Monthly Archives: November 2016

Is the Bible sometimes bad news?

Thinking about the BibleThe answer to the question in the title of this blog post is a qualified yes. The Bible is bad news whenever it is used to prop up abusive and tyrannical power practices on the part of corrupt Christian leaders.

As we know the Bible is rightly treated as authoritative by all Christian churches. But for us to say that Scripture is the ultimate source for all Christian belief and understanding is not the same as saying that we always find in it clear guidelines for human behaviour. Anyone who has made even a start in reading the Bible for themselves (sadly that is not true of most Christians) will know that there are numerous problems of interpretation and application. Listening to Scripture being read and interpreted in a church service will provide an understanding only of what one individual preacher believes about the Bible. That interpretation may be sound as well as edifying but equally it may be more a reflection of the minister’s own special preoccupations and interests than what is there in the text. Such personal interpretations will sometimes be distorted by unconscious bias, whether theological or personal. When an individual minister desires to have power over his congregation, thereby satisfying some craving for importance, then we have a serious problem. Some, if not most, abuses of power in a church will be perpetrated by a minister who knows how to quote Scripture for his own purposes. The pulpit, in other words, can be a place of power, and the sermon used to enforce loyalty to a leader or to prevent members from leaving.

One of the ways that individuals within a congregation are controlled by the leadership is through the fact that the ministers there have appropriated for themselves the position of speaking on behalf of God. They have become the experts in his Word. Everyone else will be expected to defer to this expertise and superior knowledge of Scripture. Knowing Scripture well is deemed to give the minister access to the very mind of God. This authority is of course backed up by selected verses from Scripture. A typical one will be Psalm 105 v. 15. Leaders are here referred to as anointed ones.

We see how a minister has subtly acquired extensive power over his congregation in two stages. He has, first of all, appealed to the frequently made claim that Scripture is inerrant or infallible. From his attendance at Bible College the preacher is then able to claim the high ground of being an expert interpreter of all this material. If this authority to know and speak the Word of God is accepted by the congregation, then it will be difficult for anyone ever to question the detail of how Scripture is in fact understood. People get used to the idea that to hear what God wants to say to them, they have to submit, not to what the Bible actually says, but what the Bible is represented by the preacher to say. The congregation become passive consumers of authoritative sermons preached week by week. The whole process could be summarised by the statement ‘if you want to follow Jesus follow me’. The culture of many conservative churches seems almost to encourage a congregation to worship the minister as the mediator of God’s Word and God’s will rather than travel any spiritual journey of their own.

The moment that a leader is understood to present through his words the actual mind of God, then it will be a short time before he delegates this supernatural authority to other people of his own choosing. The divinely appointed leader will normally have an inner circle who will enjoy a special status of being close to him. Many of these will be flattered by the attention of the spirit filled leader and will do almost anything to hang on to the privilege of retaining this level of favour. By being close to the centre of things, the centre of divine power, the individuals concerned will achieve an enormous boost to the self-esteem. From the outside, it will be suspected that the leader has chosen these particular individuals, not for their spiritual maturity, but for their ability to be easily manipulated and controlled. Their status at the centre may be just as easily withdrawn when the mood of the leader changes to prefer another group of followers.

We have already seen how an interpretation of certain passages of the Bible has given a position of enormous power to a Christian leader. Through them he would wish to claim that he is close to God and indeed can speak for him. In the same way he will extract from Scripture other passages which emphasise his demand for unquestioning obedience on the part of the congregation. Words like submission and obedience start to become current in the accepted discourse of Bible believing congregations. Such words are often a prelude for abusive control. When we were looking at the ideas of Michel Foucault in a previous post, we noted that power abuse does not need to be constantly asserted to be effective and strong. The congregation has, over a period, learnt to accept as normal the idea that submission to the leader is submission to God. Control and surveillance by those in authority over a congregation has now become an internalised process which is operative in every member. Even if one individual wants to question or stray from these internalised ideas and assumptions of this authority structure, there will always be other people around to coerce the nonconforming person back into line. In Foucauldian language the church is operating in accordance with a ‘discourse’ of obedience and conformity to ministerial power. Ministerial power itself is rooted in a selection of texts from Scripture. But, as we have seen, these have been read in the context of a thoroughly fundamentalist and uncritical understanding of Scripture.

A third form of pressure on each individual within a fundamentalist church group is the constant plea for unity. Without doubt the Bible tells us that unity is something that is desirable and part of God’s will. ‘The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body’. The message is clear: Christians belong to one another and they must do nothing to upset the state of unity that God wills for his church. But once again this discourse is and can be used to control and manipulate individuals, as well as destroy independent thinking. How can one ever raise questions within a congregation when the response will be an accusation of plotting to destroy the unity of the body of Christ?

We have identified three ways in which the Bible can be used as an abusive weapon against individual members of a church who are perceived as a threat by an insecure church leader. Once a follower has bought into the widely-held premise that the words of Scripture are the very words of God himself, a leader under threat and the church structure can move in quickly to disempower him/her and possibly abuse this individual whenever they wish. The Bible as a tool for control, obedience and the creation of a passive unquestioning unity is a very powerful weapon of potential abuse. When a survivor has, with great difficultly, extracted herself from such an abusing church, she may well ask: ‘How did I fall into the control of that leader?’ The answer that we have indicated is that the moment the Bible is given an infallibility which it does not deserve, there is a logical path clearly laid out for unscrupulous narcissistic leaders. They can easily take advantage of their position as power brokers of God and move in to control for their own purposes and for their own ends anyone in that church when they so wish. A belief in an infallible Bible is not just an item of doctrine; it is a potentially distorting and destructive idea, capable of causing many to stumble. The inerrant Bible can always be a weapon of power when interpreted by power-addicted leaders. Sadly they will always be among us and we must learn to be alert to them whenever they appear.

The power of flattery – Newcastle NSW continued

christ-church-cathedralAbout 30 years ago, a clergyman was describing to me his arrival in a new parish. The parish was in a particularly wealthy part of the Cotswolds and many of the notable parishioners entertained each other with lavish dinners fuelled with copious amounts of wine. The new Vicar found himself invited to one of these events. He suspected that he was in fact being socially evaluated to discover whether he belonged to the mysterious group which he described as PLU (People Like Us). It is not clear whether he passed this test but there were other forms of scrutiny that were going on during this dinner party. He was told about the history of his church and the way things, from the perspective of his hosts, had always been run. There was more than a subtle hint that these arrangements for organising the church worked extremely well and there would be no need for any changes in the future. Alongside all the charm and the sumptuous hospitality there was also a veiled threat and subtext. If you change things, we, the socially powerful members of the church, will make life difficult for you in the future. The clergyman describing this scene did not conform to these subtle threats. He started to run the church with the needs of all his parishioners in mind rather than just the small group who had been organising things for a long time. The invitations to dinner dried up very quickly.

I was reminded of this anecdote when I read the account of Greg Thompson, the Bishop of Newcastle in Australia. The main part of his story was outlined in the previous post. Having written a hasty account of the drama of his describing how he himself had been sexually abused by a former bishop of the diocese, I went back to read again his verbatim statement. I had remembered in it a similar account of socially powerful people attempting to manipulate the bishop in his early days in office. Bishop Thompson arrived in his diocese at the beginning of 2014. He was of course aware of the historic issue of child abuse in the diocese, but the information he possessed was only what he had gleaned from the media. He decided to conduct a listening process across the diocese, meeting laypeople in the evenings and clergy during the day. He was asking people what they believed to be the priorities of the diocese and the kind of leadership they expected from him. What he found disturbed him. There was still an enormous amount of sympathy for the clergy who had been disciplined under his predecessor for the sexual abuse of children. The plight of their victims seemed to be ignored. In his first nine months, the Bishop also accepted several social invitations from prominent lay people. On every occasion, he again heard the same message from his hosts. From their perspective, the disciplining and defrocking of the clergy involved with paedophilia had been far too harsh. It was now his task to restore them. All those who putting pressure on Bishop Thompson had bought into the narrative that there was a hidden motive in his predecessor – homophobia. It seemed to be a convenient accusation rather than one based on any kind of evidence. They seemed unable to grasp the enormity of the damage that these clergy had caused by their behaviour.

As a response to this moral blindness on the part of some of his church people, Bishop Thompson arranged for two men, victims of sexual abuse, to speak to the 350 members of Diocesan Synod about their experiences. The response in the main was of overwhelming support for the victims. Various motions were put in place to ensure that good child protection policies would exist in the future. At the same time others were highly critical and questioned whether digging up the past served any useful purpose. This group felt that attention to survivors was bringing shame on the diocese. Pressure from this small faction intensified after the Bishop went public with the story of his own abuse in 2015. Letters were written both to the Royal Commission and to the leaders of the Anglican Church in Australia. These cast aspersions on both his character and his competence to act as a bishop in the church.

During 2015, a distinguished former Chancellor of the University at Newcastle, Professor Trevor Waring came to see Bishop Thompson. He recounted how he had been publicly shunned and shamed because he had been involved in the disciplinary process against the defrocked Dean Graham Lawrence and others. Others, including the Professional Standards Director and his staff, had had their property vandalised. The harassment extended to threatening emails and a campaign of rumour and hearsay against the Bishop himself and his staff. There was a suggestion in the proceedings of the Commission that such behaviour was being fermented and coordinated by the former Dean himself. It was also alleged that meetings were taking place among the members of the congregation still favourable to the former Dean.

In reading of the painful way that certain members of the Cathedral congregation had turned on their Bishop after initially welcoming him, I was reminded of my earlier anecdote from the Cotswolds. Some people will smile and try to flatter you into colluding with their wishes. When they do not get their way, they may turn on you and use their social power to undermine and attack you. The use of power in this situation is every bit as strong as when making a direct angry threat. It is, however apparent that the sympathy of the Commission was firmly with the Bishop. It was recognised that he along with the Professional Standards Director and his assistant Bishop had worked hard ‘to promote social justice rather than pomp and ceremony’. In contrast to the behaviour of a powerful minority of church people, the wider public have applauded the stand of the Bishop in this area. To quote the final words of the questioner: ‘in coming forward and making public your own abuse to provide an example to others that they can do the same, you seem to have given a voice to people who could not previously speak, or perhaps in some cases could speak but not be heard. If I might be permitted an indulgence, can I say that that fact, in combination with the pastoral care and support that you have provided directly and in good grace, whether on the streets of Newcastle or in the corridors of this Royal Commission, to many survivors of abuse and their families – I think it can be fairly said that there are many people who would be very pleased that you did come to this diocese and at the hour in which you did.’ The Bishop’s response was simply: ‘And I have drawn courage from them’.

The Royal Commission hearing from which we have drawn material happened only on November 24th. It demands our attention as well as our sympathy and prayers. May the cause of right, justice and light prevail in the place of darkness and moral confusion that seems to have infected a group of Christians on the other side of the world.

Another bishop stands up to bullying

thompsonOver the past couple of years, I have been following on and off the proceedings of the Royal Commission in Australia which is seeking to uncover the truth about child abuse. Recently the commission has been listening to evidence about the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle in New South Wales. It is, like the stories of other churches, a story of cover-ups, abuse and long-term denial. Over the last 24 hours, however, this story has taken a particularly dramatic turn. The Anglican Bishop of Newcastle, Greg Thompson, has spoken to the commission about his personal experience of being an abuse victim at the hands of senior clergy in the Newcastle diocese. As a young man seeking ordination he revealed that he was sexually abused by the then Bishop, Ian Shevill. This abuse took place while watching a film with another priest named as Eric Barker. He also took part in the assault.

The Bishop had originally revealed some of this information in a radio interview in 2015. His giving evidence to the commission cost him a great deal and he broke down in tears while giving his evidence. Because of these experiences, he had arrived in the diocese in 2014 determined to continue the work of his predecessor and uncover the networks of paedophilia in the diocese and in the cathedral. A former Dean of the cathedral, Graeme Lawrence and two other priests had been removed from office in 2012. The task of working to ‘clean up’ the scandal-ridden diocese was impeded by the efforts of powerful laypeople in the diocese who were apparently determined to suppress any attempts to uncover the full truth. The situation at present is that the Bishop feels unwelcome in his own Cathedral because of this level of opposition. It is of course an appalling situation for him to face.

This is a shorter blog than usual as I want to leave my readers with the moral conundrum of what should ideally happen in this situation. Should the Bishop continue to face up to his opponents and push on to provide truth and light in the place of supressed evil? Standing up to bullies is a costly matter and it may be that the Bishop’s struggle will be at the expense of his mental health and well-being. The Royal Commission will be making its observations in due course and we hope that Bishop Thompson will be vindicated in his struggle to bring this tragic tale of cover-up and abuse to some kind of conclusion. Meanwhile we are left to wonder about the psychology of a group of powerful individuals who feel the need to blame victims of sexual abuse in their attempt to protect their influence and power.

Yesterday I was speaking to someone about this blog and they made the straightforward observation that religion and sex often seem to go together. I responded by pointing out that both were ultimately about power. The situation in Australia that is now being uncovered is not just about the evil gratification of some senior churchmen who commit appalling sexual crimes. It is also about institutions which are so enamoured of their power and influence that these can never be challenged. The institution and the positions of those with it must be preserved at all costs even when there are people are being sexually abused and humiliated within that same institution. It is hard to see how the Anglican diocese of Newcastle will easily recover its integrity and good name. The general public will be, no doubt, deeply suspicious of all church people in that area. The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has suffered a similar massive blow to its reputation which will take decades to recover from. In the Australian situation we are not just talking about the sexual abuse of children by churchmen. We are facing the unbelievably ugly face of an institution that even now cannot own up to the sheer hypocrisy of trying to supress and bury truth. Institutional abusive practice on this scale is like a form of cancer which eats right into the very sinews of the church. Can the church in this part of Australia recover from this double evil? It remains to be seen.

Bishop strikes back against GAFCON bullying

salisburyThere is a story in the Church Times this week which may continue to resonate for some time into the future. Those among my readers who read this paper will already be familiar with the story that I am about to set out. In summary, an anonymous briefing paper was sent out by the international conservative Anglican group known as GAFCON to its members. This brief named certain individuals in England who were following lifestyles in contravention of Lambeth 1.10, the 1998 Conference resolution concerned with homosexuality. The list that was published did not contain any new revelations or ‘outings’ but it was still a discourteous and grubby piece of muckraking. It sounded much like a group of bullies in the playground shouting at other children and drawing attention to known problems affecting their families. These individuals named in the briefing paper were known to be in same-sex relationships but who were still in active ministry. The GAFCON spokesman who published this information thought, no doubt, that combining all the names in a single document would somehow strengthen their position by pressurising the Church of England to take action against practising gays. More important, probably, was the way that naming ‘enemies of truth’ is a good way of increasing morale among its own membership. GAFCON can affirm its identity most clearly when it names and shames those people that are part of alien ‘them’. In spite of everything written about the positive things GAFCON stands for, the organisation seems far more to be understood for the way it creates in its members an energy to hate and condemn those it disapproves of.

The organisation we know as GAFCON emerged into the light of day in 2008 at a conference in Jerusalem. The gathering there was to give a voice to conservative Anglicans who felt that the main conference at Lambeth would not be able to articulate their concerns. The number of British participants was fairly few. The bulk of those present came from the Global South. One particular centre of GAFCON strength is to be found in Australia, especially the diocese of Sydney under its then ultra conservative Archbishop, Peter Jensen. As a theological network we can describe GAFCON as the international face of Reform, which in Britain is the most Calvinist expression of Anglican evangelicalism. The number of British congregations supporting Reform and thus GAFCON is relatively small. However, the ones who do are often extremely wealthy and influential within their own dioceses. Many of the leaders of these congregations have been trained at Oak Hill Theological College. This college is linked with the more powerful institution of Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. One thing that has not been clearly determined is whether the congregations themselves are fully behind all the conservative pronouncements of their leaders who are active in the national body of Reform. I recently had a conversation with someone who lives in Oxford. She made the comment that the laity of two large conservative congregations in that city were not always happy with the pronouncements of their leaders. A focus on Reformation theology and being totally orthodox in matters of theology, is not always something that is particularly attractive to the ordinary lay members. This particular style of conservative theology, in other words, does not get implanted in peoples’ minds as it would in a cult situation. Ordinary people can continue to think for themselves and preserve independent opinions in an otherwise highly authoritarian environment. In a place like Oxford this independence of thought is believed to be still very much alive and intact.

It is the position of this particular blog post that while the charismatic evangelicals represented by the Alpha course and Holy Trinity Brompton have considerable power within British Anglicanism, the same cannot be said for those Conservative Evangelicals in Reform who focus on Puritan and Calvinist orthodoxy. Charisma and the excitements of modern Christian music are far easier to sell than the dry certainties of reformation-style theology. But what the leaders of Reform and GAFCON in Britain lack in numbers, they make up through their effective organisational skills. They are particularly good at representing their views to a press which always finds it easier to report on church divisions than on unity. I would hazard a guess that the total number of Calvinist evangelicals who are theologically literate may add up to the low hundreds. Their claim to speak for the bulk of evangelicals in Britain is a highly contestable one. In the case of this GAFCON briefing paper released in the past weeks, we may see it as crude and unprofessional and likely to decrease respect for their position on the part of many thoughtful Christians. The wider official body of the Church of England, because it has the organisational restraints of a large body, can seldom respond quickly to the kind of provocation contained in this GAFCON paper. So it takes the personal intervention of the Bishop of Salisbury, Nicholas Holtam, to articulate what many people think about this cheap GAFCON attack on the Church of England. Bishop Nicholas has divided his response into four sections. In point one he observes that Jesus never attacked individuals he thought to be in error. This kind of naming of individuals in encourages a climate of fear and opens them up to abuse by others. His second point was to point out the inaccuracies of the statement. The original Lambeth 1.10 resolution called upon the church to minister pastorally and sensitively to all regardless of sexual orientation. By implication this rules out publishing list of supposedly offending individuals. His third point discusses the implications of loving our enemies. To love someone, even those who disagree with us is to look for the best motives in their actions rather than the worst. Finally, he notes that the Lambeth resolution openly acknowledged the fact that it was difficult for the Lambeth bishops to come to a common mind on this matter. It was recognised that much more work needed to be done to discern the mind of Christ in this area of the church’s life. As an aside, Bishop Nicholas pointed to the repeated ways in which members of GAFCON themselves have violated the spirit of the Lambeth resolution. No doubt he was referring to such actions as Anglican leaders in Africa pressing their governments to persecute the gay members of their societies through a change in the law.

Bishop Nicholas’s outspoken intervention against GAFCON is an important one in the ongoing saga of the church seeking truth in the face of bullying and power games. It is still more important in a world increasingly dominated by political and theological extremism. After the election of Donald Trump and the revitalisation of the extreme right in politics and religion, it is important for churches, wherever possible, to articulate a nuanced and moderate presentation of the mystery of God. Although this blog only makes the tiniest of contributions to this cause of moderation, rationality and human kindness, it is still a necessary undertaking. The Bishop’s leadership in pointing out the crudity and sheer bad manners in of the GAFCON position is an encouragement to all of us who reject any attempt to use the Bible as a tool with which to bully others. Moral debate is not solved by crude Bible quoting taken out of context without any attempt to understand the cultural and theological background of the texts. The attempt to control the weak by this kind of crude manipulation must always be resisted in favour of wisdom, truth and insight. We look to a new generation of leaders who understand the true meaning of leadership and that it is never an exercise in control and manipulation. Such leadership will always seek to guide and serve those who want to follow the way and the spirit of Christ.

Power in church institutions -fresh insights

churchRecently I have been struggling my way through an important book on Christian fundamentalism as it is experienced in Australia. This is for the purposes of a book review. The author, Josie McSkimming, is looking at the stories of 20 individuals who have successfully escaped their membership of a variety of fundamentalist groups in the Sydney area. The book is distinctive for the way that it presents Christian fundamentalism, using fresh categories of analysis and description. This examination of the structures of these Christian groups utilises the terminology and ideas of Michel Foucault. As a philosopher and historian of ideas Foucault is no easy read. What I will be able to share in this blog post will be only the beginning of an impression of his ideas. The reason that I believe him to be of great importance to our blog is that he is deeply interested in the issue of power. His interest in this theme is both historical and contemporary. McSkimming shows how power in its Foucauldian sense is not something as crude as a single individual exercising influence over others. Rather power is something which is dispersed throughout any institution. When we examine the case of a conservative Christian group, we can see how power is not only about authoritarian control but it is also something experienced inside each of the members. The conversion experience which provided the way into the Christian group is not only a matter of a new relationship with God for the individual. It has also transformed the individual self to become part of a new social order. In other words, the converted Christian has allowed him/herself to be part of a social structure which embodies within itself strict rules of discourse and controls over behaviour. Real power exists within these structures of discourse and assumptions. The individual conscience and the decision-making power of the committed member will now be expected to internalise the values and beliefs of the group. The individual is no longer thinking of themselves as ‘I’ but as ‘we’. When this internalisation is working as it should, coercive power on the part of leaders is seldom needed to enforce conformity. Week by week the teaching of the group message will help to reinforce these group values. Also, the internal policeman that every member has appropriated for themselves to guide their beliefs and conduct will also provide a restraint over any fellow members in the event of their going ‘off-message’. To summarise, as a member of such a group you will have taken on a new personality, and this personality is one was created and is now sustained by the systems of group power.

It is interesting to read in McSkimming’s book how the 20 individuals managed to escape from the structure of their conservative groups in Australia. In several cases there was the recognition that they possessed an unacceptable identity, one which could not be articulated within the group – that of the homosexual. The discourse of the group demanded a conformity only to controlled and approved forms of sexuality. Those who knew that they would never be able to fit in with this control found that they were living in a permanent state of dissonance with the group. A nonconformist sexuality in this way allowed them to preserve intact a suppressed area of identity which the group could never possess. This double life or sense of dissonance provided a firm foundation from which to gradually re-assert their pre-group self over the group personality. The path out of the various groups was never straightforward but in each case the individual found some core part of the personality which the group had not destroyed. That provided the means for creating an ideological or emotional resistance to the group system, eventually leading to escape. McSkimming describes in the words of her interviewees the tremendous sense of liberation experienced when the individual finally broke free of the bonds of the old repressive Christian group identity. They recovered the ability to speak of themselves as ‘I’.

Although we have suggested that the power in these conservative Christian groups was exercised without obvious coercion, it is interesting to note how there are still mechanisms of control. One idea from Foucault, relevant to McSkimming’s study, is the idea of pastoral power. In a typical conservative or cultic group, a controlling technique is to insist on obedience and personal submission to leaders. This will involve a form of confession and will ensure that the leader knows the internal workings of the mind of every follower. This will make difficult any kind of disloyal or independent thought. A follower in this sort of relationship will naturally become more fully meshed in the power dynamics of the group. They will never find it easy to reclaim the pre-group personality.

I am still working my way to make sense of these Foucauldian ideas from McSkimming’s book but I have already identified that they are valuable to us for two main reasons. First they provide new insights into the dynamics of conservative/fundamentalist groups. Foucault suggests that power in such groups is dispersed and control is far more subtly organised than many have understood. Secondly we can see that this idea of dispersed power is of importance in any investigation into religious institutions. It would be tidy if all power in a church or cathedral was given to the person/s nominally in charge. In fact, we need to recognise how power exists in many places within any institution. The important thing is to name and identify where power is actually to be found rather than pretending that there are always clear lines of authority at work. Our account of York Minster identified how much power seem to exist among one group, the bell-ringers. Unchallenged, that power had grown over decades to become a destabilising focus within the whole institution. Our analysis of Exeter Cathedral and its problems suggests that a dysfunctional situation had arisen there again because of the way power was being exercised in an untidy unpredictable way. I suggested that the problem was not just one of personalities but the way that the Cathedrals Measure of 1999 had set up structures of power within cathedrals which are unlikely ever to work successfully. Blaming the individuals within institutions when they are struggling to make impossible structures work, is probably never the best solution.

One thing I take from Michel Foucault is that it is important to identify in a dispassionate way how power actually is operating in any institution. The people who work within an institution which has run into problems are not the people to do this work. They are caught up in the subjectivity of the power relationships and they will not ever be able to see exactly what is going on. It takes the outsider, one perhaps familiar with Foucault’s ideas, to analyse, interpret and disentangle the complexities of power relationships. When these are laid bare and exposed to the light of day, it may then be possible to engage everyone concerned in a possible process of recalibration. The problem will always be that power relationships within institutions are normally hidden and often unacknowledged. They are hidden because of human frailty, petty jealousies and competition. When power dynamics are hidden from view they will sometimes undermine and even destroy the individuals caught up in them. In the case of larger institutions, such as cathedrals, we risk the demoralisation and even destruction of highly gifted people. They are trying to work within a system which we suggested is inherently dysfunctional and unable to deal with its issues of power.

Trump wins support of 81% white evangelicals

trump2This time a week ago I was writing about the alliance between prominent evangelical leaders in America and Donald Trump. I was still hoping, together with most of my readers I suspect, that the Trump victory would not take place and that, even if it did, the evangelical vote would be split. It now appears that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. It seems that I was wrong in supposing that many of them would not want to identify with Trump’s cavalier attitude to morality and especially in his behaviour towards women. Somehow Trump’s overall appeal was greater than any disgust felt by the voters towards his behaviour, his racism and demeaning attitudes against minorities.

What was the secret of Trump’s appeal to this large group of God-fearing citizens in America? In my reading over the past few days I believe that I have found the main trigger which provided much of his support among evangelical as well as among Catholic voters. The key point is to be found his robust comments on the topic of abortion. In what was probably a deliberate exaggeration, he promised to lock up women who had illegal abortions. Even if this promise proves to be an example of Trump rhetoric, like so many of his other comments, it seems to have hit a chord among his supporters. The topic of abortion and gay marriage will always arouse deep passions among those who can be numbered among conservative Christian believers, both Catholic and Protestant.

Why is abortion such a defining issue among so many conservative Christians around the world, but particularly in America? To answer this, we need to go back to a fundamental human reality, the differences and indeed rivalries between men and women. I realise that I am walking in a vulnerable area of discourse where it is dangerous to make sweeping statements or generalisations. I hope that I am not wrong to observe that many men are threatened by the feminine and feminism. Women operate in a different way to men and men find this unsettling. Throughout history and across cultures men have wanted to control women to lessen this sense of not being in charge and in control of what they identify as a threatening other. In one book I read some time ago there was a further idea suggested to account for this inter-sex rivalry. Every man alive has some memory of being under the control of a woman – his mother. This memory of utter powerlessness and vulnerability is an unsettling one but it may offer some explanation of why many men across cultures feel a need to engage in a range of controlling activities over women. Somewhere in the mix is also the way that men want to control female sexuality. One of the most extreme acts of control against a woman, female genital mutilation, seems to be a sign of how men are terrified of something they cannot either understand or share. The fact that women are entrusted with the actual task of mutilating young girls does not remove it from being a patriarchal act, sanctioned by generations of misogynistic attitudes.

In the States the attempt to deny women abortions under any circumstances seems to have little to do with an abhorrence of child murder. To deny abortion seems to have far more to do with controlling women and denying them choices. This political mindset that attacks abortion seems content to condone the state execution of criminals and the waging of war. If we accept that the anti-abortion position is less a moral position than one among a whole cluster of attitudes designed to put women in a subordinate place, the power of the moral argument changes quite radically. One does not have to be a supporter of abortion to find some of the underlying objections from ‘Christian’ sources to be rooted in some obnoxious and foul smelling prejudice.

The rhetoric against abortion and indeed gay marriage is right at the heart of a right wing Trumpian appeal to men, particularly the economically disadvantaged. More generally there is a call for a return to and a nostalgia for the 1950s. At that time men alone provided for their families leaving their women and children at home. Being the breadwinners the men accepted complete financial responsibility and at the same time control of their families. The man’s status as head of the family was assured and his self-esteem was secure. Since the 1950s there have been profound social revolutions. Employment has become far less secure; women have been going out to work for decades, in some cases earning more than the men. This loss of status for many working class white men has been a profound trauma and anybody or anything that can restore this lost status will be welcomed by this large group among the American population.

Many evangelical churches also offer to their supporters the possibility of living in a world which promises certainties and access to self-esteem. The certainties on offer may not be economic in nature but they are alluring nonetheless. The male married man is encouraged to think of himself as the divinely anointed head of the family and this authority is backed up by frequent sermons on how important it is for the wife and children to be his subordinates. It is indeed a sin for anyone or anything to act against this divinely appointed system. A belief in this divinely ordained structure for human families is at the heart of why most conservative Christians oppose both abortion and gay marriage with such energy. Both these practices undermine the solid rock of biblical-ordained patriarchal marriage. This has and always will be a key aspect of the teaching of most conservative churches. Without it the interconnection between bible truths and practical Christian living is challenged. The ability of churches to operate as havens of reassurance and safety amid rapid social change, particularly for men, is undermined. For some reason that is not clear to me, it is not only men that find this traditional teaching attractive but also quite a few women. Not being a woman I do not understand why all women are not at least in part feminists. Clearly many are not and somehow some find comfort and affirmation in being subordinate and obedient to male husbands and male pastors.

Donald Trump in 2016 appealed to a large swathe of the American population to vote for him and this included the vast majority of white evangelical Christians. He was offering them what I believe was a fantasy – namely that with him they could return to a safer more secure world. This fantasy world of certainties is similar to the one that is successfully promised in many churches. The message is: ‘come here and you will be able to find the answers to all life’s stresses and problems; decisions about life and its meaning will be made on your behalf by others wiser than yourself. Trust the Bible to have all the answers. You will be guided by experts and interpreters of the same Bible who will be your teachers and mentors. With them you will be able successfully to negotiate life without the stress of not knowing the answers.’ Sadly, as this blog is often reminding its readers, this promise is illusory. What is in fact happens to the followers in such churches is a massive extinction of human freedom. In the place of true human flourishing is found a mindless obedience and conformity to systems of power and repression. It remains to be seen whether the millions of people who have surrendered to these kinds of blandishments, as promised by countless churches and by Donald Trump, will eventually wake up. When they wake up they may see what has been done to them through the skilful use of lies, propaganda and rhetoric. Let us hope so.

The Trials of Robert Skynner

Robert Skynner is an individual that I do not know personally. However I have been viewing his series of videos on Youtube about church abuse for some time. He lives in the south west of England and has been posting videos on this and other topics. The ones that are of interest to our blog are particularly those connected with his involvement with some of the independent Pentecostal churches in his home area. His perspective is sharpened by the fact that he has a degree in theology from a Scottish university and this enables him to comment from a position of theological insight. His purpose in producing these videos is to show up the hypocrisy and some extraordinary theological teachings in this cluster of churches. The hypocrisy that he identifies is in the fact that certain church leaders admit to sexual misbehaviour of various kinds including addiction to pornography, adultery and the protection of a convicted paedophile. While he has not been sued for slander, because the facts of the claims are not contested, this attempt to publicise these facts has got him into trouble with the police. He is due to appear in court on November 18 charged with harassment without violence.

I shall not of course give any more detail about the individuals whom Robert is accused of harassing. Nevertheless, his involvement with and insight into these churches is extremely interesting from the point of view of this blog. The critiques that he makes of these congregations and their leaders come under two headings. In the first place he is extremely critical of some of the theology taught by the leaders. In addition he has a great deal of inside information about the sexual shenanigans which seem to be out of control among some of the leadership in these churches. Because of their heresy and immorality, these churches are, he believes, fatally undermined in their witness to Christian values.

It would of course be wrong of me to suggest that the situation that Robert has identified in these particular congregations is in any way general across the country. One has, however, to ask how often does someone with Robert’s insights actually get involved in such independent unsupervised congregations? To put the question another way, how many congregations with crassly narcissistic leaders who specialise in accumulating money as well as seducing female members of the congregation are called to account? These are not the sort of places where people with education, let alone degrees in theology attend. We may imagine that there are areas in Britain other than the one in the South West, where scenarios, such as those Robert describes, take place. These do not normally reach the public domain because the people who continue to attend either do not have the stamina or the education to stand up to such tyrannical and hypocritical behaviour. The individuals who might have stood up to such abuse have long since walked away. But, by doing so, they have left the evils of abuse to ferment and grow.

Robert’s dedication to exposing the inner corruption of one particular group of churches would probably need to be described as obsessive. But, in using this word, I am not meaning in any way to be critical of him. Struggling against any kind of tyranny is hard and normally unrewarding. You will be vilified, attacked and shunned in ways that you never thought possible at the hands of so called Christians. Just as John Langlois’ report about Peniel opened the lid on decades of cruel and tyrannical behaviour on the part of Michael Reid so Robert Skynner has also opened up something which might so easily have remained buried for ever. We need to applaud him for the obsessiveness with which he has undertaken this important work. Another individual, whose name I will not give, suffered a nervous breakdown in her attempts to support Robert in this work.

His degree in theology from a Scottish university has meant that Robert is far more sensitised to aberrations within Pentecostal teaching than I am. He is also aware of a variety of maverick understandings of the doctrine of the Trinity and he himself was a member of a movement called Oneness Pentecostalism for a short time. His YouTube videos spend quite a lot of time critiquing various heretical ideas which he has identified in this group of churches. It is not for me here to go into this aspect in any detail. I mention it to make the point that members of any church which is independent will have to tolerate whatever comes from the pulpit. No one will normally have the background knowledge or courage to challenge anything that is said. I did however notice one item in a doctrinal statement from one of the churches. This spoke of an understanding of the Trinity as being in accordance with Holy Scripture. My own theological understanding immediately wanted to protest that there is in fact no clear doctrine of the Trinity in Holy Scripture. It is a teaching which was gradually worked out over a period of several hundred years in the Early Church. The idea that a fully formed Trinitarian doctrine is found in Scripture is based on a very weak grasp of the Christian tradition.

How did Robert get involved in this network of churches? He tells his story in brief. He had a conversion experience and joined a group of Christians doing street evangelism in city streets some eight years ago. He stayed with them only a matter of months before he found himself completely out of sympathy, both for their strange methods of doing theology and also for the rampant immorality that he found in the group. A particular complaint he has for one of the congregations was the way that a convicted paedophile was allowed to have access to children. The leaders accepted the testimony of the paedophile that he had been converted and was no longer a risk to children. Such naïveté is dangerous and possibly criminal. The individual concerned has now been sentenced to a second period in prison for a repeat offence.

Why do I give Robert Skynner a blog post all on his own? It is because, in spite of his possibly unwise and obsessive behaviour, we have a light shone by into one dark place within the church. The stand that he has taken has demanded levels of courage and perseverance. The price that he is now paying for standing up against hypocrisy and, as he sees it, heresy is a high one. The charge against him, harassment without violence, will probably not lead to a jail sentence but it is still hard to see how he can come out of this situation without suffering a good deal. So far in my writing on abusive church practice, I have not had to engage with any active opposition. Even the writing of my book, Ungodly Fear, did not produce the levels of opposition that I expected. Examples of Christian abuse that I encountered were geographically a long way away from where I lived. I encountered the pain of other people but did not have to experience it at first hand. Robert Skynner has entered the lions’ den of local Christian abuse and hypocrisy. For that he is paying a heavy price.

Looking into an abyss

2016 USA presidential election poster. EPS 10
2016 USA presidential election poster. EPS 10
It is probably impertinent for a British person to be writing any comments about the 2016 American presidential election. But the result, the election of a new American president next Tuesday, does affect all of us wherever we live in the world. From the point of view of this blog we have a special concern for the way that American political thinking from the Right is enmeshed with some of the most reactionary and conservative theological ideas. This gives us reason to be alarmed. A quick review of some Christian websites, however, has given me some cause for hope whatever the outcome next week. Even if Donald Trump is elected as president, it seems to be true that conservative evangelical opinion is in the process of fragmenting over this election. If conservative opinion, whether political or religious, begins to lose its unanimity it becomes far less dangerous to the rest of us than if it remained a totally united front. We should nevertheless all be acutely aware of the constant danger of a juggernaut of right wing political and religious power sweeping all before it in America and then in the rest of the world. As for Trump himself, one conservative supporter has been talking about him as a ‘baby Christian’ who wants to receive forgiveness for his past mistakes. Others have noted that his life is no example of godly living. Cynically one would expect the less savoury parts of his personality to become, in the event of his election, even more apparent. His narcissism, his brashness and his total lack of relevant experience are likely to come into full view in the months following his election. Most of us in the UK who take any interest in these matters will be supporting the flawed but experienced candidate- Hillary Clinton.

One old saying claims that you can tell a person’s character by the company he keeps. A bit of delving on the Internet reveals that there are a variety of evangelical leaders who are prepared to swallow any squeamishness they might feel and support their candidate Trump. Looking at the list of eminent evangelicals who have become identified with Trump’s cause, I find only a few names that I recognise. One name that does come up is the veteran evangelical leader, James Dobson. For over 25 years Dobson was the leader of a Christian ministry called Focus on the Family. This offered advice to parents on how to bring up their children. An early book entitled Dare to Discipline used to sit on my shelves. It was notable for the way that parents were encouraged to use a stick (paddle) to impart godly discipline and follow the teaching of the book of Proverbs. This tradition of using violence as part of the way of bringing up children goes right back to the days of the Puritan Fathers. It is a theme common in Calvinist Protestant thought in America. Also, with his interest in the family Dobson is strongly pro-life. Among the few promises made by Trump which touch on areas of belief, there has been a strong endorsement of the anti-abortion cause. One of the decisive ways through which a president can most affect the values of the nation is in his right to nominate candidates for the Supreme Court. The judges who constitute this Court have the last word on whether abortion and gay marriage are possible in American society.

A second name that is familiar to followers of the American scene is Gerry Falwell Jnr. He is the oldest son of the founder of the Moral Majority, also Gerry Falwell. Falwell Jnr is the President of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world. He is closely identified with the Southern Baptist network and is not afraid to become involved in political issues like his father before him. While many evangelical leaders supported Ted Cruz when he was still a Republican candidate, Falwell has consistently supported Trump since 2012. Among his right-wing conservative views, Falwell is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment which sets out the right to bear arms. He also, bizarrely for a Christian university, allows his students to carry arms on campus. The support for Trump by Falwell is also linked up strongly with his economic opposition to many of Obama’s fiscal policies.

The third name, that of Paula White, will not be known to most UK readers. But her name is well known in the world of religious broadcasting in the States. She is associated and works with many of the big names of the charismatic world, including Benny Hinn. Like most of these charismatic leaders involved in broadcasting, her message is strongly ‘prosperity gospel’. It seems that she was the one who organised a meeting in September between Trump and various other tele-evangelists within her network. She also held a meeting at Trump Tower last year when she cited Isaiah 54, praying that ‘any tongue that rises against Trump will be condemned’. She also told a 10,000 strong rally in Florida that Trump ‘needs to be our next president’.

The final couple that need to be mentioned among Trump supporters, are Kenneth and Gloria Copeland from Texas. Like Paula White this couple are fabulously wealthy prosperity preachers. As with many of their ilk they were targeted by a Senate investigation in 2007. This raised many questions about the tax-free status of their and other similar ministries. Although the Copelands initially supported Ted Cruz, they appear to have thrown their weight behind Trump in more recent months. In a meeting in September the Copelands prayed with Trump that ‘God would give him wisdom according to James I and that God would reveal himself’. This was not, officially speaking, an endorsement of Trump though it is hard to read it any other way.

The two main strands of conservative evangelical opinion, the Calvinist and the Charismatic/Pentecostal are thus represented among those who support Donald Trump for president. It would have been possible, no doubt, to have found other names within these cultures who take another point of view. But it is clear from this rapid survey that some Christians appear to believe that God has given the American Republican party a divine blessing. This is in no way affected by the moral or intellectual suitability of the candidate put forward. The prosperity preachers we have mentioned will, no doubt, have their own particular reasons for supporting the Republican party. There are, in all likelihood, some networks and cosy relationships which allow their wealthy ministries to escape being exposed to detailed scrutiny. For both groups of conservative opinion, the theological issue that seems to dominate their thinking right across the world has nothing to do with the nature of God. It concerns sexuality and family life. Many of us would see this obsession with sex as being much more to do with maintaining male social power than any theological principle. Trump does not appear to have anything to say of theological significance to the voter but he still manages to obtain the support of millions of conservative Christian voters. All he has to do is to hint that he shares the desire of many Americans to retain the social status-quo of the male dominated family.

All of us await the results on Tuesday with trepidation. The one sliver of good news is, as I mentioned at the beginning, that conservative opinion may fragment further if Trump is elected. The sheer inability of many Christians to stomach such an unlikely candidate as representing their Christian values, may mean that in the medium to long term the conservative Christian Right may be weakened. Surely there must be many good Christian people in America who are saying something along these lines. ‘If my Christianity requires my support for such an improbably inexperienced and flawed candidate, then there is something amiss with the system of political life in America as well as those Christian leaders who want to tell me how to vote!.’

Shunning in Church life

shunning I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this whole theme of exclusion and shunning by churches. A reason for writing this present blog post and giving this topic some further discussion is that my previous contribution on this subject is reported to be the first discussion that appears in a Google search combining the words ‘church ’ and ‘shunning’. This fact both surprised and alarmed me. Is this blog really a key source of information and discussion that wants to take seriously the topic of shunning as it is practised in churches?

Another interesting fact that has been shared with me is that shunning, when looked at from the perspective of the church leader who practises it, is simply described as church discipline. Just as some church leaders parade their authority and power to their followers by endlessly quoting a few scriptural passages, so I discovered that church discipline is a process exercised in accordance with Matthew 18.15-18. In this passage, we read of the way in which an erring brother is to be corrected and if necessary excluded because of his obstinate state of sin. The passage is not without its problems from a critical point of view. Tax gatherers, who are mentioned in the passage as being somehow beyond the pale, are, in other parts of the Gospels, often the object of Jesus’s special concern. Also, we have a parable teaching the unlimited forgiveness of God coming immediately after this legalistic section.

This juxtaposition of an apparent command to discipline an erring disciple alongside a parable about unlimited forgiveness is no coincidence as far as I can see. The author of Matthew’s gospel surely means us to understand ‘church discipline’ in the context of God’s generous love and forgiveness. The practitioners of this harsh process of shunning and exclusion today seldom give any hint that they have attempted to put any forgiveness into practice. They do not appear to have even noticed that Matthew 18 overall is far more about generosity and unlimited forgiveness than a brutal exercise of coercive power. The word ‘brutal’ is probably the best word to sum up the effect of excluding and expelling a church member from their social, spiritual and emotional home to which they may have belonged for many years. The cruel and barbaric practice of ‘dis-fellowshipping’ or ‘disconnection’ is likely to have such a profound effect on its victims that they are never heard because the ‘treatment’ has left them mute and powerless. We also wonder how the enlisting of an entire congregation to enforce this exclusion of the ‘guilty’ person is going to do anything to promote the Christian virtues of love, generosity and forgiveness. In short such drastic cruel and inhumane treatment of another person by a Christian leader has very little to do with Matthew 18 or anything recognisably Christian.

There are three further observations about power that I want to make when looking at the process of shunning by a church leader of an individual. First of all, we have noted the incredibly cruel use of power by depriving a person of access to old social and spiritual networks. In addition to this the individual is being effectively told that without the ‘covering’ of the pastor, this ex-member is cut off from the promise of salvation. In short they are being condemned to damnation and eternal punishment. The second aspect of the power abuse which is present in every act of shunning, is the way that the entire congregation is brought into the process. Each member of the congregation is, in effect, ordered to withdraw their affection from the targeted person whether they wish to or not. Another way of putting this is to say that the pastor has ordered them to hate a named individual who may or may not be guilty of a serious offence. The examples that have come to us from the detailed report about Peniel, Brentwood certainly suggest that many shunned people were guilty only of questioning the leadership or refusing to obey some arbitrary command. In other words the Peniel story suggests that shunning or exclusion is used as a weapon of control by leaders who desire total domination of their congregations.

The third part of any act of shunning is the effect on the targeted individual. In many or even most cases the targeted person will feel the weight of shame so severely that they will be unable to be able to hold their head up or face their persecutors. Shame and the weight of a condemnation to a social death is a very heavy burden for anyone to bear. Very often a church, particularly under an oppressive leader, will have no process for launching any kind of appeal against the punishment that has been meted out. As we have seen often in this blog, the situation in many independent fellowships is that the minister or pastor is answerable to no one except God. Since he believes that God gives him direct guidance, he will be unable to contemplate any reconsideration of a judgement that he has made. The power imbalance that exists between the victim of shunning and the leader makes any comeback by that victim almost impossible. In most cases they are psychologically and socially destroyed.

The communication with me about the subject of shunning has allowed me a measure of encouragement for the work of the blog. The fact that my earlier article on shunning in the church appears right at the top of a Google search has allowed me to believe that I must continue to write on these topics in spite of minimal support or interest in these areas of church life. Many Christians appear to be blind and deaf to the suffering of countless people who have become the victims of narcissistic tyranny by some Church leaders. As long as this blindness continues the blog will remain important. There has to be one small corner of the internet where these important issues are talked about and exposed. To misquote the old saying, Evil flourishes where no one wants to admit it exists. Anyone who reads, comments and thinks about these issues will do a little to help the process of bringing light into dark places.