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.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

6 thoughts on “The abusive pulpit

  1. Have you seen the letter in the Church Times about a curate being bullied? It’s in the “question” section. Maybe it’s worth replying with the address of your blog?

  2. Yes, MORE people need to know about your Blog and Book since you write so well and IT’S SO PREVALENT. Thank you! Finally, three of your books came up for sale and am going to forward and keep them going.

  3. yes “..powerful and charismatic” is how controllers often appear to people they are keen to impress.
    That is what can be “crazy making” (to use a psychological term.)
    What can confuse and seen unreal to a normal Christian church member, and can cause depression too, is this mask of “goodness” ..this performance put on to deceive….
    It is a deceptive and cruel thing for the ‘victim’ of control and secret manipulation to have to witness….it makes a person wonder if they are imagining it all..
    .What you see isnt always what you get…it is evil…it is sad and very dangerous…Stehen please keep on writing your blog…most people, sadly are afraid to speak out ..

  4. Thank you Tess for your encouragement. I keep thinking that there are signs of an interest in this topic, only then to discover that the hoped for interest is a partial figment of my imagination. I like your reference to the way that people who are abused often get into their heads that they are guilty in some way. Powerful personalities can ‘mess people’s heads’ quite badly and so the speaking out does not happen. The Northern Ireland child abuse report is yet another example of people suffering for decades but being believed never happened

  5. When the Pastor of my new church started to put down and denigrate other churches/denominations he had attended, I was uneasy but said not a word to anyone….. However it was an ungodly trait and no one ever picked him up on it. This continued for a year…..He was always right, his church had the whole truth etc etc
    After having spoken out about another matter far more serious, I was oscracised ……. Looking back I now understand why, in this church of over 40 members, there are only around 5 men…..It’s easier for a bully to lord it over a group of women…..The leadership team were all women, as were the worship team……The 5 gentlemen were precisely that – “gentlemen”, quiet yes men who would not argue back or disagree.

    Oh dear!!!!! Anyone with an ounce of integrity would never survive in a church like this….So I am now out.
    It’s interesting that my new church of about the same number of members, has a gentle and respectful leader and has just slightly more women than men…….And everyone has a voice.

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