Surviving Church -taking stock

I have now been writing pieces on the topic of abuse within a church context for well over three years. Most of the time I have been encouraged in this work by the reactions of my readers. At the same time, I have been disappointed not to reach one clientele – the victims and survivors of spiritual abuse. When, at the beginning Chris and I discussed the themes that this blog would cover, we discussed this group. I had a vision of the way that I could expound a gentle exposition of Christianity which could encourage anyone trying to escape legalistic and oppressive expressions of faith. I was aware how much abusive Christian preaching puts out a message which involves fear. Faith for this group of victims is never about moving towards flourishing and growth. It is about trying to escape the terrifying prospect of eternal damnation. I have over the months frequently addressed this aspect of Christianity. The lack of comment or response to these themes suggests that most of my readers do not belong to this group. Like me they are looking at the problem, but from the outside. I have tried to write for this non-victim group as well with the hope that they will become sensitised to this issue even if it does not touch them directly. This group of readers respond best to my topical comments on events within the church. These attract the greatest number of readers. My two posts on the Iwerne camps (written at great speed!) were the most widely read of anything that has appeared so far on this blog. The appearance of this particular news story, although deeply tragic in its implications, provided me perversely with some encouragement. It was a kind of vindication that this topic of abuse intermingled with Christian beliefs and structural institutional failures needs to be better studied and understood. It is important that when stories like this break that there are people such as myself who can offer comment and interpretation.

As I further consider the work of this blog and what it is trying to achieve, I realise that there have been four main themes in my writing. First, and perhaps the most successful, have been my attempts to offer a commentary on topical events. I produced a well-received comment on the information coming out of Exeter Cathedral and York Minster. There have been my numerous mentions of the scandals at Trinity Church in Brentwood Essex. More recently I have allowed myself to make comments on the extraordinary political events in the United States, particularly where extreme right-wing ideas mingle with conservative Christianity. Apart from these forays into current affairs, I have also attempted to write theological reflections which are unashamedly liberal in outlook. These reflections are offered to help individuals who have perhaps spent a long time in a conservative environment. My pieces are to help them see theology in a different and perhaps gentler way. I have been particularly keen to explore the use of Scripture. I have wanted to demonstrate how we can read it in a much broader way than some oppressive, even manipulative methods of interpretation.

The third area of writing has been to explore issues around psychology. My years of trying to understand evangelical and conservative religion have led me to read lots of psychological volumes which appear to be relevant to this theme. I know that some of you have found this reflection useful. When I prepare a paper for the International Cultic Studies Association, I usually draw on this reading. One blog post which has been referred to continuously since it was written is the one I wrote on ostracism. I gave a paper on this topic in Stockholm in 2015 and I explored how scholars have located this topic within a new area of research known as social exclusion studies.

The final area of my concern is simply to write pastorally and, I hope, sensitively, for the victims of spiritual abuse. This is the area of writing that achieves the least in the way of comment. I ask myself the question: are the people who find the blog simply uninterested in this aspect of the problem? Perhaps there is another explanation. Perhaps the subjectivity of the topic means that people feel unable or unwilling to comment on these posts which try to explore the experiences of rejection, fear and shame.

In essence, I feel that I have reached a crossroad. To judge from the figures in Google Analytics, it seems that I still have a task to produce commentaries on news events relevant to my interest in power. These should I feel, continue. My more general theological reflections which attract little comment as well as my more pastoral ruminations perhaps should be played down. Another idea that has occurred to me is to reach back and republish some of the older material in the blog. Most of my readers have not been part of the community since the beginning. At least some of the material is sufficiently robust to be used again.

For the next two or three months, I intend to post slightly less often and concentrate on the news and current affairs as they touch on our topic. I shall also be resurrecting some old material which I feel could do with a second airing. At the end of June I am due to give two papers to the ICSA conference in Bordeaux. I shall be sharing the content of each of these papers on the blog. So, while there will be a changed emphasis on the blog, I am by no means abandoning my efforts. Although I take no credit for this, I think it is true that there much more awareness about institutional abuse than there was in 2013. We have also witnessed a greater awareness among ordinary people that power abuse is not necessarily just about sex. The present political situation in America is also a vivid illustration of the relevance of some of the issues covered by this blog. We see on the American political landscape various of the dynamics which we have described taking place in a church setting. From a psychological perspective, many American people appeared to have handed over their self-determination to a power hungry authoritarian figure. President Trump seems to care little for the true interests of the people of America. It is interesting to observe how many people are beginning to speak about American society as having cult-like aspects. The way that truth has been sacrificed to the power needs of senior political leaders is something that has uncanny parallels to the dynamics of authoritarian and abusive churches.

My conclusion is that although some of the original aims of this blog are not being fulfilled, the topic is still of great importance in the world of 2017. The power that is given to church leaders, political leaders and others will often be abused. Paradoxically and tragically this abuse often has elements of collusion between victim and perpetrator. I intend to continue to explore this themes as long as I have the energy and stamina to do so.

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.

2 thoughts on “Surviving Church -taking stock

  1. Oh, please do. I’m a survivor of spiritual abuse, as you know, and although I don’t always agree with your analysis I’m convinced that your writing about it at all is valuable. Some of your posts have to me been very interesting, but I don’t find myself able to comment since I don’t have the necessary level of expertise. Chris has a particular interest in the kind of abuse that educated people can mete out to those less educated, and what amounts brain washing really. Very legitimate concerns, but maybe these victims and survivors are less inclined to go on blog sites? At any rate, all power to your elbow, I look forward to your posts, even if I don’t always reply!

  2. I’m glad that you feel sufficiently encouraged to continue, as I value your blog even where I may not have anything to contribute for several posts at a time. I would say that the exploration of “rejection, fear and shame” is a worthwhile exercise, even if or perhaps even because those who have suffered this may find it hard to articulate the situation. As a bipolar person I have been made to suffer hugely from this in terms of the stigma of mental illness, and my experience of the church in this regard is mixed – sometimes bringing me in touch with Jesus the healing saviour, sometimes providing me with a social/spiritual environment in the Body of Christ of some acceptance and opportunities, but also sometimes being a place of further rejection and shame. So I empathise with many of the things you say on these subjects, but while also being aware that my type of experience is not directly exactly what you are talking about, and therefore I feel to say too much about myself might not be appropriate.

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