Monthly Archives: October 2016

Seven Mountains teaching – a critique

seven-mountains-of-cultureOne of the wonders of the world-wide web is that anyone can sit in on discussions that are going on elsewhere in the world. Because of the nature of this blog’s interest, I am always alert to fashionable ideas that emerge in the conservative/charismatic scene in the States. One particular Christian movement in the US, one that is unlikely to find much support among UK evangelicals, seeks to put Christian principles right at the heart of the political system. Here we simply do not have the critical mass of conservative Christians (at least not yet) who would be able to set up a substantial lobby to infiltrate mainstream political thinking. It is therefore fascinating to watch the alliances that are being attempted by the American Christian Right with political figures in the Republican party. I have read some extraordinary justifications of Donald Trump by Christian leaders. As Trump is not particularly noted for his open support of Christian belief and values, one must suppose that those Christians who support him have calculated that a President Trump will protect their social and financial interests better than a President Clinton.

Looking behind these alliances that are being made between religion and politics in the States, I detect one distinct ideology at work. This is the belief in a politically ultra-conservative system known as Dominionism. I posted a Blog on this topic some time back and gave a little time to exploring the ideas of one Rousas Rushdoony. He proposed that the words of Scripture provide all that is needed for organising a society based on God’s laws rather the laws of politics. In its extreme form Dominionism will allow homosexuals to be executed and all women silenced and firmly banished to the domestic sphere. Dominionism is, in short, a coded way of calling for theocracy. In this system divinely appointed godly men, armed with the text of Scripture, will make a far better job of government than through the democratic system. Godly tyranny or autocracy is a quick way of describing what many conservative American Christian thinkers wish to introduce in their country. Elections and democratic accountability are not thought to be part of God’s plan for the world. Such ideas have considerable prominence in the States but it needs to said, they do not appear anywhere on the political horizon in either the UK or Europe.

When writing the piece about Peter Wagner, I encountered what may be the latest incarnation of Dominionism, Seven Mountains teaching. This view of the potential role of Christianity in American society came about as the result of a vision given to three Christian leaders in 1975. These leaders were Loren Cunningham, Bill Bright and Francis Schaeffer. Others have taken up the teaching in the following 40 years, notably the preacher father of Ted Cruz, Rafael Cruz and a prolific Christian author, Lance Wallnau. In summary, the Seven Mountains represent the high places of influence that exist in every culture, the control of which sets the tone for the whole of society. These mountains at present are occupied by Satan but Christians need to regain ownership of them so that God can be seen to be in charge across the whole nation. The mountains that need to be conquered are politics, religion, education, arts and culture, business, media and family. It does not take a great of imagination to see what this reclaiming culture on behalf of a biblically revealed conservative God might involve. The media would suddenly begin to present an ultra-right perspective; education would drop all mention of evolution and theatre plays would all have only wholesome ‘Christian’ themes. Family life would only exist within specified boundaries. The legal system would naturally lock up all gays and public debate on almost any subject would be severely controlled in a kind of Orwellian manner.

The extent of the influence of Seven Mountains thinking on evangelical and charismatic thought in the States is hard to determine precisely. But the fact that it is espoused by someone who came close to carrying the Republican nomination for President gives us pause for thought. As I have introduced my readers to the thinking of Peter Wagner, I should also mention that he was a strong supporter of this ideology.

In introducing this somewhat bizarre set of ideas to the blog, I want to make two observations. In the first place, I want to note that the ideas came out of the thinking (imaginations?) of three men. It was then assumed by them that this political message was a direct revelation of God’s will. With all the talk in their discussion about the way that most of society is presided over by Satan, how do these leaders know that God is speaking here? Watching a clip of Loren Cunningham, founder of Youth with a Mission, speaking about how Seven Mountains teachings were revealed to him, I sensed a fanatical fervour in his words. This vision had become for him an unchallengeable and infallible teaching on a par with Scripture. This messianic sense of personal infallibility seems common in the charismatic world. An idea comes to a leader and suddenly it is a required part of the belief system for all the followers of that leader. This is the same dynamic that seems to have been at work with the followers of Peter Wagner. The New Apostolic Reformation, which involves God’s direct authority being entrusted to certain individuals, never seems to be challenged by any followers. Rather new ideas are simply swallowed as though they are inevitably to be regarded as God’s direct revelation for our times. From where I come from these assumptions, which I suggest are clear manifestations of narcissistic grandiosity, have always to be scrutinised with theological and psychological vigour. Seven Mountain teachings may seem to be at one level harmless eccentricity, but when they reach so close to the centre of political power, as in the States, they become a source of real danger for the well-being of societies right across the globe.

The second observation that I make is to note the appearance once again of dualism or binary thinking. By binary thinking I am referring to the way that for some thinkers every issue is presented as either good and true or bad and false. Nothing is ever allowed to be uncertain; paradox is not tolerated in this simplistic way of thinking. We would, I think, be correct in supposing that such dualism is an appropriate way of thinking suitable for a child at primary school level. Beyond the age of twelve, we might hope that every child is beginning to tolerate the idea that not every problem has a clear-cut answer. There are indeed vast areas of uncertainty in every discipline which is why an open society values highly the principle of debate. Unchanging truths, particularly in such subjects as history, politics or economics, are seldom easy to pin down. Only in mathematics and some branches of science does a fixed form of truth seem to exist. If we are committed to the idea that complex problems can always be reduced to a single correct answer, then we are doing violence to the accumulated wisdom of centuries of human study and learning. I for one do not wish to return to a society ruled by authoritarian binary thinkers.

Seven Mountains teaching, were it to be implemented, would take society back several hundred years. However imperfect our institutions, let us celebrate the fact that these institutions do evolve in accordance with the values of openness, questioning as well as uncertainty. While society does not claim to be perfect, it can change and develop and accommodate itself to contemporary thinking and new ideas. Whenever unchallengeable ‘revelations’ are given the status of ultimate truth in society, there will be fossilisation, stagnation and deep frustration. I know what kind of society I would prefer to live in.

C Peter Wagner 1930 – 2016 RIP

peter-wagnerPeter Wagner, a key figure among charismatic Christian leaders world-wide, died on October 21st. The fact that many people in the UK may have never heard of him, let alone read one of his many books, does not take anything away from the fact of his enormous importance in the charismatic as well as the wider evangelical scene. In this short piece, I am concerned neither to write a hagiography nor a critique of his thinking. Others will, no doubt, be doing both these things at some point in the future. What I wish to do is to point out how the ideas coming from one man can achieve huge influence over the way that many ordinary Christians think. At this point I think I can safely say that his legacy in the charismatic world is a mixed one. He was a man of many ideas. Whether all these ideas deserved to achieve so much influence in Christian charismatic thinking is a debatable point.

In his early days Wagner served as a missionary in Bolivia under the auspices of the South American Mission and the Andes Evangelical Mission. From 1971 up to his formal retirement in 2001 he was Professor of Church Growth at the Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Missions in the States. After retirement he found himself an unofficial leader in what is now known as the New Apostolic Reformation. This is a movement that has a very powerful influence among many charismatic Christians in every part of the world. Many charismatic Christians follow the ideas of this network even they may not be aware of this title. Still less will they know of the way that NAR has become politically well organised and highly influential over the past 15 or so years.

Among the new emphases that have emerged within the charismatic movement over the past few decades, Wagner seems to played a leading part in promoting and articulating many of them. In his early days at Fuller Wagner helped to promote the notion of Church Growth. I remember the first time I heard about this as a technique for increasing church membership in the 1980s. It followed the ideas of one Donald McGavran who had also taught at Fuller after a lifetime of missionary work. McGavran co-authored a book with Wagner back in 1970 which sought to promote the idea that mission was most successful when the target of missionary work was not the individual but the group or the tribe. People find it easier to accept the Christian message when it is integrated into their pre-existing cultural and social context. Translated into a Western context, it is noted how people will always find it easier to join a church when there are others just like themselves already there. Students will relate easily to other students, retired people to other retireds, and particular nationalities will more easily gravitate to people like themselves.

Church Growth principles are still taught in missionary studies but in the 70s and 80s Wagner began to develop his ideas in new directions beyond the original McGavran model. One of the most significant decisions of his career was to promote the ideas and teaching of John Wimber. In the late 70s Wimber came to teach at Fuller a course entitled ‘ Signs, Wonders and Church Growth’. This teaching eventually had a decisive impact and influence on the charismatic movement across the world. Among other things it opened people up to an awareness of evil and demonic influences at work and these needed to be countered during the process of evangelism. Also in Wimber’s teaching there was a strong emphasis on spiritual healing. Wagner identified himself totally with these new experiential teachings collectively described as signs and wonders. He was happy to describe the movements taking place around him at Fuller as being signs of a Third Wave of the Holy Spirit. Having been to a Wimber Conference in 1992 at Holy Trinity, Brompton, I am not one of those who is totally negative about Wimber’s ministry. However, I do feel much more analytical work needs to be done on his ministry and the theological and practical legacy of this teaching. Wagner’s support and endorsement of Wimber is not, for the moment, something that automatically invites criticism. However, the next stages of Wagner’s enthusiasms do give rise to some real concerns on my part.

By the year 2000 two new theological emphases had become apparent in Wagner’s thinking. Each of these were also to have far-reaching implications for the world-wide charismatic movement. The first of these seems to have begun at a Symposium in 1996 at Fuller entitled, The Post-Denominational Church. The thinking behind this title was that the New Testament church possessed no denominations. In their place there were certain offices, as taught by Ephesians 2.20, of Apostles and Prophets. Wagner was so confident about this pattern of church government that he was able to declare a little later that a second apostolic age had begun in the year 2001. We may make an observation about this confident declaration. There is here, not just a sharing of a fresh insight about biblical teaching, but a statement that Wagner believed himself to be at the epicentre of a new movement in the world-wide church. He then became involved in a confident naming of other leaders who would with him fulfil this role of Apostle. The task of these Apostles was to oversee churches and their ministries right across the world. Through these Apostles, God was going to ‘bring spiritual government to the pastors … so that the pastors can do the job that God has given them in a much more effective way.’

The second part of the new movement that Wagner was strongly identified with was what was known as spiritual mapping. I have already discussed this in a previous blog. It basically consisted of a strong sense that any missionary work would involve spiritual conflict with demons and territorial spirits. This was in part a continuation of the themes of healing taught by John Wimber that the pursuit of wholeness would often involve some form of exorcism. Space prevents me going further into this theme.

What are we to make of the legacy of Peter Wagner? He was obviously a man of enormous creativity and insight. His ideas are sometimes eccentric but always of great interest. The way that these same ideas have become uncritically adopted by so many in the charismatic world is however something that does create problems from our perspective. The concept of the Apostle as being a God-appointed role is itself a dangerous teaching. It reminds us of the ides of theocracy which seems to be the fantasy of a variety of religious leaders, both Christian and Muslim. Who oversees the overseers? In theory it is God. Peter Wagner’s legacy has not helped the wider Church give any satisfactory answer to the very basic questions about authority and where it is to be found. Simply to allow himself to become an Apostle, answerable only to God, does not resolve the wider issues. History may concur with us in concluding that top-heavy religious authority, such as that invested in Apostles, will always create enormous problems for the church. In fairness to Peter Wagner and his memory, perhaps we should not find him personally responsible for the problems of power and how it is administered in the church. In all probability, we should critique the universal longing of Christians of every tradition to search for a guru. Whether Anglo-Catholic or conservative, far too many Christians long for someone to tell them what to think and what to do. Wagner may be just one more person who found himself fulfilling the role of the guru that so many people are desperately searching for. Perhaps the culture of 21st charismatic teaching created Peter Wagner rather than the other way round.

Problems at York Minster

york-minsterThe reports from York about a falling out between the Dean and Chapter and the Cathedral bell-ringers makes good copy for newspapers. At first glance it appears to be a power struggle between a group of clergy fired-up with management ideas and a fiercely independent body of volunteers. The sympathy of a reader is initially drawn to the bell-ringers and their attempts to resist interference in their affairs. It would be easy for this blog to conclude that once again church leadership had got it wrong and were unable to treat fairly those who gave of their time to serve the church in one of its many activities. We now face the prospect of York Minster having no bells over Christmas and the New Year. What greater public statement of a breakdown in communication could there be than this?

The Guardian newspaper has gone much more deeply into the story than other news outlets. It appears that, from the statement of the Archbishop of York, there is a safeguarding issue at stake. This is a coded way of saying that one of the bell-ringers is a person thought to be a source of risk to others, especially the young people among the band of enthusiasts. The Guardian names the particular individual as one David Potter. It appears that he had been released from a teaching job in 2000 and investigated by the police as recently as last year. So far he has avoided prosecution. The newspaper also reveals that David Potter is linked to a solid phalanx of other bell-ringers who are extended members of his family. It is this tribal solidarity that has created an impossible situation and apparently made such extreme action on the part of the Dean and Chapter necessary.

The issue of what to do when an individual is suspected of, but not convicted for, criminal behaviour within a congregation is frankly a nightmare for any clergyman or minister. There are many examples of bad behaviour that do not qualify for police activity or formal action. A child may complain of an adult who is behaving in a ‘creepy’ manner but who has not crossed any barrier into actual sexual assault. But something needs to be done and, if it is not, then the problem may fester for years or even decades. The Guardian story seemed to be implying that there were indeed solid grounds for suspicion against the individual, even though he had not been charged. The statement of the Archbishop records that advice had been taken from safeguarding experts locally and nationally to help them decide what to do in this case. As every clergyman in the country with bells in the tower knows, bell-ringers can be a quite separate group and sometimes they have few links with the actual congregation in the church where they ring. Issues like separate bank accounts and a self-perpetuating hierarchy are allowed to continue, effectively placing them outside any control of a Church Council. Any interference by Vicars or Deans in what is seen to be their independent affairs will be resisted with energy and passion.

I am capable of believing a story of a hard-hearted Dean being dictatorial against a hard-working group of volunteers, but in this York example, this does not appear to be anything close to the full story. But, coming out of this whole incident, we have an example of the way that power operates untidily in a large institution like York Minster. The Cathedrals Measure 1999 would probably work far better if all the workers were paid employees. The situation of a large institution with numerous volunteers is a far more complicated situation. It demands very high levels of people skills. A Vicar or a Dean has to spend quite a bit of time adjudicating between individuals who have fallen out in one of the tasks that are done within a church. A row over something like a flower rota is an event that will occur with regularity in a church setting. Some divisions are resolved quickly; others take much longer to sort out. It is seldom a matter of good management but rather great patience and people-skills are required to keep any institution running smoothly, whether large or small.

The situation at York seems here to be one of the Dean taking decisive action in a situation which required it. Because of the tribal power and solidarity possessed by the bell-ringing group, that decision was openly challenged, the media involved and a public situation of scandal allowed to emerge. That of course is a pity and it makes the church seem hard-hearted and authoritarian. One good thing that may come out of this situation at York is a better recognition of how power operates in a church setting. Authority and power have to be exercised with vigour on rare occasions and everybody who works in that institution should be able to recognise that sometimes this is in fact a necessity. In this situation at York, institutional power came into conflict with a localised tribal power, that of the bell-ringing group. The need for the Minster to preserve the highest standards of safeguarding meant that the Dean and Chapter backed by the Archbishop had to overrule the independence of the bell-ringers. Many of the ringers would think that sacking them all and changing the locks was an overreaction. They may have claimed to be surprised at the actions taken. It would in fact be surprising if the facts of the investigation of Mr Potter by the police were not known to all the other adult bell-ringers. We await to see how this story unfolds, but meanwhile I feel that the authority of the Dean has been unfairly undermined by the media. Safeguarding and protecting the young on church premises must take precedence over the tribal solidarity of a group of volunteers, however dedicated. It is to be hoped that the deeper issues in the story uncovered by the Guardian will become far more understood by the people of York. In this way the work of the church may be allowed to continue free from the taint of accusations of power abuse.

The Times this morning Saturday 22nd has a fuller account of this saga which seems to concur with this assessment. The issue remains whether or not the bell-ringers are really supporting safeguarding priorities or defensively protecting their own membership.

Faith and Belief

faith-trustI was recently reading a book which pointed out something which I have long been aware of. The book was talking about the much quoted principle in certain circles that a Christian must always be ready to give an account of what he or she believes. The author pointed out how difficult in practice it is to have a rounded articulated faith to be drawn on for the purpose of witnessing to others. The only way that it is possible to put forward a coherent set of beliefs is when you have appropriated a stock system of doctrine from the community you belong to. To put it another way, much so-called Christian witnessing has the hall-mark of repeating a formula which has been rote-learned from elsewhere. In this way it is a product, not of the individual mind, but rather of a community. Having heard such rote-learned statements of belief many times, I note that the intellect of the individual repeating these beliefs seems to have been often bypassed. Also, in their anxiety to repeat the correct belief statements, the individual within this culture feels they cannot deviate from the set pattern of the words. Some of these witnessing statements cry out to be interpreted, for example the ones concerning Jesus’ death on the cross. One statement of belief which has to be signed up by members of university Christian Unions states thus:
Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God.

I personally have a problem with exactly what this statement is supposed to mean and I find it difficult to suppose that those who sign up to it are, in most cases, doing more than give their assent to it as part of the price of belonging. Assenting to something is quite distinct from believing it. To believe something is fully to engage mind and intellect in the process of understanding before possessing it as your own. In view of the complex nature of the above statement, it is surprising that it is not the topic of much explanation and interpretation in Christian Union circles. Something as important as this statement, which is hard to understand, should, surely, provoke lively discussion and debate. As far as I know the statement is normally just accepted as part of the price of membership and little more is said.

Statements of belief thus frequently tell us far more about the groups that people belong to than individual convictions. Actual convictions about what is real and what is not real in Christian truth claims have to be worked out by each person. While we cannot generalise, it would surely be true to say that the real beliefs of most Christian people, i.e. what they have worked out for themselves, are extremely untidy. Even when we admit that the vast majority of Christians from every background see their belief as a project in construction rather than a finished building, there still exists something we call personal faith. When I speak here of faith, I am not of course speaking of beliefs but something as simple as an act of trust in God. This may have no words. An individual may reach out to God, sometimes in joy, sometimes in despair. This reaching out will normally little by way of intellectual content. Yet this action is what Jesus commended and calls faith. When he himself called out to God from the cross with the words, ‘My God my God why have you forsaken me’, he was not making an articulate confession of belief. He was simply reaching out to his father from a place of utter desolation.

Reaching out to God in this way, which we describe as an act of faith, is likely to have little in the way of words. Many people who reach out to God with this kind of faith may have very contact with a formal belief system and certainly most would not be able to articulate what they believe. And yet the Bible has plenty of space for such people, the inarticulate, the despairing and those at the end of hope. There is one particular psalm in the Bible, Psalm 88, which expresses a despairing longing for and a crying out to God and where there is apparently no response from him. In a Christian world which wants to promote confident smiling Christians, secure in their knowledge of salvation and in what they believe, such despair and inarticulate groaning will have little place. The psalmist shows signs of complete despair without any confidence that God is going to answer him but his prayer is not written out of Scripture. We can say that the Bible wants us to recognise that the voice of utter despair is a voice which needs to be heard. No happy ending concludes the psalm. The writer is left totally isolated in his despair.

Psalm 88 suggests to us that we have to take seriously the existence of apparent spiritual failure. But we still recognise it as a psalm of faith. The bleakness of the psalm, sometimes referred to as a Psalm of Lament, is a sober reminder that the Christian faith is or should be relevant not just to happy successful people, but to people in every stage and experience of life. The psalmist certainly had not got things sorted, as we would say, and probably he would not have made a good ‘witness’ or been able to articulate a convincing confession of belief.

If we want to see how different faith is from belief, we only have to read these words of Psalm 88. All that the psalmist knew was that God had plunged him into the lowest abyss. Even a belief that God would eventually come to his rescue was denied him. Every vestige of a belief system seems to have been taken away. And yet, in spite of feeling that God was not on his side in any way, having become like a man beyond help, he still reaches out to God daily in an act of imploring faith. We can imagine that this psalmist would not be a comfortable person to have sitting in the pews of any of our churches. Some Christians might try to provide him with comforting scriptural texts but these, no doubt, would be rejected with a great deal of passion. Our psalmist was a broken man who probably had little worked out in terms of what he really believed. But we commend him for his faith and trust that continued, even if there was apparently absolutely nothing to give him comfort or hope.

Trump – cult leader?

trump2Even before Donald Trump was accused in the media of treating women badly, it was already being claimed that he was showing signs of being a full-blown narcissist. Whether or not he does completely fulfil all the criteria for this personality disorder, is not for me to cast a final opinion. I would however comment that all the earlier speculation on this topic does seem to get extra traction from his past and present remarks about women. Also we have the witness of a variety of women who have come forward to speak of the experiences of their encounters with him. Our interest in looking at Trump in this way arises from the fact that the same personality disorder is also thought to afflict many people who run cults or extreme religious groups. If this were to be true, then we might expect to see parallels between Trump and the leaders who are of particular interest to this blog. To put the question another way, does Trump’s behaviour, both past and present, remind us of the charismatic leaders who misuse their power such as Michael Reid at Peniel Brentwood?

Everyone will have noted that Trump has denied all the attacks on the women who have accused him of unwanted intimacies. At the point of writing nine women have alleged that he used them sexually and inappropriately. Are we to believe the women or Trump’s denials? The probability that he actually did the things he was accused of by the women is strengthened by the way that they fit well with the off-hand remarks made by him on the 2005 tape. These were laughed off as ‘locker-room banter’. But for those of us who take an interest in the incidence of narcissism see these words as a classic example of one of the nine criteria for the NPD diagnosis, a sense of entitlement. People of power who suffer from the disorder routinely believe that lesser mortals are theirs to use and exploit in whatever they wish. Empathy for their victims is absent. Any feeling for the embarrassment, shame and disgust that the women so treated might have felt will be totally absent. Women, in the eyes of the narcissistic predator, are expected to feel flattered that the great wonderful powerful person should take an interest in them, even if just to abuse them. Sadly, the dynamics involved in such encounters mean that some women do act out the part of a compliant star-struck victim, as we have recently seen in the sordid tales of some footballers and their sex-fuelled encounters. In this situation we may suggest that the victims coming forward may be a very small minority of the total number treated badly by Trump. The humiliation of victims is one of the reasons why so most do not want to tell their story at the hands of a power-hungry un-empathetic narcissist.

When we look at the other criteria of narcissism, there seem to be many that fit Trump very well. If, as we suspect, Trump is eventually shown to be a blustering liar in his response to the stories told about him by his female victims, this will fit the category of ‘arrogance and haughty patronising behaviour’. We must acknowledge that the very act of seeking such high office will require a candidate to have considerable self-confidence and appetite for success which goes beyond the norm. But the really destructive part of the disorder, and this is as true of religious leadership in certain settings, is that the narcissist begins to feed off all the adulation being given him so that he no longer has any real sense of who he is. Many of the political set-pieces that have placed Trump in front of his supporters have resembled religious rallies. To experience the breathless adoration of your supporters must be like a drug, a powerful narcissistic feeding. The damaging part of the experience is that it undermines self-criticism, realism and generally the ability to know yourself as you truly are. In short you learn to live a lie. The complete failure to deal with any of his accusers on the part of Trump by admitting any part of their accusations is also a sign of a refusal, typical in narcissists, to face reality, even in part. One of our UK politicians, Jeremy Corbyn, seems to be on the way to believing that cheering crowds are a sign of his popularity. The crowd may cheer him but that crowd is not the full face of public opinion.

Although writing about a politician in another country is probably a somewhat risky task, I nevertheless want to consider how narcissism in leaders is a danger for any institution. A leading churchman, particularly in a non-denominational setting, will be like a political leader who has reached the top of a ladder of power. I wrote in a couple of blogs back about ministers who contrive to have constitutions of the churches they serve changed so that they will have complete power and control. A congregation may be a very small unit when compared with a complete country but the dynamics of narcissistic power will work the same way in both. Leaders and led can so easily be caught up in a destructive cycle which leaves both damaged.

What are these dangers for institutions? A narcissistic leader who receives a lot of gratification from listening to the praise of followers (think political/religious rally) may start to believe his own rhetoric about his importance. Just as Mugabe regards himself as the Father of the Nation, so a religious leader may start to present his ideas as a direct revelation from God. In short narcissism helps to transform simple power into tyranny. Checks and balances that exist in healthy institutions like parliaments or committees are done away with because they may impede the leader in pursuing his narcissistically fuelled vision. Thankfully there exist in the States as in the UK enough constitutional checks to presidential power but the damage to the system could still be enormous in the hands of a maverick, as Trump appears to be. In the church equally destructive forces can be released when a leader genuinely believes that he alone has the ability and the authority to interpret the words of Scripture for his church. Amid all his rhetoric there may be one or two good emphases but history indicates that the narcissistic leader will mix in other stuff which goes under the category of ‘weird’ or dysfunctional. The ability to be right all the time in religion or politics is given to virtually no one. The moment anyone starts to believe in their personal infallibility is the beginning of decline and the probable eventual collapse of an institution. Peniel, the church in Brentwood began to become a place of tyranny and decline the moment that Michael Reid took for himself unfettered power over his congregation. That was also the moment when his narcissism seemed to become the dominant feature of his personality.

The new facets of Trump’s character that have been revealed in the past two weeks will probably ensure that he does not become the next American president. While narcissism clings to leaders everywhere, it is seldom that one detects such a full-blown example of the disorder in a single individual. World peace and order would be put under severe strain were Trump to win the election. His apparent a admiration for Putin is another extraordinary piece of narcissistic behaviour. Trump appears to believe that his own status is enhanced through his admiring and identifying with another powerful leader. Putin’s public popularity in his own country is not hard to understand. When a society and the individual lives within it are going through a crisis they need to project onto an individual who is seemingly successful and strong. Similar dynamics seem to occur in some congregations. Just as children find their status involves identification with their parents, so some members of congregations need to project onto and identify with their leaders. It feels, as we have said many times before, like a cosy way of satisfying relational needs on both sides. But neither leader nor led are easily able to escape the trap that they have made the for themselves. Narcissist and followers are stuck in a mutually harmful relationship which does nothing for their maturity or growth. To answer the question which we posed in the title. The answer seems to be that Trump has used the gifts common to the narcissistic/charismatic personality to draw many people into his disordered world-view. Let us hope that for the sake of America and the world, that it is not a majority of the American people!

Cretan reflections

bonellis-eagle-immatures-mkI have been away for a few days in a part of the world which I am very fond of. I am on the island of Crete which I first visited in 1968. I come here partly to practise my inadequate grasp of the Greek language but also to enjoy the wonderful walks that exist on the island. There is in particular one special walking route which goes from one end of the island to the other. This is partly along the coast and partly over the mountains. I am familiar with some short sections of the coastal part but this year I wanted to experience something of the mountain sections in the middle. You would think that an international walking route would be easy to negotiate. But that has been far from the case. The sheer difficulty of finding the right way across an open mountain landscape is in fact what has inspired these reflections. One help that is provided for the traveller to stay on the proper path, is a system of painting a small orange square on some of the rocks. These are not particularly frequent and yesterday I completely lost the path and found myself the wrong side of a fairly deep valley. Much of my return journey involved being in a sitting position (not very dignified!). Today I had another attempt and succeeded in following the correct path right over the ridge away from the village where I have been staying, called Anogea. In the wild remote valley beyond the ridge I was able to watch no fewer than eleven eagles soaring together above me. This success has made it possible to offer a reflection on the way that a journey like this is a kind of parable of our wandering through the Christian life.

Every time I found one of the orange painted squares on a rock, I experienced a number of emotions. One was relief that I was not going to have to backtrack; another was a sense of triumph that I was still along the right path. The third was a minor frisson of what I can only call joy in that I was being encouraged to think that I was finally getting things right. After the minor disaster of completely losing the path yesterday, I was determined to stick to my newly imposed rule. The rule was that if I did not see an orange square for 100 metres, I would return to where I had last seen one and review the direction I was going in. It will be apparent that there were many other paths going off in every direction from the main one. Some were created by farmers who wanted access to isolated olive trees further up the mountain slope. Some, no doubt, were created by sheep or goats. But there was only one proper route up to the ridge.

It occurred to me in my search for these tiny squares of paint that it was a bit like looking for spiritual encouragement in the journey of living a Christian life. I even fantasised that the painted squares, which was sometimes quite hard to find, were a bit like a prompting of the Holy Spirit. So many Christians visualise the work of the Spirit as being a bit like a blinding revelation of what we should do in life. But it seems to me that the Holy Spirit for most of us is experienced a bit like a slight nudge or touch. Like the yellow squares on the rock, it is just sufficient to tell whether we are on the right road. I reflected on the different ways that these nudges, which we want to identify as coming from the Spirit, come to us. In the first place we may have taken a decision to God in prayer and somehow we have a conviction that we have found the right way forward. A further way to hear the Holy Spirit in our lives maybe is to have someone we can share problems and decisions with. The important thing is to believe that such encouragement and prompting is on offer as long as we are looking for it.

In my further ruminating about the way the we are prompted or nudged by the Holy Spirit through fairly insignificant events, like those blobs of paint, I thought about the task that we have to minister to each other. All of us can be part of the way that the Spirit speaks to other people. Helping other people to hear the Spirit of God is of course an important part of the work of ordained ministry. But of course any Christian can be involved in this kind of service. For myself the most important principle that people need to hear (I don’t want to call it advice as that sounds prescriptive!) is that what God wants from them is first of all to be themselves. Each person needs to be in touch with their inner longings, their passion and their uniqueness. So often, even in a church context, individuals have taken on board a life agenda set for them by others. The sensitive and pastoral counsellor will always be wanting to help an individual to strip off layers of artificiality and falsity which impede them in their task of authentic living. We all have the task of travelling the journey in order to grow spiritually as well as become the person that God wants to be. A piece of wisdom that was given to my wife and me many years ago is one that applies to anyone. The words were: Be yourself so that God can be himself through you.

The Christian journey seems to have two main components. The first is for us to give glory to God by developing all our gifts, whether physical, intellectual or spiritual to the best of our ability. The second part is for us to grow more and more into God, by allowing his Spirit to work in us and through us. Both these elements are summed up in a saying of Irenaeus, the glory of God is seen in a human being fully alive. Many of the scenarios with which we are concerned with in this blog do a great deal to hinder this possibility of full aliveness. The fear that exists in many congregations and the control that is imposed on vulnerable people stop dead the possibility of developing our God-given potentials. It is also hard to see how we can grow close to the angry vindictive God that is preached in so many congregations. Another word for growing closer to God is the word holiness. This sums up the spiritual aspect of our journey. At different speeds and in different ways we are growing closer to what we are meant to be as spiritual beings.

I hope my readers can identify with my sensations of excitement when finding the marks of paint on rocks and can see how it links up with a sense of adventure that comes to us when we feel we are living a life of purpose and direction guided by the Spirit of God. May all of us have that sense that we are on the right path, the path set by God for us to walk on. May we also have his encouragement to keep us on that unique journey and be able to find our way back when we stray.

Christians against Democracy!

donald-trump-photos-hdAt a time when we in Britain are trying to get used to the extraordinary political goings-on in the States, I have been reminded that for some Christians the concept of democracy is unbiblical. In other words, the authoritarian right-wing solutions to the political life of America are held to be the correct ones. Good Christian people, those properly grounded in the Bible, will always vote for people who take the most authoritarian approach to government. Guided by God they will make all the important decisions on behalf of the country without any need to consult anyone else. We have already encountered this concept of theocracy, the rule of God, in American society in an earlier blog. It seems that many people actually believe it be a realistic goal. Good Christian men will arise who will know in every possible way how to put God’s will into action for the whole of society.

I have, in a previous post, spoken about the ideas of Dominionism and the way that a character called Rushdoony presented his ideas on Biblical-based principles of government some 40 or 50 years ago. I do not propose to go over this material again but rather to introduce something, to my mind, even more extraordinary, a legal kit drawn up for church leaders. The model constitution on offer will ensure that any democratic processes within the congregation are completely suppressed. My reader is invited to type the words ‘Apostolic Bylaws’ into Google to be able to follow this theme in greater detail. The minister is invited to send a substantial sum of money to this organisation for a legal pack. He will then receive a sample constitution for a church designed to give him complete control over his congregation and in particular, its finances. In justifying the need for this extraordinary constitution, it is pointed out in all seriousness that the words ‘Board of Trustees’, ‘vote’ or ‘majority’ never appear in the text of Scripture. In other words, voting and the processes of democracy have absolutely no place in church life. Two biblical texts are given, Acts 15.19 and Acts 16.4, to show how James made the final decision in a church dispute. In this way, Protestant pastors everywhere, those who presumably do not have inconvenient denominational structures to worry about, are invited to take full control over their congregations.

The existence of this organisation and the readiness by some to spend church money on placing a minister in a position where he cannot ever be legally challenged for his decisions, is something that takes one’s breath away. This is not just recipe for potential tyrannical abusive behaviour but it also reveals a startling cultural mindset among some Christians in America and no doubt elsewhere. Anyone who has run a congregation will know that committees are difficult to negotiate at times. But a minister or Christian leader knows perfectly well that leadership is only effective when decisions are made which have the goodwill of the majority. If this is not to be a priority in church administration, then one can imagine that there will be a great deal of unhappiness, not to mention grumbling. Suppression of such grumbling will be through the autocratic use of fear tactics, public humiliation from the pulpit, control through gossip and other methods to keep people in line. That, at any rate, was how the notorious Michael Reid at Peniel Brentwood kept his people under his control.

Part of the ‘success’ of Donald Trump in the current American presidential election is the fact that many people are highly tolerant to undemocratic processes in society and public life. Thousands of powerless people in the States recognise in Trump a man who will attack the sources of their perceived oppression, the rich, the powerful and the intellectual elite within the Establishment. How much easier it is to let someone who articulates their anger make decisions and exercise power on their behalf? In short many people are prepared to abandon a belief in democracy in favour of a fascist-like ruler who will do popular things and boost their morale. The fascism of Nazi Germany drew much of its strength identifying the Jews as an enemy. The current fascism, if we may call it that, in America draws its strength from demonising Arabs, Mexicans and now it seems the female sex. What we have identified today in this post, is the insight that a destruction of democratic principles in America is supported, not only by some of the disenfranchised and frustrated citizens in that society, but also by many Christians. I find it extraordinary as well as alarming to see the Bible quoted as a way of undermining what most of us recognise as the best possible system of government that the world has ever devised. Democracy is of course not perfect and most of us recognise the limitations of the system. The alternative, autocratic fascism, is far, far worse. When it arrives in a Christian garb, there is something fairly sickening and repulsive about it.

The was a poignant moment in the ITV series, Victoria, last night when the young Queen spoke to her uncle, the King of Hanover. The Queen had been the target of an apparent assassination attempt by a deranged young man. The discussion with her uncle centered on what should be the fate of the would-be assassin. A jury had found that his balance of mind was disturbed and thus he was consigned to Bedlam, an institution for the insane. The King expressed his view that in his kingdom the man would have been slaughtered within days. There would have been no legal process necessary for this action. The young Queen responded that in her country there was the rule of law and that she was bound as Queen to respect the decision of an English jury. Her parting shot to her uncle was the words: ‘my kingdom will always be a far better place than yours’.

What is being expressed by this extraordinary organisation in America is a mindset that concludes that a Christian, faithful to his Bible, should be ready to challenge and even destroy democratic institutions. These, whether in Church or State, have come down to us in a process of political evolution which has been going on in the West over many centuries. Within my Anglican Church there are similar forces at work. These conclude that there is only one truth and that all other claims for truth can be ignored. In contrast, the democratic liberal approach, which this blog constantly endorses, will always stand up for a divergence of views, all of which must be taken into account. Democracy demands that we learn, not only to have convictions, but also to live with other people who think differently to ourselves. Sentiments such as those being articulated by the organisation Apostolic Bylaws must be firmly resisted. Christianity can never be identified with the sentiments of the so-called Religious Right. We might describe it with another expression, Christian fascism.

Power and Abuse – Press accounts

churchhurtAfter writing a blog post on one of the psalms yesterday, my Church Times arrived with four stories relevant to the concerns of our blog. Following the problems at Exeter Cathedral last week I found that issues of power and management seemed to have extended to Peterborough Cathedral. The story in brief is that the Dean, Charles Taylor, is resigning at the age of 63. This is not in any way a situation of scandal even though there have been some problems with the cathedral finances. These resulted in the Bishop of the Diocese announcing a Visitation. The cash flow situation had resulted in a threat to the Cathedral’s ability to pay its staff in July. In his final sermon the Dean revealed a number of the tensions that he was experiencing. He spoke about ‘envious people at the centre of the Church of England who resent “uppity” cathedrals and wish to impose a monochrome blandness on the church’. He also paid tribute to prophetic church leaders of the past including David Jenkins. Such figures, who had the power to excite public imagination, would be unlikely to arise in the future. In a wonderful purple passage the Dean spoke of ‘colourful clerics and turbulent priests, the prickly prophets, the rebels and reformers’. The ‘monochrome blandness’ that was referred to was clearly a reference to the new management training offered to bishops, deans and those who have been identified for positions of responsibility. Dean Taylor was articulating the unease he was feeling about the way that the job of Dean was now being seen as like the manager of a business. Perhaps this monochrome blandness also represents a model of cathedrals which requires them, above all, to be smoothly running, financially successful, enterprises. This would have little in common with the past where cathedrals were valued for their rugged independence, together with an ability to generate a quite distinct vision of the Christian faith for those who attended. In the blog about the problems at Exeter, we saw how the new Cathedrals Measure of 1999 was creating a requirement for efficiency and management skills in its staff rather than for maverick prophetic independence.

The second story also concerns a cathedral, this time Christ Church Oxford. On Friday, 30 September Dr Steven Croft was consecrated as Bishop of the Diocese in the Cathedral. Dr Croft was one of the bishops approached by ‘Michael’, a sexually abused survivor of a priest in the diocese of Bradford during the 80s. There were several bishops seen by Michael and ‘Jo’, another survivor and contributor to this blog, and none of them did anything with the information or even make records of the meetings. During the consecration both Michael and Jo held a protest outside Christ Church about the failure of Dr Croft to act on Michael’s information. During the protest they handed out leaflets to those attending the service. The Dean of Christ Church, Martyn Percy, not only knew about the protest but actively facilitated it. While I am pleased that this protest took place, I should mention the actions and non-actions in 2013 by Dr Croft were part of the culture of the time. We noted how the church as a whole as well as the House of Bishops was following the advice of its insurers. We are still in the early days of a period in which the Church is promising to put its house in order in this area. It remains to be seen whether the care of victims is actually allowed to take priority over financial and reputational considerations. In a statement to the media, Dr Croft did say that it was vital that Michael should receive proper pastoral care, even though this was not offered in 2013. In my comment in the previous blog on this subject of historic sexual abuse, I suggested that there may well be a rising sense of panic among the bishops at what may come up in the future in terms of new revelations. The failure of Bishop Croft to do the right thing in 2013 perhaps may have been more a reflection of this institutional panic than any personal failure of concern on his part.

Another story which involves Dean Percy and the subject of abuse is that of continuing support for the late Bishop George Bell who died in 1958. He was accused of sexual assault against a young girl. The Bell Society, the lobby group set up to defend his memory, has delivered a petition to Lambeth Palace with 2000 signatures asking that the case be re-examined. The Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, who has responsibility for Safeguarding, has in the past refused to open up the enquiry once more. He fears that sensitive information that was gathered when investigating the original claim of the victim, cannot be shared without causing distress or a betrayal of the victim’s privacy. The situation thus has reached an impasse but my comment remains the same as before. The conclusion that Bishop Bell was a child abuser appears to have been arrived at with a speed which was totally lacking in the cases of Jo and Michael. The observer from outside, such as myself, can only wonder whether the speed and finality of the Chichester enquiry reflects an over-enthusiasm for coming to a quick decision for financial reasons. Historically the Church has been far more notable for dragging its feet in these situations.

A sentence or two should be given to yet another allegation of historic child sexual abuse in the diocese of Chichester during the 1980s by a member of a church at a place called Warnham. It has to be commented that the Diocese seems to have been the home to so many child abusers that one can almost talk about a culture of abuse in Chichester. Another way of saying the same thing is to suggest that this horrible crime in some way had become almost institutionalised. In saying this one has to suspect that guilt lies not only with perpetrators but with other non-abusers who chose not to see what was going on in their midst. Among those have to be the leaders of the Diocese whose lack of care of the parishes makes them, in part, complicit in the horrors of the time.

I should record that information from Trinity Brentwood, the subject of an extensive report in November 2015, has dried up. I have attempted, without success, to contact Nigel Davies the blog master. If anyone reading this blog has any information about what is going on in Brentwood or with Nigel Davies, I will be very pleased to hear from you.

Encountering God in Exodus

exodus-7_2From time to time I feel it important for this blog to engage with the actual text of Holy Scripture. Those who have been following my blog for some time will know that I am concerned to share with my readers, not what the learned commentators say, but what is contained in the actual text. It is in close examination of the words of Scripture that we find sometimes it difficult not to challenge some of the cosy assumptions and cliché-ridden observations made by many conservative preachers. Among these assumptions is that the Bible is totally consistent in what it teaches and that it presents an accurate guide to the history of the Jewish people. Such claims and assumptions sometimes can be the cause of confusion and misunderstanding when set against the received wisdom of students and teachers of the Bible over the last two hundred years.

Recently I picked up a book at a remainder bookshop in Oxford on the Christian faith. This drew my attention to an interesting observation about the book of Exodus. The author observed how much variety there is in the understanding of the nature of God, commonly called Yahweh, in Exodus. When God is encountered by Moses in the burning bush in chapters 3 and 4, it is striking how little interest he has in individual human beings. He is a God who controls history and the fate of the people he has chosen. He is a God who will play the role of saviour and rescuer of a nation; he will free them from the Egyptians. Although he is going to work signs and wonders on behalf of this nation, there is no suggestion that he is concerned to relate individually to any of them. There is also no hint at this point in the story that any kind of moral response is required from his people, beyond recognising him as their Lord. When God is represented as showing anger at Moses, the anger is not for some moral failing. Rather it is because Moses has had the temerity to argue with God (4.13).

We meet a somewhat different understanding of God on the occasion of the giving of the Ten Commandments in chapter 20. Here in the Commandments we have a fairly full list of all the moral demands being made by God of his people so that they would keep their side of the covenant relationship with him. Of particular interest is the injunction in verse 5. The Israelites are told not to worship idols and the reason is given for this command is that God is jealous. Failure to observe this commandment will result in punishment. This is not just for the perpetrator but God will ‘punish the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generations …’ Clearly betrayal is regarded as the supremely unforgivable offence. It is also interesting to note that reference is made in verse 6 to the idea that keeping the commandments of God is a way of expressing love towards him. No reciprocal love from God to humans is mentioned. There is in fact nothing at all in this chapter to indicate God wants to show any form of love for his people. Rather we read in verse 20 that God intends to keep his people from sin by putting fear into them. In Moses’s words ‘God has come only to test you, so that the fear of him may remain with you and keep you from sin’.

A third encounter with God or Yahweh in the book of Exodus produces yet another set of emphases about his nature. This is found in chapter 34 .6-7. Moses goes up the mountain and God passes in front of him and makes the following statement about who he is. ‘Yahweh, a God compassionate and gracious, long-suffering, ever constant and true, maintaining constancy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, rebellion and sin, and not sweeping the guilty clean away; but one who punishes sons and grandsons to the third and fourth generation for the iniquity of their fathers.’ In this passage which continues the idea from the Ten Commandments passage about punishment being enacted on descendants for several generations, we clearly have a refreshingly new teaching about God. The passage introduces us to a series of adjectives never before used in the Book of Exodus and all of these imply an interest on the part of God in relating to humanity. In this passage we begin to see a presentation of the nature of God which is recognisably the same as presented to us by Jesus.

I have not consulted learned commentaries to discover what they say on this subject of these contrasting views of the nature of God in Exodus. For liberal scholars there are, in any case, no problems in noting these different, even contrasting, insights. It is to be expected that people of different times and places would have a different take on the nature of God. Exodus, it is widely recognised in mainstream scholarship, is a multi-source document rather than one composed by a single author. This common-place observation would however be challenged by many conservative scholars, particularly those from the States. They would want to continue in the claim that Exodus (and the entire Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) was penned by the figure of Moses. In supporting that traditional viewpoint, such commentators have to struggle with the entirely futile task of explaining why Moses should have changed message so radically and comprehensively in such a short space of time. There are course a variety of other problems in claiming that the book of Exodus is given us by the divinely inspired authorship of Moses. The laws about slavery, for example, which are contained in chapter 21 immediately after the Ten Commandments, do not fit well into any moral code that is appropriate today. Can we ever imagine piercing a slave through the ear to the door post as is suggested in chapter 21.6 and that this is God’s will for all time? Are we ever going to pronounce the death sentence on the teenager who strikes one of his parents? These and other passages continue to haunt those of us who are familiar with the totality of Scripture. In practice most people deal with these passages by pretending that they do not exist. At the same time many are still heard to utter that the entire Bible represents the mind and words of God himself. Have those who make such claims really engaged themselves with the reality of every passage? I somehow doubt it.

Our short excursus into the book of Exodus has been to indicate that teaching about God can be seen to change radically in the course of one biblical document. The obvious explanation which fits the facts is that Exodus, as is also true for Genesis, is a multi-source document. Every clergyman knows about these theories of ‘source-hypothesis’ from their training but few, sadly, share the interesting fruits of this study with their congregations. Congregations are often left to think that the Bible is not ‘true’ because they are vaguely aware of the existence of ‘higher criticism’. They are seldom taught to handle it. In contrast conservative preachers continue, in spite of all the problems, to cling to doctrines of inerrancy which support the traditional authorship of Moses. They also have no apparent problem in presenting Exodus as entirely historical. It is unlikely that such conservative teachers will ever point out the problems caused by the texts that I have shared with my readers today. I leave my reader with this conundrum. Do we hold a conservative doctrine of biblical inspiration which creates massive problems of history, theology and moral coherence in the nature of God? Do we really want a doctrine of the Bible which has the effect of turning God sometimes into a bloodthirsty vengeful tyrant? Alternatively, do we accept that God reveals himself in a variety of different ways to different people at different times (including our own) without having to claim each and every revelation is always binding on us for all time?