Monthly Archives: August 2017

The dark side of Charisma

In thinking about what we call charisma in the setting of history, it is hard not to notice two extremes. On the one hand, we can speak about the charisma of St Francis of Assisi. He changed the spiritual atmosphere of the entire Christian world during his lifetime. At the other extreme we see a dark charisma at work among the German people through the work of Hitler. Whether we like it or not, these two individuals are in some way linked. They both had the ability to change people’s thinking and imagination through the use of rhetoric and charisma.

In this post, I want to think about the way that this power we describe as charisma is simultaneously immensely creative as well as sometimes enormously destructive. Many years ago, I listened to a sermon given by Archbishop Michael Ramsey when he was preaching at a confirmation service. No doubt he was using an image which he had used many times before but it was no less powerful for his hearers. He spoke about the Holy Spirit as fire. Fire, he explains, has various properties. First, it has the capacity to give light in a dark place. Secondly it is a source of warmth for a place that is cold. Thirdly flame can transform water into energy, as we see in a steam engine. There may have been other facets of fire which he spoke about but I only remember these three. Each of these facets of flame are good examples of the way that the Holy Spirit can energise and empower a Christian individual who is open to receive this divine energy.

While remembering this simple Christian image from decades ago, I have also come to see that there is a further aspect of fire which Michael Ramsey did not speak of. Fire, of course, has the capacity to destroy and consume anything that gets too close to it. I am wondering whether this negative aspect of fire should be added to our likening of fire to the Holy Spirit and the so-called Charismatic Movement. When I review the history of spirit filled Christians over the last 50 years, I see a story not just of transformed spiritual individuals, but also of leaders who have been led astray by power. To use the metaphor that we have from Archbishop Ramsey, we might suggest that destructive aspects of fire also can be seen in the abusing of power by some charismatic Christian leaders. Both the leaders and the led are in some way scorched and damaged by being caught up in the primal dynamic of charisma when it shows us its dark side. Self-aggrandisement and self-serving behaviour by charismatic leaders can lead to a situation of terrible harm being perpetrated on the followers in a congregation.

In thinking about this way that Christian charisma has sometimes revealed its dark side, it is helpful to retain this image of a flame that burns. Every parent teaches their child to avoid an open flame. Flames are dangerous and we need to keep our distance at all times. The same lesson is true for an involvement with a charismatic event. An encounter with God the Holy Spirit is something to be treated with awe and a considerable amount of respect. Sometimes the charismatic experience can touch the individual in positive ways, allowing through that experience the discovery of new gifts. Even when charisma is linked to such things as gifts of healing, discernment or prophecy, these gifts do not create supermen or women. Still less should we assume that the acquisition of charismatic gifts gives an individual a right to an authority to take power over others, purely on the grounds that they feel important.

In my past writing about the abuse of power in the church, I have been very conscious of numerous examples where charismatic power in an individual has changed to become a tyrannical abusive power over others. Over recent weeks the blog which looks at the terrifying history of the Peniel Church in Brentwood has sprung back into life. https://victimsofbishopmichaelreid.blogspot.co.uk/?view=sidebar Once again, the readers of the blog are being reminded of the history of a church where hundreds of church members were abused or betrayed over 20 to 30 years. Michael Reid, the former leader and chief abuser, is probably now a spent force. Although he claims to run a congregation, he suffers from ill-health as well as isolation from his own family. While Reid has been publicly shamed for an extensive list of abuses, he still regards himself as a powerful Christian healer. Somehow the memory of his claimed miracles is supposed to mitigate or even excuse the abuses of which he is accused. It is clear to me that even genuine unexpected healings do not excuse evil abusive behaviour. Through a combination of hypnosis, crowd dynamics and the exercise of charisma, Reid was able to effect changes in individuals. Some episodes, even allowing for exaggeration, might be objectively claimed as genuine healings. This power of charisma has a strange way of being able to work even with those who abuse it or seek to use it for their own selfish ends.

I call this post the dark side of charisma as a way of exploring the fact that something normally good can quite easily slip into something evil or abusive. Power can be used to empower others, but equally it can be used to exploit. Words, as Jesus reminded us in last Sunday’s gospel, can be used to articulate the evil flowing from the heart of individuals. We also know how words can and do the opposite.

To return to Michael Ramsey sermon, it will always be important to recognise how something that is good can be easily distorted or damaged. The same flame that gives light, warmth and energy is the same as the one which can destroy. May all of us recognise the capacity of the good to be swiftly turned into something that can be evil and destructive. Our selfish hankering for self-importance, power and dominance can so easily overtakes our desire to love, serve and respect others.

Which side are you on?

One aspect of the political life of America has become a lot clearer in the past few days. Apologists for Donald Trump used to be able to pretend to detect a thin thread of rational thinking in his utterances and his tweets. Many of us were more doubtful that this was indeed the case. Now even his most ardent supporters are finding it impossible to stand by him when he has been revealed as a racist of the most obvious kind. More serious even than that is Trump’s inability to see that even a suggestion of holding such views flies in the face of all the traditions and values of the nation he claims to represent and serve. In the face of the ‘car-crash’ news conference of 15th August, there can hardly be a civilised individual in the Western world who sides with the values and thoughts of Donald J. Trump.

The answer to the question ‘whose side are you on’ is easy to answer when looking at the views of Trump. The free democratic world united to fight and defeat the forces of Nazi Germany in 1940s and no historian has ever risen up to challenge the correctness of that decision. Sadly, few moral decisions are ever as simple as taking a stand against racism and fascism. Now today Wednesday 16th August the newspapers have presented to Christians a new moral question. As far as this one is concerned there may be different answers and responses. But once again Christians are being asked ‘whose side are you on?’ There is acknowledgement that agreement is unlikely in this case.

The church of St Sepulchre’s in the city of London has for decades acted as a special place for the network of professional classical musicians in the capital. They have been permitted to practise in the church, hold concerts and generally treat the space as a friendly one for their task of producing professional music of the highest kind. In return, they have helped to keep the building open by the fees paid. As a former vicar outside London I was always on the look-out for musicians who wished to perform in any of my buildings. The most memorable of these occasions was when a prestigious organisation called Music in Country Churches descended on Lechlade. They arrived complete with their Patron, Prince Charles and laid on a fantastic concert featuring Sophie von Otter, the international soprano soloist. Many lesser occasions took place in that church and other churches for which I had responsibility. All the musicians were thrilled with the acoustics that a mediaeval building can create. Never once, even among my evangelical members, was there any hint that good music of all kinds did not have a place in a building whose primary function is for worship.

The problem at St Sepulchre’s is that the new Vicar has decreed that from 2018 the long link with professional musicians is to be broken. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/14/proms-conductor-row-musicians-church-bans-non-religious-concerts/ Although the official reason is that the church, an offshoot of HTB, needs the full use of the building and cannot share it with anyone else, there is clearly a theological agenda. There is, according to John Rutter, the distinguished composer, an implication that non-religious music has no place in the building. In other words a binary distinction is being made between ‘religious’ music and ‘secular’. The former is acceptable while the latter has no place in a house of prayer.

The theological justification that seems to lie behind this story obviously can be argued for. It implies a world view where the clean and the sacred must be kept physically separate from the secular and potentially unholy. We are in other words entering into the world occupied three hundred years ago by the Puritans. No one is suggesting that the Puritans had nothing on their side in terms of theological insight. It is sometimes important to draw boundaries between good and bad and wholesome and wicked. But the Christian perspective that is behind this particular judgement seems very narrow and designed to give the wider church an extraordinarily bad press with people beyond its influence. This negative publicity for the church in London and nationally will be felt for years to come. Is non-religious classical music in some way ever a threat to the gospel? For myself I feel shame that Christian leaders have made this decision. Although I am in no way party to it, I still belong to the organisation which has made this judgement about the role of classical music in our society.

The question of taking a side over the stance of Donald Trump seemed straightforward. Is the question of which side we are on between the Vicar of St Sepulchre’s and the musical world of London equally clear? Does a Christian ever have to decide to exclude what is not overtly designated as Christian? Until Wednesday I had not even realised that this issue of encouraging classical music in a church music in a church building could ever be an issue of faith. Which side, my reader, do you take in the matter?

What people believe -insights into St Michael-le-Belfry

One of the most difficult things to know is what other Christians believe. They may belong to churches which have very definite statements of belief and moral teaching. In order to belong to that church, each member is expected to agree to the doctrinal standards set out. It would, we believe, be normally unwise to assume that all the members of such a church always believe exactly what is expected of them.

I have recently been reading a study of a church in York which attempts to tackle this important question. It is a detailed snapshot of the famous St Michael-le-Belfry Church in York and it is based on field studies carried out in 1999 and 2000. Two things interested me. The first was a frank account of the history of this church since its effective foundation in 1965 by the well-known clergyman, David Watson. He inherited a church building in York which was ripe for closure. Under his leadership St Cuthbert’s, and later St Michael’s, became showcases for the charismatic/ evangelical impulse which was sweeping through the church at the time. The second point of interest is the way that the author, Matthew Guest, now a lecturer in sociology at Durham University, has used extensive questionnaires to probe deeply into the beliefs of the congregation. This section is for me, by far the most revealing part of the book. What it seems to show, in summary, is that while the church possesses a clearly defined charismatic/evangelical identity, the beliefs of many of the congregation often veer towards a liberalism that is not officially appropriate to a church in this tradition.

Two classic Protestant doctrines exist which tower over all others in their importance for the conservative evangelical identity. Both are problematic for many Christians outside the conservative networks such as myself. The first of these is a belief, which we have met many times before, a commitment to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. The other belief that is normative for classical evangelicalism is a belief in the efficacy of the death of Christ. This is a divinely given means to allow the followers of Christ to obtain salvation. The implication of this belief is that no one will be saved if they have not shared in the distinctive experience of evangelical conversion.

According to Guest’s survey, only 24% of the St Michael’s congregation followed a strictly literalist understanding of the Bible. The majority position, 51%, declared that the Bible was true but not always to be taken literally. It is interesting to note that in 1994, in another survey, 28% of churchgoers of all denominations believed the Bible to be literally true. We might have expected that St Michael’s, a beacon of evangelical belief and practice, might have had a higher score. Guest’s research suggests that many in the congregation were actively involved in an attempt to relate what they knew of secular learning to biblical insights. To put it another way, independent reading and reflection was a normative part of the individual forging of a spiritual identity. There was little sense that preaching provided a definitive statement of what had to be believed. Sermons were only one part of the journey towards faith.

The classic view of salvation which states that only those who have made a personal decision to follow Christ will enter heaven was also problematic for many St Michael’s members. This evangelical soteriology was firmly held by David Watson and I heard this teaching from his lips in 1974. It is this teaching which lies behind the (to my mind) intrusive question: ‘Are you saved?’ The strict version of the evangelical message sees any watering down of this model of salvation as being ‘patently false and the result of delusion or satanic machinations’. The idea that family members are destined for hell because they have not made a decision for Christ sat uncomfortably with many of the St Michael’s folk that Guest spoke to. In many of the interviews that he conducted individuals wanted to soften the harsh version of the doctrine. 86% of those interviewed preferred to reject the idea of hell being a place of punishment. Like Christians elsewhere they found it difficult to conceive of a God of love who ‘lets people trip off down into eternal misery’.

Hard-line views about other religions also failed to find favour with the majority of the St Michael’s congregation. Many wanted to find positive aspects in these non-Christian religions. While maintaining that other religions were deficient in some way, most respondents were unwilling to condemn them. In short it could be said that at a personal individual level, the majority of St Michael’s members opted for a tolerant and inclusive view in relation to other religious.

The one area where the St Michael’s congregation revealed a classic conservative approach was in the area of sexual morality. Guest found that 81% of respondents believed that sexual relations between same sex adults are always wrong. This compares with 39% for the population at large. This latter figure will have decreased further since the survey was made. Attitudes about the role of women in church and family were far closer to the views held by the wider society. Some members did identify with traditionalist patriarchal view of women and their role within the home. Nevertheless 57% disagreed with the statement that the primary role of the Christian woman is to support her husband as provider by caring for the children and tending to the household duties. The same percentage was also found in a public opinion survey.

Guest concludes that wider cultural norms in our society have made considerable impact on the beliefs and practices of the members of St Michael’s. The official position of the church is to be exclusive and set-apart from the secular world. This is the stance taken by preachers, whether visitors or resident. In practice, this sense of separateness has been eroded for many St Michael’s individuals. We can even call it a significant liberalisation of parts of the congregation. Strict conservative views on issues connected with the Bible, the meaning of salvation and the role of women continue to be held. But, Guest would claim there is no consensus on these topics. Can we by any chance extrapolate these findings to other bastions of evangelical identity and suggest that any unanimity that is claimed is not real? The ‘myth’ of evangelical agreement is certainly one that has intimidated those of us who positively applaud diversity and untidiness of belief in church life.

Christianity and Class

The Church Times on Friday 4th August had an article about the issue of social class in the Church of England. Class is one of those topics that probably everyone secretly has feelings about but finds difficult to discuss. The authors were brave to raise this issue in the new book, A Church for the Poor. It raises dilemmas that seem insoluble. A central starting point for the authors of the book, Natalie Williams and Martin Charlesworth, is that the Church of England is at present culturally very middle-class. People brought up in a different background often find themselves out of place in many of its typical activities, including the acts of worship. The book also faces up to the practical problems that arise when a middle-class congregation tries to be more accessible to people of a different social background. Many individuals from a humble background lack the education and a facility with words which is the norm among most church attenders. There are other topics in the book about working class representation in the structures of church government and leadership. Also, what might a successful church operating in a working-class environment look like?

I want to take the book’s discussion as a starting point for some reflections of my own rather than comment further on the topics raised by the authors. On this blog Chris is frequently reminding us how the Church fails to connect with members of the ‘lower’ classes. There is also the problem that culturally, middle and working-class populations occupy different worlds. Young people are perhaps the exception in this statement. The mass youth culture has a greater homogeneity today than in the past. Older people on the other hand are likely to follow the cultural norms set by their own backgrounds and education. Loud rhythmic music is seldom heard in middle class neighbourhoods. Because of the huge range of cultural manifestations in today’s society, it is not surprising that the church finds it so difficult to find a cultural style to suit all its members.

While the different classes follow quite different trajectories in choosing their cultural preferences, there are some places where all classes meet. Popular television and certain forms of popular music attract people from every social tier. The plot line of East Enders and Coronation Street may be a conversation piece among people of widely differing educational backgrounds and class. At the same time, the members of the semi-literate groups in society, those who have been unable to climb the social and economic ladders, may find it hard to connect with better educated people in other areas. The task of sheer survival takes priority over any kind of social and cultural aspiration. These people in particular, will find little meaning in what the church is saying. What little they do know will be filtered through the columns of popular newspapers. Many people will conclude that the Church is obsessed with the topic of gay sex. This is what they think they hear when the Archbishops are speaking to the general public. It is hard to know how the deeper aspects of the church’s message can be shared in the face of such massive misunderstandings.

This past week I took a funeral service to help a local vicar who is on retreat. I had an opportunity to meet the bereaved family before the service so was able to gain a good impression of what they were expecting of me at the crematorium. None of them had any background in the church and I was faced with the task of saying something that would avoid cliché but also reflect something of the Christian hope. There was a balance to be observed – one which gave due attention to the Christian context of the service without alienating the congregation with the use of too much Christian jargon. I spoke briefly about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Such an event helps us to envisage that death is not a final statement. From my perspective death was an entry into a place of dazzling brightness, a place where there was to be found peace, joy and the fulfilment of all our longings. Any attempt to speak about salvation or other aspects of Christian dogma would have been in this setting a complete waste of time. Instead we celebrated and gave thanks for all the positive aspects of the life of the deceased man. I hope it was done in a way that was helpful and able to bring comfort.

I mention this funeral because it was an example of a meeting between two cultures. The cultures represented were here not strictly speaking defined by social class. The barriers of incomprehension that I observed were the result of one group being totally unversed in the words and ideas of the Christian faith. I know that some clergy would have taken a different line from my attempted sensitivity to the situation. They would have ploughed on with a presentation of the gospel as they understood it, without any regard to the incomprehension of their audience. Others might have veered in the opposite direction, making the event much closer to a humanist celebration of a person’s life. Whichever is the right approach I have no means of knowing.

Christians who wish to speak of their faith to those who share nothing of their language or culture do have one strong tool at their disposal. That is the teaching of Good News through music of all kinds. Music sometimes reaches the inner parts of human beings in ways that no words can. Some find themselves awakened by melody while others can be invigorated by a strong rhythmic style. The problem for many of us is that the most popular Christian music repels some on taste grounds as much as it attracts others. I also fear a worship style which leans heavily on the use of culturally popular music. Is it the music which attracts the audience or God? Are we attracting people to Hillsong or Vineyard services to listen to contemporary musical entertainment or are we drawing them towards God? I simply do not know the answer to this question. If it is really possible to draw in people to meet God who use less verbal communication in their cultural lives, then we need to be able to demonstrate how this takes place.

My reflections are full of unanswered questions. My dilemma is that the very things that help me articulate my faith, a facility with words and education, are repugnant or off-putting to those who do not share them. Culturally I am cut off from large numbers of the British population. I do not understand their cultural assumptions and neither do they understand mine. One of the authors of the book about class, Natalie Williams, was facing another issue. She had begun her life as a member of working class community. Her conversion to Christianity and the education that followed it had taken her to a middle-class identity. Now she was no longer able to claim solidarity with the people she had known as a child. Where does she now belong? Her dilemma and indeed mine suggest that easy solutions are a long way off.

Leadership and personality in the Church

Three years ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury made a comment about the clergy which was felt to demoralise some of them. He said that where there was a good vicar, ‘you will find growing churches’. This comment seemed to be unfair to the many clergy who work in difficult areas where the church finds it hard to make headway. It was also suggesting that a church that fails to thrive is in some way the fault of its leader.

In the Church Times last Friday, there was published an article based on some research by one Henry Ratter, a layman and a former senior manager at ICI. He has recently completely a PhD thesis which shows that clergy personality is in fact a factor helping churches to flourish. His research involved using the unlikely named Glowinkowski Predisposition Indicator. This is a tool to assess the thinking style and engagement with work among professionals. Ratter used the questionnaire on one hundred clergy in a rural diocese in England. The questionnaire assessed problem solving in their work alongside issues connected with feelings and self-control.

It is the second part of the assessment that interests me. I have long since claimed (privately) that some parish clergy are beset with issues of morale. Not a few of them seem, from personal observation, to have complaints about the amount of support they receive from above, bishops and archdeacons. Thus, they often feel isolated in their work and some of them seem to withdraw into themselves, becoming ‘prickly’ and defensive towards the outside world. This is expressed by a reluctance to take part in Synods and other clergy gatherings. In this way, they complain about failures of support while simultaneously withdrawing from the structures that are provided.

Ratter’s research was not directly addressing the issue of morale among the clergy but there were some interesting shafts of light on the problem. Out of the hundred clergy who completed the questionnaire, 37 were found to be ‘self-contained and ill at ease’. Ratter suggests that such a disposition renders this group less able to ‘express their feelings and emotions openly’ thus making ‘a negative impact on their work.’

The research of clergy personality profiles was conducted alongside statistics of church attendance. Four personality features were found to equate to ‘healthy’ congregational life. One was that these clergy were extraverted types. The other features were that they were ‘radical’, able to plan for the future, ‘at ease with themselves’ and finally ‘collectivist’. By way of comment I note that each of these features suggest that such clergy were confident, avoiding the collapse of morale that seems endemic among a cohort of their peers.

Speaking as a retired parish clergyman, I can see that the last feature mentioned by Ratter, the collectivist, is especially important. Through this word Ratter is speaking about the ability to get along with people of all kinds, empowering them and using their gifts within the structures of the parish. I know from experience that without good people managing finance, fabric, church fetes etc, life would have been impossibly stressful. Equally there needed to be trusted individuals to share strategy and vision for the future of the congregation. Trying to ‘go it alone’ would have made a difficult job impossible. ‘Collectivism’ seems like a strategy for emotional survival rather a quality of personality.

Yet we know that the ability to trust the right people and bring out the gifts of all is a skill. Insofar as I possess it, it went with the other quality mentioned by Ratter, being ‘at ease with themselves’. As a child I probably spent more time than was healthy looking up to other children who were good at sport or cleverer that I was. It was never difficult to exceed my skills on the sports field. Nevertheless, by the time was adult I had largely purged myself of this sense of inferiority. Away also went the emotions of jealousy and envy. Assisting me were the benefits of a good education and many opportunities for travel. Whatever the reason, I do not now spend any time wanting to be someone else or wanting what they possess. That is, I suppose, a mark of being at ease with myself.

This personal reflection is not meant to be about me but to reflect on the way that this piece of research points to a problem. Some clergy do seem to have an issue with a personality type which gets in the way of congregational flourishing. One expression that might sum it up is to say that some clergy are lacking social confidence. Whether training can eliminate the introversion involved in this trait is an open question. I am not convinced that there is at present much interest in examining the psychodynamic profiles of potential clergy or ministers. While some sort of psychological profiling may happen in the Anglican church at the selection stage, there is no evidence that anything equivalent is done for independent congregations where the potential for damage is massive. One of my few peer-reviewed published articles is on the issue of narcissism among the clergy. Although the topic of narcissism among leaders has become extremely topical with the arrival of Trump, I am not aware of anyone who has picked up the topic among the trainers of clergy. Ratter’s observations about the personalities of the clergy and their leadership potential may have created a few waves over the past few days, but I suspect that it will be quickly forgotten. Power in the church, its use and misuse, is a very disconcerting and threatening topic. Until it can be discussed in a way that does not threaten the actual holders of power, it will always be easier to leave the subject in an in-tray. There it can be quietly forgotten.