Monthly Archives: December 2016

Obedience – a toxic word?

There are some words, when used in a Christian context, that always make me shiver. The word ‘obedience’ is one such. No doubt it can be shown to be a good word with many Biblical examples to indicate that it has its place among the Christian virtues. Whenever anyone in fact uses it in a Christian context, I always have questions in my mind. For example -who is being obedient to whom? A typical answer is that we are commanded to be obedient to the will and Word of God. That seems like a simple and straightforward response and I am aware how many wholesome sermons can be preached on this topic. But there are still problems with this answer which do not remove potentially toxic and corrupting understandings of the word. In the first place, the words of God that demand our obedience have been selected by some process. Perhaps they have been chosen for us by a teacher or we have found them through our own reading. But in whatever way they have come to our attention they have been isolated from or extracted from a huge depository of Biblical writings, much of which is ignored. Many instructions in the Bible that might demand our obedience are never openly discussed. The people of Israel were told by God to slaughter and enslave enemies and brutally punish those who failed to keep the Law. Why are we not told to do the same? I shall not even attempt to answer that question, but merely point out that obedience to the Word of God is never simple. In practice the attempt to obey God and his Word will always demand some intermediary or interpreter of Scripture. Obedience to God will inevitably involve for us a relationship with this intermediary. This relationship may well involve obedience and submission to a powerful authority in the person of the pastor.

In this way, the word obedience, when used in Christian circles, is one that sometimes sums up an overt power relationship between a teacher/pastor and his congregation. There may be occasions when obedience is an appropriate description of a healthy relationship between a pastor and his flock, but I would hope a normal church would not experience this kind of dynamic on a regular basis. The everyday tasks of teaching, pastoral care and spiritual guidance do not normally involve giving commands and exercising power in a coercive way. The church where there is a constant demand for obedience is one where we would expect to find the practice of spiritual abuse.

A second thought comes to me as I reflect about this word obedience and the way that it is inappropriate for much church life. The normal context where the word is used healthily is in the setting of family life and the rearing of children. We insist that our children obey us in the early stages of their upbringing. This insistence is both for their own safety and a means of teaching about boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. When a child is never thwarted in doing whatever he/she wants, we see the beginnings of a chaotic and probably dysfunctional life. The skill of parenthood however requires that our demand for obedience is appropriate, consistent and just. There will be of course many parents whose approach to disciplining their children reflects more their needs and requirements rather than the welfare of the children. Exercising discipline together with the appropriate demand for obedience does takes wisdom, energy and stamina. Our children are, nevertheless, grateful for these efforts in the long term.

Obedience then is part of the pattern of the adult/child relationship when the children are growing up. One of the advantages to the child, not always appreciated at the time, is that by obeying their parents, they are kept safe. Negotiating hazards like crossing roads or learning to relate to new people is made possible by a strict unquestioning obedience to parental commands. The wise parent will gradually allow the child to be exposed to the risky parts of day-to-day living. Going out on their own and coping with the hazards found there is part of growing up. Today many of the freedoms allowed to a child in the 1950s, climbing trees, going on cycle rides and encountering any number of strange people outside the home will be delayed. But whenever the stage we call independence is reached, it is clearly a milestone in a child’s life. With independence comes a certain level of risk, a need to make decisions and choices all on their own without any adult standing at their shoulders.

So often when we hear the word obedience used in a church context, there seems to be an acceptance that is appropriate for the pastor or clergyman to treat the membership like children. In contrast, we would consider that a more appropriate aim for Christian leaders is to help people move on towards making choices and decisions for themselves. As we all know choices and decisions made on the Christian journey will sometimes involve mistakes. The response to such a mistake is not to regress back to a childish dependence on an adult; rather we should pick ourselves up and try and learn through what has gone wrong. Sadly, there seem to be far too many churches which proceed on the basis that the congregation has to be kept at the functioning level of a child where the adults (the leadership) always know best. This pastor alone has knowledge and insight into the Christian faith. When the church congregation is described as a Christian family this is ironically and tragically a good description of the faulty dynamic of what is going on. The pastor acts as the father and everyone else fulfils the role of dependent, unquestioning and immature children.

Why is this dynamic so popular among Christians? I think that the answer lies some somewhere in the desire of many people above all to feel safe. This word safe is of course close to another word salvation. People seek safety and salvation as a way of coping with the uncertainties and the stresses of their ordinary lives. A church where the congregation are treated like children – expected to obey the leader/pastor – is a comfortable reassuring place. As long as the members stay within the orbit of this reassuring comfortable congregation, they can avoid facing up to the difficult things of life. Choices, decisions even thinking for oneself can be left to others, especially those in leadership.

In this blog post I have tried to explore why the word obedience in a church context for me rings alarm bells. It is because it seems to speak of a church community where one person, the pastor, has appropriated too much power. Secondly it indicates an acceptance of a regression back to childhood, a place of safety and reassurance. Many Scriptural quotations can be advanced to indicate the importance of obedience, but I would always want to present a version of Christianity that is about growth, decision and adult responsibility. This is perhaps what James Fowler was talking about in his ideas about the way our faith changes over the decades.

Renewal and Reform -Questions

Reading an article in the Church Times on the topic of Renewal and Reform has left me with questions. To recap what the initiative known as R and R refers to, (for the benefit of non-British readers) it is a scheme which has been put in place by the Church of England to promote growth in the dioceses. The initiative, because it may stem heavy losses in Anglican church attendance, has attracted quite large sums of money from the Church Commissioners. In some places the money has been used to facilitate church planting. Church planting is a controversial activity and it involves a large active ‘successful’ church sending out a number of its own group to form the nucleus of a new congregation elsewhere, sometimes in another part of the country. Sometimes this new congregation is set up within an existing ecclesiastical parish. On other occasions a parish church, thought to be on its last legs, is effectively taken over by a new influx of people coming in from outside the area.

The new congregations, the church plants, are often placed in areas that might struggle to attract viable numbers of people to support the buildings. The individuals sent to start these new churches tend to be made up of largely young people. The demographic of 18 to 30-year-olds also seems be the group most attracted to these new congregations. As might be expected, the worship styles offered at these new church plants will have lively music and they will also take care of the community needs of their young clientele. I have no personal knowledge of any of these church plants except I heard some comments made about a congregation imported into Norwich city from HTB (Holy Trinity Brompton) in London. This new plant alienated some of the existing congregations by the way that it hoovered up many of the young people who had been attending other churches in the city. This particular plant was, in short, being accused of poaching existing Christians rather than being a place for evangelism of the hitherto unchurched residents of Norwich.

Most church plants seem culturally to belong to charismatic wing of the Church of England. But the question that occurs to me whenever I look at one of these congregations, even from afar, is whether they are catering for any age group apart from the young. The age profile of most of these congregations seems to be the same, 18 -30. It was always said about a large successful charismatic congregation in Edinburgh, popular with students, that the average age was about 27/28. During the 7 ½ years that I was in the city, this average age never varied. I remember having a conversation with someone about this never changing average age issue. What happens to those who are 35 and over? The answer seemed to be that because the culture of the church no longer suited the older group, they moved on elsewhere. As far as I know no one has done any research on this question of what happens to people who spend 10 years or so as part of a lively charismatic congregation. What are their reflections on that experience? What do they take with them from that exposure if they move on into another sort of congregation, assuming they still want to remain part of the church? I would suspect that many people who have passed through the lively, growing and dynamic congregations of places like HTB have quite different spiritual and social needs when they settle down with families. Do some of them look back at the charismatic stage as being part of the experience of youth, like being a student? I would love to know the answer to these questions. I suspect that were the answers available, they might not be quite as helpful to the future of the Church in England as many of our leaders think. It is easy for a bishop to see a lively congregation and feel that because of the levels of enthusiasm being expressed there that this is the future. They see a lively institution but not the actual individuals within it. What works for a cohort of what is known of emerging adults may not in fact be any realistic solution for the totality of the church-going population of Britain. That is the possible weakness of a perspective that wants to plough considerable sums of money into promoting manifestations of church life that are not congenial to all.

Speaking for myself I have found that my spiritual needs have varied over the years. While my young self would have tolerated noise and spiritual excitement of the kind peddled by charismatic churches, the same cannot be said for my older (hopefully wiser) self. Perhaps I speak for many of my age group when I say that noise and loud music in worship is now a complete barrier to any encounter with the spiritual. I am far more likely to be stirred into spiritual receptivity by silence, possibly enhanced by some visual component. I recently read the blog comments that I made a year ago at Christmas. I then pointed out that Christmas is a festival which makes extensive use of pictures and visual symbols. We have presented to us pictures of an ancient story -cribs, angelic choirs and journeying wise men. All these pictures draw us into the mystery of Christmas. In the contemplation of the visual symbols of Christmas, we do not have ‘correct’ interpretations. We find the divine realities implicit in these images touching each of us in their own way. I find, in fact, the heart of Christmas in the words of the carol – how silently how silently, the wondrous gift is given. The nature of the Christmas gift does not have a precise identical content for everyone. Rather it is a gift that needs to be unwrapped by each of us and its substance will vary as we are varied. God is offering to come into our lives. He is, by coming into our world, offering to come into our hearts. How we receive God in the form of Jesus is our lifetime Christian project. We will need at each stage of our life a slightly different key to unlock that presence. Our churches need to provide help to all its members to be open to the reality of God at every stage of their lives, from childhood to extreme old age. Let us never be tempted to cater only for a single age group, but attempt to see Christian life as a changing and evolving whole.

The abusive pulpit

The study of abusive churches is made hard by the fact that their victims frequently do not want to speak of their experiences or even think about them. I had hoped that after three years this blog might have acquired a small group of followers who have been through some of the experiences that I have been describing and trying to analyse. Should we conclude that spiritual abuse is rare and that a paucity of acknowledgment of the issue suggests that I should cease to write on this topic? It is a temptation to withdraw defeated from the field. And yet there is plenty of evidence to suggest that what I have been describing is common and awaits a catalyst moment to break through into the consciousness of many people. We have seen such a catalyst moment occur in the acceptance of the fact of sexual abuse of children involved with sport. Awareness of sexual abuse of children in the church has also been understood for some time. The spiritual abuse of individuals in church is however still largely an untold story. One option for a researcher like myself is to attend churches and look for evidence of this kind of abuse. Fieldwork of this kind is in fact extremely difficult to do. How does one research a congregation as an outside observer? The only realistic method is to take seriously the anecdotes and descriptions of people who have come out of abusive congregations. While it is important to be aware of bias and partiality, it is still possible to extract material for analysis and reflection from these published sources.

The Langlois report of 2015 which heard evidence from past and present members of Peniel/Trinity Church Brentwood is one such source of material for an analyst such as myself. John Langlois has recorded both the positive and negative aspects of the church and allowed his witnesses to speak to us in their own words. With his forensic experience, he gives the reader some valuable insight into the factual events that occurred in that church over a long period. I have recently gone back to the report to read it in more detail. Now that a year has passed since its publication, it is time for us to review some of this credible evidence for understanding the phenomena of control and power abuse that can and does exist in some independent churches.

Today I am attempting to look at a single theme, the way the pulpit was used to retrain control by Michael Reid over his congregation. It would appear from dozens of witnesses that there were consistent techniques at work designed to both terrify and control his congregation. The first thing that was practised is a method taken straight out of a Calvinist handbook. This is the constant reminder that everyone in the congregation is a wretched sinner deserving only punishment and the terrors of hellfire in life beyond the grave. Some promise of hope was given to the congregation in the suggestion that continuing membership of Peniel church might possibly result in salvation. The way membership was to be practised however depended on strict rules set out by Reid. One of his favourite passages, endlessly repeated, was the call to Abraham to leave his family. This was used to ensure that church members would cut themselves off from contact with members of the family who did not attend the church. That was in addition to all their non-Christian friends. It did not matter if, say a grandmother attended another church. The fact that it was not Peniel meant that she must not be regarded as part of the family.

Having established through endless repetition the principle that Peniel was the only church acceptable to God, Michael Reid went on to use the Bible to stop people in the church complaining about the way they or their children were treated by the leadership. He constantly referred to the murmurers and complainers who were dealt with harshly in the Book of Numbers. The dynamic of loyalty to the leadership also meant that few critical comments would ever escape being reported back to the leadership. Most people kept questions and doubts to themselves. Michael Reid thus effectively silenced questioning, debate or doubt. He also created a culture where his judgement and opinion was regarded as unchallengeable. For those who began to question this powerful leadership and think about leaving, he would commonly say that God has shown his approval of his ideas and authority by giving him such a ‘successful’ ministry. There were also a number of passages from Scripture which could be deployed against leavers and making their shunning obligatory. One favourite of Reid’s was the passage in I John which says that ‘they went out from us because they were not of us’. He was not above telling stories of people who, having left the church, had been found dead or had gone insane. Ruth Reid, Michael’s wife, told a story of a man who had opposed the church’s teaching. She had had a vision of him being eaten by worms on the night when he had died of a heart attack.

A further way that the pulpit was used to exercise control over all the members was the technique of public humiliation of individuals. A woman who sought healing for a back problem but who received no benefit from prayer, was called up to the front one day. Michael Reid then invited members of the congregation to gather round and pray for her because she had an ‘evil heart of unbelief’. It is not hard to see how this episode created both fear and humiliation in the woman concerned. How should she have responded? Was defiance or allowing herself to become still more compliant to the heavy-handed control mechanisms of the church’s leadership the better response?

The overall culture of Peniel church seems to have been one of inducing fear by its leader, Michael Reid. There were two areas of vulnerability in the congregation which could be ruthlessly exploited. The first was importance of family and friends and the need to belong and be accepted by them. The second was the promise of eternal salvation with God beyond the grave. Reid was the effective gatekeeper to both these valuable possessions. His power lay in his ability to dispense or remove either of these two things whenever he wished. We see the same process at work with the Scientologists who use access to the family as a weapon of control. It hardly needs me to make the obvious point that such power should never be given to a single individual. When one person is given the keys to hell, it is hard not to use the word ‘cult’ as a description of his organisation. Whenever a leader or a church is afforded so much power, then the institution becomes extremely dangerous. Arbitrary and destructive use of power by Michael Reid made Peniel church inevitably a place of harm and abuse.

I am intending to look further at the detailed dynamics of this church, particularly at the personality of Michael Reid. I suspect that there are some uncomfortable parallels between the character of President-elect Donald Trump and Reid. Arbitrary use of power, excessive greed and a complete disregard for other people’s welfare, seem to belong to both men. Perhaps by studying further the dynamics of Peniel church, we will catch a further glimpse into what may be a scary future for the Western world. The American electors and the members of Reid’s church seem to have wanted to hand over responsibility for their welfare and interests to these powerful charismatic individuals. They seemed to have had no insight or understanding of the way that the same individuals may become their oppressors and controllers. At least in the small space provided by this blog, we can reflect and try to understand what is going on. Perhaps it may be possible defend ourselves against such means of control.

Out of the mouth of babes …

hate-preachI have been recently watching a programme on iPlayer about hate preaching in the States. The programme presented the ministries of some American pastors whose raison d’être seems to be a constant emphasis on the condemnation of sin. This mainly focussed on an obsessive hatred of homosexual behaviour. Because this one sin is deemed to be so much more important than any other, we would claim that there are deep cultural and psychological reasons for making this emphasis. Indeed, we have already on this blog offered suggestions to help us understand why Christians feel it necessary to hate homosexuals with such vitriol. We are not just talking about the condemnation of what is thought to be sin. We are effectively into an area of behaviour which, in its obsessiveness, could be said to be pathological in nature.

Pathological behaviour is never going to be attractive. This apparent fixation for many Christians over this single issue of homosexuality has already been identified as one of the reasons why many people are repelled from Christianity and the church. Young people under the age of 35 especially cannot understand why there should be so much focus on this area of human behaviour. Why do so many Christians make this issue a defining one? There are, in fact, many other people in the church who would wish that this constant debate could be left behind in favour of other topics such as climate change, international justice and the issues around poverty and inequality.

I was recently brought face-to-face with the issue of what a younger generation might think about homosexuality when overhearing a conversation between my elder daughter and her son aged 7 ½. My grandson has apparently unconsciously imbibed the idea from his parents that sincere lifelong partnerships can be undertaken by people of the opposite or the same sex. For him the important thing was that two people love each other in a way that would keep them together for a lifetime.

I have no reason to think that my grandson has been indoctrinated into a pro-gay position. Obviously at the age of seven he has little concept of the meaning of sexual activity. What has happened is that he will have observed the behaviour of people in committed relationships, both gay and straight. Nothing he has seen has suggested to him anything unusual going on when he meets same-sex couples. It would of course have been helpful that no one in his family has ever shown any negative reaction when same sex couples were encountered.

From this conversation within my own family, I am left wondering how far the rampant homophobia in parts of the church is something that is a learned response by Christians. Is a revulsion and condemnation of gay partnerships something that is indoctrinated into us rather than something we are born with? Is it too much to suggest that most children and young people outside the influence of a dogmatic conservative setting might be, like my grandson, unable to see anything wrong in the idea of a same-sex committed relationship? If we are not born homophobic, that is a ground for hope for the future. History does indicate that reactionary social attitudes do change over time so that even conservative Christians have been known to give way to contemporary social mores. It is not many years ago, indeed in my lifetime, when race was an issue and mixed marriages were regarded with strong social disapproval. Things were said by many people on the topic of mixed marriage 50 years ago which would now not be tolerated. The intolerant comments made then would now constitute grounds for a possible prosecution on the charge of racism. This gradual suppression of racist attitudes in our society has allowed great social advance in the status of many UK minorities and in their relationships with the dominant white majority. Problems continue to exist for some ethnic groups who have resisted this assimilation into the majority culture. Many Muslim women in some of our cities are unable to speak English and seldom leave their homes. When no attempt at integration is made, there are likely to be real problems for such groups in the future. A community which does not mix with the wider society is in danger of becoming a ghetto and an enclave of underprivilege. So, while many of the barriers connected with colour and race have been dismantled, there are still outstanding areas of division in our society which have yet to be overcome.

The record of the church in being in the forefront of breaking down racial and cultural barriers is not particularly distinguished. Far too many immigrants from the West Indies in the 50s and 60s found themselves effectively turned away from white-dominated churches. We have today the phenomena of black led churches which might sometimes be described as Christian ghettos for people from non-white backgrounds. The existence of so many black churches, especially in London, has not been without problems for the wider church. In the first place the vibrant cultural traditions of black Christianity have been denied to the mainstream church. Secondly certain excesses within the culture and styles of worship in these churches might well, arguably, have benefitted from the more restraining influences of mainstream Christianity.

The great challenge for the church today is whether, having failed to be in the forefront of racial integration in the UK, it can embrace the new patterns emerging in contemporary relationships. When the church fails to be at the forefront in welcoming the LGBT community, it will find almost inevitably that it has little appeal to a new generation who, like my grandson, can see nothing wrong in same-sex committed relationships. We have explored already through this blog the reasons for many Christians being vitriolic in their opposition to same-sex partnerships. We noted that these reasons have little to do with theology. They seem to come far more from antiquated and reactionary patriarchal attitudes which, like racism, are increasingly irrelevant in 21st century society. The more that fair-minded people can glimpse these internal psychological processes at work among many conservative Christians, the more these latter groups will be seen to be dinosaurs and reactionaries. A new generation will not only reject this version of Christianity that is being offered, but they may well support a political process which will deem all such attitudes as criminal. I see in fact striking parallels between the racist attitudes of 50 years ago which are now illegal and the homophobia of today. It may take even less than 50 years before the society which successfully criminalised racism does the same thing in this area of homophobia. Another generation may well declare that homophobia must be rooted out of every part of society, including Christian institutions. If the church does not cooperate with these rapidly changing public mores, it may find that it faces not only irrelevance but even extinction. How tragic it would be if the church was confined to small groups of people who were prepared to cut themselves off from society as a whole in order to preserve their ‘bible beliefs’. For them such beliefs were a touchstone of bible truth, while to everyone these same beliefs can be seen to be antisocial and criminal.

How to abuse without violence -spiritual abuse

spiritual-abuseRecently the blog for Trinity Church, Brentwood has been reactivated by the blog master Nigel Davies. Because Nigel has not added any new material for several months, the activity of the blog has naturally died down. One hopes that this will change over the coming days and weeks as the church continues to be an important case-study for this blog. There is, in fact, to judge from the latest posts little fresh news to report about Trinity, although Nigel is still making his protests outside the building on most Sunday mornings. One fact he does mention is that some time ago he was forced to remove the word ‘abuse’ from his posters. He now uses the less provocative word ‘damage’ to describe what happened to the children of the church school. The police thought that this language of ‘abuse’ was too strong a way of describing what former members, particularly the children, had suffered at the hands of the church’s leadership. I want to suggest that this word abuse is arguably a completely appropriate word to describe what does happen in some churches up and down the country. Abuse is a very apt word to describe what happens even in Christian circles. It does not have to involve violence or sexual activity.

Some twenty years ago, my wife and I had an unsettling appearance when we tried to deal with a woman with dementia. She appeared at our doorstep while I was working as a Vicar in Gloucestershire. At the start, we tried to treat her and the tales she was telling us as literal accounts of reality. But as time went on we realised that there was no factual substance in what she was saying about her family and the places she claimed to belong to. Eventually I drove her to the police station and introduced her to the officer on duty as someone who had got lost. Her family reclaimed her very quickly. The following day an apologetic son appeared to thank us for the time we had given her. I tell the story not as a prelude to a reflection on dementia but to describe the effect that it had on both my wife and myself. Because we had tried to make literal sense of the irrational over a period of two hours, our ability to distinguish between what was true and what was fantasy was temporarily completely undermined. Even in the simplest attempts at communication of a fact in conversation, I found myself wondering what this was in fact true. You could say that my grasp on reality was temporally disturbed. I found myself having at that point a new respect for those who work with the mentally ill.

It is very important for our sense of self to feel confident that our judgements about what is real and what is unreal are reliable. We have all had the experience of waking from sleep and quickly readjusting from the dream state to the waking state. In waking up we instantly re-establish our connections with the reality of the everyday world. But we need to try to imagine what it would be like if this connection with the normal world was not possible. Suppose we were in a situation where we had no means of knowing whether the things we were seeing and what people were telling us were true or not. Our normal rational self will always want to check things out. If it cannot, the mind finds itself swimming in a sea of subjectivity, uncertainty and doubting everything. Cults and extreme religious groups are very good at creating in their followers the permanent sense of fearful uncertainty which forces the members to trust a plausible leader as a way of staving off complete breakdown or mental collapse. Everyone needs an anchor in a stable reality. The difference between the member of the closed religious group and everyone else is that in the group the standard ways of relating to the everyday world have been closed off. The only way of surviving psychologically is to buy into and trust the group’s discourse, even though a small part of the mind knows that this perspective is at odds with the way the rest of society thinks. In summary, the individual member of the cultic group may end up living in a kind of parallel universe to the rest of society. The original sense of a personal individual self has been undermined and the member is on the way to becoming a sort of clone of the ‘group self’.

In what other ways do religious and cultic groups attack the integrity of the self? Many extremist religious groups are very good at teaching the message of depravity in human nature. Their members are reminded constantly to engage in acts of self-examination and self-renunciation. This will have the effect of creating an almost permanent miasma of blame. Self-blame or shame is something that is not difficult to extract from the Bible texts. A preacher or a cult leader can also suggest that any goodness that is felt by the individual is of no value. The message of being lovable because of God’s love and concern for each of us is replaced by the message that we are all foul and wretched sinners.

The next stage, having convinced a listener that they are an unredeemed spawn of the devil, is to convince the listener that they are in danger of hell fire. We have already named fear as one of the consequences of having one’s grasp of what is real thoroughly undermined. Here we have another aspect of fear, the fear of some future punishment. Both fear and shame will always be effective ways of undermining the sense of self-worth. Both these negative emotions will be very effective in completely disempowering the would-be follower of Jesus or seeker of any other religious goal. The desirable qualities of confidence, self-esteem together with an ability to think for ourselves have long since disappeared. Such individuals that remain in the group have now become completely vulnerable to the control of the cult leader or the minister of their group.

We have been describing the ways in which an individual can be attacked at the level of their self-determination and personal power. We can name this as a spiritual attack against what we can describe as the core self. We are talking about something that may not happen very commonly in Christian circles in the UK. But when it does occur it will involve a long period of recovery. It will require a re-learning of personal boundaries, a gradual recovery of the ability to know and trust in one’s own core beliefs. The ability to think and feel for oneself and to trust one’s judgement is a hard thing to recover when it has been taken away. The original assault on the human self in the way we have described can, surely, only be described as abuse. It is every bit as serious as the after effects of sexual abuse. Spiritual abuse, which summarises what we have been describing, is an attack on the core self and is as great an attack on what it means to be human as that involved in sexual violence.

Every individual in our society has the right to discover their unique gifts and abilities, including the right to be different. The motivation of some cults and religious group to insist on undermining the core uniqueness of a personality as a way of creating some new group identity needs to be challenged. These weapons of blame and fear that are used week by week in churches and cults around the world are precisely that, weapons of potential abuse. They threaten the personality and unique individuality of the members and we need to be on our guard. Spiritual abuse is being perpetrated and it needs to be named and always resisted.

The Gift of Encouragement

encourageSome weeks ago I was in Oxford for an event at my old college. I had a little bit of spare time and so I visited the bookshop, Blackwells in the Broad. Making my way downstairs to the theology section I took the opportunity to look at books published in the past five years or so that I had not seen before. I noticed one book by an author known to me. He is now a retired professor and he used to work at Durham University. We knew each other slightly back in the 70s when I spent two years in Oxford reading for a research degree in the branch of theology known as Patristics. The book my former acquaintance had written was entitled Modern Orthodox Thinkers. I pulled it off the shelf to see if I knew any of these individuals that were being described in the book. In fact there were several accounts of people I had known in Greece in the 1960s or later in Britain. Two people especially stood out, both now dead. One was an Englishman, Philip Sherrard, who mentored me in the studying I was doing while in Greece while the other was a Greek theologian called Dimitris Koutroubis. Dimitris was an extremely important influence on me and we kept up a fitful correspondence for around 10 years until shortly before his death. I was particularly pleased to see that his influence on theological thinking in Greece was being recognised in the book. When I got home I sent an email to the author and told him how pleased I was to see tributes to people I had known and whose encouragement I had greatly appreciated. Last Wednesday I went to visit the author of the book at his home in Darlington. It transpired that he had not personally known either of the two people who had helped me so much all those years ago. He was especially interested to see surviving letters that I still have from each of them.

My visit to Darlington last week has allowed me the opportunity to reflect on the work of encouragement that we both give and receive throughout our lives. Although I no longer study Orthodox topics, I am still grateful to each of these individuals for the way they mentored and encouraged me at that precise moment in my life. I began to think of what this gift of encouragement might mean for both giver and receiver. First, I have come to see that encouragement takes place when one person is prepared truly to listen to what another person is saying. This act of listening often allows the individual in need of encouragement to articulate much more clearly what they are trying to say. Active listening does seem to open up thoughts and ideas that might never appear if the thinker tried to do his/her thinking alone. Listening is thus sometimes a deeply creative process. The second part of the act of encouragement is the ability to help another person to see possibilities for the future. In a pastoral setting this work of encouragement might reveal a new start or a new way of doing things; in an academic type of mentorship it might be the ability to help a person see how half-formed ideas could be developed. I particularly remember receiving this kind of intellectual encouragement from Dimitris. This helped to carry me through from having some hunches and unformed ideas in the 60s into undertaking a complete research project in the 70s. I wonder whether I would ever have undertaken this project if there had not been one person who early on was genuinely interested and encouraging me in the work I was doing then.

These two distinct stages in the process of encouragement need a little further reflection. The first stage which I identified was the act of attentive listening. This involves something close to empathy. It demands from the encourager the ability to listen and to feel at the same time. But then we also saw a second stage. This allows both parties to take the material which has been shared and see how it can be brought together in a new way and taken into the future. The listener/encourager needs here a gift of insight or intuition. He or she needs the skills of imagination to be able to pull out from what has been shared the possibilities, the creative possibilities for the future. If all goes well the one who seeks encouragement begins to see new directions in which to resolve a problem whether it is personal or intellectual. Effectively what happens in the encounter is that the encourager has allowed a special environment to be created. Within this setting some emotional resolution or an intellectual development comes to flower.

As I began to think further about this process of encouragement, I began to see the links it has with what we describe as healing. For some time now I have come to see that healing in whatever context it takes place, has much more to do with creating a special environment than in doing something to another person. Whatever type of healing happens, Christian, medical or spiritual, it is a process that seems to tap into a mechanism for self-healing which exists in all of us. The best that another person, a would-be ‘healer’, can do is to provide the best possible environment within which that healing process can take place. In the case of healings in the Gospels, physical change seems often to have been linked to the fact of Jesus assuring the sick person of God’s lavish promise of forgiveness and acceptance. Being close to Jesus himself would also have created the response in the sick which we loosely describe as faith. These were incredibly powerful environments or settings in which the body of sick person would have been stimulated to move towards healing. The examples today of Christian healing that I myself witnessed have nearly always taken place against the background of some significant emotional shift in the person. Sometimes this has involved sudden new insight or a fresh encounter with the divine. In every case something external seems to have provoked an inner change in the person. It might have been new forgiveness, an encounter with love or a moment of reconciliation with another. In the case of small child falling over, what better environment for feeling better do we have than the warm embrace of a mother who cares? In future blog posts I shall have more to say on this topic of the relationship of healing and the way that others can help to create a healing environment. It is an idea that has not been fully worked out in my mind.

Encouraging another person in the ways I have described above is one of the most precious things that we can give them. Through us pain can be assuaged, questioning can be satisfied, all through encouragement, using the gifts of listening and empathy. Also through this encouragement we and those whom we seek to help can begin to face the future in a new way. The whole process, taking another person’s experience and helping to order it before moving it on to a fresh future, is an intensely creative form of interaction. All of us can do this for others, just as each of us can receive it from others. This past week two significant individuals in my life were brought back into my memory. They encouraged me intellectually and enabled me to explore at some depth the traditions and insights of another branch of Christianity. I was grateful for those encounters. Out of that gratitude I am perhaps better able to recognise the importance of doing the same for others as much as I can. May all of us be involved in the practice of the giving and receiving of encouragement, so that we and other people may blossom and flourish because of it.