or her obsessive concern with the rights and wrongs of sexuality. It is hard to see that particular message being internalised by any Christian stepping through that particular west door of the church in Sweden.

The late Tim LaHaye

Lahaye2If there is one person who represents the perspective of American right-wing religious thinking, we need look no further than Tim LaHaye. This prolific author and religious teacher died recently after a stroke. The Times newspaper awarded him the dignity of a substantial obituary even though the anonymous writer who reflected on his life did not hesitate to use words like ‘bigotry’ and ‘crank’.

In reflecting on the life of Lahaye, we are shown how the written and spoken ideas of this one man resonated with and reflected much current American conservative religious opinion. It would be comforting to conclude that extreme ideas, such as those peddled by Lahaye, were examples of a harmless eccentricity. But Lahaye’s influence in fact became dangerous in the way it penetrated the corridors of US political power during the time of the presidency of Ronald Reagan and later. As recently as 2003 Lahaye was described as the most influential active Christian leader in the US. His path to fame was made possible through the writing of a series of 16 best-selling books. These described in fictional form the events surrounding the so-called ‘Rapture’. The books sold in millions and earned LaHaye £11 million per year in royalties. What made the books sell so well was the way that they fed the American public’s fascination for end-time events as described in the book of Revelation. I cannot claim to have read any of this series but I believe they are full of descriptions of the disasters and catastrophes that will come at the end of the world, prior to the second coming of Christ. The ideas of the Rapture, the snatching up of millions of faithful Christians to heaven, while leaving behind the rest of humanity to suffer plagues and other disasters, provides the material for these novels. The 16 novels are known as the Left Behind books. Fiction or not, they have powerfully fed into the religious psyche of millions of conservative Americans.

The most terrifying piece of information given by the Times obituary is the fact that 25% of Americans believe that these Left Behind novels are an accurate prediction of the future. 62% believe that the second coming of Christ is imminent. LaHaye himself acknowledged that the books were fictional, but he claimed that they sold so well because ‘the Bible gives us the best possible plan for the future’. It goes without saying that a population that fixated on future disasters and destruction is unlikely to have much time for thinking about wider political issues like climate change and solving the world’s political and social problems.

Tim LaHaye has always worked with other religious leaders on the extreme right, including the disgraced tele-evangelist Jim Bakker. A group of these leaders were invited to a White House breakfast when Jimmy Carter was president. With the other leaders present Lahaye decided that Carter was not to be trusted in furthering the ultra-right/Christian agenda. There was an impromptu prayer gathering immediately after they left the building. LaHaye was heard to pray in these words: ‘God we have got to get this man out of the White House. We need to get someone in here who will be aggressive about bringing back traditional moral values’. Ronald Reagan became president a few months later.

LaHaye was also responsible for organising 100,000 ministers who went on to found the American Coalition for Traditional Values. This lobby group had tremendous power in the corridors of government in and was able to manipulate George W Bush into giving the impression that the book of Revelation was part of his bedtime reading. This influence of far right Christian opinion remains an issue for American politics to this day. It is hard for us to imagine, here in the UK, the enormous control held by conservative churches over public statements made by politicians. We must hope that UK politicians never become beholden to fanatical religious leaders. There is an eerie parallel between what goes on in the States and the theocratic regimes of the Middle East. Whatever else we claim for the Christian faith, we should never expect the Bible to be the only source of wisdom and guidance for the difficult and challenging task of government.

The death of Tim LaHaye will provide a moment of reflection for all who long to see rational and common sense ideas reign in the realm of both religion and politics. To use the book of Revelation as a guide to political decision-making (or any kind of thinking) is a frankly bizarre action. Few commentaries suggest that we read the violent sections in Revelation as indicative of actual events, past or future. To do so requires us to think in a very strange way. As I have said on this blog before, it is hardly a healthy form of faith to believe that a God of love is literally prepared to destroy in a moment a third of humanity, as we see in chapter 8. For a Christian ever to make this particular book of the Bible into a guide as to the nature of God involves us in a kind of thinking that may well take us to edge of craziness. LaHaye thus represents a manifestation of Christianity which for many of us verges on the unhinged. It would be easy for us to dismiss all such fringe thinking within Christianity as unimportant, except for the fact that it has taken root in the most powerful nation on this earth. The ludicrous is thus transformed into something quite dangerous. The UK and the rest of Europe are for the most part still so far outside the orbit of this kind of extreme right wing opinion that we see flourishing in the States. But religious/political ideas have an uncomfortable habit of leaping across the Atlantic Ocean. Those of us who find the ultra-right in religion and politics utterly repugnant must continue to be on our guard. Both the Christian church and the political life of the Free World deserve much better than to be taken over by the thinking of the paranoid Right as exemplified by the late Tim LaHaye.

The tragic story of Ken Nally

NallyFrom time to time I hear individual stories of people who have been treated badly by religious groups. When faced with a situation of mental distress the churches seem to have responded in these accounts with an unholy combination of zeal, ignorance and an unbelievably incompetent exercise of common sense. There is one story of a young man who died recently in my part of the North of England after being rejected by his church even though he was overwhelmed with mental distress. He then took his own life. It would be wrong to give further details of this story because I have received what I know second hand and so I do not have all the facts of the case. So I will tell the story of another young man who was also, in the course of inept pastoral care, treated appallingly by a church in the States. I hope those who knew Richard and may be reading this blog will recognise that Ken’s story is being told in memory of Richard.

Ken Nally was a member of a Los Angeles megachurch called the Grace Community. The story goes back to 1973 when Ken, then in his late teens, first went to the head of the counselling arm of the church, one Lynn Cory. The minister overseeing the entire church was John McArthur, a prolific author and a well-known opponent of the Pentecostal influences which were becoming more significant in the evangelical churches of the 1980s. Ken was directed to another member of the biblical counselling centre called Duane Rea. Like Cory and the other members of the counselling team at Grace church, Rea had no qualifications in mental health problems or professional counselling training. In spite of this the team as a whole claimed competence to treat disorders ranging from depression to schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. When Ken went to Rea to consult him about his problems with women, the answer given was simple and unambiguous. In common with many biblical counsellors of that period, Rea told him that sin was at the root of his problems, particularly in his desire for intimacy outside of matrimony.

The depression and sense of failure felt by Ken drove him to speak to yet another counsellor as feelings of suicide came to oppress him. He asked this third counsellor whether a person who committed suicide would forfeit eternal salvation. The answer that he then received was theologically correct, but the way it was told him hardly enhanced Ken and his sense of well-being. He was told of course no one could lose their salvation through suicide. In March 1979 Ken attempted suicide. His parents became involved and he was sent to a psychiatric hospital. While there he told Pastor Rea that he would try to commit suicide again. This information was not shared with his parents or the doctors. These latter who were involved with caring for Ken saw only improvement. A Dr Hall, a psychiatrist, tried but failed to establish what kind of counselling he had received at Grace Church. He was in particular concerned at Ken’s statement that ‘my counsellors have advised me not to go to a psychiatrist’. In Ken’s mind there seems to have been a direct conflict between the sin based diagnosis of mental illness preached by his church, and the no blame understanding of illness which undergirded the approach of the hospital. After he finally left the hospital Ken spent most of the time reading the Bible and listening to recordings of John McArthur’s sermons.

Ken saw his father for the last time and in that conversation Ken said ‘they told me it was God’s punishment’. Ken’s father, Walter Nally, could not believe his ears. ‘Tell me which one of the bastards said that?’ he exclaimed, but it was too late for Ken. He committed suicide a few days later. The story does not end there. The church was allowed to organise the funeral and Pastor Rea announced to the congregation that Ken had disobeyed God in the final act of his life. ‘He took what did not belong to him.’ Adding to this appalling insensitivity Walter was shown a testimonial from Ken which stated that he had tried to kill himself prior to 1979. Rea maintained throughout that Ken’s death was not the result of poor counselling but of unresolved sin.

John McArthur, the leading minister of Grace Community Church also piled on the pastoral insensitivity by declaring to Walter that the suicide was in no way the fault of Walter but that Ken alone was responsible. He repeated the idea that the whole situation was brought about by ‘unresolved sin’ and had nothing to do with poor counselling. Walter’s reaction was then to take out a legal challenge and he proceeded to sue Grace for clerical malpractice. After the case went through several stages, it was in the end refused by the California Supreme Court who found in favour of the church. This unfavourable judgement has had the bitter result that US courts since that time been unwilling ever to find clergy guilty of professional malpractice or incompetence. The same protection has been extended to ministers of other groups, such as the Scientologists. No minister is ever held responsible for their actions in counselling, even if their lack of competence and ignorance can result in such tragic outcomes.

We have not in this post unpacked the cluster of ideas connected with ‘Christian counselling’ that helped to cause the tragedy at Grace church. Suffice to say they belong to the principles thought up by Jay Adams and his ideas about ‘nouthetic counselling’. Without being able here to unpack Adams’ noxious ideas, it can be said that this strand of teaching rejects modern psychiatry in favour of ‘Biblical’ teaching. Once again we see the dangerous idea that the world we live in is a threatening place. The Bible and what it teaches is juxtaposed with the demonic which is believed to lurk around in much of secular ideas and knowledge. This paranoid universe which is inhabited by large numbers of so-called Christians is an uncomfortable and fear-ridden place.